by Jennifer Canaveral
There is a picture of an eighteen-year-old girl dressed in a green Hawaiian-print bikini with a halter top her breasts inadequately fill. She is also wearing a pair of black board shorts she purchased from the swap meet at Aloha Stadium a few weeks earlier. The girl is holding a bright yellow-and-blue towel in one hand and with the other hand, she sports an awkward Shaka Brah – the ‘Hang Loose’ sign – a gesture she should have mastered long ago, considering her part-Hawaiian descent. Her Shaka faux pas aside, there is something I envy about the girl in the picture because she has no idea she is about to test herself like she never has before.
In the photo, she is standing next to the ledge of her first duty station, the Coast Guard Cutter Rush. Looking at the girl standing there, her perfectly aligned smile – thanks to two jaw surgeries and four years of orthodontia she helped her mother pay for – her fresh-out-of-boot-camp energy, her utter cluelessness about where her life is headed, it’s hard to believe that girl is me, fifteen years ago. It’s hard to believe the girl in the picture is moments away from taking a forty foot dive off her ship’s bridge.
January 2004. The Rush left Honolulu the day after Christmas and she is southbound headed towards Central America, hoping for at least one successful drug interdiction. The Coast Guard’s motto is Semper Paratus – ‘Always Ready’ – and the Rush crew are ready indeed for whatever lies ahead of them in the world’s biggest, deepest ocean.
Cruising near the Equator, the high humidity leaves the Rush crew saturated in sweat, prompting the removal of uniform blouses in exchange for light, cotton undershirts. Dressing down makes the climate tolerable but falls short of delivering any profound relief from the sweltering heat. That is until the ship’s captain authorises the Rush crew – once the workday is complete – a much-needed Swim Call, where the ship stops all operations so its crew members may swim in the open ocean.
Having only graduated boot camp three months earlier, it is my first time at sea and my first Swim Call onboard The Rush. There is something liberating but also something eerie about opportunity for open swim. An ominous sensation churns in my belly when I realise there are no visible contacts from the ship’s current position. No boats, no dolphins, no sea turtles riding alongside the starboard side of the ship. In our isolation, the horizon appears endless, the Pacific Ocean bottomless, but I reason that it’s too damn hot to let these revelations stop me from swimming today.
Once 1600 hours rolls around, The Rush comes to a halt. With her turbines shut down and her rudder amidships, she will remain stagnant until Swim Call is over. Rush crew members – including myself – head to their berthing areas, switching from the uniform of the day to their bathing suits.
After I’m dressed and slide my Locals Only slippers onto my pale, haole feet, I head towards the Main Deck. Walking past the Sick Bay office, I notice one of the chiefs standing in the passageway, surveying the antics of Rush’s crew as they perform belly flops and back flips off the ship’s edge. The chief holds a paper cup in one hand while the other rests on his hip. His lower lip protrudes from the wad of chewing tobacco tucked between his gums. The chief is still in uniform and actively perspiring through his clothes. Hovering over the half-open door with his morose face glaring at the sun, he looks like an overheated, emo vampire.
’You’re not going to jump in, chief?’ I ask.
‘VanWinkle –’ my maiden name – ‘are you kidding me?’ he responds. ‘Swim Call is a frigging nightmare. All’s it takes is one wrong jump, one brave moron to break their goddamn neck so the corpsmen have to call out for a MEDEVAC. That leaves us without a flight crew, a department short a worker, and thousands of Coast Guard dollars down the crapper. All because some dumbass wanted to jump off the goddamn ship.’
And no sooner after finishing his tirade, do the chief and I watch as a body descends from the flight deck above us, screaming ‘Banzai! Pipeline!’ before it hits the water.
The chief hawks his muddied saliva into the makeshift spittoon, shaking his head and walking towards the messdeck, muttering, ‘I’m getting chow. I can’t watch this shit.’
I press on, stepping out of the watertight hatch and securing it behind me. My towel joins the pile of others as I kick off my slippers. Walking towards the side of the ship, the nonskid deck tickles me underfoot. A Jacob’s ladder hangs over my head and climbing down it, I hold on to dear life as each wobbly step throws my body off kilter. I ease into the water then start swimming backwards, watching as my shipmates jump off the flight deck, about a two story jump.
My attention is then diverted to someone who is going the extra mile and jumping off the bridge, an extra two stories up. The guy is a deckhand like me and is a dead ringer for Greg Louganis. Actually, he looks more like Mario Lopez in that TV movie where he plays Greg Louganis. Either way, his wet, tan skin and dark hair make me swoon – but my drool session is cut short when he takes a quick, valiant jump off the ledge.
He must be one of the brave morons the chief was talking about, I think to myself.
