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April, 2006:

Missed The Boat… Literally.

Summer – 1984

Our first cruise of the Mediterranean was coming to a close. The USS Saratoga had a generally uneventful tour of duty. Essentially, the ship and attached airwing had such little money to operate with. So little so, that the 6th Fleet basically sent us from one port to another, with very little sea time, and even less time to fly our aircraft. It was far cheaper for us to stay inport than to operate at sea.

Most of the lifers onboard dubbed the Saratoga’s med cruise of 1984, “The Love Boat Cruise”. Pretty appropriate as the deployment was hardly taxing or demanding on the ship’s personnel. We went from port to port so much that it really did seem like nothing more than a casual cruise. All that was missing was Isaac the bartender working the Lido Deck pool bar. Port visits became a blur. They were accented only by the girls you met and the beaches you went to during that particular visit. It was great.

The lifers were also pretty resentful that they didn’t get the sea time that they so craved. Not because they liked being at sea or anything nautically romantic like that. It was more because they were able to save their meager paychecks by staying out at sea, because it kept them from squandering it on over-priced, watered down booze, hookers, or both.

Miguel and I, of course, loved being inport. Everywhere the ship went, we made a point of getting as far away from it as possible, while still keeping a safe distance for a quick return if needed. We found most times that the farther away from the boat we got, the cheaper stuff got, people became nicer, and girls became much friendlier. So we always made sure to hop a train or bus and get out of dodge. We got so good at it, that we were able to remember train schedules, and make plans to hit towns that we didn’t get to hit the last time we were in a particular country or city.

We had quickly become friends once I had been assigned to the same division onboard the Saratoga in Mayport. I arrived there after 14 weeks of boot camp and “A” school. That’s where I went to Meridian, Mississippi to basically learn how to type and be an office lackey. They give you eight weeks to learn this stuff, I did it in four. Mainly because I hated being in Meridian. Geez, what a shithole. Miguel had already been onboard the Saratoga for about 4 months, but hadn’t really gotten into any of the cliques yet.

My rating, Aviation Maintenance Administration, or “AZ”, seemed like a good fit for me. It was pretty mindless, yet seemed interesting enough for me to not die of utter boredom from my job. That’s why I chose it rather than let myself be cajoled into the highly technical fields such as computer technician, or electronics technician, and so on. My test scores were high enough for me to go into anything but nuclear power (math is not my forte). But I resisted the recruiter’s tantalizing sales points to go for the tech jobs. I was simply not at all interested in getting any kind of technical training during my time in the navy. It seemed like too much work. Besides, how was I going to take any college classes and work towards my degree if my mind was cluttered with technical stuff? Exactly. Nevermind that I only took one lame business class during my whole time in the navy, that’s not the point. My intentions were good, my ambitions, maybe not so.

My rationale for going into the navy was pretty simple at the time I made the choice to sign up. I was basically booted out of my budding sub-C average college career at Daytona Beach Community College. This was mainly because, thanks to President Reagan’s sweeping financial reforms, I was no longer eligible for any kind of federal financial aid. In fact, they yanked my existing financial aid for my first year, and then hit me with a bill for what I owed back. Lovely.

I had just gotten fired from a job at a mexican restaurant that hadn’t even opened yet. Imagine that! And I was getting pretty depressed living in Daytona Beach. It was time for a drastic change, I thought. Call it desperation, or a limit of options, but the navy was the best route at the time, so I thought. So I bought the advertising tagline, “Join the navy and get money for college!” and went to the recruiter and signed up.

Miguel, on the other hand, was a Mexican immigrant whose family settled in Fresno, California. He had prepared half his life to get into the navy (I’m not kidding, he was in something like the Navy Junior ROTC when he was in high school, and he was good friends with his recruiter for years before he joined the navy!) He saw the navy as the way to a good career, with good benefits, and retirement by the time he was 40. He wasn’t lifer material, but he did see it as a means to an end, and a way to get ahead.

We were completely opposite kinds of navy people. I was barely able to stay out of trouble at any given time. Most of my department superiors were sure I was using drugs (I wasn’t), mainly because I was from Daytona Beach. I was constantly skirting the uniform rules, and was being told to get a haircut almost everyday. Miguel, on the other hand, was on the fast-track to making petty officer 2nd class after his first year in. Everybody loved Miguel. He was a model sailor. He was career material. I was trouble. I was considered the “bad seed”. But believe me, looking at who most of the people were who considered me “bad seed”, it was really quite a complement. One of the things I hated most about being in the navy was the fact that I was working for and with people who were mostly such that I would not let them in my own front door.

