Coast Guard
Apprentice seaman, U.S. Coast Guard
The U.S. Coast Guard

Naturally, with my college education, and my fine job on Wall Street, I was invited to take an exam for the Coast Guard Officers’ Training School. My mechanical IQ enabled me to flunk it. I was awarded a job as apprentice seaman, equivalent to buck private in the Army. The Coast Guard base I was stationed at was called Manhattan Beach, located at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y.

Getting up for the opening ceremonies at five a.m. was not a pleasure to a fellow used to getting up at nine a.m. “Hit the deck, Mate,” is not one of my favorite expressions. But I got used to it, by going to bed at nine p.m.

The first day, we were issued clothing—white suits, blue suits, and other stuff. A crowd of us were cramped together on the floor of a large room, and instructed to stencil our names on the clothing. I was given a stencil which spelled Jack Dreyfus, and a large bottle of ink.

The space each of us had was small, little more than a yard in diameter. We went to work. My hand and my brain are not too well connected. I spilled the bottle of ink three times (a record at the time). As you know, ink doesn’t respect boundaries. After the second bottle was spilled there were growls from my neighbors. After the third, I got threats.

We had a contraption called a seabag. It was about four-and-a-half feet long and twelve inches in diameter. You were supposed to roll your clothing up and tie it with pieces of rope so that, when packed, the circular seabag would have a squared appearance. Only a fiend could have thought of this. But that’s not the worst of it. The only entrance to the seabag was from the top. Naturally, you put everything you wanted to be handy near the top. But sometimes you made a mistake. Then you had to empty the whole damned thing—excuse me, I had decided not to cuss on this site—to get the things at the bottom, and then repack the seabag. But perhaps I’ve been unfair. Maybe the seabag was designed by a genius, to keep us occupied.

The Coast Guard felt, with my college education, I would probably be competent to collect garbage. So I was assigned to a garbage truck. I was third in charge, although I had the highest position, on top of the truck. Garbage cans would be handed me by the second in charge, and I would empty them. At night I could tell how good business had been. When I took my clothes off there would be a brown line around my stomach or my chest, depending on the haul. It was while I had this fine position that I learned the difference between garbage and slop. The difference is simple. Slop is slop. Garbage is slop—with coffee grounds added. You can’t have garbage without the aroma of coffee grounds. This information should make you glad you logged on to this site.

Never leaving the base became an awful bore. I would have given anything just to walk through a grocery store. Some of the fellows were beginning to say dumb things, like they wished they could get into the fighting. But one day I got off the base. The three of us had a good load of garbage and were ordered to bring it to the Mineola garbage dump. Not far from Mineola people started waving wildly at us. We thought, “How wonderful.” We’d heard how much people appreciated the uniform, but had never experienced it. The people waved, and we waved back, and felt patriotic. We were enjoying this when a car, with the words Fire Chief on it, pulled alongside. The driver gesticulated for us to stop. We stopped—in the center of Mineola. Then we noticed we had a load of burning garbage. The chief ordered us to dump it, and we did. Firemen came, put out the fire, and shoveled the remains back into our truck, and we took it to the dumps. On the way back to the base nobody waved at us.

Going from garbage to psychology, we all have observed that we don’t like to be caught without knowledge. There’s no use admitting you don’t know something, if you can get away with it. I have noticed this in the medical profession. Dr. Green will say to Dr. Brown, “As you know, Hempleworth and Snodgrass, in 1924, showed that eels have more cholesterol than sardines.” Dr. Brown may never have heard of that paper, but he’s not apt to let on. This is human. I saw it in the Coast Guard.

The canteen, where you bought everything from candy bars to clothing, was oblong and almost the size of a football field. At the entrance there were many telephone booths, so you could make phone calls. Then you went through a door into the canteen. Once you got into the canteen, you were not allowed to go back through that door. One day it was raining hard. I was inside the canteen when I remembered a phone call I’d forgotten to make. I didn’t want to go outside and make that long trip in the rain to get back to the phones. So I tried a maneuver—I don’t know where I got the nerve. I approached the guard at the entrance door and started to go through. He said, “Where do you think you’re going, Mate?” I said, “It’s okay, I’m a furth burner.” He said, “Oh,” and I went through. That was fun. I did it a few times when it wasn’t raining, just to keep my spirits up. One day a guard was at the door who was less ashamed to show his ignorance. When I said, “It’s okay, I’m a furth burner,” he said, “What’s a furth burner?” I said, “Where do you think they get the hydrocarbon in the canteen?” That was different, and I went through.

I had a temporary job teaching a course called “Captain of the Port.” One of the subjects I was supposed to teach was the workings of the Chrysler Pump. I didn’t even know how to plug it in. In class, I read my mates stories from Reader’s Digest. At Manhattan Beach the beds were double-deckers. I had an upper berth. There was a rule that all windows had to be cracked three inches from the top. It didn’t matter if it was forty-five degrees or six degrees above zero. After being in a steady draft of icy air for many nights, I developed back pains. I could sleep for an hour but then I would have to get up and walk around for half an hour, to loosen up my back. This continued for weeks, and I didn’t get much sleep. Also I found, although I could drill all right, standing at attention for more than a few minutes was extremely painful. I reported to the infirmary and they were skeptical. Back pains were high on the list for goldbricks. Fortunately, they took my sedimentation rate. It was fifty-six. Normal is zero to fifteen, I’m told. This confirmed that I did have a problem, and I was sent to the hospital at Sheepshead Bay.

My doctor was the most handsome man I’d ever seen, straight as a ramrod, six foot two, and a fine face. You would never guess what his name was. It was Twaddle. It was Dr. Twaddle who awarded me malaria (a mild case). There was a theory that the fever from malaria might cure my back. It didn’t, but I can tell you about malaria. You start with a chill. I mean really a chill. You’re so cold your teeth chatter, and the whole bed shakes. You are happy when the fever comes. Even a 104-degree fever is better than the chills. After a couple of months, I was released from the hospital and found myself in what was called Convalescent Camp. In Convalescent Camp there isn’t much to do but convalesce. To help me convalesce, I was given a long stick with a nail in the end of it. With this equipment I was supposed to pick up cigarette butts. I did this for a few days, but business was poor. I had a feeling that we could win the war without me and my stick.

There were some huge rocks, on an incline, that protected us from the bay. I climbed down them one day and made a wonderful discovery. There was a cave, just the right size for me. I spent February and March in that cave, accompanied by a book from the library, and a couple of candy bars from the canteen. When the sun was out, even if it was ten degrees above zero, I could take off all my clothes and get a suntan. I remember one day an ensign said to me, “What the hell’s going on here, Dreyfus, you got a sun lamp on the base?”

Well, all good things have to come to an end. Because of my back, I was given a medical discharge. We won the war anyway.

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