Saint Matthew Island, Alaska in the remote Bering Sea. Photo: Michael Carr
By Michael Carr – “Ensign Carr, the skipper wants to see you in his cabin now, I am here to relieve you of the watch.”
I could not speak. “OK,” I finally stuttered. “Shit, what have I done wrong.” No one gets summoned to the Skipper’s cabin during their watch unless there is a real problem.
You never want to visit the Skipper’s cabin, ever. “Fuck,” I thought again, what have I done wrong. Maybe the monthly exchange report is incorrect; maybe there is an issue with secure and classified message traffic. My mind was racing.
I turned over the watch and proceeded down the short ladder from the bridge to the Skipper’s closed door. There on the door, in my face, was the placard, “Captain’s Cabin, Knock then Enter.” I stood for a moment; ready to face my forthcoming extinction, then knocked, waited a brief moment, and tentatively opened the door.
Sitting behind his desk was our CO. “Sir, reporting as you ordered,” I said as politely as possible.
“Ensign Carr, come in and sit down,” he said. I am so fucked I thought. Well, this was a short Coast Guard career.
After I was seated he asked how I was doing. “Sir, fine sir.”
“I have received a message from the Red Cross, you need to go home. Your Father has had a serious stroke, he is in the hospital and may not live.”
He continued, “We are going to get you off the ship and back home, I am just not sure how we are going to do this.”
I was so relieved, and at the same time frantic. My parents lived in Washington, D.C., far from my present location, was steaming around the Bering Sea on a Coast Guard cutter. There were no airports, harbors, or ports within hundreds of miles of our position.
“Can you stand watch, or do you need to be taken off the watch rotation?” asked the Skipper.
“Sir, I am fully capable of standing watch,” I said. There was no way I was going to neglect my duties. My father, a Naval Officer, had routinely told me; duty to your ship and crew always comes first. “Don’t think of yourself, think of your crew, your shipmates.”
Within a few hours the Coast Guard had developed a plan to get me home.
“We are going to steam to St Matthews Island, take you ashore in a small boat, and then a CG C-130 from Kodiak will come and fly you to Anchorage. From there you can fly commercial to Seattle and on to Washington, D.C.,” I was told by our XO. “Pack a bag”.
I soon found myself standing alongside the mud runway on St. Matthews Island. Cold, windy, rainy, overall depressing. Soon a gleaming white C-130 appeared low on the horizon. It made a slow pass over me, turned, and came back in for a landing. Mud splattered everywhere, and as the plane slowed the back ramp opened. A crewman waved me over.
I scrambled up the ramp, and was directed to a canvas seat. I could see the crew talking on his headphone, while raising the ramp. Within minutes the plane turned around and taxied to the end of the mud runway. All four-turboprop engines began increasing in RPMs, the plane was shacking and rattling, and then brakes were released and we went bouncing down the runway. I could see, through the small round side windows, mud splattering everywhere. We were airborne.
I could see my ship far below as we left St. Matthews Island behind. After a blur of flights, and connections, I found myself in the intensive care unit of George Washington Hospital in D.C. There was my father, unconscious and connected to tubes and monitors. My mother sat next to him reading out loud.
“I know he can hear me, so I am going to keep reading to him until he comes out of his coma,” my mother said. “I don’t want him to loose touch with the world.”
I stayed with my mother for two weeks but then had to return to my ship in Alaska. My father was still in a coma when I departed. Weeks later I received a letter from my Mother.
“Your Father finally came out of his coma, about a week after you departed. His left side is not working, and he is having a difficult time talking and walking, but he recognizes me and people, and remembers us reading to him,” she wrote.
My father would never fully recover. His pain increased and he struggled for the next several years. He then developed cancer, and finally killed himself when the pain was too much to bear. I am sure he was thinking about my mother when he decided to kill himself, he did not want to be a burden.
“Always think of your ship and crew first”, came back to me. That was my father, a Naval Officer, always. “Do your duty. Stand your watch. Take care of your crew.”
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