The three men were gone, leaving the head dirtier than it had been forty minutes ago…
And now the door swung open.
“Thought I told you to clean this fuckin’ head!”
“Captain, I…” Mitchell realized that Ewing knew that he would never be able to do it at this time, and rather than using the excuse he was sure Ewing expected… “Sorry, Sir. If you want, I’ll do it again.”
“Bet your ass, sailor!” Turning heading out the door, “Do it again!”
Sighing, Mitchell opened the paint locker…
The door opening again, “When you’re through, secure and chow down.”
The door swung shut behind Ewing, but, immediately opening again, “Oh, and Lipensky…”
Taking a deep breath, “Yes, Sir?”
Floyd Richard Ewing: Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1918, Ewing had joined the Navy in 1936.
In 1941, at the start of World War Two, he had held the rank of Boatswains Mate Third Class.
Ewing worked his way through the ranks receiving two battlefield upgrades during the war years.
In 1948, at the time of his third “re-up,” he’d transferred from the Navy—with the rank of Boatswains Mate First Class—to the Coast Guard, where he was immediately upgraded to Chief Petty Officer. Ewing had received his final promotion to Warrant Officer in 1951, during the Korean conflict.
U.S.C.G. Rockaway Lifeboat Station was Ewing’s first singular command and he ran it as though it were a ship, using sea-going terms for his land base: the office was “the bridge”; his quarters, “the Captain’s state room”; the lookout tower, “the crow’s nest.” And Warrant Officer Floyd Richard Ewing was always referred to as “Sir” or “Captain.”
In 1953 Ewing was thirty-six years old with slightly more than two years of active duty remaining before retirement with full military benefits.
Standing 5'6", Ewing had a noticeable paunch that overhung his well-pressed slacks. His dark-brown hair rapidly thinning, he attempted to hide the fact by brushing the longer strands from left to right across his balding dome. He had an oblong face with close-set, dark-brown eyes and thick brows that met across the bridge of his nose. He had thin, pinched lips and, when angry—which was often—or prior to smiling—which was rare—the corners of his mouth would involuntarily twitch, confusing anybody about to receive—usually—a chewing out or—rarely—a smile.
A bachelor, no one on base had ever seen Floyd Richard Ewing with a woman, which had caused—if he was not around—not too quiet speculation as to his sexual preference.
Ewing was not bigoted; he just hated Niggers, Gooks, Kikes, Wops, Spicks, Pretty Boys, Civilians, Politicians and Philadelphia Lawyers—not necessarily in that order.
And lucky him! Mitchell Lipensky fell into two of those categories.
At U.S.C.G. Rockaway Lifeboat Station, Warrant Officer Floyd Richard Ewing was as God.
…Finished, again, Mitchell headed to the mess hall.
Walking the long hallway, adjacent to the head he’d just cleaned for the second time, was an outside doorway; directly across the hall was the recreation room with a television, pool and ping-pong tables, two sofas, scattered easy chairs and a writing desk. Further down the hall, to the left, was the “Captain’s State Room,” then the alcove containing the stairway, street door and “Bridge.” To his right was the alcove with the work area and bay-side door, to the left of the door was the Communication Room—the Con—containing a short-wave radio and a commercial, plug-in type telephone switchboard. At the far end of the hallway, on the right, was the kitchen, and directly across, the mess hall.
Liberty at Rockaway Lifeboat Station was “port and starboard”: one night off, one night on; one weekend off, one weekend on.
Most of the men in the starboard section, who were planning on going “ashore,” had either left the base without eating, or had eaten and were now in their rooms preparing to leave. Well past 1730 when he got to the mess hall, there were two men left sitting at one end of the long, dark oak table drinking coffee. One of the men was Yeoman Second Class Richard McDonald, who nodded at Mitchell, and the other…
“Hey, you must be the new guy!”
Rising from the table, an older, dark-complected man wearing a kitchen-stained apron, white slacks and a T-shirt, holding his hand out, “I’m Joe Mendez,” he said, speaking with a slight Mexican accent, “the cook for this motley crew.”
“Mitch Lipensky,” shaking his hand, “and if you’re the cook, then I’m real glad to know you… I’m not too late for chow, am I?”
“Fuck, no! I been waiting for you. How you like your T-bone?”
“Excuse me, did you say T-bone, like in steak?”
“Yeah, just like. Come on!” Motioning for Mitchell to follow, Mendez went into the kitchen, opened one of the doors to a huge, commercial refrigerator, lifted out a heavy package wrapped in white butcher’s paper, kicked the door shut, dropped the package onto a wooden cutting block and opened it. Inside the package was mound of beautifully marbled T-bone steaks, each at least one-inch thick. Lifting a steak with his fingers, tossing it, sizzling, onto a hot stove griddle, “How do you like it?”
“Medium rare. Where the hell do you get meat like this?”
“Medium rare. Good thing. Only three ways I make meat around here: Rare, medium and raw.”
