June 14, 1954 to July 27, 1954
USCGC Halfmoon (WAVP 378)
The shrill piping of the three-note, two-tone boatswain’s whistle sounded through the ship’s loudspeakers. “Now hear this! Now hear this! General Quarters! All hands man your duty stations! General Quarters!” Stepping through the oval-shaped, waterproof hatch partition, he ran to his G.Q. duty station on the starboard side of the number-one deck at the forward davit of the third lifeboat.
Permanently berthed in the huge Coast Guard facility on Staten Island, New York, the Coast Guard Cutter (CGC) Halfmoon was 311 feet in length and had a complement of 135 enlisted men and officers. The official duty designation of the CGC Halfmoon was that of a weather ship, meaning, at various times throughout the year, the ship steamed to designated nautical coordinates in the shipping lanes of the Atlantic Ocean to patrol within a set geographic boundary. The duty of the Halfmoon was to offer aid and assistance to any vessel in trouble, and to record and forward changing weather conditions. CGC Halfmoon was armed with a six-inch cannon turret on the bow, triple racks of rolling depth charges on each side of the fantail, and single racks of shooting depth charges on either side of the stern. The patrol station was usually thirty to forty-five days at sea with an in-port period of usually sixty to ninety days. The patrols, either planned or coincidental, always seemed to begin in frigid Newfoundland in the winter and tropical Bermuda in the summer.
Men with girlfriends, wives and families complained as the patrols came closer. But, without a girlfriend or wife, and especially after serving fifteen months under the command of Warrant Officer Floyd Richard Ewing, the thought of sea duty, with nothing to do but his—fairly proportioned—watch and work details seemed to be so relaxing and stress free that Mitchell Lipensky was actually looking forward to his first patrol.
Darkly overcast, a warm, steady wind blew from the northeast.
“Release stern lines!” The called command was passed from the Captain on the bridge to the “X.O.,” the Executive Officer on the flying bridge and, via megaphone, seemingly echoing, to the Officer of the Deck then to the men on the stern lines. “Aye, Captain!” The stern angling from the wharf, “Stern lines released!”
At his G.Q. station, standing alongside the safety rail, Mitchell watched the sailing procedure.
“Release bow lines!” The echoing command. “Aye, Captain! Bow lines released!”
Dissipating in the wind, a thin stream of black diesel smoke emitted from the high, white funnel as the ship slowly backed out of its slip.
In the channel, the ship backed to starboard and, with a slight shudder, the twin diesel-driven turbines reversed and CGC Halfmoon began the forward motion that would take her within easy sight of the Statue of Liberty, through the narrows of Ambrose Channel, into the Atlantic Ocean and approximately nine hundred nautical miles to Ocean Station Charlie.
The piping of the boatswain’s whistle. “Now hear this! Now hear this! Secure from general quarters!”
The patrol began…
And Mitchell learned, very quickly, that the open cockpit of a sailboat, or a motor patrol boat, is a far cry from the pitching deck of a diesel-burning ship.
Within minutes of leaving the comparative calm of the channel and entering the choppy seas of the ocean, most of the crew became seasick, and within another ten minutes many of them were leaning over the leeward rail dropping their breakfasts into the churning wake…
But he had been able, so far, to hold his stomach down—so far.
“Hey, Lipensky!” Kneeling on the deck, halfheartedly coiling a length of hawser, watching the receding skyline, looking over his shoulder, “Yeah?” he stood.
“How ya feelin’, Lipensky?” Short and powerfully built with a ruggedly handsome face, Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Hugh Lynch was with his “shadow,” Myron Linton, whom, after almost two years as a striker, had—less than two months earlier—finally made the grade from Seaman First to Boatswains Mate Third Class.
Linton wore his cap at a jaunty angle on the back of his head, while, perfectly squared, Lynch’s cap appeared to be resting on his rather thick eyebrows. His lips pursed as if holding back laughter, Lynch held his right hand behind his back.
“Yeah, Lippy,” Linton asked, “how ya doin’?”
Drawing a draft of air deeply into his lungs, pulling his gut in, tightening it against the queasiness in his stomach, “Okay.” Thinking, They’re being solicitous, “Thanks, it’s nice of you to…”
Moving his hand from behind his back, Lynch held what he was holding inches from Mitchell’s face.
