When I was a kid — a period that hung over my head willy-nilly until I was 60 — Don Winslow of the Coast Guard was an icon of American patriotism. During World War II he spent many colorful Saturday matinees chasing Nazi submarines off Catalina Island.
I’ll bet you didn’t know the Germans had submarines off the West Coast in those days. It wasn’t exactly a secret, because Winslow zoomed all over the silver screen each week in cardboard airplanes and tinfoil destroyers, dropping depth charges on Axis heads. His antics set a pattern for action heroes who came along later like Woody Allen and Rush Limbaugh.
At any rate I was greatly influenced by Winslow and his heroic adventures. That’s why, when I simultaneously turned 17 and finished high school, I enlisted in the Coast Guard, seeing it as my life’s work.
To say my colorful three-year Coast Guard experience was thrilling is like saying it’s exhilarating to watch paint dry. In fact on a scale of 1-10 on the Rip Van Winkle Tedium Scale, the Coast Guard went off the chart and entered the world of zombiism.
To make a long story even longer, after brief training in nautical terms and knot tying I was assigned to an ocean-going cutter named SASSAFRAS. My classmates went to other ships like HYACINTH, GERANIUM, and TULIP. Many nights I lay in my bunk wishing my ship was a better flower. There was something about SASSAFRAS that always brought the house down.
Let me pause here to reveal that at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington in those days there existed a covert group labeled “COG-DIV-GSSN,” which was short for “Coast Guard Division for Generating Silly Ship Names.” It was established during Prohibition to cause whiskey smugglers to fall on the floor in fits of laughter and make them easier to catch.
But we rugged sailors of the Bathtub Navy were caring guys. Those of us who rode the waves wrote girlfriends that our ships were named “Queen Mary” or “Titanic” so they wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen with us. Once I even told a young blonde thing that I was stationed on a Viking canoe off Denmark.
We also conjured up Winslow-like adventures even though we did little more that sit off the coast of New Jersey, releasing weather balloons, cleaning buoys, and watching old movies starring Van Johnson and Tyrone Power. We watched those movies until we could recite all the lines in Morse code.
But every three months our ship came back to port at Staten Island, and everyone took liberty in New York City where we frolicked “On the Town” like Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly and were chased by beautiful dancing girls. Boy, those were the days. You bet.
Then it was back to sea for another three-month memory loss, where we pondered the bleak beauty of the North Atlantic and banged our heads on mess tables when we fell asleep over gourmet meals offered up by our seasick cookie. Talk about your adventures.
Finally, after three years, I came to that crossroads faced by all service personnel when their enlistment runs out: Should I re-up or clasp my discharge papers to my chest and punch the chief boatswain’s mate in the bugger locker? But I took a less traveled road and bought a three-speed Sears Roebuck bicycle so I could pedal to Colorado from New Jersey, still seeking adventure regardless of my void in geography and geology.
The upshot was that bicycle trip turned out to be another folly of my misspent youth. Think for a moment about pedaling through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana in the summer, day after day in 90-degree sogginess and thunderstorms, up hill and down dale, then up again and down again, until, l5 days later, I reached Illinois, which was a swamp.
Then Iowa spread out before me. It had been taken from the Wickiup Indians as partial payment of a student loan default. Nebraska and Kansas were in the way too, horizontally speaking.
Finally, after a month, I wobbled into the yard of my Colorado home. I was a well-done, dried-up, worn-out relic of my former self. But I stepped from my steed and knocked on the kitchen door, my heart pounding with homecoming excitement.
My mother stuck her head out and said, “Well, what took you so long? That’s the last time I’ll send you into town for ice cream.”
I don’t know what ever happened to Don Winslow, but I hope it was slow and painful.
Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales.