The Right Way, the Wrong Way and…

I had two bosses in an operating room I worked in. Sophia had a poster on her office wall of a turtle reminding you that the turtle only made progress when it stuck its neck out. On the other hand, Betty had a little cubby hole office with a poster of two vultures sitting on a tree in the desert. One bird looks at the other and states, ” Wait for something to die? Hell, I’m going to go kill something!”

The posters neatly summed up the two supervisors’ attitudes and offered hints about managing complaints, issues, and problems within the department. Even the chief of anesthesia walked carefully around Betty, preferring to deal, if possible, with Sophia. I, of course, mostly worked with Betty.

Betty was a coastal brat from Maine and knew I could tell the difference between literal and littoral, being another coastal brat from a Merchant Marine family. She was also a former Navy nurse, and being I was former Navy, we worked OK as a pair. I put on my best petty officer routine for her, did things the “Navy Way,” and life was easy.

Now, please understand no recruiter would ever seek me out to re-up. I was not the regular Navy type. But I could play-act it during work hours to get through the day. Just as long as I wasn’t going home in uniform, eating on the mess decks, or deploying for six months. I was OK.

A few other folks in the OR got querulous of me and accused me of sucking up. I just offered to show them how to run a buffer, properly swab with a mop, wear dress blues with panache, and act serious while receiving a series of ludicrous commands from a snotty ensign. Now, mind you, it was the last that got me in trouble while enlisted. I had difficulty keeping a straight face.

My colleagues in the OR were not amused.

I guess everything could have gone on as they were, but the day came when things started changing. It was a long case, and my back ached. Now stretching to arch your back while holding retractors in a patient’s abdomen must be done carefully, but Betty gave me a soft massage to help with the tension. After the case, she came over and helped me remove my gown, and I could have sworn that her hands lingered a bit on my neck.

Walking into the lounge, I noticed snickers, grins, and laughter hidden behind hands. My friend Marilyn asked with a grin if Betty’s backrub had been up to Navy standards. A few people cracked up at this. Later over a few beers, my friends told me that there had been a betting pool to see when Betty made her move. She’d mentioned to Sophia that I was “cute and respectful.” Being cute and respectful might make it for Betty, but I was not interested in snap inspections or early lights out with a former Navy Luitenant Commander as a girlfriend. 

Over the next couple of weeks, it became clear my friends had the right of it. Betty had me in mind for the position of Mr. Betty. There was no circumspect way to get around it. When frustrated, she had a volcanic temperament, and I had set up the entire situation by giving her what she wanted the way she wanted it. Betty was talented, brilliant, beautiful, and totally willful. The first three traits were very tempting in a mate, but the last was scary. My over-active imagination could envision the sorts of Navy-style “non-judicial punishment” she might dish out if I incurred her wrath. I wasn’t that type of guy.

Ultimately, I handled it like a true sailor; I jumped ship. I found another job, gave my notice quietly to Sophia, and slipped my moorings one afternoon.

From a distance, I kept tabs on Betty. She married another former Navy guy, a retired chief petty officer who worked in hospital administration. She had kids, moved to the Tidewater area of Virginia near a Naval base, and seemed to live a happily Regular Navy-style life ever after.

To those who might think I missed out on the love of my life, I’d like to share a bit of Naval wisdom with you. Regarding life in the Navy, we used to say there was “The right way, the wrong way, and then there was the Navy Way.”

I’ve said my piece.

Wild, maybe improbable

One could refer to parts of my life as hapless excursions into absurdity:

  • I lived in an apartment on Boston’s Beacon Hill with a group of Boston College dropouts for whom weird and inexplicable comedy acts were standard; 
  • I wandered about as a road bum in the 1960s, gathering experiences and tales;
  • I lived with a psychotic cat who liked chili, hot peppers, and filet mignon;
  • Then there was my time sailing with a retired master mariner whose opinion of the Caine Mutiny, or the Mutiny on the Bounty, was that they destroyed the careers of honorable captains. Crew members should be docile, obedient, and prompt in obeying all commands.