Somehow we had managed to get through the whole cruise without getting into any major trouble. Even though we managed to scam out of morning duty musters alot. We did this so we can spend the night off the ship. It was pretty easy to do in our division. We were always able to cover ourselves. Miguel, who was already a petty officer third class, had authorization to spend nights ashore. I, on the other hand, was only a lowly airman, and was required to be onboard every night. But I never let a stupid rule like that stop me from spending the night ashore, no fricking way.

I especially exploited the rules and my duty schedules to their fullest whenever the ship pulled into Naples, Italy. There was a simple reason for this. I had relatives (everyone on my mother’s side) who lived in Salerno, less than an hour away. One of my aunts, Rosa, would have a bed ready for me whenever the Saratoga was inport in Naples. She’d feed me til I exploded, do my laundry, and pamper me to no end. On top of that, I always had good fun hanging out with my cousins and visiting my other aunts and uncles. It was heaven. Miguel, as my partner in crime, quickly became a de-facto Vaccaro family member. So he loved going there whenever possible.

By the time we got to our fourth or fifth port visit into Naples, Miguel and I had a system down pat to keep each other out of trouble on the ship without either of us needing to check in for any day other than our duty days. It worked out great, because we were always able to get to Salerno and relax, eat, and have fun with my cousins.

During this particular time, the dollar was incredibly strong against the Italian Lira. So Miguel and I had a plan to go on a major shopping spree on our last visit to Salerno before heading back home to the states in September. So with shopping list in hand, we hit all the best stores in Salerno and updated our wardrobes with awesome italian clothes, sweaters, shoes, belts, the works. And the prices were truly insane, even for someone with our meager navy salaries.

Before leaving the ship for that last big shopping spree, both Miguel and I consulted the ship’s Plan of the Day (affectionately called the P.O.D) to see what time liberty expired on our last day in Naples. It clearly said midnight. “Perfect” I told Miguel. “We can shop all that day, spend the evening saying goodbye to all the relatives, and hop an evening train back to Naples with time to spare to make the cut-off.” It was a clean, foolproof plan, I thought.

So after our major shopping spree was over, we took our time saying our goodbyes. I had gotten quite close to my Aunt Rosa, and most of my cousins who were her kids. It had been a wonderful time to get reacquainted with my italian family. Especially considering that I had not been to Italy a good ten years before that summer, when I was quite young.

Many of our cousins accompanied us to the train station to see us off. At that point, the station announced that there was a problem on the tracks, and all trains were suspended until further notice. My cousins scrambled into action, and hired a cab for us to get us back to Naples. We offered to pay for the cab, but they would not hear of it. We left Salerno about 8 pm, and were due to get into Naples well before 9pm. “Plenty of time”, both Miguel and I thought to ourselves and each other.

The taxi got us to the port pretty quickly. In fact we were well ahead of our initially estimated arrival time. If you ever rode a taxi in Italy, you’d understand why. They are not known for being conservative on the road, to put it mildly.

We walked up the port to where the liberty boats were docking to ferry sailors back and forth to the Saratoga, which was anchored in the basin. Only to find… that the liberty launch dock was completely shut down! The Saratoga was still out there in the basin, but apparently we missed the last ferry out to it, and now we were stuck on the dock. Miguel and I both confirmed with each other that the expiration of liberty was midnight. And here it was barely 9pm, and we’re stuck on the dock.

We both started to get a little nervous. Missing ship’s movement, as they call this particular situation, is a HUGE no-no in the navy. And both Miguel and I were about to have it happen to us. We saw a couple of US Navy destroyers tied up at the dock not far from where our liberty launch used to be. We frantically ran over to them and asked them if they can help us get back to the Saratoga. Despite the fact that they had a couple of their own liberty boats in the water patrolling, the duty officer refused to help us. He told us to call Naples Shore Patrol, and they would come get us. We begged and pleaded for them to take us out to the ship, but to no avail. This was bad, and it was just about to get worse.

So while we sat at the dock for about another hour, trying to figure out what to do next. Miguel and I tried to come up with various scenarios that would maybe get us out of the incredible amount of trouble we were in. “What if,” I thought aloud, “we beat the crap out of each other, leave our wallets, money and other possessions with my relatives in Salerno, and call the police and say we were robbed and beat up? They’d buy that wouldn’t they?” How can they not? We would come across as major victims. No money, no way to contact the ship. Getting out of the mugging with barely our lives. Of course it would fly. It would just have to be done right, and our stories would have to be straight. I almost had Miguel sold on the plan. But then his steadfast navy demeanor took over, and he said, “Naw, let’s just call the shore patrol and tell them what happened. Maybe they’ll give us a break”.

