As I start this story, I have no idea where it’s going or how it will end. Bits and pieces come to my mind like flashbacks into my past.
Of all places to begin, I have to start this story in New London, Connecticut or to be more exact, Groton. Groton is the home the Navy’s Submarine School. I went through sub school in the winter of 1970. The weather didn’t permit ever lasting memories. I spent more time slipping on ice and shoveling snow than I care to admit.
My first duty station was the USNS Sea Robin, a diesel pig boat. I was TAD (Temporary assigned duty), until my permanent duty station, the USBNS Thomas Jefferson came back into port.
I was to be assigned as a sonar striker. I went to school in Orlando. After 4 weeks and completion of the training, sent back to New London. My first cruise out, the yeoman (the Captain’s clerk) suffered appendicitis and had an emergency transfer at sea. Boomers endure 90 day cruises underwater, destinations unknown, top secret. His transfer was done at night under the cover of darkness to a sub tender, the USS Orion at sea.
His transfer created a void that needed filling. My billet as a sonar tech wasn’t that glorious of a job. I had to keep fighting the tendency to fall asleep, while pinging and waiting for the ping to bounce back. Since I had taken typing classes two years in high school, I felt qualified to mention to my chief that I could temporarily step in if needed.
There is so much work that falls on the shoulders of a yeomen that the backlog of work demanded my services. Every report has to be typed. All of the Captain’s correspondences, duty transfers, pay chits, leave requests, liberty passes, fitness reports, the Plan of the Day, menus for the galley, just on and on. It was just piling up. My offer was quickly accepted.
Part of my duties involved communications. Confidential, Secret and Top Secret. Every communique sent out by the Navy, crossed my desk. When our cruise was nearing the end of our deployment, I didn’t cherish the thought of going back to being a laborer for the next 90 days. When a nuclear sub comes back into port with the “Gold” crew, it immediately restocks and redeploys with the “Blue” crew. The first week or so the crew that just came in gets R & R, then it’s back to “training.” For guys in the lower ranks like me, training meant working for the First Lieutenant. Chipping paint, grinding rust, applying red lead and then after inspection apply another coat of gray paint on a rusting hulk that sole purpose of existence before retirement into mothballs was for “training” purposes.
I knew that the yeoman should be coming back to work and that I would be assigned to the First Lieutenant’s squad. One day I saw a list of names of men that were to be sent to Roosevelt Roads Naval Base for “Survival” school. In the Navy, the continuous training exercises exist to keep idle hands busy and to prepare you for what may lay in store.
Even though we had completed training in school, we often practiced making escapes from a hundred feet deep. The day time training exercises were bad enough, but the night time “escapes” were terrifying, especially in freezing temperatures. Just the thought of going to Puerto Rico, the warm climate, clear blue oceans and the thought of tropical breezes was enough for me to add my name to the bottom of the list of men being sent to Survival School. I put it in front of the Captain without explanation, he signed it without reading it and off I went.
Survival School was a four week training period. Men that were sent to UDT (Underwater Demolition Training) school had to complete it first, we became a part of that class too.
Our uniform of the day consisted of green boxer shorts with a button fly, a pair of rubber flip flops and blacked out dog tags. We spent so much time in the water training, that anything else would have rotted off of our backs. Before the sun rose in the east, we swam as a group of 50 men to Viaques, an island 2 miles off the coast. Viaques was also used as an artillery range for the big guns on base. During our swim every morning, the artillery wasn’t suppose to fire over our heads but they did at the tail end of our swim, just to get us use to the sounds of gunfire, the plumes of smoke and the acrid smell of gunpowder.
Words just can’t describe how rigorous the training was, we had to swim as a group to keep from being targets for the sharks and barracuda. The chief and a bosun’s mate rowed beside us in a boat, with an M-1 to ward of any uninvited intruders. Salt filled every pore. It caked around our ears and between our fingers. When we weren’t swimming, we were running, barefoot across miles and miles of sand, just knowing that the further you went only meant the further you had to run back.
Push ups, chin ups, jumping jacks, tug of war. All part of the Navy’s plan to transform young men into hard, physically fit, well trained, disciplined sailors. My last two days of training were spent on a life raft. Me and another sailor were dropped off by helicopter many miles off the coast with an eight foot life raft. This was an oval shaped, hard fibered, orange colored raft, with webbing for the bottom. This meant that for the next 48 hours, we were sitting in at least 6 inches of water.