Eventually, stories became the medium that I used to tell this history to friends, family, and anyone interested in listening. That was because several English professors persuaded me that stories were how we made sense of the otherwise unexplainable. It didn’t matter that it was a personal tragedy, an amusing anecdote, or the story of the gods. I realized I needed to make sense of much inexplicable and absurd in my life, and telling these things to others in the form of a story was how I could do it.

Being a sailor, the son of a sailor, and the descendant of long lines of sailors stretching into the vanishing horizon at sea, it was natural that I use the sea story medium.

What’s a sea story? Well, for the uninitiated, let’s explain it this way. You know how a fairy tale starts with “once upon a time?” And then ends with some folderol about living happily ever after? Right! Now a sea story advises you that ” this is no shit.” You then get led on a wild tale that stretches your credibility and belief in reality but is amusing and credible enough that it might have happened ( in another universe). The teller then assures you that he heard it from a buddy who either saw it himself or got it from someone who was there. The sea story avoids lying to you about how it all ends happily ever after. Sea stories acknowledge the perversity of the universe by hinting at things going on behind the scenes that we don’t understand and can’t control. But in a sea story, a canny sailor can and does take advantage of the twists of fate to come out ahead.

So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. See you at the Blue Anchor later on.

Once upon a time in the Navy

Daily writing prompt
What makes you nervous?

Fights always make me nervous, scare me and make me almost ill. I was taught and trained to avoid them, and if not able to avoid them, end them.

Being graceful in your interactions with oafs shows that you have character. This advice was from my mother.
Various ministers also lectured on turning the other cheek and the many virtues of peace.
Later on, my senseis in martial arts reinforced this; dignity and respect for others were the marks of a real martial artist. Courtesy and kindness deflected many conflicts. Students of their dojo were not to swagger about and provoke conflict.
Then there was my father, the former Marine and Merchant Mariner engineer, ” Louis, don’t start a fight. Just be prepared to finish one if you must.”

So there I was, standing in the Blue Anchor with my arm around this heavenly young woman I’d been dancing with. Four fast dances left us elated and slightly out of breath. Then in walks the boyfriend. Sweet Jody, the young woman, runs over to him, kisses him, and clutches him possessively. Seeing how things are developing, I try very hard to make myself small, inconspicuous, and unnoticeable. Walking slowly back to the table where my buddies are waiting, I hope the boyfriend is not an oaf and interested in starting a fight. I have my apologies ready for the ordeal.

Sure enough, he comes sauntering up to me as I approach the table and makes the error of grabbing my shoulder. I turn, brushing the hand off. I told him I had not known the young lady had a boyfriend. From the look on his face, I see that he really didn’t care; he just wanted to have a bit of fun with me. Past him, over his shoulder, I see Jody with an expectant look on her face. I should head for the exit, except that never happens because Oaf-boy has already started to swing a roundhouse punch at my face. Never use one of those theatrical roundhouses on a martial artist. I grabbed him in a wrist lock, twisted his arm so the elbow pointed upward, and levered him to the ground. His arm was mine to snap if I so wished. I now shifted my grip so I could twist his pinky finger. The pain from this is sublime. I whispered that one form of this hold allowed me to dislocate his shoulder and snap his neck. But if he apologized nicely, I’d let him lick my boot. He groaned.
Several of his friends had entered the bar at that point, but seeing the four Marines I had been drinking with, decided that oaf-boy was on his own. My Marine buddies were howling with laughter; docs aren’t generally known for fighting skills.
I pushed Oaf-boy away and went to my table. The bouncer was already on his way over, so my friends were preparing to leave. None of us wanted to be taken in by the Shore Patrol.

On the way out, I saw Jody throwing me a kiss; I looked away. I pitied her boyfriend.


