Swinging With Swabbies In the Gulf of Maine
ON BOARD THE USS Francisco, SOMEWHERE IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC — Well, OK. The ship’s actually bobbing in the mouth of the GSI harbor, and I just rowed a little dinghy out to see what was going on. I don’t think I’m giving away any military secrets by revealing the location of the Francisco.
The ship is named for Peter Francisco, a Revolutionary War hero also known as the “Virginia Giant.” He was 6’6” tall and 260 pounds, and he worked as a blacksmith before the war. Some people say he was the greatest soldier in American history. George Washington said he was directly responsible for victories in two battles, and that the whole war might have been lost without him. During the war, Lafayette asked Washington to order a special sword made for Francisco. It was five feet long.
He was injured several times in the war, but he kept on fighting. He took part in the Brandywine Creek battle, the Battle of Germantown, a battle a Monmouth that left him with a musket-ball hole in his thigh, and others. After the battle of Camden, South Carolina, Francisco saw that the Americans had abandoned an 1,100-pound cannon that was stuck in the mud. According to the stories told about him, he pulled the cannon out of the muck and hauled it out of reach of the enemy.
His successes led to the creation of a monument to him in the National Military Park and the painting of his name on the bow of a big grey boat.
Ship, technically. The USS Francisco is a guided-missile destroyer that once had the capability to kick some other ships’ butts around the oceans. Just a few months ago, though, the Navy decided to take her out of active duty and convert her to a training ship for brand-new sailors. Most of her guns have been removed, and her fancy SPY-ID radar has been replaced with something that couldn’t get a ping off the side of a continent. But she still floats, she can go forward easily and backward with some effort, and her aluminum hull still looks spiffy in its distinctive grey paint. So the Pentagon — no doubt in close consultation with the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor, and the Secretary of Defense — decided to send her up here to see if they could make the Canadians shut up.
As a seasoned foreign correspondent who has been “in country,” as we say, for more than a whole week now, I sensed a story. This is why I came to Grand Seal Island. The threat of war, the hazards of combat duty, the thrill of strategy and gamble. By reporting on the agony and euphoria of battle, interweaving tales of international tension with wild stories from The Village, I was bound to get the attention of the exotic-assignments editor at Rolling Stone. After that, I was sure to find myself sleeping in the back of an armored personnel carrier in Libya or snapping pictures from a Bogotá balcony during a shootout between rival drug mobs — the glorious life of the homeless correspondent. Hemingway didn’t invent journalism, but he did a lot to make it sexy.
I had to get on board that destroyer, so I cooked up a plan and kicked it into action. Basically, it involved asking Cory if I could borrow a dinghy so I could row over to the destroyer, knock menacingly on the hull, and demand to see the Captain. Cory stared into my eyes for a half-hour or so, did one of her smile-free laughs again, and offered the dinghy with a suspicious degree of enthusiasm. I found the little wooden boat alongside one of the docks, climbed in, and shoved off for my first encounter with America’s Fighting Force.
The destroyer, I found out later, is a little over five hundred feet long and fifty-nine feet across at the midsection. Bobbing next to it in my miniscule rowboat, staring up at an infinite wall of spiffy grey aluminum that arched gently overhead and seemed to rise so high that it could knock the Space Station out of orbit, I felt a wee bit daunted. But our democracy thrives on the strength of a robust and free press, so I whacked the side of the ship with my oar.
The oar splintered into chopsticks and left no mark at all on the side of the ship. I let the gentle ocean currents carry the debris away.
“I’m a journalist!” I shouted. “Take me to your Captain at once!”
I don’t think, at any point in my natural life, I’ve ever used the phrase “at once” before. But it seemed like the right tone for the occasion, so I stuck with it.
“Ahoy!” I shouted. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “ahoy,” either.
Nothing. Small waves splashed against the side of the ship as though it were firmly attached to the planet.
“Hey, assholes!” I hollered.
A head appeared over the rail a billion feet above me. The face blinked, said nothing, and disappeared.
“Under the authority granted to me, as a journalist, by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, I demand to see your Captain!” I bellowed.
A long pause. Then a coil of thick rope, coarse and sticky with pine tar, flew over the edge and snaked through the air toward me. I nearly dove overboard to avoid being concussed by it. There was a large loop at the end of the rope, with a note pinned to it: “Loop rope under arms. We’ll pull you up and take you to our Captain as you demand.”
“That’s better,” I muttered to myself. I stuck my head and arms through the loop and shouted that I was ready. The sailors above began to pull on the rope.
Crucifixion is a horrible way to die. With the weight of my body below the loop pulling the rope tight around my safari-vest-covered chest, I found that breathing was suddenly one of my very favorite hobbies. The rope jerked upward about ten feet, paused, and then jerked up again. I pictured a line of sailors on the deck, singing some sea chantey and yelling “heave ho!” as they pulled me up. I had no choice but to let the dinghy bob free in the waves. I decided to worry about it later.
I was about thirty feet in the air when the upward hoisting stopped. I twirled in the fresh sea breeze for a long moment, feeling a lot like a gasping little morsel of bait for some giant falcon. I just hung there. Immobile. I was too far up to drop back down to the ocean; I was certain that I would splatter to death on the water’s surface, or plunge down so far that I would either drown or be eaten by sharks before I could reach the air, or plummet directly into the little wooden dinghy and take both it and my splinter-riddled body straight to the bottom of the sea. I couldn’t climb up, either. The rope was too thick, the loop’s grip was too tight, and any speculation about my rope-climbing prowess had been thoroughly and humiliatingly squashed in eighth-grade gym class. So I just dangled there, sucking in air and trying not to think about the mosquitoes that had just discovered a scrawny bag of arteries hanging helplessly off the side of a big grey ship.
Eventually, after I was certain that I’d never again take another true lungful of air, the rope jerked upward again. I slowly rose higher and higher above the waves, which were now so far below me I thought I could see the coasts of Maine and Iceland simultaneously. Then a bunch of strong hands grabbed me and pulled me over the rail.
The sailors dumped me on the deck and pried the rope from around my ribs. I stood up as steadily as I could under the circumstances, took a deep breath to reintroduce oxygen to my bloodstream and steady my voice, and demanded to see the Captain.
A middle-aged sailor with dark glasses grinned at me. “We heard you the first time,” he said. “Follow me.” The other sailors snickered, shook their heads, and vanished. I could hear loud guffaws not far away.
The sailor led me across to the far side of the ship and along the rail toward the stern. Just before we came to the little metal stairway leading up toward the bridge, we passed a little metal stairway leading down toward the water. At the bottom of it was a small floating platform, where a couple of sailors were busy securing my dinghy.
—Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment—NavyBrat414: Haw! Serves you right.
Comment—George Reynolds: Give ’em hell, Van!
Comment—FreedomFirst: It’s amazing you’re still alive. These guys train constantly and know exactly how and when to obliterate an approaching vessel. You should thank the captain for your life.
Comment—Anaconda6645: That rope must have hurt! I hope you’re OK. If I were you, I’d file a complaint with someone over the way they treated you.
Comment—NavyBrat414: Fat chance. He had it coming. Never—I mean NEVER—hit the side of a Navy warship with anything.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.