For a minute, I thought about just going ahead on the proposed beating of Miguel. I figured once he had a fat lip and a couple of shiners, he’d commit to my idea. Then, he’d be pissed off enough to beat the crap out of me in retaliation, and then all the other parts of the plan would just fall into place. But before I can take my first swing, he was on the pay phone calling Naples shore patrol. Damn… too late.

A chief from the shore patrol unit showed up at the dock about a half hour later to pick us up. He seemed nice enough, but never let up on reminding us that we were both in deep shit. He actually laughed out loud about how much trouble we were in. Not very reassuring, or nice, I thought. At that point, I thought I should just beat the shit out of Miguel anyway. Just because. But then I figured that would just put me in more trouble. Logic set in, I guess, and I backed off.

Once we got to the shore patrol station, we were put in a small waiting area. It would be sometime in the morning before they’d know what to do with us. The chief said there were a couple of cots in an adjoining room we could use to sleep. There was nothing else to do but sleep and ponder our impending doom, so that’s what we did. My nightmares were particularly vivid that night.

The next morning, we were taken to the air terminal at the naval station. Apparently, there was a helo flight out to the Saratoga the next morning, and we were going to be on it. This was kind of exciting in a bittersweet way, as neither Miguel or I had ever been flown onto the ship (which if you haven’t surmised by now, was an aircraft carrier). So there we were at the airport waiting room, waiting to be called.I found myself scanning the rather crowded waiting area.

“Christ!” I wailed to Miguel. That was the second I saw our division senior chief walking around looking for a seat. He was on his way back to the states for a couple of weeks of leave. And lucky for us, he just happened to be sitting a couple of rows away. “He won’t notice us, it’s really crowded”, reasoned Miguel. “Fat chance”, I thought, “he’s going to notice us, then he’s going to go apeshit for us not being back on the boat.” I worked directly for the senior chief in the division office. He’s firm, but fair, but don’t, DO NOT piss him off. That’s when things get ugly with this gruff 6’5″ Alabama redneck that just happened to be our senior chief. Surely, our being there was going to piss him off.

About a half hour later, while we were trying to look inconspicuous and somehow blend into the wallpaper in the corner of the waiting area, a shadow came over us from behind. I could hear the cigarette-addled breathing that was the senior chief’s trademark as he loomed closer.

“So what I wanna know, is what the hell you two morawns are doing here instead of being aboard ship.”

We proceeded to explain to him in a non-self-incriminating way how things went down that forced us to miss the ship. Circumstances and forces beyond our control. We mainly focused on how we thought liberty expired at midnight as the P.O.D said the previous day, hoping that would help us somehow.

“Well, they changed it in the morning to expire at 1800,” he enlightened us.”Had you been at morning muster like you were supposed to, Santos, you would have heard the announcement.” My jaw kinda dropped after he said that.

While I’m sure he was pissed as hell, I think he was too preoccupied with getting home for a couple weeks with his family to give us too much more thought. After we told him that we were on a helo flight out to the Sara, he basically chilled out, and went back to where he was sitting, and didn’t give us too much thought again after that.

About an hour before we were supposed to fly out, Miguel turned to me, and said the smartest thing he’d ever said to me since I’d met him. “I don’t think I’m going to stay in the Navy after my four years run out,” he admitted, “it’s too damn easy to get in trouble.” About the same time, I found myself somewhat glad that I didn’t actually beat the living shit out of him earlier last evening.

We were coralled onto the helicopter, along with a half dozen other people. Most of them were new and transferring personnel, and a couple of officers being sent to the ship for temporary duty. There were, alas, no others who just happened to miss the ship the way we did. So we could take no comfort in us not being the only ones out of 5500+ other people who just happened to miss the boat that day.

Needless to say, when we got to the ship, we could feel the impending doom even more. “You’re dead” our shipmates told us. “You guys are going to burn for this, everybody upstairs is PISSED.” “Oh yay,” I thought.

It was about then that I started thinking that this whole missing the ship thing may really mess up my plans to go on leave after the ship got back to Mayport. I was going to take 2 weeks off so I can drive up to Atlanta and meet up with my then girlfriend, Kathy. She was attending college at Wesleyan, close to Macon. During our separation during the cruise, she came up with the idea that I come up and we go spend a good week in Atlanta after we got back. Maybe a nice romantic bed and breakfast in the suburbs, on a lake. I’d already applied for the leave, and by some miracle, it got approved. So we were both really excited about this time we were going to spend together. I figured that it would be a good way to keep her in the picture for a little while longer, as I thought that a breakup was inevitable at some point in the future.