The raft could accommodate more than 2 men, but for me, two were enough. The first few hours aren’t too bad. It’s more like an adventure than anything else. We had a compass, a survival knife, that included fishing gear in the handle, a tube of zinc oxide to cover our noses with, plus our Navy dungaree uniform that we were trained to use as flotation devices if need be.
The constant motion of the waves, the up and down part was nerve racking if you let it. Up and down with the cresting of each wave. One moment you could see the across the horizon, nothing but more waves as far as the eye could see, then the next second you were in a trough, with the walls of a wave, pushing you from side to side. All of that water and nothing to drink, until we broke out the desalinization packs. These were little plastic containers that we use to turn salt water into drinking water. You just tear open a package, fill it with salt water and hold it up until the water drains through the chemicals. We had a total of four packages, two apiece. The idea was to only use it, if you had to have it. In the rough seas, it really wasn’t that easy to do.
My companion was a few years older than I was, our relationship was like “oil and vinegar.” I was optimistic, my glass was half full. He was a pessimist, his glass was half empty. He spoke about the downside of everything. It was constant, “Oh we aren’t going to make it,” or “I bet we get swamped and turn over.” Then it got worse. The sun can do things to you that you can’t plan for, or do anything about.
I would pass the time thinking about my girlfriend that I had in high school. If I mentioned her name or said anything about her to my shipmate, I would suffer through a barrage of comments like, “She’s bending over for the fleet since you’ve been gone,” or “she giving it to your best friends now.” Just on and on, I think the Navy feels like that’s part of your training too. You have to grow up sometime. No time like the present.
When it came time for my raft mate to talk, all he wanted to talk about was the women at the Black Angus. The Black Angus is a famous bar, known world wide for its casino on one side and it’s bar/hotel combination on the other. The bar consisted of mirrored walls that the prostitutes would line up against. The patrons, most always sailors ashore from a recent voyage, would sit at a circular bar. This bar was also a carousel that rotated, round and round. As you drank, you could get glimpses of some of the most beautiful women in the world, all lined up against the wall for the sole purpose of catching your fancy.
If you made eye contact with any of them, they would take it as a signal that you fancied them and sashshay over to start a conversation. Then the next move was to suggest to you that there were rooms available upstairs for privacy.
Well, out in the middle of a sea of madness is not where I wanted to hear this conversation. The sun bore down on us, I was hot and cold at the same time. The sun would blister me and the waves would cool me down. I spent most of the time chattering my teeth while holding on with both hands to keep from being washed away.
It turned out that we didn’t need the fishing kit. Flying fish would jump into the raft. They told us that eating raw fish was good for you. To me, it just made me thirsty. The seagulls flying over head were pests. They kept us company and used us for target practice. I kept wishing that I was back in a nice warm, dry sub.
The raft had a beacon, a little flashing red light that also transmitted a radio signal. After 48 hours, just when I thought that I couldn’t take it anymore, a little dragon fly appeared on the horizon. It turned out be our rescue Chopper. Good ole “U.S. Navy” painted on the side. They wouldn’t help us aboard until we secure lines to our raft, so that it could be retrieved. I had a hard time trying to stand up, my legs were weak, the skin on my hands and feet were wrinkled and shriveled up so bad that I couldn’t use them. We spent the next 24 hours in the base dispensary under observation, then we were discharged, only to be sent back to our permanent duty station.
Before being sent to Survival school, I had applied for a hardship transfer. My mom had cancer and wasn’t expected to live. In my absence, my request was approved. No sooner did I arrive back in New London, than I was transferred back to my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida to VW-4 WEARECONRON FOUR, a weather reconnaissance squadron based at NAS.
A weather reconnaissance squadron didn’t need a sonar tech, my new assignment was working as the Captain’s yeoman, a real cushy job if the Navy has one, this was it. Within 24 hours, our squadron was sent to of all places, to Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.
