Saturday, 23 September 2023

'Auld Lang Syne' and 'Anchors Aweigh' don't mix

I hope you have your happiest New Year's Eve ever.

Now that you've asked, I'll tell you about my worst one.

It was on the island of Adak in Alaska's Aleutian chain, where the U.S. Navy had seen fit to exile me. I don't why. I never did anything to the U.S. Navy. Except enlist in it.

We called Adak "The Rock" the same way we call Alcatraz that.

And that's all it is, a 32-square-mile rock.

There are no polar bears there. No grizzlies either. No moose, sea lions, no albatross, no wolves, no rabbits, no worms and no bugs. A rat once ran down the mooring line of a ship riding at anchor there and after seeing the desolation of the place scurried back up again. 

Adak was decisively male-oriented, there being no women there except for a few officers' wives, a nurse or two and a school teacher. Moreover, these were prehistoric times, before satellites and before ESPN even. So, 2,500 or so sailors, soldiers, marines and a few air force guys were hard-pressed to find things to do to relieve their boredom.

What they did mostly was drink. And fight. It didn't take much to start a brawl. Just walk into a bar full of sailors in an Army uniform, and, well, you might want to bring a paramedic with you.

There are worse places. Hell and the North Pole, for instance. But you have to go through Adak to get to either one of them.

During World War II, Adak had been a strategic U.S. military base. It was only about 100 miles distance from Attu and closer even to Dutch Harbor, which were strategic islands for the Japanese military.

The row upon row of long-abandoned WWII military Quonset huts spoke of those times.
GIs had planted several dozen waist-high pine trees back then, good-humoredly calling the project "Adak National Forest." The forest was still there when I was on Adak, the trees still waist-high and scraggly.

You saw the huts, you saw the forest, you saw all there was on Adak to see. Period, paragraph. Someone who served military time on Adak a couple of decades after me said it hadn't changed.

I was in an Adak frame of mind when I boarded a merchant marine vessel on a New Year's Eve that was so long ago it has cobwebs on it. My assignment was to deliver sailing orders, which told the skippers of maritime vessels that came to Adak how to navigate around the arctic ice floes. I would also pick up any last-minute mail and disembark. My trouble started with the last part.

A kindly, seafaring man, the purser of the merchant marine ship, suggested that perhaps we could quaff from a bottle of Scotch he kept in a cabinet to hail the New Year and see if we could lighten our mutually dour moods over being where we were.

We had not chatted long when the purser said, "Hey! Do you feel something moving?" Which indeed something was. The ship. Just to confirm it, we ran up topside. My miserable little island was a set of lights well off the stern.

Uh-oh. I'm about to go AWOL on a ship destined for Korea and do who knows how much time in the brig.

Fortunately, though, when the purser made the ship's captain aware of the circumstances, the ship came to an immediate stop to wait for the tug boat that had just escorted it out of the harbor to hove to.

All I ever knew about the water around Adak is that it was not a good place to surf. A person who went into the ocean at that point would last no longer than three minutes. So, climbing down a rope ladder off the ship, which rose and fell, and onto the tug, which bobbed and weaved, was a perilous undertaking.

... And then I felt it. It was harsh and unforgiving. Decidedly like the toe of a first-class petty officer bos'n mate's shoe. Which, of course, is what it was. In terms of accuracy, form and result it was well up the charts - one of those kicks that makes you feel like your bottom part has just been booted somewhere up around your shoulders.

"You little sonsabitch, you tell anybody about this, I'll kill you," growled the bos'n, who was operating the tug.

I assured him I wouldn't. Given the embarrassing light it would put on me, why would I?
But at 3 a.m. New Year's morning I was awakened by a sailor who had the night watch at our barracks. There was a phone call. It was my commanding officer.

"Hey!" said the voice on the receiver with too much New Year's Eve celebration hanging all over it. "I thought you sailed for Korea."

Many years later I took a luxury cruise through the Alaskan Strait. Given my bad memory of Alaska, why would I want to go back up there?

It was free.


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09.23.2023 9:00 am - 12:00 pm
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09.23.2023 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
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