I’ve never told anyone this before; John Kerry saved my life in Vietnam. I haven’t mentioned it till now because doing so requires an admission of wrongdoing on my part – an admission, which, to his credit, John Kerry (whom I’ve always known as “Skipper”) has shielded me from making. The time has come though, to pay back old debts, to demonstrate my gratitude to the man who risked his life to save mine. It’s a small price to pay, so I begin with an admission of guilt that I have avoided for almost 20 years; I lied about my age in order to join the Navy.
I knowingly falsified official documents in order to enlist. I was only 4 years old, but I was big for my age and a thin layer of axle grease on my chin gave the illusion that I had reached my shaving years. This and a myopic recruiter secured my entrance into the world’s most powerful force on water.
Let’s fast forward through boot camp (easy, except for finding shoes that fit) and my first meeting with the man who became my skipper. Suffice it to say he liked the cut of my jib and pulled some strings. The next thing I knew, I was tossing out my ill-fitting boondockers and dungarees and donning Sperry Docksiders and a navy blue blazer adorned with the Kerry crest. I was the skipper’s cabin boy.
I may have been young, but I was a quick study. I could mix a martini in 10 foot seas and carry it to the bridge without spilling a drop on the silver tray. I could starch fatigues better than anyone else in the outfit, and I kept the Skipper looking sharp. That was no mean task. On the coastal waters of Vietnam the sun beats down mercilessly and the humidity is so high breathing is like taking on water. A man can sweat through a set of fatigues in no time – even sitting under an umbrella, being fanned by a cabin boy.
Because of that I always kept a freshly starched shirt in reserve, and I remember to this day how proud the Skipper was of the creases in his sleeves. He would say to me, “Cabin boy,” (he could remember my name, but he was the consummate professional officer, the Skipper was) “This is a fine looking uniform. It looks so good I think it’s time to bring out the movie camera.” And I would unpack the super 8 and film him striking heroic poses at the helm. The footage meant nothing to him. It was just his way of congratulating me on a job well done.
One morning, having wakened the Skipper at his customary time, (not quite noon) I stayed below to fix his latte while he went on deck. Coffee-making was the only aspect of my duties that hadn’t come easily to me, and the odd apparatus that I was forced to use didn’t make the job any easier.
The complicated arrangement of pressure dials and metal tubing had once been part of the boat’s fuel system, but the Skipper had arranged for a little man in loose black clothing to make some alterations. The temperamental device caused carburetor problems in the number 2 engine, and was once the source of a small fuel fire, but the Skipper was delighted with it. Depending on the configuration, it could produce lattes, cappuccinos and even steam-pressed espressos. I made it my mission to become proficient with it, and in no time I’d become a one-man Starbucks.
That morning I steamed a perfect latte, wiped down the gleaming tubes and dials and checked to ensure the burner was turned off. We were anchored just offshore of a nameless little island somewhere on one side or other of the Cambodian border. We’d followed a meandering channel overhung with thick jungle canopy, which gave out onto a quiet lagoon. The breeze, while too weak to stir the Kerry standard flying over the Stars and Stripes, blew from the shore, and the stench of rotting jungle vegetation and dead fish threatened to overpower the fortifying aroma of the coffee.
I added a dash of cinnamon to the whipped cream in defiance of the hardships of war and pulled the latest copy of Dog Fancy magazine from the mail bag, placing it on the tray next to the steaming mug. Have I told you I was a good cabin boy? Forget that. I was the best. I made my way to the bridge (past some of the smelly, nameless sailors who shared our swift boat) serving my captain, a song in my heart.
The Skipper was filling out a citation to accompany the award of a Medal of Honor for somebody, but stopped long enough to acknowledge the latte with a grunt, which filled me with gladness. I didn’t join the Navy for the money. With me it was always about the pleasure to be found in a job well done, and to work for a man so free with his praise was the highlight of my career. It’s the only reason I stayed in for a whole 8 months – nearly twice as long as the Skipper.
I have to admit to a slight disappointment though, when the Skipper failed to notice his favorite magazine. I’d gone to some lengths to have it flown in, and made a lifelong enemy of the man whose medicine was put on a later flight in order to make room. But no matter. No effort was too great to bring relief to the man whose constant concern was the health and safety of his crew.
I was rewarded in due time though, with a view of the skipper beaming with pleasure as he read his magazine. He held it folded over in one hand while he steered us up-channel, his latte balanced on the console above the helm.