We were assigned there to perform during project “Storm Fury.” During hurricane season we were to provide up to date aerographer information to the fleet. Did you know that at sea you can see lightning for 40 to 50 miles away? Well in flight, you can see it further than that. While airborne you can feel lightning strikes when it hits the plane. It can be terrifying. The static electricity in the air will make the hair on your head stand straight up. My job was to keep Commander Marsh, our captain happy, record data and transfer oral radio communications to a written record. To be honest with you, I stayed strapped in my bunk as much as possible, right next to the cockpit, near the Captain, he was the number one pilot, getting his flight time in order to draw flight pay.
The planes we flew in,were “Super Connies.” The Super Constellations were World War II vintage aircraft. WC-121- N’s. At the time, the largest aircraft the military flew, perfect for weather recon. The wings on the aircraft would actually flap, at least six feet in times of stress. Now a days they fly P-3s, a much smaller plane and a rougher ride.
Okay, back to my story. After 3 months at sea on a boomer submarine, then being sent TAD to Survival school for 4 weeks, I hadn’t received a paycheck in over 4 months. I had received some TAD money, living expenses, that was it. In the Navy, you don’t really need money if you are a single enlisted man, not all the time anyway. I didn’t smoke, chow was free, uniforms free, barracks and a bunk, free. There is always coffee and donuts available, plus at the chow hall, there’s “mid-rats,” served all hours of the night in case you get hungry. One good thing about the Navy, the chow was always good.
When my squadron got to Puerto Rico, the Captain saw to it that my pay request received immediate attention. After I was there about 24 hours, I got some per diem money. Now before you start adding it up, when I enlisted, I got 98 dollars a month, plus after sub school, I received a 50 dollar a month hazardous duty pay. While I was in Survival school, Admiral Zumwalt had gotten pay increases approved for all military personnel. My monthly pay check doubled from $98 per month to $198. My first week in Puerto Rico, the Navy owed me close to a thousand dollars. I was still only 17 years old at the time. My first liberty after getting my per diem money, where did I go? No, I didn’t go to the Black Angus, not yet. I didn’t have any friends at my new duty station. When some of the older guys found out that I had some payola, they invited me to go to the “Green Door,” in Ceiba, just off base.
I did take my whole wad, it was about 150 bucks. After drinking a couple “White Russians,” I started buying drinks for my new found friends. I didn’t realize at the time that they were just using me to buy drinks. After they got what they wanted from me, they found my company to be rather annoying. Like who wants to be around a 17 year old drunk?
I had grown up on a Naval base in Gitmo. For a gringo, my Spanish wasn’t that bad. If you are going to “hablo espanol,” you need to learn how to roll your “r’s.” While drinking that night at the Green Door, I met a gal named Lydia that could converse in both Spanish and English. I found that intriguing. She and I struck up an acquaintance. We moved from the bar to a booth. Not the kid of booth you are thinking of probably. This booth was missing the table. Just a little cube with a small juke box on the wall. She and I started dancing together, she was selecting the songs, while I provided the quarters and a few drinks.
When I went to the bar to get us another drink, one of my “buddies” whispered in my ear, that my new girlfriend Lydia was the bar owner’s wife. He was a retired sailor that had married a local gal and opened up a bar off base to provide military personnel a friendly atmosphere to blow some steam. I didn’t pay this skuttlebutt no never mind. I was just interested in dancing and practicing my Spanish.
Soon, someone tapped me on the shoulder and told me that someone wanted to talk to me outside. This didn’t raise any hairs on the back of my neck. I was thinking that Puerto Rico is one heck of a nice place, everybody seems to be super friendly. My curiosity got the better of me, I had to go see who it was and what they wanted. Big mistake. Just as I opened the “Green Door” to step outside, someone grabbed the front of my shirt and jerked me out of the door way. Then I was hit in the mouth with a 2 by 4. After that I got a couple of face fulls of fist. Before my eyes started to swell, I could tell there was a large group of men in the alley that they were dragging me to. I tried to resist and holler out to my shipmates. The Airedale Navy must be different from the Blackshoe Navy because my cries fell on deaf ears. There were more than a dozen of them coming at me. I guess the bar owner was a jealous man and had some clout.
To my salvation, two Shore Patrolmen entered the alley. One of them grabbed me by the back of my uniform, trying to tug me away from my attackers. Once the guys in the alley saw the two Shore Patrol, they came out from behind their cover. These guys were members of the “Los Macheteros.” A gang that makes MS-13 look like the Mickey Mouse Club. They are so feared, that if you Google them, I bet you can’t find any pictures.
