Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Of Caribops and Roosey Roads...

In my early years in the Navy, I spent much time posted to ships. Every winter, we would eagerly await the arrival of the winter exercises Opsked (Operational Schedule) from Marcom (Maritime Command) Headquarters in Halifax. These orders would task various Canadian destroyers and submarines with deployment down to the Caribbean waters, in order to conduct joint exercises with our NATO counterparts, normally American and British naval units. This yearly deployment was referred to as Caribbean Operations or Caribops, for short.

Our port visits for such deployments could range between any of the hundreds of desirable ports down South. Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, the US Virgin Islands, Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, St.Vincent and The Grenadines, Venezuela, Antigua and Barbuda, St.Kitts... the list was endless. Ships would deploy in mid-February and return in mid-April. In Puerto Rico, there were two possible destinations, though one of them, a stopover at the US Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, was always assured. Roosevelt Roads also possessed an airfield on the base, where American carrier aircraft squadrons are often stationed. All the matelots referred to this USNS as simply: "Roosey Roads".

The second port visit possible there, was San Juan. I fell in love with Puerto Rico. 'La Isla del Encanto', or The Island of Enchantment, as they call it. I'm still unsure if it's because it was there that I experienced my very first romp on a hot, sunny beach in mid-winter, or simply because of the land and the people themselves. Either way, to this very day I feel a melancholic tug at my heart, whenever I hear that country's name.

I will always remember my very first port visit to Roosey Roads. I loved the 'tropical routine the ship adopted when down South. Wakey-wakey was piped at 0600hrs. We were required to turn to (commence working) at 0700hrs. Mainly, we would busy ourselves with scraping, priming and painting the ships exterior. It was dirty, dusty and hot work. We would stop for a break at 1000hrs, when we would enjoy some burgers and drinks. We would secure for the day at 1300hrs, as it was just too hot to continue working beyond that. For those of us who weren't duty that day, we had the remainder of the day off, to hit the beaches or do whatever we wanted. It was like heaven.

At the end of every working day, after secure is piped throughout the ship, the ship's company must provide a Duty Watch. These are personnel who must remain on duty aboard the ship, until the next day. These pre-assigned personnel provide for the daily functioning of the ship after working hours, as well as providing for her safety and security requirements. When in foreign ports, the ship must also provide it's own shore patrol force. These personnel are responsible for ensuring the deportment of ship's personnel while ashore. They are basically the ship's police force ashore.

My first duty watch in Roosey Roads, I was assigned to the Shore Patrol detail. My only knowledge of shore patrol, was what I had seen in old movies from the '30s and '40s. There were several foreign units in port at that time... An Australian supply ship, the British Leander Class destroyer HMS Tartar (the Rat-Rat, as we called her...), 3 Canadian units (MHCS Fraser, HMCS Saguenay and HMCS Onondaga), at least 2 American destroyers and of course the very large number of resident service personnel, which included elements of the Navy Sea-Bees, Marines, Rangers, Seals, US Air Force personnel and innumerable support trades. Prior to our being deployed, we rendez-voused with the base shore patrol personnel, for our formal security briefing. These lads were the true pros. They were big, and mean and dressed in army OD green fatigues. Their only distinguishing mark was the SP armband and a silver "S.P" badge on their covers (cap). They wielded well-used, lead-core nightsticks, about 3 feet long, which actually had what looked like teeth marks on them. These lads didn't mess about...

We were told first and foremost, not to be heroes. Our American counterparts whom we were paired with, carried a shore patrol armband, a truncheon and a US issued Colt .45 Model 1911 on their hip. Us Canadians? We had a SP armband and our charming sense of wit. No truncheon, no sidearm... Talk about feeling under-prepared. Still, we had been advised that if we encountered a "situation", to simply call the specific number we had been given. We were assured that no matter where we were on base, they would respond within 2 minutes.

I was paired with an American matelot of Hawaiian origin. He was short, mellow and funny. He asked me what the deal was on me not being issued a weapon. I was slightly embarrassed about this and I replied our superiors relied on our innate sense of humour and diplomatic skills to defuse any potential situation. Then I reminded him of how long our troops spent in Cyprus and added: "So you can see how well that fuckin' works...". We hit it off from that point on. There were a couple of drinking spots on base, where servicemen and women got together to blow off steam. There was the O.B.A. (or Old Bowling Alley), the Acey Ducey Club (the Petty Officer's and Warrant Officer's club) and the All Ranks Club. The Officers' Club was off limits to the rank and file.

