When I was a teen and younger, I often wandered down to River Street in Savannah.
It was early 1950s and River Street was a more exciting place for a boy without any money. No tourists, no shops and restaurants or street peddlers and musicians.
Looking up at the towering walls along the city side of the cobblestone ramps going down and you would see large pipes dumping raw drainage down onto whoever didn’t know enough to stay away from the wall.
In the 1950s, the buildings along River Street looked very much like they would have looked in the late 19th century.
Towering brick buildings that were built so their bottom floor would be a giant warehouse with big arch-shaped double doors facing the docks.
Great wooden shutters on all the windows that actually served a purpose at one time – keeping the weather out.
In the 19th century, indigo, rice, cotton and all manner of things such as animal skins, particularly alligator and deer hides, were in que for loading onto a harbor full of sailing ships bound across the sea. Warehouse doors opened and waited for shiploads of goods being unloaded.
Another major export was turpentine extracted from southern pine trees, which was processed into various stages, eventually to become a major element in the repair and maintenance of wooden ships. There are pictures at the National Archives in Maryland that show literally thousands of huge barrels of turpentine waiting on the Savannah docks to be shipped across the globe.
The River Street buildings rose all the way up to Bay Street, providing areas on different floors for such activities as grading and weighing cotton and rice and indigo etc. and sorting animal hides.
At one level, still accessed today across the original iron walkways along Bay Street, is Factor’s Walk, Roy Hubbard Local columnist
so named because this was where the gentlemen worked who accounted for quantity, quality and subsequent value of goods being transported ashore or off to sea. They were known as “factors.”
If you look closely at the structures along River Street, there remain a few arch-shaped split doors, hand hewn out of massive planks and mounted on huge iron hinges and about 8 or 10 feet wide.
Only one or two of the original doors are left, having escaped the necessity to make the buildings and entrances more safe and usable. There are still ample arch-shaped openings that represent restored or remodeled entrances for more modern access, egress to endless tourist attractions in the form of gift shops, restaurants, etc.
In 1950, most of River Street’s warehouse spaces and doors were still very industrial looking in their appearance and the railroad track was still in use.
The storage areas contained things like giant piles of used magazines and books and all manner of items that perhaps were once valuable to someone and had, over time, lost their value.
I remember as a kid crawling over mountains of discarded books.
It worried me. Weren’t they supposed to be in a library?
On one of those trips to the waterfront, we discovered that giant wharf rats were living the “life of Riley” amidst the garbage and stacks of paper. Those big boys could reach a body length of over a foot. On our next foray we went armed with a 22 rifle. I don’t think we bagged any wharf rats, but we sure got the Savannah police stirred up. They took the gun, somebody’s dad had to go to the police station to recover it. They gave us a verbal boot up the hill with all manner of threats if we showed up again. I’m sure there were a few chuckles, head shakes and a couple of “darn kids” once we were out of ear shot. (I cleaned that up a bit!) The summer I turned 16, I was exploring along the waterfront, enjoying the dirt and the grime and the mesmerizing fast-flowing river. All of a sudden there it was. A 95-foot U.S. Coast Guard Cutter with what I think was a twin barrel 20mm gun mount on the bow.
She had beautiful lines.
I decided right then I wanted to be in the Coast Guard and run a boat like that.
On my 17th birthday I was in Atlanta being sworn into the U.S. Coast Guard. I think maybe they were desperate for recruits in those days. They sent me to Cape May, New Jersey, for basic training. I loved it from the very beginning. I loved the water.
I loved boats. I loved the disciplined life.
On our first day we were issued everything, as was explained, “that Uncle Sam thought we needed.” Everything else was confiscated. We went through cleaning and testing the action on our rifles that same day. I was given the task of carrying a rifle to the armory for repairs. I felt pretty important walking down the sidewalk with a full grown M1 rifle.
Then I saw from a distance, that I was being approached by four officers. All sorts of brass. No escape. I began to search my memory from ROTC training. How did one salute – with a rifle – while moving? There they were, 10 feet away. I was sure it was the beginning of the end of my career in the USCG.
I was turning that rifle every way but the right way, wishing I could disown it. All four of the officers had quizzical looks on their faces. I finally just froze, holding my breath with the rifle at the “present arms” position.
They stopped. One of them asked, “How long have you been in the & Coast Guard, sailor?” I stuttered and shouted, “Uh, uh, all day sir!” All four broke out laughing. I was told to “carry on.”
There were competitions held between training companies, I think once a month. The winning company got a full weekend off – Friday night through Sunday afternoon. We were graded on every aspect of our training, personal appearance, condition of barracks, etc. It included crawling around on one’s knees picking up miniscule bits of dirt or dust with wet fingertips from a mirror-shined floor.
