I'm a Navy Veteran (Hospital Corpsman), Registered Nurse, and Author. Here, you'll find book reviews, short stories, shared adventures from my time in the Navy, and news about my current and upcoming book releases. Visit www.roycesears.com to learn more.
I found myself standing at the rear of a small boat with the lights of my ship, the USS
MISSISSIPPI, ahead of us on the dark harbor. Beside me stood my division officer—we’ll call him Ensign Longfellow.
“Sears, aren’t you out past curfew?” Ensign Longfellow asked. I glanced at my watch and noted the time as 01:22 AM. He was right. The Captain’s rules for this port visit were for E3 and below to back aboard ship by midnight. I remember the panic settling on me at that moment, but we’ll get to that later.
These are my first coherent memories of our first night of liberty in Naples, Italy. Now I’m guessing, you, my dear reader, are probably curious about the events leading up to just how I found myself out after curfew and standing beside my division officer at the rear of the liberty launch. I am too, but I will try to give an accurate accounting—to the best of my ability.
The ‘Ole’ Miss ‘(CGN-40), having departed Norfolk in late February or early March, (I honestly don’t remember what day we left port) was back in the Mediterranean Sea—as was I. I don’t remember exactly how long we had been underway, but I think it was close to two months. The days had long-ago blended into a mind-numbing haze of endless monotony—Stand watch, paint, sweep, clean, and stand watch some more. I, like my shipmates, found the endless tedium of maintaining the underway schedule for that long wearisome.
Naples, Italy would become our first port of call, and we found ourselves in dire need of it by the time we dropped anchor outside of Naples. After me and my cohorts in Deck Division finished the required painting—a task that must be completed prior to liberty call—we showered and rushed toward the liberty boat. Finally…at long last…liberty—a chance to get off the ship and relax.
I remember the wind in my face, and the salt spray kicking off the murky, bacteria-laden waters of the Naples harbor. Yes, it may have been some of the foulest water in the world, but we were on liberty. It didn’t matter. Most of us in Deck Division were young—I was only nineteen years old at the time—and we had two things on our mind…alcohol…and female companionship. In Italy, alcohol is the easiest of those to find. And find it we did.
We had acquired the first of our priorities, in vast quantities, within an hour of our arrival. At only five in the evening, we found our first bar and the drinking commenced in earnest. Three ‘jack and cokes’ later, I was feeling pleasantly happy and carefree. At the tender age of nineteen, I was not as accustomed to drinking as my other cohorts, though I continued to match them drink-for-drink. Time started to slip away from me and I vaguely remember leaving the first bar, stumbling down the narrow Italian street to the next bar, and continuing the festivities. At some point, I don’t know exactly when, we stumbled upon the second of our priorities in the form of an Italian brothel. I honestly don’t know what happened there due to the alcohol induced haze, but I’m told we had a fantastic time.(Though I have often wondered if anyone else on our little expedition remembered any more than I did.)
I’m not especially proud of how that evening turned out since I can’t remember much of it, but I have, in hindsight, chalked it up to the stresses of our involvement in the Bosnian Conflict and the length of time spent at heightened readiness while on station in the Adriatic Sea. Combine those stresses with our youthful exuberance and you have a recipe for disaster.
The rest of the evening is lost to the sands of time (and molecules of ethanol) and this is where I found myself standing at the back of the liberty launch beside my division officer. (Yes, it took a while to get back here, and thank you for following my rambling thoughts…)
“Sears, aren’t you out past curfew?” Ensign Longfellow asked. I glanced at my watch and noted the time as 01:22 AM.
“Yes, sir,” I stammered, fearful I was about to discover what it’s like to go to Captain’s Mast. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Captain’s Mast, it’s non-judicial punishment. What’s that? Well, it means the Captain can take away up to half of your paycheck for three months and restrict you to the ship for up to three months. I thought I was up the proverbial creek without a paddle, that is until I noticed that Ensign Longfellow was in civvies. His eyes were red, and he was slurring his words almost as much as I was. I got creative.
“I lost track of time,” I said, “but since I’m here with you, you could sign me in so I won’t be ‘officially’ late.”
Ensign Longfellow smiled awkwardly. I think he understood…I hoped he understood. I soon found myself talking and joking with Ensign Longfellow, and a few other junior officers, as we bounced on the waves of the liberty boat and made our way back to the ship. Upon arriving at the accommodation ladder, extending down the aft-starboard side of the ship to a barge, Longfellow clapped me on the shoulder, “Come on, Sears, let’s get you signed in so you’re not late.”
I can’t even begin to relate how much stress fell off my shoulders in that moment.
We made our way to the quarterdeck, only to find a line of folks waiting to sign back into the log book—the official record of when we signed back in from liberty. Ensign Longfellow took one look at the long line of sailors and swore, “Dammit, I don’t wanna' wait in this line.”
“But sir, if you don’t sign me in, I’m going to be in trouble,” I responded. “You could always exercise your powers as an Ensign and skip the line, sir…”
Now, for those of you who know anything about Navy rank structure, an Ensign is the lowest officer rank possible. Ensign Longfellow was new to the ship, an English Major from New York—if I remember correctly. He had no ‘powers of an Ensign,’ but it sounded good to him I guess.
“Good idea, Sears,” he said with a wry grin.
He stepped out of line and skipped everybody. The older enlisted men watched as this Ensign, younger and more inexperienced than all of them, took up his new position at the head of the line and stepped up to the liberty log. At this point Ensign Longfellow realized that he needed someone to sign him in—a liberty buddy as it was known. Much to my surprise, he turned, staggered and nearly fell as he called out my name. “Sears! Get up here and sign me in.”
I skipped to the head of the line. An E-2 at this point, having been in the Navy less than a year—and I skipped ahead of all these other men who had been in MUCH longer than me. It was a travesty noticed by many, I assure you. I signed Ensign Longfellow in and made sure he initialed next to my name, and signed it with his official rank—just to make sure I didn’t end up at Captain’s Mast the next day. He punched me on the shoulder, “Thanks, buddy,” he slurred, “go get some rack-time and I’ll see you at quarters in the morning.”
I did as instructed, still hoping I had managed to avoid the shitstorm of trouble I might have been in. Quarters came and went the next day, just as they did every day, and not a word was said about the incident—not even from those who we had skipped in line.
Ensign Longfellow caught up with me in the passageway a few days later. “Sears,“ he said with a stern look, “I got into a little bit of trouble for the other night, but I made sure you weren’t implicated in it.”
“Thank you,” I said and left it at that.
Yes, that's me...Circa 1994
We were both young, and still wet behind the ears. We were learning what it was to be US Navy sailors. From that time on though, Ensign Longfellow and I, and indeed the rest of my division’s leadership, got along great. I went on to become a leader in the maintenance department of our division with a crew of guys working with me to ensure the Preventative Maintenance was done properly and timely. I had fun, learned much, and developed friendships—and memories—that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.