The overhanging trees formed an exotic backdrop as we slowly navigated the twisting channel. The intertwined branches cast dramatic shadows on the surface of the water. The gloomy scenery and the perfection of the Skipper’s uniform gave him an idea, and, outstanding servant that I was, I anticipated it. Before the Skipper voiced the order I was already limbering up the movie camera.
The skipper preferred being filmed from below, and I made my way to the bow to accommodate him. Personally, I was not a fan of these inclined shots. I felt the angle elongated the Skipper’s features and invited comparisons between his face and that of one of the droopier-featured canines from one of his magazines. In fact, it may have been this phenomenon that caused some of the crewmembers to refer to the Skipper (in his absence) as “blue,” or “The old medal hound.”
Regardless of my cinematographic reservations, I made my way forward, and balanced the camera tripod just aft of the bow. The narrowing peak where the bow came to a point was my perch as I stood behind the camera.
The whirring of the camera was nearly matched by the buzzing of millions of tropical insects, but as I remember it, there was a split second of silence, as if the world caught its breath in expectation of the explosion that now occurred below deck.
As explosions go, it wasn’t very big – just enough to blast a fist-sized hole in the bulkhead above the waterline and start a small blaze in the Skipper’s cabin. Apparently the heat from the coffee machine touched off a small amount of fuel trapped in a line somewhere. The report (a little louder than a rifle shot, but not as loud as a grenade) sounded to the Skipper like an ambush. Without hesitation he pinned the throttles fully forward, launching the boat down the channel, and stirring the river into boiling brown wake.
Before I dropped it, the camera recorded the Skipper - hands gripping the helm with white knuckles, face in a heroic mask of grim determination, eyes squeezed tightly shut.
We hit a submerged sand bar and the boat came to a crashing halt. I flew backwards off the bow and landed with a splash in the river. Without missing a beat, the Skipper threw the boat into reverse and put the helm over hard to port. The screws flailed the water into a maelstrom; the boat heeled over and slid free. Skipper pushed the throttles back to full forward and the boat rocketed down the channel. My heart (and one of my Docksiders) sank as the boat disappeared around a bend.
I couldn’t believe my bad luck. The camera had never before captured the Skipper looking so heroic, but I had dropped it in the river.
I briefly entertained the notion of diving to look for it (and my errant shoe) but the thought of what might be awaiting me on the river bottom quickly drove it from my mind. I swam ashore and, clutching roots and branches, dragged myself out of the murky river. I sat for a while on the shore feeling forlorn and miserable. I was inconsolable over the loss of the camera. Despite my misery though, I was uncomfortably aware of noises in the jungle all around me, the sounds of creatures moving through the brush. I felt vulnerable sitting in the open, but even more so, I suspected that I would feel claustrophobic in the thick vegetation. I arrived at the perfect solution.
I climbed one of the widely branching trees that overhung the channel and intertwined with its neighbors from the opposite bank. Where the limbs interleaved, I found a comfortable platform not unlike a hammock, and there awaited my rescue.
After only an hour or two I heard it coming. The chattering of automatic weapons announced itself from far off, about where I estimated the opening of the channel to be. The firing advanced, and soon, pulsing below the bright crack of rifle fire, I perceived the throaty roar of our boat’s engines. Although it lacked the peculiar note of the bad carburetor on the number 2, it was still the most familiar, most welcome sound I’d ever heard.
I suffered a moment of concern when I realized the crew was laying down suppressing fire all around the boat as it progressed upstream. Bullets snapped and cracked through the brush, and shook the branches and leaves around me. I yelled and did my best to attract their attention, but it was difficult to wave my arms without falling out of the tree. Besides, at this point it occurred to me that attracting attention might be a good way of getting shot.
Finally, as the boat drew up directly beneath me, I released my grip and dropped onto the deck. The Skipper shrieked in surprise and turned to fire. Luckily, he knocked the barrel of his rifle against a piece of equipment as he turned, and his raking fire chewed up the deck instead of me.
It took a few minutes for things to settle down. When the Skipper finished shaking, he turned the boat and took us out of the channel, alternately firing into the trees and admonishing me sternly for losing the camera.
He made a big deal about the camera, and even threatened to throw me in the brig, but I realized he was just yelling because he’d been so worried about me. Besides, I knew he couldn’t stay mad at me for long. After all, it was my latte that (falling off the console when the boat hit the sand bar) scalded his arm and earned him his first purple heart.
So now you know what kind of man my Skipper is. A man I’m proud to have served with, the man who saved my life.