The following is the prologue for a novel about the fictionalized adventures of a real-life Coast Guardsman, who is a lookout on one of the first Coast Guard cutters assigned to drug interdiction duty in the Caribbean in the late 1970s.
PROLOGUE: THE NAME OF THE GAME (March, 1978)
“The best part of a voyage is the last part.”
– Richard Henry Dana, “Two Years Before the Mast”
“–that packet of assorted miseries which we call a ship.”
– Rudyard Kipling
“IT’S OFFICIAL: 4 MILLION PEOPLE READ HIGH TIMES!”
– advertisement in High Times, November 1978
Let’s pretend for a moment that we are the guest of Father Neptune, and that He has temporarily endowed us with telescopic vision and superhuman hearing and a particle of His Wisdom.
Let’s pretend, furthermore, on this particular day that we, along with the rest of His nautical guests, are hovering about the Caribbean where, we have been told, an unusual Maritime Game is about to get underway.
Below us, on the gilded waters of an early spring Antillean afternoon, just over the horizon and out of sight of each other, lie two white vessels, one about a quarter the size, and a third the speed of the other, converging northerly courses. At this distance the smaller vessel resembled a tuna. The larger one reminds at least one of our company of a shark.
The time is recent. The winds are westerlies, 5 to 10 miles an hour. Visibility at sea level is perfect.
Our headsets are beginning to crackle. Time to listen:
“I think I have a contact, sir.”
“NOW, SET THE BOARDING BILL, PHASE ONE.”
Time to look at the smaller vessel.
Okay, let’s check off the vital statistics first:
Length overall: approx. 60-70 feet.
Displacement: approx. 40-50 tons.
Cruising speed: 9 knots.
Lettering on pilothouse: LEMAR III, MCBO, VEN.
General type of vessel: Caribbean intracoastal freighter.
Place of construction: Uncertain.
Date of commissioning: Don’t ask–
We peer closer.
Aboard the Lemar III, nine variously swarthy passengers and crew are arrayed atop the deck in various postures of work and recreation. One of the crew, a black man bearing a resemblance to Mean Joe Greene, is polishing the blade of his state-of-the-art machete. Another, a Freddie Prinze look-alike, is listening to what sounds like the greatest hits of Bob Marley’s back-up marimba trio on the ship’s tape player.
Yet another of these men o’ war, a thin Hispanic-Indian looking person affecting a Maybelline moustache and a Panama hat, has just come up from the cargohold. He seems to be stoned.
Everyone else aboard the Lemar III seems to be either asleep or stoned.
In short, morale is good.
Meanwhile, up in the pilothouse, a very young, determined-looking man with a Fu Manchu moustache and laugh-lined, butter rum-colored cheeks is casually scanning the horizon with a second-hand pair of 20×7 Bausch & Lomb binoculars. Although he will later deny it under questioning, this handsome, self-possessed hombre is in fact the master of this innocuous vessel. His name is Guillermo. He is very smart.
Near Guillermo, on the other side of the wheel, lies a large chart of the islands and waters of the northern Caribbean on which a course is marked, running from Baranquilla, Columbia through the Windward Passage to Miami.
Another glance at the Lemar from a distance shows that the boat is lying low in the water.
Obviously, it is loaded to the gunwales.
And it is loaded with marijuana.
“Now set the boarding bill, phase one.”
“All ahead, one third.”
The Gulf stream runs slow and sure.
The sun looks like an orange klieg light.
The tropical air suddenly feels hot and still.
Time to check out the shark. We have a little more prior intelligence on this one. WE ought to. She’s one of ours.
Length overall: 210 feet.
Displacement: approx. 1,000 tons.
Maximum speed: approx. 18 knots.
Place of construction: Lorain, Ohio.
Date of commissioning: 1968.
At first glance she looks like a cross between a destroyer escort and Aristotle Onassis’s Mediterranean yacht.
Her name, for the benefit of those who may not recognize the lettering on her bow — “USCGC 623″ — is the United States Coast Guard Cutter. Fidelity, also known as the Fid, also known — and feared — as “El Tiburon Blanco,” the White Shark, also known, sotto voce, as Smuggling Academy 623.
Her equipment includes two 26-foot monomoy motor surf boats, a three-inch cannon, several .50 mm machine gun mounts, several strongboxes full of 12 gauge shotguns, .45 issue automatics, and an HW-52a helicopter.
She carries a complement of 7 officers and 54 enlisted men. Her Captain’s name is Douglas Corliss.
In wartime the Steadfast’s mission would consist of chasing and helping to eliminate Soviet submarines. Today, however, its mission consists primarily of tracking down, boarding and seizing drug-laden “mules,” much like the Lemar. The 18 green bars (or “hashmarks”) carefully painted on the Fidelity’s mast, each standing for a certified “kill” or seizure suggest that she has not been unsuccessful.
Let’s go in for a closer look.