As I watch a handful of people take the forty foot plunge, I reflect on my life, contemplating whether or not I have done anything so audacious before. It doesn’t take long to conclude getting through Coast Guard boot camp was the boldest thing I’d ever done and – in the grand scheme of things – this seems pretty lame.
After wading around with my shipmates and enduring jelly fish stings on the back of my arms, I get out of the water, grab my towel, and muster up the nerve to walk up three stairwells to the bridge, where there is no queue to jump. Gunner’s Mates (GMs) on Shark Watch are standing on the left bridge wing, peering over the side. Armed with M-16s, they scan for dangerous marine life, the biggest threat to the swimmers safety after diving off the ship.
When I arrive topside, a GM shifts his piece behind him and smiles, offering me his hand.
“There is something I envy about the girl in the picture because she has no idea she is about to test herself like she never has before.”
‘You gonna go for it, Jenny?’ he asks me.
‘Yeah, but – ’ I pull out a waterproof, disposable camera from the back pocket of my board shorts and hand it to the GM. ‘Could you take a picture of me real quick?’
He points the camera at me and I flash a smile, throwing up a Shaka in danger of being mistaken for a ‘Call me’ gesture. The GM hands me back my camera and I toss my towel on the deck, throwing the camera on top of it.
My eyes are tempted to peak over the ledge, to see just how far I am from everyone but before I can, the GM tells me, ‘Don’t look down. Just look straight onto the horizon.’
I hear the distant cries of my shipmates, beckoning me to ‘Go for it!’ and to ‘Jump already!’ Being eighteen and headstrong, I consider their jeering the point of no return and must now prove I have the cojones – the chick cojones – to go through with it.
Taking the Gunner’s Mate advice, I stare straight ahead, standing up on a metal stool while holding his hand. Before stepping onto the ledge, I take a deep breath as the GM guides me up.
‘Fuck me, I am not ready for this,’ I mumble, my lip quivering.
The arches of my feet conform perfectly around the ledge’s smooth wooden finish. Judging by the sky’s appearance, I sense sunset is within the next hour or so. Though the sun itself is concealed, I see the waning brilliance of its rays along the edges of thick, opaque clouds on the horizon. This glorious view is the only thing keeping me from looking down.
With my body erect, I plug my nose with my right hand, my left arm wrapped around my right one to protect my body – just as I was taught in boot camp.
I close my eyes. Then, I jump.
As my body falls, I want to spread my wings like a bird. Only I don’t have wings. I have arms. Arms that will surely break once they smack the water. Then, it occurs to me that I haven’t hit the water yet. Why have I had this much time to think about wings and such?
Bracing for first contact, I count fast to myself: One, two, three!
One, two, thr –
My body shoots down in the water so fast, so deep. The pressure of my ass hitting the water feels as if the Pacific Ocean has given me a colonic. My butt cheeks are numb and sore. The temperature is much cooler, making me wonder if I’ve reached the ocean bottom.
When I finally open my eyes, I am surrounded by dark water but, above me, the dangling legs of my shipmates are transparent. They appear miles away, as does my next breath.
I try not to panic when I cannot feel my legs but I channel the Bride from Tarantino’s latest flick, Kill Bill, until – like the Bride – I too can wiggle my toes. Pushing myself towards the light, my arms grow fatigued until my legs return to full strength and help my feet flutter to the surface. When I emerge from the water, my gasps inhale enough air to replenish my lungs.
After regaining my composure and stabilizing my respiratory rate, I swim back towards the ship, ready for Round Two.
That first bridge jump became my gateway to bolder – often questionable – decisions during my time on The Rush. Like dancing with Guatemalan strippers in Puerto Quetzal, drinking underage with Marines in a Waikiki hotel room, and getting a succubus tattooed on my back in Manta, Ecuador as local prostitutes handed me tequila shots.
After completing my tour with the Rush, though, I would make wiser decisions. Like becoming a wife and a mother, becoming a corpsman, and – from the money I earned in the military – becoming the first college graduate in my direct family. After completing my military service eight years later, I would receive my DD-214 on an Honorable Discharge not under the title Seaman VanWinkle – the name of the bikini-clad girl – but under Petty Officer Second Class Canaveral, entering the Coast Guard as a naïve girl but departing as a humbled woman.
Of course, the girl in the picture will never be ready for any of this. Not the dive or salt water enema, not marriage or motherhood, not the venipuncture or IV sticks on patients, and definitely not the fifteen page papers for creative writing classes. Yet, someday, she’ll realise that never being ready for these events was the only way she would truly appreciate them.
Jennifer Canaveral | amazon.com/author/jennifercanaveral
Jennifer Canaveral is a librarian, writer of horror and nonfiction, and a former US Coast Guard corpsman living in Kodiak, Alaska. Jennifer’s recent work has been featured in Trembling with Fear: Year One Anthology and Siren’s Call Publications.