There was also individual military drill competition. One person selected from each company represented his unit. I had a head start having handled a rifle in ROTC.
Seems like most northern high schools did not do ROTC, so a majority of the recruits had never seen a rifle, much less handled one.
I ended up representing my company in every individual drill. Something akin to perfection was required in handling the weapon through standard commands. A fraction of an inch off this way or that in timing or with any part of your body or the weapon and you were out. The judge, an officer, would stand next to you and give you your commands in a whisper. Very unnerving.
Every time it would get down to the last three or four guys out of a dozen or more starters, I would get the tap on the shoulder, which meant, “You just screwed up, return to your unit.” They wouldn’t even tell you what you screwed up. The last time I could compete before graduation from basic training, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was suddenly the only one standing there! I have always wondered if it being my last time had something to do with my winning. I was awarded a beautiful giant brass belt buckle with crossed rifles on it and another long weekend at Crest Pier in Wildwood Beach, New Jersey. Anybody remember Xavier Cugat and his wife Abby Lane? Fantastic group from the big band era with great swing and dance music. I had the pleasure of listening to them and dancing to the music at Crest Pier.
I became the coxswain for my recruit company’s rowing team. Something I had never done before.
We were not dealing with sleek Harvard rowing skiffs. We had big heavy seaworthy surf boats with, as I recall, eight rowing positions, four on each side.
My job was to steer the boat and call out the cadence for rowing. We would start with about five or six very quick pulls on the oars and then go into a rhythm to keep the boat on plane. We had one race a month.
My team won them all! It helped that I had a couple of guys on my team who had actual rowing experience and looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
During one race, the leather strap that held the steering oar to the transom broke. I am not exactly sure what happened next. I was suddenly wrestling with a loose, 16-foot long steering oar with a mind of its own from cross-wake and current.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the boat next to us slipping slowly ahead.
I saw my long weekend at Crest Pier slipping away! I never stopped the cadence of the rowing commands.
My team never hesitated.
They just kept pulling those oars in perfect unison.
I lay across the transom with the oar under my armpit to hold it down till I could get my belt off and tie it. We lost position for a few seconds during the confusion of the snapped tie down but we finished the race a good half length ahead of the nearest boat.
A complaint was filed about crowding followed by a close examination of our sweep oar tied down with my belt. We got our long weekend off! Needless to say there was a little cash floating around between the Chief Petty officers in charge of the different training companies. Our chief was a happy guy.
I was impressed with the determination my rowing crew demonstrated that day. I witnessed that dedication numerous times during my four years in the Coast Guard, most of which was served in the North Atlantic.
From the skipper on down, besting the seas and impossible conditions and challenges to complete the mission. Using high lines in extremely heavy seas to rescue merchant mariners in need of medical attention.
“Aids to navigation,” large anchored buoys in particular, tend to go out during storms. A non-functioning navigation light off the New England coast in the dark of night is a recipe for disaster. That buoy has to be captured in rough seas and often brought aboard for servicing or switched out in the dark under rough, icy cold, wet conditions.
Winter of 1957, during a nor’eastern storm, I stood on the dock and watched a guy named Jack Strickland from Atlanta jump into freezing water in New Bedford Harbor.
He swam to and boarded a yacht that had broken loose from its moorings and was headed rapidly up the Acushnet River into a maze of watercraft.
He returned the boat to safe mooring. If it had been left up to me, that yacht and perhaps a few others would be at the bottom of the Acushnet River. I do like my bodily comforts.
Underway off Nova Scotia in “Perfect Storm” seas, I walked on the passageway bulkheads (walls), instead of the deck because the ship, 255 feet long, was being pushed on her side by giant waves with the sea rushing by right at the top edge of the gunnel. I always wondered if she is going to bring herself upright again.
Life boats and deck structure were lost to tremendous seas off the coast of Newfoundland. Sickbays were full of injured crew. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”
Looking for a brief respite from it all we sought safe harbor. Not so safe and not offering much of a respite, cutters would find themselves frozen to the dock and deep in snow in St. John’s Harbor, using giant chains fastened across the deck with pelican hooks due to the hundred-mile an hour winds the area was capable of suddenly producing.
There is a whole different challenge with air/sea rescues. Amazing chopper pilots and jumpers operating in impossible conditions, picking ill or injured or an entire crew off the tossing deck of a doomed vessel.
The U.S. Coast Guard is not for the faint of heart.
Roy Hubbard is a retired Green Beret and environmentalist who lives in South Bryan. Email him at Roy39hubbard@gmail.com