The Shore Patrol recognized the group, vanity being the better part of valor, they turned and ran, leaving me in the grasp of this group of killers. Looking back, I don’t blame my buddies at the bar. There were too many to fight and I don’t blame the Shore Patrol for tucking tail and running. Because just as soon as I saw the two Shore Patrol guys get in the their white van and lock the doors, I pulled free and ran too.
I couldn’t get them to open the door to the van, no matter how hard I banged. They were pulling out with at least a couple dozen guys in the mob chasing behind us. I couldn’t think of anything to do, I just reacted. The van was on the verge of leaving the alley but before it did, I got a grip on the rear view mirror and swung my leg over the top. I was riding along with them, even if was hanging on, straddling the mirror, on side of the van, upside down with my face looking at the ground as it sped past.
We made it or I should say, I made it. I spent the next week in the infirmary. My face was smashed in, nose broken and a about a dozen stitches in my face where I caught a blade to the cheek. Those Macheteros don’t play. My Captain was a little perturbed, I don’t know if it was entirely with me or my comrades that deserted me. Any way, for the next few days, he had to make his own coffee, he had to hunt and peck his own reports.
The next pay period, I finally got my back pay. It was a wad too. I was making plans to go check out San Juan and the Castille de San Cristobal that I had heard so much about. Since San Juan was a good 50 miles away, I called a cab to start my journey. When the older guys in the barracks heard that I had gotten all of my back pay and had called for a cab to San Juan, they all wanted to go with me. Funny how after pay day you can always find friends.
I was young and naive. When we got to San Juan, they let me pay the cab fare, fifteen dollars. Then after we got there, they told me that the castle had been there for over 300 years. It wasn’t going anywhere, but while I was in town and had some money, we needed to go to the Black Angus and try our luck at the casino.
At the door we found out about the dress code. I was the only one in uniform, I was wearing my dress whites. The others were wearing civilian clothes. They had to buy a tie to get inside. Me? My uniform came with a kerchief, a suitable tie. Now I kept a roll of dimes rolled up in my kerchief, held in place with rubber bands. Just in case I needed a weapon in an emergency, I could use it as a club or a sling. Plus the five dollars worth of dimes could come in handy too.
The drinks were free as long as we were gambling. I took it easy on the rum, drinking cokes or seven up off of the tray as the refreshment girl came by. My companions were soon separated from their money. Their pockets turned into “elephant ears.” Me, beginner’s luck I guess. I soon won over three hundred dollars playing Blackjack. Since my buddies didn’t have any money left to gamble with, I let them talk me into buying them a drink next door at the bar. I had been hearing all about the world famous Black Angus. My girlfriend back home had stopped writing me, she seemed like a thousand miles away. I was a man of the world now, I figured why not, it doesn’t cost anything to take a look, besides it was my birthday. If I needed any more reason to celebrate, that was good enough.
The bar at the Black Angus was dazzling to say the least. The casino was exciting yes but paled in comparison to the rotating bar, the mirrored walls and the round mirrored globe chandelier that hung over the rotating bar.
I had just turned 18 that day. I was virtually just a babe in the woods. My experiences with girls, yes girls not women, was pretty much limited to the back seat of my Volkswagen at the drive-in theater. Here were at least a hundred of the most glamorous women that I had ever seen in my life. The lingerie section of the J.C. Penny’s catalogue had never prepared me for anything like this. Their revealing outfits left nothing to the imagination. With just a single button or clasp, they could completely disrobe.
How does an eighteen year old boy, recently self declared man of the world, react to all of the bright lights, beautiful women and the intrigue of being in a tropical setting? I sat down at the bar and ordered a drink. “Hey, let me try one of those White Russians.” I turned my stool around a ogled the girls as the bar rotated in a circle, drinking it all in as the room swirled around me.
