U.S.C.G.C. Reliance WMEC-615
We returned from a four-month deployment to southern waters, including The Florida Straits, The Yucatan Peninsula, and The Southern Caribbean off Columbia. This visit was for fleet week, and I was a 27-year-old seaman stationed onboard U.S.C.G.C. Reliance WMEC-615, a 210’ medium endurance cutter.
We were tasked with performing search & rescue, drug interdiction, and alien migrant operations in conjunction with the Navy. It was a long, challenging, and monotonous patrol. With a crew of 63 enlisted men and 12 officers (only one being female), one might imagine how the boys were literally chomping at the bits to spill onto the streets of N.Y.C.
Fleet week is many things. Outwardly, it’s a celebration of the men and women who are the heart and soul of the mighty Navy battleships, the fearless Marine Corps, and the dedicated Coast Guard. It is a mission of goodwill between military personnel and civilians. Each is welcomed into the other’s world for a solid week.
On one side, there is all the pomp and circumstance of military demonstrations, tours of ships, and a chance to glimpse naval life. On the other side, the greatest city in the world welcomes America’s sons and daughters in with open arms to experience her culture. Underneath the official sheen, it was the first time in a long while that many of us sailors had seen outside our ships, let alone stepped onto dry land.
Once night descended upon us, the party took on an atmosphere that was a little less family-oriented. Warm women and cold beer abounded, and we were eager to drink it all in. In true maritime fashion, it was only natural that this turned into a week-long party where my shipmates and I got to take over the city.
After securing the ship upon arrival in port, we still had to endure quarters on the flight deck. The Captain, Executive Officer, and ship’s medic would warn us about the numerous ways we could earn a ticket to the brig or worse while on a port call. Regaled with horror stories of venereal diseases and their medieval treatments, the privilege of liberty was finally granted.
There was a dash back to the berthing area where dress uniforms were being pressed. Men primped, shaved, and tried to wash the stink of diesel fuel out of their skin, and the Axe body spray was enough to choke King Neptune himself. We gave each other an informal inspection, and it was off to the races.
Naturally, with me being a native New Yorker, the fellas wanted to stick close by my side to find out where they could have the wildest time. Being in such high spirits, I had no objection to this embrace. Running down the pier, the first place we commandeered was a little dive bar called Jeremy’s in the South Street Seaport area. Like locusts, we consumed everything and anything within reach.
A Beautiful Disaster
Paychecks were being burned through as if it were our last day on earth. I’ll never forget the good-natured bartender who kept flashing us that look that you might reserve for the criminally insane—peering up from a sputtering tap and announcing that they were officially out of beer. Now, at this point, you might expect the motley crew to riot and rip the place apart board by board. Instead, there was a brief moment of silence, and I naively thought my shipmates might react with a bit of civility.
Fleet Week May 25, 2005.
That moment was immediately shattered with the roar of over sixty men in unison, who then proceeded to storm out the front into the streets chanting U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! You’d swear we just won some major battle. You never truly know what to expect when heading out for a night in New York City, and this was no different.
It wasn’t until this stage of drunken debauchery was reached that the boys were inclined to start ticking off boxes on the list of things our command had specifically warned us not to do. After all, this was fleet week, and it was shaping up to be a beautiful disaster.
Almost as if it were pre-ordained, we made our way uptown via the most inconvenient methods. Road marching some fifty-odd blocks seemed like a great idea as we departed Jeremy’s. Like a meticulously planned mission, we justified stopping at almost every bar and dirty water dog cart we stumbled across as a necessary refueling.
By this point, it was midnight, and we found ourselves in the middle of Times Square. Most of us were blackout drunk, or as I used to call it time traveling. I managed to spur the boys on another 18 blocks to my favorite little Cuban watering hole, Victor’s Café on west 52nd. It may have been the bottle of Habushu, better known as snake wine, we downed while singing karaoke to “Copa Cabana” in Chinatown.
Victor’s Café on west 52nd
It may have been the “Nutcrackers” we bought in Union Square or the mojitos we were enjoying, but salsa dancing was the current objective. The music, drinks, new friends, and old shipmates mixed with the blurred lights of Manhattan to create the perfect storm of what we call port call during fleet week.
The sun was rising, illuminating the random park bench I woke up on as the echoes of salsa music still played in my head. Only a handful of my shipmates were within earshot. They were still continuing the festivities standing watch over me and helping me to my feet. With their help, plus a little hair of the dog, we went on for several more days exploring the city, tasting her food, meeting her residents, and falling in love with the greatest city in the world. New York!