The Coast Guard pushes all the wrong buttons

Years ago I had occasion to call the United States Coast Guard for help. It was a cozy and uncomplicated confrontation. I was writing then what is called a "document" now, and I wanted a "fix" on the Nantucket Lightship. This maritime beacon is moored in the transatlantic shipping lane "off the Massachusetts coast," but I wanted its latitude and longitude to make me seem smart.

Making myself known to the gentleman who answered the telephone, I politely requested permission to come aboard and state my concern. Then the gentleman yelled, "Hey, Chuck! I got a nut here wants the figs on Nantucket bug!" In this way I was speedily accommodated, and I have always believed the Coast Guard does its many chores well. Now I'm not so sure.

I just had reason to call the Coast Guard again, and I find they have one of these answering machines that tells me to press 10 if I want to know when the tide turns, 6 to ask what day it is, and 22 if I want cream in my coffee. I pause to reminisce about Wash Doughty and the time he caught the German U-boat.

Mr. Washington Doughty was an upright lobster catcher operating out of Doughty's Bight of midcoast Maine. His boat had no particular name, but upon her transom bore the Masonic square and compasses. (See? The symbol's at the top of this page.) Thus, esoterically, that was her name. Wash was a member of that ancient order and never missed a meeting. In his daily life he exemplified every moral precept of the fraternity to the highest degree.

When summer folks asked him the name of his boat, he could give a supposedly secret answer, but if he felt he was being teased, he'd chant the way youngsters do, "Puddin'tame, ask me again and I'll tell you the same." The boat's name was the square and the compasses, but if Wash said that to the uninitiated, he'd have to explain it, too.

When World War ll came, the United States Navy took over the Coast Guard, and as convoys to Europe made up in Portland Harbor, the Gulf of Maine was a war zone and the lobster catchers had to accommodate many restrictions. We did have submarine visitors.

And it happened that one morning Wash was haulin' traps and carefully heeding the Navy's limitations, and he figured he was somewhere east of Boothbay when something fouled his pot warp and began towing his boat against the tide and out to sea. Surmising he was tied to a German sub, Wash cut his engine, kicked off his rubber boots, and jumped overboard. It was jeroosly jinks some old cold, but he was only 500 yards from Kingsley Point, and he made it.

The Kingsley summer place was closed for the season, so Wash broke in and kindled a big fire in the fireplace to get warm and dry out. Then he found some shoes that fit him, and he walked two miles to the first house with a telephone. He was soon connected with Maud Gilliam, the operator. He yells, "Gimme the Coast Guard!"

Maud says, "Why, Wash! What's makin' you chatter so? You sound like pool balls clickin' in a tin dishpan!" (Mr. Doughty's reply has been deleted at the discreet suggestion of an editor, but you couldn't have heard him anyway because Maud was yelling, "You nasty old man!")

The situation was happily relieved when the Coast Guard came on the line. Wash told what had happened, offered his supposition about a U-boat, and was delighted that the Coast Guard believed him. Then the Coast Guard fellow asked, "And what is the name of your boat, Mr. Doughty?"

Maud Gilliam would never repeat any part of Mr. Doughty's reply, but she said it hung in resplendent glory over midcoast Maine for the better part of two weeks, like a Fourth of July pyrotechnical display. She said fortunately it cleared up before the summer season, so it didn't frighten away tourists.

After Maud regained her composure and Wash simmered down, the conversation with the Coast Guard concluded and somebody drove Wash home.

That's really all there is to this story, except that the next morning Wash found his boat back on her mooring, and we did hear rumors that the Coast Guard had brought in a bunch of German sailors.

Highlanders can't realize how important the Coast Guard is to tidewater folks. If something happens and you're in trouble, call the Coast Guard. Semper paratus, they respond. When the fog is thick as burgoo and you can't see your own hand in front of your face, the Coast Guard will get there if you need them, one boat from Bath and one boat from Belfast, just to make sure. Heave a line, and we'll tow you in!

But when I called the other day after so long a time, the new-day answering machine gave me pause. First, of course, it negates all possibility of emergency. If you're going to sit there all forenoon pushing buttons, how do you get a catfish down from a high limb? If the Hesperus is aground again on the reef of Norman's woe, press 16, wait for the tone, leave your name and number, and thank you for calling.

If you want the name of Wash Doughty's boat, press everything and run for the hills. And what shall we do the day the tide fails to serve?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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