When I say beautiful, that word doesn’t say enough, I would have been proud to take any one of these gals back home to show off to my buddies from school. If you make eye contact, that shows that you are interested, then the girl saunters over and makes casual conversation. My buddies were all pestering me to loan them some money ’til payday. Yeah, the same guys that watched me get my ass beat, two weeks before. It could have been the liquor, the glamour or just the sheer excitement of the moment. I let bygones be bygones and doled out the cash. I mean these girls just charged five dollars a shot, why not? They would come over and whisper what they would do with you, to you or what ever, for just five bucks. If you decided to go upstairs and get a hotel room, you paid the bartender six more dollars and he would give you the key to a room. The elevator ride was short and sweet. In a few moments you left the world behind and entered “Shangri’la.”
I was going, oh yes, I really couldn’t wait, but first I wanted to be flirted with by everyone of the women before I made my choice. That night, I forgot about every girl that I had met before. I made so many trips up the elevator that night I lost count. I was disappointed in the fact that you had to pay for another room again each time. Soon, I said to hell with the room. I would turn off the power switch to the elevator and just took care of my business there. There’s something to be said about having sex with all the bells and whistles, the red lights flashing overhead and hearing that emergency bell clanging just a few feet from your ears.
After I made about my 5th or 6th trip upstairs, I met Josefina at the bar. It was her birthday too. She told me and to anyone that was listening that for the rest of the night, anytime I wanted to go upstairs it would free, no charge.
Just before reville, the taxi drooped me and my shipmates off at the front gate. We were all hung over. I don’t remember all the money I spent, but I do remember that I spent it all. Josefina had a mouth full of gold teeth. I wonder now, just how many military pay days it took to pay for all of that gold?
I was back to being broke again. Aw heck, I was use to it. The next week end, I didn’t have the money to see the glamour of the island as a tourista. I just took off walking and hitch hiking. I was really enjoying the weather and the beautiful scenery when a light blue Volkswagen (just like mine back home) pulled over to give me a ride. Guess who? It was Lydia driving, she recognized me and gave me a ride. I know what you are thinking. I should of had enough of Lydia already, but my problem wasn’t with her, it was with her husband. She suggested I see Laquio Beach. When we got there she told me that I owed her two dollars. Turns out she drove her car as a publico or public transportation. She and her husband were fighting, she had left him and was doing her thing.
Laquio Beach is beautiful beyond description. Clear, aqua blue waters, white sand, tall graceful palm trees sprinkled above the high water mark. People were skiing in the shallow waters of the lagoon. Most of the women swam topless, some nude. Every one in Puerto Rico is well tanned and I can see why, so much beautiful warm sun. I never wanted to go back to Connecticut again.
After giving Lydia my last two dollars, I was broke. When it was time to leave the beach she drove me to see El Yanqui, a beautiful, spectacular 1,500 foot waterfall. What a spectacle. I told Lydia that I didn’t have any more money but that didn’t kill her interest in me. We left El Yanqui and drove to a fishing village about an hour away. Sure wish I could remember the name of the place. It was on the leeward side of the island or the southern side, farthest away from the Atlantic Ocean facing the Caribbean.
When we got out of her bug, she was greeted by her family members. They owned a fishing boat. I was able to go out with them and check logustino traps. A Caribbean lobster. We made a pretty good haul, when we got back the women folk were preparing a feast, fried oysters, shrimp, crab legs, baked red snapper, with a variety of tropical fruits for decoration. Every one danced on the beach, a typical Saturday night celebration of life.
The beach was sprinkled with little “Cabanas,” straw huts, basically a roof of palm fronds and partially enclosed sides. That’s where we spent the night, sleeping in a swinging hammock. The ocean breeze was strong enough to keep the screaming “meemees” or “no see-ums” at bay. After a couple of Henikens, I slept like a baby.
Lydia’s Dad was a dentist in Philadelphia, he would come back to Puerto Rico six months out of the year to be a priest. After meeting Los Macheteros and a hundred or so prostitutes, it was nice to meet what I call decent people. I got to admit that my first impressions of the people I met down there left a lot to be desired. Puerto Rico is a beautiful place. It’s temptations are great, if you want to be led down the wrong path, it isn’t hard to find company. After spending the weekend with Lydia and her wonderful family, I was happy that my glass was only “half full.”
I could probably add some more to this story, but right now, in my mind I’m swinging in the breeze in a hammock strung between two palms, looking at the white clouds an blue skies, watching the folks skiing across the blue waters of Laquio Beach.