Twilight is not just a simple fading of the light. If you’re a sailor, there is civil twilight and nautical twilight. Then some sit, gin and tonic in hand, waiting to see the green flash as the rapid tropical sunset fades into the short tropical twilight. All these, except for that elusive green flash, can be gauged and timed. But, so far as I know, no attempt has succeeded in predicting the green flash.

The flash is debated. After exhausting that topic, a few more Pusser rums are consumed. Then the group discusses other maritime mysteries, like how the ship’s cooks can ruin perfectly good chow. Interestingly, the vessel size seems immaterial; everything from a thirty-four-foot ketch to a colossal tanker suffers the same fate.

After this, things settle down, and as the evening rolls on, other mysteries are divulged, discussed, and interpreted– the best bars in ports they’ve visited, the worst storms, women, and how much they miss the Loran-C navigational system. This last start a debate among the master mariners in the group about who can still use a sextant for a noon sight.

When midnight comes, and the Mid-watch is about to commence, the topic turns to nautical versus civil sunrise.
It’s terrific being a sailor…there is always something to bull shit about.

bad coffee

What do you complain about the most?

Griping about things is part of being a sailor. I discovered this from my father, a Merchant Marine engineer, and had it confirmed while in the Navy. Griping as an art form was re-affirmed to me while working in the marine trades as a carver and catch as can boatyard worker.
Griping is not necessarily pejorative of other people. We don’t just complain about the bosun, the carpenter, the skipper, or the boat owner. We complain about the food, weather, and workloads. But, of course, a cherished area of complaint is coffee. We can complain about coffee until the third pot of the day is downed, and the thought of another cup will make us bilious.

OK, I’ll say it – take any random sampling of castaway sailors on a desert island with nothing to eat but coconuts, and their biggest complaint will be the lack of coffee. When they get tired of griping about no coffee, they’ll move on to the lousy coffee they’ve had. After exhausting that, they’ll move on to bad chow, the rotten bunks they had to sleep in, the worst liberty ports they visited, and then the miseries of being at sea in heavy weather.
Regardless of political orientation, they’ll rage on all evening about this stuff until they are exhausted and sleep. Then, the lack of coffee will start the day rolling in the morning.

I hate to side with the officer class, having worked for a living myself, but the continual griping is why it’s crucial to keep sailors of any sort busy. Let them sit around and get bored, and the complaints start.
Maybe that is the reason for all the rotten coffee? Give the apes something to gripe about that’s safe.
Rats! I make my own coffee. It’s unfair that I can only complain to myself.

The Shell Game

A Flashback Friday Presentation

“luck is what you stumble upon in life. Providence is what God plans for you, and planning is how you thread your way between the two without getting crushed.” 

The speaker of these words was the rather infamous first-class petty officer John O’Toole. Destined never to become a chief, he was swimming towards retirement. Along the way, he offered bits of sage advice to drifty shit misfits in uniform like me. After the second pitcher of beer at the bar, he’d offer tips on all and sundry items of life aboard a ship. Everything that is except how he ran his racket as a ship’s bootlegger. Onboard, it was John who, according to legend, had three barrels from which he rendered scotch, bourbon, and rye. The ship was built in the Second World War but still served through the sixties. Along the way, so many renovations and rebuilds had occurred that, supposedly, compartments appeared on no known plan and were complete mysteries to the Master At Arms. In the crevices of forgotten spaces, John’s barrels brewed up the best hooch available outside a base with a Seabee battalion running the still.

We, of course, did not know if any of this was true. But none dared doubt it publically; it was the stuff of Nautical and Naval mythology. Sailors love the mythological; it makes up for their otherwise dull life at sea.

Sailors also like to place small bets on almost anything; they are called pools. An anchor pool would be to predict the date and time the ship anchored. Pools were organized based on when a sailor’s wife had their baby, the baby’s eye color, or if the weather would blow up. In my day, the pools were for dimes and quarters- If kept quiet, nobody minded. But John’s barrels were legendary. Every deployment, there was a pool on whether or not the Masters at Arms would discover them. On every voyage, nothing was found. The Master at Arms uncovered lots of activity, but not the infamous barrels.

