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nyc fleet week

Military Culture: Sailors & Liberty During Fleet Week

Born in Brooklyn, NY and raised on the south shore of Long Island I was no stranger to the lure of the city. For years friends and I would board the LIRR from Babylon to Penn Station, a case of beer in tow and nothing but our youthful imaginations limiting us we’d set off to whatever night club or underground party was supposed to be hot and happening at the time. My visit to the city on May 25th, 2005 would be completely different and ultimately a memory that I’m certain will last a lifetime. 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 returning from a four-month deployment to southern waters including The Florida Straits, The Yucatan Peninsula, and Southern Caribbean off of Columbia. We were tasked with performing search & rescue, drug interdiction, and alien migrant operations in conjunction with the Navy. It was a long, hard, and monotonous patrol. With a crew of 63 enlisted men, and 12 officers only one of which was female one might imagine how the boys were literally chomping at the bitts to spill out onto the streets of NYC.


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 have a glimpse of naval life. On the other side, the greatest city in the world welcoming America’s sons and daughters in with open arms to experience her culture. Underneath the official sheen, meanwhile, 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. 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. Once night descended upon us that party took on an atmosphere that was, let’s say, a little less family-oriented. Warm women and cold beer abounded, and we were more than eager to drink it all in.

After securing the ship upon arrival in port we still had to endure quarters on the flight deck at which time the Captain, Executive Officer and ship’s medic would warn us about the numerous different 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 mad dash back to the berthing area where dress uniforms were being pressed, men primped, shaved, tried to wash the stink of diesel fuel out of our skin, and the Axe body spray was enough to choke King Neptune himself. That being done we gave each other an informal inspection and it was off to the races.

South Street Seaport area jeremys

Naturally, with me being a native New Yorker the fellas wanted to stick close by my side in order to find out where they could have the wildest time. Being in such high spirits I had no objection to this and we were off. Running down the pier, the first place we commandeered was a little dive bar called Jeremy’s down in the South Street Seaport area. Like locusts, we consumed everything and anything within reach. 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 making the announcement 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. 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.

Victor’s Café on west 52nd

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. It may have been the “Nutcrackers” we bought in Union Square, or the mojitos we were now 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 found myself waking 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 helped 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.


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