Taking a package of Camels from his rolled T-shirt shirtsleeve, turning a burner on, bending over the stove, Joe lit the cigarette. “We get all our goods from civilian stores. Matter’a fact, all the chow in this here kitchen came from the A&P over on Flatbush. And we’re such’a good customer, that to keep our business there they give us little bonuses like premo T-bones for the price of not-so-premo T-bones.”
Lifting the lid of one of two pots that were still on the stove, he pointed to a cabinet. “Grab a dish and take some’a these here peas and…” lifting the lid off the second pot, “potatoes, so’s I can get these pots scrubbed.” Dropping the lid, picking up a long-handled fork, Joe speared the steak, turned it and slapped it back onto the hot griddle.
“Don’t you have help here?” Mitchell asked rather stupidly. “Ain’t no KP here?” he asked—very hopefully.
“KP? Bet your ass there’s KP, and from what I hear, and from the way he started with you today, you’n’me is going to get to know each other real good.”
Opening the refrigerator, taking a gallon bottle of milk, Joe poured a dollop into his coffee mug. “You want milk with chow?”
Having nothing to do with kosher dietary laws, the thought of drinking milk with meat truly repugnant, “No. No, thanks.”
“You ain’t kosher, are you?”
How’s he know I’m a Jew? “Nah,” Mitchell said. “I just don’t like milk with dinner. With dessert, yeah, but not usually with dinner. You got anything else?”
Motioning to the refrigerator, “Be my guest.” Joe said, flipping the steak again.
“Joe, let me ask. How’d you know I’m Jewish?”
“With a name like Lipensky?”
“Shit, Joe, Lipensky could be Polish if it were spelled with an I rather than a Y.”
“Mitch, word gets around, and we…” Joe said conspiratorially, “you’n’me and a couple’a others here are in the minority. It ain’t no fuckin’ democracy here!” Taking a deep, angry draw on his cigarette, jerking his thumb to the left, “This here’s a fuckin’ dictatorship, and there ain’t nothin’ you’n’me can do ’bout it but do our work, keep our mouths shut, and help each other the best we can.”
Absorbing what Joe had said, using a clean ladle that was on the sink, he dished out generous portions of peas and mashed potatoes onto a dinner plate.
Turning the steak again, “Don’t get me wrong, most of ’em here’s good guys,” Carrying the two pots to a large, galvanized garbage can, he dumped the peas and banged the potato pot on the inside of the can. “And there’s only a couple here that I’d tell you to look out for. But maybe that’s just my opinion, and anyway, I don’t know you from shit and you might be a prick, too. But I do know you’re going to have a tough time here, and just thought that maybe you’d feel better knowin’ you’re not the only one here getting’ it from that motherfuckin’ cocksuckin’ son-of-a-bitch.”
He knew, but asked anyway: “The Skipper?”
“Yeah, Captain Ewing!” he said contemptuously. “The fucker hates me ’cause I’m a spick, and he’s tried to burn me, a lot, but I’m a cook first class, so’s there ain’t too much he can do to me so long’s I do my job.”
At the sink, Joe ran steaming water into the pot. Using a steel-wool pad, he scrubbed the pot as smoke from the cigarette held between his lips spiraled upward, causing him to squint.
“I’m glad you told me about it, Joe, but it seems so unfair. Can’t anyone do anything about him?”
“You don’t want to try it. The skipper of a unit is the boss, and anyone tryin’ to hang him better sure as hell have every man in the whole fuckin’ unit behind him, or he’ll end up gettin’ his ass shipped to a weather station at the Arctic fuckin’ Pole for the rest of his life.”
Wiping his hands on the apron, going to the stove, “Looks like you’re about done.”
The overflowing dish in one hand and a glass of ice water in the other, returning to the mess hall, finding McDonald still there, alone, nursing his coffee, Mitchell sat at the far end of the table.
After a few seconds, “I’ve put you in the port section, so if you want, you can pull liberty tomorrow,” McDonald said. “And you got the 12 to 1600 watch so someone’ll take you to the tower in the morning to break you in.” He dropped his cigarette butt in the dredges of his coffee. “Oh, yeah, and your duty station’s the upper deck.”
“The upper deck!” Remembering the width and length of the second floor passage, he swallowed. “The whole upper deck?”
“Yeah. And it gets swept and buffed every day, and scrubbed and waxed and buffed on Friday. Duty station’s from 0800 to 0900, except on Friday when it’s ‘field day,’ then it’s from 0800 to 0930, when the Captain has his white glove inspection.”
Thinking, That’ll give me plenty of time, at least. Taking a bite of steak, chewing a minute, “Mac,” he said, “can I ask you something?”
Hesitating, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“What did the Captain see on my record when he said, ‘Look what they sent us’?” Taking a drink of water, he looked at McDonald.
Who looked away. “Nothing.”
“Come, on, Mac! He even brought it to you to see. I haven’t been in the Coast Guard long enough to do anything that bad.” Cutting another piece of steak, halting the trip to his mouth, “What was he pointing at when he brought my papers to you?”
Standing, taking his cup, beginning to walk out of the mess hall, stopping, McDonald turned back. “Hebrew,” he said softly. “Where it says ‘Religion’, it says you’re Hebrew.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Thanks, Mac.”
(A "Becoming" Excerpt)