I want to say that the night John blessed me with the formula for success or clued me in on his secret, but that did not happen. Years later, I ran into a former shipmate who told me the secret. There were no barrels. They were just a distraction. The hooch was snuck aboard before each deployment in sealed cruise chests by confederates who shared equally in the take. I have no idea how the whole thing was secret for so long. But, the barrels eventually became so famous that they became the absolute focus of the racket and the search. A shell game. Where are the barrels?

Over the years, I’ve discovered that John’s formula pretty much had it right. Luck was fickle and could run hot or cold. Providence could get you in a lot of trouble while intending to “save” you, but planning could ease the berth between the two.

I understand that there was a pool among the former crew when the ship went to the shipbreakers. The pool was for finding the barrels.

On Tattoos

I do not sport a tattoo, and by force of habit will never put an arm or chest under the needle. Why? I had a Merchant Marine father who wore a large one on his right arm and firmly discouraged tattoos. Once again, you ask, Why? According to my father, tattoos were used by police to identify suspects. And being so many people either have unique designs that are easy to spot, ” it has the names and dates of the last Rolling Stones Concerts.” Or have the same dozen designs, ” he had a big Harley-Davidson tattoo on his right arm.” You become easy to either identify or misidentify.

From his history as a seaman visiting hundreds of ports, my father believed that police were reductionists; you have that tattoo; therefore, you did the crime. While disagreeing with my father on many issues, I had a high opinion of any statement he made regarding seamen and life at sea. The Carreras clan has always been salty and wet, and our oral tradition on things maritime is strong.

I do not object to tattoos for others; they can take their chances being pulled in by the police in Samoa as suspected pedophiles, thieves, or drug-addled purveyors of disputed political platforms. But until they enact legislation banning the darned things, it’s an individual choice.

As you can see, I have no strong opinion on the matter at all.

Mahan and the Mermaid

 If you read the “about my stories” page on my blog, you’d see that I love and appreciate sea stories. These generally have the approach of TINS – this is no shit. In other words, ” I heard this from my buddy, who served aboard the USS Pig Tail when it happened.” Sea stories do not have the classic “they lived happily ever ending.” More likely, they end with everyone heading off to the Blue Anchor for an evening of carousing.

Well, to each his own. But each genre has a perverse “you just know this didn’t happen” take on things. For example, visiting the Unseely Court for fairy tales and mermaids for sea stories. So there is a sort of connection.

Mahan was married to a mermaid. It seemed unlikely that a stunning daughter of the sea would pick Mahan, the Navy’s most unkempt and alcoholic Bosun’s mate. When we first heard about it, we figured it was an alcoholic hallucination. But in fact, that’s what the marriage certificate said. Mahan was seen every month driving to the pet store to get the twenty-pound bags of Miracle Sea to add to her required bath water. On the few occasions that Stella was seen in social company, she was always in long green sheathlike dresses that seemed as though it was actually “her” rather than clothes. Her tiny feet seemed an afterthought and not natural. She always hung on Mahan for support and had a way of flipping her legs about that didn’t seem normal. The other Navy wives and girlfriends thought she was odd, used no cosmetics, and loved the seaweed salad at the harborside sushi restaurant. But Mahaan was smitten, and Stella was smitten with Mahan.

Their families did not get along. Hers objected to her marrying a member of her people’s age-old exploiters. And his family found her background too “fishy” and improbable. Being of old Irish stock, the Mahan family knew about the “special” people of Ireland and wondered aloud why he couldn’t marry a proper Irish Sidhe and not some watery tart.

Stella and Mahan felt confident that the families would reconcile when the children came along. But the grandmothers to be argued endlessly about whether the birth should happen in the hospital or nearby harbor. Mahan, his father, and his father-in-law sensibly left the delivery location to them.