Dangling from a foot of dirty white thread that had been threaded through the rind was a small glob of greasy pork fat that swayed from side to side… from side to side with the motion of the ship.
Swallowing, trying to keep his stomach where it, more or less, belonged, Mitchell’s eyes hypnotically followed the swaying motion of the glob of fat, as…
With a maniacal smile, tilting his head back—letting the fat sway another moment—opening his mouth, lowering his hand, his Adam’s apple bobbing… Lynch swallowed it.
Leaving where it, more or less, belonged, “Ulp!” Mitchell’s stomach moved upward.
Lynch’s eyes shifted from Mitchell’s suddenly-white face to his coconspirator’s red face, then back to Mitchell and, slowly, oh, so slowly, pulled upward on the thread.
His eyes, “Ulp!” followed as…
Lynch drew the saliva-covered glob of gray/white fat from his throat and out of his mouth, and…
Mitchell ran to the rail.
One day: bright, sunlit heavens.
One day: ominous black skies.
One day: pounding waves.
One day: balmy breezes.
Days into days.
An endless stream of white, frothy wake followed Halfmoon in the southern Atlantic waters.
Nights into nights.
Velvety black skies with millions—trillions—of radiantly shining stars.
Days into days: Arching their magnificent silver-gray bodies out of the water, pods of porpoise swam alongside Halfmoon.
Nights into nights: Beaming behind moist, thin clouds, the incandescent moon appeared as a golden halo.
Days into days:
In the bridge, at the helm, “Lipensky, left rudder! Come to one-three-oh degrees!”
“Aye, Sir. Left rudder! One-three-oh degrees!”
On the fantail, “Christ, Linton, look at the wake! Looks like a fuckin’ snake!”
“Yeah. Wonder who’s the idiot on the helm.”
Nights into nights:
As though God were shining a spotlight from heaven, the brilliant moon lit a rippling road of silver for the helmsman to follow.
Days into days:
Cleaning stations… Chip paint… Kitchen duty… Scrape paint… Lookout… Wire-brush paint… Helmsman… Paint.
After work: Bullshit with your pals… Lay in the sun… Sit on a depth charge rack on the stern watching the white clouds, the churning wake, and the white-capped, green sea.
At night: Read a book… Write a letter… Play cards… Watch 16mm movies sitting on your pillow on the crowded deck of the rec room with your mates.
An old Esther Williams movie: Hey, I saw this movie! Where? Oh, yeah! In the drive-in that night with Sally… Sally! Remembering. Thinking of her soft, warm breasts, sensing a twitching in his groin. God, if I had her address, I’d write.
“Hi. Mind if I come in?”
“Typing, stopping, rotating his chair from the desk, looking at the seaman standing on the other side of the hatch, “Yeah, sure.”
Stepping over the hatch, coming into the office, holding his hand forward, “Mitch Lipensky.”
Shaking the offered hand, “Don Wilson.” The man with the two chevrons and the crossed quills of a Yeoman’s Mate Second Class asked, “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, Don. I’m thinking of striking for yeoman, and thought I’d ask how to get started.”
“First thing, you send for the correspondence course. You know how to type, Mitch?”
“Not great. I took Typing One in high school. Learned the keyboard, but haven’t touched a typewriter since.”
“Typing’s kind’a like riding a bike: once you learn it, with a bit of practice you don’t forget it.”
Pointing to a second desk and typewriter, “Mind if I sit down and practice a while?”
“No, not at all.” Opening the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet, removing a form, “Here you go, Mitch. Fill this out and we’ll get it off in the next mail.”
Days into nights… Nights into days.
Work. Sleep. Relax. Resuscitate your mind. Revive your spirit. Feel close to your God and… feel the substance of youth.
“Yeah, so what is our estimated time of arrival?”
“Thursday. At about 0630.”
“In five days, huh! No shit!”
“…Hey, I see it! See it? There it is! New York!”
The skyline of New York City becoming larger, becoming clearer, CGC Halfmoon steamed out of the Atlantic Ocean, through the narrows of Ambrose Channel, to within easy sight of the Statue of Liberty.
“Secure bow lines!”
“Aye, Captain! Bow lines secured!”
“Secure stern lines!”
“Aye, Captain! Stern lines secured!”
The three-note, two-tone boatswain’s whistle sounded. “Now hear this! Secure from general quarters!” Again, the shrill piping of the boatswain’s whistle.