During bootcamp, we were given a “wish list” or ADC (Assignment Data Card). This is the time you write down all the dreamy locations you might want to go for your first venture into Coastie life. Essentially, you pick several districts ranging from the East Coast, to the Great Lakes, Alaska, California, the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, Guam, and the Caribbean, arranging them from first choice to last choice. Within each of the district, you get your pick of which specific station you’d like to serve with. These range from enormous Polar Ice Breakers, to LoRan stations (stations in the middle of nowhere), or land units in paradise.
At the recruiting office in Lakewood, CA, I was told that there was an excellent chance I could be stationed near home in Long Beach. There is a fairly large station there that performs all sorts of Coast Guard activities. It was unquestionably my first wish list selection. At the bottom of the list, I chose several stations in Alaska, as I believed its beauty (which I had only seen in photographs) would make my stay much more tolerable. Selections in the middle included various Patrol Boats in Hawaii, Lake Tahoe, and Florida. Typically, warm weather stations are the most sought after, as are areas of high tourism.
The day came when stations were announced. My name was called and I stepped forward. AST1 Gladdish announced, “Seaman Recruit Norris Marine Safety Office Valdez, Alaska.” I was crushed. I was so looking forward to going back home and spending the next four years commuting to Long Beach from Los Alamitos. No such luck.
I graduated bootcamp and turned 18 3 days later. I went and bought my first pack of smokes and cruised around in the Dakota in which I had installed some house speakers behind the bench seat so I could “bump.” Around that time I also had installed a Flowmaster exhaust. The truck had a four cylinder engine…. Ahh to be young again.
The next 2 weeks, I tried to relive summer, grasping at the final moments of irresponsibility before I flew to Valdez to begin my Coast Guard experience.
I flew commercial in my dress uniform. I packed various items like my Walkman CD player, a few CDs, and a notebook to accompany my sea bag and other personal belongings. My Mom dropped me off at John Wayne here in Orange County a few days after Thanksgiving, and I flew to Seattle, then Anchorage, and finally to Valdez. The flight to Valdez was totally sketchy. I boarded a twin engine turboprop that was 4 seats wide and bobbed up and down like a buoy in the ocean. As we began the decent into Valdez, suddenly appeared out of the darkness a giant snowy mountain. I had arrived.
I walked around the airport for several minutes trying to make contact with the person who was going to pick me up. No luck. I called the station with the payphone in the single terminal several times before getting someone to pick up the phone. Mind you, this was well before cell phones and I ran out of quarters. Finally, after a sympathetic airport employee let me use the “house” phone, I was able to get through. 2 hours later I was picked up and officially had my first Coast Guard induced culture shock experience.
3rd Class Petty Officer Garrish was an early 30’s something Damage Controlman. He had been a member of the Coast Guard for more than 8 years, yet had not advanced past e-4. He was the on duty that evening and didn’t answer the pager to call the command center for more than an hour. I don’t remember the exact specifics, but Garrish was later transferred or discharged in relation to a criminal matter.
No one at the station knew I was on my way, and I was ill prepared for Alaska. Monday morning came, and to our Chief’s surprise, there was a fresh body standing there ready to work. The first daylight I saw came around 9AM that day. Later in the winter, the sun wouldn’t rise above the surrounding mountains until nearly 10:30AM, and it would set by 3PM, dipping behind mountain peaks more than 10 times during the 5.5 hours it was up. What’s more, the snow was relentless. For perspective, Boston received 110 inches of snow this winter (2014-15). Valdez averages 326 inches every winter. The snow flakes are more like fluffy snow handfuls. the sound of that much snow falling is something akin to the sound that snow on the television makes. I was not prepared.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing. I went from a summer full of sunshine and Vitamin D induced comas to a winter of no sun, clouds, and sub-freezing temperatures. Additionally, the girl I was dating when I left for Alaska broke up with me about 1 month into my stay. I couldn’t hang. so I signed up for the thing that would get me out of there the fastest; Food Service Specialist school in Petaluma, California.
Life was great. I was back in California, the weather was warmer and I felt like I had a chance to start over. The work days were very long (12-13 hours), but the job was fairly enjoyable and the food was delicious! The school was 12 weeks in duration. Topics ranged from health risk and sanitation management to a 2 week dessert clinic where we made cakes, cinnamon rolls, and various types of cookies each night. Then came time to fill out a wish list again. This time, I was committed to Hawaii. The USCGC JARVIS, a 378-foot cutter home-ported in Honolulu, Hawaii, had an opening for a FS3 and I was their man. Among the other available billets included one on the Mississippi river and one on the historic USCGC Storis, which was the oldest cutter in the fleet and home-ported in Kodiak, Alaska.
Oddly enough, one of my classmates, CJ Baynon, had just come from the Storis, and had chosen to leave there for the same reasons I chose to leave Valdez. CJ was originally from Florida and surfed, so naturally we hit it off and spent a considerable amount of time together off base. He told us horror stories about the Storis. It was constructed in the early 1940’s and had a reputation for breaking down at sea. He was very worried that he may end up with orders back to his ship. Of the 20 or so Coasties in our class, 4 or 5 of us had already served at stations. The theory was that those who had already done some time were more likely to get the pick they wanted than were the folks who took singing bonuses (some in the $10k range) in order to be trained to perform jobs that no one else wanted to do. For these reasons, CJ and I were sure that he wasn’t going to go back to the Storis, and I was going to be living large in Hono.
The day came when we all would find out our destinies. We gathered around in a circle and our squad leader began reading off our assignments. My turn came around: “Norris, Coast Guard Cutter Storis.” Again, just devastated. After my experience in Valdez, and listening to CJ’s sea stories there was no way I could fathom 3+ years in Kodiak, traversing the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea in an old worn out ship.
I tried justifying heading back to Alaska to myself for several days. I was in a fog. The flavor of cognitive dissonance that comes with justifying something to one’s self is much different than simply experiencing something that doesn’t sit well with you, but is right nonetheless. Justifying something completely undesirable to yourself is a form of self betrayal and leads to physical illness.
I had to inform the director of the school my intentions to quit the program. I’ve told other veterans and service members this story and they are shocked. They sneeringly respond, “You just told them you didn’t want to go?!” Yep. So many service people are convinced that you must do whatever you are ordered to do or face insurmountable consequences. It’s simply not true. The last thing any command wants is miserable staff. The Coast Guard is especially weary of this, and people aren’t viewed as being merely dispensable.
The next three days I was in a bit of limbo. I had quit the Food Service Specialist program and was assigned to assist the administrative department. On the first day of my new assignment, finally something good happened. As I was walking outside, I passed a warrant officer. I saluted him and he stopped me; generally that’s not a good thing. He said, “I have to give you something. Here’s a silver dollar – you’re the first person who has saluted me since I was commissioned.” I turned out I would later be assigned to work for him for the next two days.
Soon enough I received the best news I had heard in 9 months: orders to the USCGC CHASE, a 378-foot high endurance cutter, located in beautiful San Diego, CA. I had two days to get there. I packed all of my belongings and spent the next day making the drive from Petaluma to Los Alamitos, and then to San Diego the following day. I arrived at the ship, which again no one knew I was coming, and met my new Coastie friends who would help me become acclimated to ship life. Little did I know, we were set to deploy for 2 months in, leaving in 3 short days for my favorite place…Alaska.
Let the cognitive dissonance begin again.