Then they laid a course for the Blue Anchor, bought multiple rounds for the house, and left birthing to the ladies.

The Devil


You’d be hard-pressed to find any family of seafarers, fisherfolk, or plain coastal types without some horror tale on the water. It just goes with the territory; salt water envelopes most of the world and is dangerous. 

Lurking beneath that calm tropical paradise you’ve vacationed in are currents, tides, rips, rocks, tidal flats, and reefs – these might all be known hazards, but that doesn’t mean that they are less deadly. Circumstances and bad luck can be the dividing line between inconvenience and tragedy. And that’s just the stuff you can make plans to avoid or correct.

There’s just a ton of stuff you can’t plan for; rogue waves, sudden squalls, engine failures that put you at risk on lee shores, collisions with unseen objects, and illness at sea. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It’s no wonder that hidden in every sailor is a tiny little superstitious knot. It might not be as apparent as a refusal to sail on a Friday, no bananas on board, or not whistling while you set sail, but it’s there. But without a doubt, the most dangerous element at sea will always be the human element.

Where I lived on the coast, it was considered bad luck to change the name of a boat. But, if you did, many boatyards followed procedures that seemed more like heathen rituals than practices you find in any of the local Baptist, Congregationalist, or Methodist church.

Libations would be poured to Neptunas Rex and Davy Jones. Coins under the masts would be added to, carefully put back in the exact locations after repair, or eliminated in exchange for a completely new set, and of course, the boat would be thoroughly cleaned fore and aft. Sometimes this would not be enough.


One of the Allens from over to the cape purchased a very smart lobster boat third-hand. He did this against his wife, father, and brother’s wishes. He’d been thrice warned.

The boat had started life as a workhorse lobster boat built by a well-known builder out of Boothbay. She’d worked the waters of the mid-coast for years as the Hattie Carroll. Then, about 1974, she’d been sold to a New York City Banker who had her gutted and fixed up as a fancy boat to tour clients around during the summer; what we call a lobster yacht these days. 

Then, without any to do, he’d had a signmaker slap some vinyl letters on her, and her new name was ” The Cheek Of The Devil” in a fancy script. The boatyard had suggested that a bit of ceremony would be nice, but he wanted what he wanted, so he got it. No ceremony, but it was the talk of the harbor. Using the Devil in a boat’s name was not typical and not thought lucky.

He didn’t enjoy his boat long. A fire started offshore, and all aboard went into the bay. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been enough floatation devices aboard for all the guests, so he yielded his floatation vest and drowned. 

The boat survived with severe fire damage but was salvaged and put up for sale.

She lay in Spinney’s yard for two years before being sold. I wouldn’t know if the reason was the fire, the owner’s death, the name, or a combination of all three. But sit in the back of the yard, she did. To locals, it was the Devil when someone referred to that boat. That should have been enough to discourage any local from buying it. 

History and name suggested that nothing but ill luck was involved in that boat. Wash it in a bathtub of holy water from Saint Jerome’s, pour libations all day long, and do whatever hocus pocus you wish, and none of that would help. My father-in-law, the Cap’n, put it succinctly enough when offered the boat at a bargain rate, ” I wouldn’t allow any of my kin to sit in its shadow, much less step aboard.”


The Devil sat there until Jacob Allen went looking for a cheap boat with fast lines that he could pour a high-power engine into for lobster boat racing. The Devil fit the bill. And over a long Maine winter, he worked to rebuild the boat into his dream of a fast racer. 

During the spring, his trial runs seemed to indicate that he’d be a contender in any race he entered. Unfortunately, Jacob was not the type to go full speed ahead, only at a race. He’d run circles around other lobster boats in the local harbor gang he belonged to. Jacob took pleasure in almost swamping small craft he considered to be in his way. Jacob wasn’t well-liked.