It was a Friday night, as I recall, and the evening air was balmy and full of those fragrances which can only be experienced in a tropical location. My partner and I had been dropped off not far from the All Ranks Club. As we walked slowly along chatting about life in the service, we could smell the unmistakable aroma of 'ganja', floating on the night air. I looked at him and asked him if we were supposed to get involved with that kind of stuff. "Hell, no...", he replied. "We're just here to make sure no fights break out or anything like that. The good maintenance of order and discipline and such...", he smiled.

We made our way to the All Ranks Club. We had been briefed beforehand never to accept a drink (non-alcoholic) if offered one, unless it was specifically from the bar staff. Apparently some folks had been slipping drugs into drinks and offering them to members of the Shore Patrol, as a means of cheap entertainment. We parked ourselves at the entrance and surveyed our domain. The place was packed and the music was thumping. It would be impossible to guess how many patrons were inside at the time, but I would have been willing to wager that they were in the hundreds. And all in varying states of sobriety.

Across the dance floor, I observed one rather large and obviously intoxicated individual, drink in hand, making his terminal approach on a long table of patrons, close to our position. Upon reflection, it was somewhat like following the wake of a torpedo, just waiting for the explosion at the other end of it all. This lad had apparently taken a fancy to this young blonde lass, who was sitting amidst several American servicemen. I could tell by their haircuts, that they were either gung-ho jarheads (Marines) or Rangers. Either way, people who could spell doom for this incoming Romeo. As we later discovered, the blonde in question, was the Base Comander's daughter. That would explain the entourage.

As he comes to a weaving halt, Mr. "Hi-I'm-Totally-Wasted" says to the young lady, in a very broad Australian accent: "'Allo, Sheila... ya fancy a dance wiff a REAL man...?" She looks up at him from her seat as one might do when inspecting a piece of dog turd that has suddenly materialized on your shoe. "No thanks...", she replies. Our drunken Lothario comes back with: "Fuggin' dyke!" and throws his drink on her... His mates across the way had been observing his progress and sensing the worse, began to make a beeline for the table.

Now I don't have to tell anyone that if you did this anywhere in the world, back in the day, the results would be swift and dire. To do this in the midst of many, many testosterone-filled, unit proud and alcohol-powered military personnel, was just about tantamount to suicide... While the dishonored young lady sat there dripping, her mouth agape, the table in front of us exploded as every man there sprang to their feet, drinks spilling to the floor, glasses shattering. The closest jarhead cold-cocked the Aussie with a swift and punishing left hook. You could hear the 'connect' clear across the room, which of course drew the attention of everyone else, as to what was going down. It didn't take but a few seconds for the first retaliatory chair to come sailing into the fracas and from that point, it was pretty much on.

Just as in those old Hollywood movies featuring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra on shore leave as young sailors, there were fists, bodies, tables and chairs flying Hell West and crooked. My partner and I simply looked at each other and smiled. There was no way in Hell that WE were going to attempt to break this stuff up. Besides, I had yet to see any of our Canadian lads become involved in this. My partner asked the bartender for the phone and dialed the magic number. True to their word, in less than two minutes, the lead SP jeep came roaring up to the front of the All Ranks Club, accompanied by two "deuce-and-a-half" trucks, loaded to the gunwales with Shore Patrol troops.

The lead officer entered the front doors and fired two rounds from a riot shotgun into the deckhead, as the phalanx of Shore Patrol troops fanned out to either side of him, wading into the crowd and swinging those lead-core nightsticks indiscriminately. My partner and I simply stood by and enjoyed the show. I know for a fact there must have been a good many very sore military folks the next morning. The remainder of my watch was mercifully quiet and I often reflect on that one evening. It was one of those singular events that will not only be stuck in my mind's eye for evermore, but one which made the anals of military legends, for those who were there that day. "Remember the '77 riot at the All Rank's Club in Roosey...?", is all you have to say...

I have stood shore patrol in many other foreign ports since that day, but nothing has ever happened since, that could compare in any significant way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To what ship were you assigned during the '77 Riots at Roosey Roads?