A quick cross-sectional sweep of the Fidelity indicates that in the engine room, Machinery Technician Herbie is checking the oil levels and muttering to himself; in the racks Seaman Greg Maller is reading a recent issue of High Times magazine; and in the mess deck, a food fight has just broken out amongst various of the friskier deckhands and petty officers. Meanwhile, up in his scrimshaw-lined skateroom, Commander Corlass is busy revising his special operations list, trying to decide who can be trusted to lead the Fid’s next boarding party, of which there are approximately 10 to 15 a day. Inside the three-story pilothouse in the red-lit radar room, one Prentiss Coyle and one Tom Ladd are debating whether or not the blip that has just shown up on the green scope is, in fact, an island or a boat.
Finally, up on the flying bridge, our inquiring eyes come to rest on the foretopman for this afternoon’s watch who, like his as yet unseen adversary aboard the Lemar III, is also eying the horizon through with a pair of U.S. Government issue binoculars.
The Sailor in question is wearing a baseball cap, a Chambray blue shirt and Keds. There is a pack of Camels tucked into his shirt pocket form which he occasionally grabs a quick one. He is approximately 5″4′, weighs 125 pounds, and, like many of the men on board, he has not shaven today nor did he yesterday. Also like many of the men on board, he is not smiling.
The name of the sailor in question is James P. O’Rourke. Rank: Seaman. Date of commissioning: July 19, 1953. Place of commissioning: Brooklyn, New York.
Rourke’s hobbies, our scorecard shows, include punk rock gondola serenades to whomever happens to be within earshot — including, as now, several bemused black-tufted gulls — counting the days left on his four year enlistment in the Coast Guard, stares at other crewmen with intense eyes, leading younger crewmates astray with false rumors of contagious diseases, intercepting important intelligence for incorporation into a “smuggler’s handbook” which he is thinking of writing someday. He also collects field samples of Columbian marijuana.
Herron receives his orders for the day from his chief petty officer, who receives his orders from the first lieutenant in charge of the deck division who receives his orders from the lieutenant commander who receives his orders from Commander Corliss, who receives his orders from the admiral in charge of the 7th Coast Guard District Miami who receive their orders from the Commandant of the Coast Guard, in Washington. He receives his orders from the Secretary of Transportation, and occasionally, President Carter himself — who, when he can spare a moment from pressing matters — decides the Executive Branch’s anti-contraband policy with the aid of one Dr. Richard Bourne, soon to be revealed by “The Washington Post” to be in the habit of dispensing quaaudes to needy White House staff with the aid of the President’s stationery; Dr. Bourne, along with several other members of the senior White House staff are also known to be partial to cocaine and marijuana, the very same substances which the officers and men of the U.S.C.G.C. Fidelity are charged with intercepting.
Although Seaman O’Rourke does not possess a mind incompatible with reason or philosophy, he has long since stopped trying to resolve the moral or existential contradictions of his place in the Greater Chain of Command.
Jimmy’s personal and professional philosophy can best be summed up as one part absinthe, one part tequila and one part THC, or live and let live, let’s cop, which he does whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Herron’s favorite drink: rum and cola. However, right now as he fastens himself to the eyepiece of the Big Eyes (the larger pair of binoculars up on the flying bridge), it is probably correct to assume that he is more interested in scoring the case of beer which Commander Corliss has offered for the next lookout sighting of a mule, or “load of squares” as it is known hereabouts — yes, like the Lemar III, which is just now, as we see, becoming visible over the horizon.
Herron’s last major accomplishment, aside from surviving a “hellacious” Cinderella liberty with his shipboard “brothers” in Haiti was sighting and instigating the rescue of two moribund souls stranded on a Caribbean atoll who turned out to be strung out elopers from a drug clinic, which probably explains why the commendation for which he was recommended is still held up in channels. The fact remains that he did save those two men’s lives. Indeed, if Jimmy is not necessarily a credit to the United States Coast Guard, the record shows that he is both a competent and knowledgeable seaman — indeed, having attended the Coast Guard’s specialty schools in both radar and radio, O’Rourke may well be the best-educated seaman in the service, even if he is sometimes one of the hardest to control.
Like most of the men on board the Fid, O’Rourke realizes that he is an unknown soldier in an all but unknown war. But, as he might say, that’s OK.
As we bid adieu to Francis, he is still peering at the horizon through the binoculars, hoping to score that case of beer.
The sun looks like an orange klieg.
The air feels hot and still.
Visibility at sea level is perfect.
In just a moment, both Francis and Guillermo will spy each other in their respective pairs of binoculars. The two vessels will pick up speed. The chase will be on.
In approximately one hour, the Steadfast will pounce on the flaming wreck Lemar III.
In approximately one hour and ten minutes, Guillermo and the rest of the crew and passengers of the Lemar III will be safely aboard Fidelity, en route to Miami.
In approximately one week, they will be flying back to Columbia on a one-way ticket provided by the United States Government, and the game will begin again.
The name of the game is smuggling with a capital $.
“Now set the boarding bill, phase one.”
“Heave to this is a Coast Guard Inspection–”