Jacob was known to infringe on the territories of nearby lobstermen and was closely watched until, one day, he was caught. The first time you get caught, you will likely pull your traps and find a half hitch in your line. It’s a warning that your trespass has been noted. Do it again, and the penalties will go up. 

The Devil proved as successful as Jacob believed it would, and victory was frequent. Now I do not know how plush the prizes are these days, but back then, it was peanuts. You raced for the joy and pleasure of it. Jacob also raced because he loved to rub other skippers’ noses in how fast the Devil was. In a family of quiet Mainers, he inherited all the ego.


I was helping out at Spinney’s boat yard that September hauling out summer people’s boats, and overheard Spinney talking to my father-in-law, the Cap’n. They both agreed that Jacob was heading for a fall. they quieted down when I walked up, but it was common knowledge that Jacob had been robbing traps, and something was bound to happen.

Things get slower as the weather gets colder; lobstermen spend more time repairing and making new lobster pots ( or traps), repairing their gear, and taking care of their boats. But on Halloween evening, the blast rocked the entire harbor as the Devil blew up with Jacob Allen aboard. The official report said Jacob had ignited a puddle of gasoline while starting his boat. A death by misadventure, I guess. But knowing people understood that Jacob Allen had been a scrupulous man in caring for his boat.

Murder was suspected but never proven. There wasn’t much of the Devil or Jacob Allen left for an inquest, just the mutterings of people about the enemies he’d had and someone finally canceling a grudge hard.

At the coffee shop in the morning, there were comments about how the boat had been ill-fated from the start, and then, more quietly, someone muttered that the Devil had certainly known his own.


Sailors can fill idle hours with stories about the sea’s mysteries. And
popular literature is full of tales about the Kraken, mermaids, the sirens, and other ancient inhabitants of the deep. It’s easier for the land-based to accept fantastic myths than cope with a deck of foaming green sea threatening to wash you away despite lifelines.
I think this is why fantasy writers fill pages on the mythical; it’s easier than relaying what it’s like having your pins swept from under you and getting drowned in cold spume and salt water. Lose that secure connection with the vessel, and swim in desperation as your sloop sails away under the wind’s command.

Little things will do for you. Items that are routine but were put off through laziness or inattention. Not connecting a safety line, or in my case, being in a hurry to rig a small sloop while trying to impress a young woman. I was distracted and failed to tie a stopper knot on the end of the main sheet. Once on the water, a puff of breeze snapped the line from my hand, the boom went far outboard, and I had no control of the boat. Using the rudder and redistributing weight in the boat, I eventually jibed, grabbed the bitter end of the sheet as it whipped by, and recovered control. Throughout this, I was grateful that I had insisted on wearing life vests.

Sailors often animate the sea and credit it with a native wit, always ready to take advantage of our weaknesses or inattention. It can seem dangerous to discredit this idea while offshore, where the sea is most pervasive. I can assure you that fair and calm one minute and heeled over in heavy squalls just a few minutes later is not abnormal. It’s why the weather report is constantly repeating on the squawk box, and one eye flicks to the little yarn pennants on the mast to sense what the wind is about to do.

There are warnings if you are alert enough to catch them, experienced enough to know how to respond, and interested enough in the sea to continually set yourself to matching it.

I am privileged to be part of a group of old mariners, and every one of them has years of experience beyond mine. Even those pushing their nineties would love to go looking for a ship. But, of course, the retort of their spouses, children, and friends might be you’re too old. To which the response is, “So what?” You’ll never feel so alive, challenged, and rewarded.
Eventually, the conversation drifts to talk of places called the Blue Anchor, the Three Sheets, or Sheerwater Inn. The talk drifts to ports you’ve visited, people you’ve sailed with, and incredible experiences. No one mentions Leviatan or the Kraken. But some Chief Engineer will laugh and holler out, ” the Sirens can call me all they wish; I’ll still show them a good night!”

You can’t be passive around the water. That’s always going to be when it’s most dangerous. So you are respectful but also bold.

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