After we got interrogated to death by both our other senior chief and our division officer, they wrote us up. We were going to be brought up to the commanding officer in this thing called “Captain’s Mast”. This is where the CO comes up with a punishment without the pleasantries of court martial or judicial action. The CO has the authority to bust you down in rank, dock your pay, and worst of all to me, restrict you to the ship for as long as 2 months. He can even send you down to the ship’s brig for up to 30 days if what you do really pisses him off.

Needless to say, we had our liberty privileges revoked for the rest of the cruise. There was only one more stop in Palma de Mallorca, which had become a big favorite for Miguel and me over the past summer. The place was always teeming with hot european girls, great little resort towns along the coast, and the partying was never-ending. Great beaches, great clubs, what more can a single guy ask for? And we were to be denied one last visit before heading back. It was a sign of things to come.

About a day or so after leaving Palma de Mallorca, we were sent to the CO. Our captain was a very humorless guy, totally by the book. I had never met him before that day, and I was really dreading meeting him now at this mast hearing. Miguel was first. He got busted down to Airman, docked half pay for 2 months, and sentenced to 60 days’ restriction. Then, it was my turn. The CO was especially not happy with the fact that I spent the night before we were supposed to leave Naples ashore. He busted me down from Airman to Airman Recruit (that’s like the bottom of the barrel), docked me 2 months’ pay, and of course, I got restriction for 60 days.

The worst part was that we were transiting back to the states, and we would be back in Mayport in about a week. This meant that we’d be stuck on the ship another 45 to 50 days after getting back from a cruise! This was pretty devastating. I sent my girlfriend a letter telling her what happened. I knew that it wasn’t going to go over well. Little did I know that she’d already started dating some frat guy and she was planning on breaking up with me anyway.

Our arrival back to Mayport was hardly a good one for us. My dad knew that I wouldn’t be able get off the boat, but he came over anyway from Daytona to see me. He was able to come aboard, and it was so nice to see him again. But it was really tough for me to not be able to get off with him and go have a beer somewhere.

The ship’s personnel was pretty much stood down, and we had a skeleton crew onboard those first few weeks back in Mayport. All the aircraft was gone, and the flight deck and hangar deck were totally empty and agape. There were many days where it seemed like Miguel and I were the only ones onboard. It sucked. We had to show up at our admin office every 6 hours until 11pm to sign in for our restriction. It was horrible and humiliating. To see everybody else coming and going as they pleased, going home to their wives or girlfriends, UGGH!

We decided that we would try to pass the time by playing games. We’d play cards, kick around a soccer ball in the hangar deck, and play frisbee. We particularly got addicted to playing frisbee for hours on end every day after work. It became a great, athletic way to pass the time. That was until I did a bad boomerang throw, and the frisbee ended up flying out of the hangar bay door, right into the water. No more frisbee.

After 45 or so painful and dreadfully monotonous days, we were finally free to leave the ship. Both Miguel and I managed to get leave lined up right after our restriction ran out so we can get out of dodge for awhile. Miguel was going to go to Fresno for his leave, and I was going to go to Daytona.

Since our department loved Miguel so much, they got him back his original rank of petty officer third class after the restriction ran out. I, on the other hand was left to rot at Airman Recruit. It would take me another 9 months or so to get back to my original rank of Airman, and another year after that to make my ultimate rank of petty officer third class.

Going through that whole ordeal ultimately inspired me to just find other ways to reap revenge on the navy, and my superiors in general. For the next three or so years, I made it my mission to find as many creative ways to get away with relative murder, right under my superior’s noses. And boy, did I ever. But those are other stories. Sure, there were a couple of times where I almost got caught, but I had gotten quite good. Really good. I was always a step or two ahead, and able to cover my tracks with plausible evidence or false paper trails. It became an art form for me. Looking back, all my shenanigans were probably the only thing that kept me sane for the next 3 or so years I was going to be onboard the Saratoga. I took a strange satisfaction in knowing how much smarter and slicker I was than most my superiors.

Miguel kept his nose clean, played the game, and remained the model sailor. But in the end, he stuck to the proclamation he made back in Naples. That he would not re-enlist when his time was up. He walked away from the navy after his first four years, never looking back.

I still think my “beat the shit out of each other” plan would have worked, though.