When CGCWOA founder Ralph Davis wasn't drawing cartoons (See "Cartoon Gallery"), some poems also flowed from the end of his stick or, more likely, from the keys of an old Underwood mill. Much like his cartoons, his poetry commented on his "Old Guard" experiences as both a Radioman and a sailor. This page contains some samples of his work, and is sure to bring back many memories to those of us who had similar thoughts or experiences while serving in Coast Guard billets ashore, afloat and aloft.
Of course it wasn't only Radiomen who used poetry as a way to express their feeling about life in the the Coast Guard. Notable among the others is Dolly Juhlin. A sampling of her work can be found at Dolly Juhlin's Coast Guard Poetry at Jack's Joint. And her recently penned tribute to Vietnam Veterans, Shrapnel of the Heart, appears toward the bottom of this page.
Poems from the Old Guard
Master of the Code
He sits talking with the watch
Fingers fly over the keys.
A cigarette is puffed upon,
Ashes knocked clear with ease.
Pausing for a long draught,
From the coffee cup
The code never stops flowing,
In a flash he catches up.
Not a "dit" or a "dah" is missed,
By this master of the code
As he copies the daily press
At forty words or so.
Many tales have been told
Of men skilled as he.
I sit watch as if hypnotized,
Wishing it were me.
Fresh from school with 18 words
I thought myself the best.
Only one session with the chief,
Laid a boot's pride to rest.
But then, as we know in life,
Ahead down the road
It will be me sitting there
Copying "RATT" like code.
While at the next position,
A wide eyed striker sits.
Watching years of practice
Typing out newsy bits.
He also, as I once did
In admiring wonder,
Shake his head and woefully think,
His choice of rate a blunder.
On time and experience
Will lighten up his load.
Then he will sit down and be
The Master of the Code.
Her bow rises up fast and high
Daylight under her keel
Slamming down with a tremendous sound
A thousand pound weight you feel.
Comfort is a word that is often forgotten
On ships that are built in time of war.
Constructed to do only one job,
Stripped, with luxury left ashore.
To stabilize her while she is underway,
On the bottom are fins of steel.
"Rolling Chocks" they are jokingly called
Which doesn't even slow her sideward reels.
To keep her dry and water tight,
There are bulkheads strong and true.
To move about, it is up and down,
Never a walk straight through.
Built by the Coast Guard at Curtis Bay
She sailed for thirty years or more.
On convoy duties and weather patrols
Proudly, in peace and war.
If she still exists, I do not know.
I feel sure that she is gone.
Stricken from the active vessels list,
She remained for so long.
Both good and bad luck she has had.
Her deeds were of little renown.
Like the time she lost her sonar dome
In mud, going fast aground.
Or the time when she was on Station Echo,
Two hours after giving relief.
Rescuing two Air Force pilots,
Whose refueling efforts came to grief.
Where ever she is, let her rest.
For this idleness is well deserved.
Now let us pass on to others,
Memories and lessons to be preserved.
She was named for an American lake,
Where lived free the Lakotas.
Not wandering the plains, but the woodlands
A rusty ship called Mendota.
It seems to be the coldest hour,
four A.M. on a December day,
while moored port side to
at the Custom House's quay.
Fresh from a warm cozy bunk,
with the watch changed and briefed.
Decks all secure and your Pea coast tight.
Against the chill there is little relief.
Weather noted at the top of the page.
The ship's log book allows
how this is the coldest day
to have so far crossed the brow.
The Messenger slips below decks,
fetching two cups of steaming coffee.
which instantly turns to sludgy ice
and doesn't give a chance to warm me.
We stamp our feet and rub our hands,
but it is all to no avail.
We are just as cold as before.
All the warming attempts have failed.
Now wondering why I have volunteered
to stand the gangway watch instead.
With twenty-four on, and twenty-four off,
I must have been a little touched in the head.
At last your time on deck is through,
and you lay below to try and find
a source of flowing heat
and to thaw out your "Feeble" mind.
The One Eyed Indian
I once met a one eyed Indian
Who led me astray
He caused me to lose my temper
Got me into an affray
He, along with a band of others,
All with the same sly smirk,
Guided many a Coastie wrong
If they were not alert.
Smooth as silk he would work.
Blinding you as he
Until you would hug the bowl
Down on bended knee.
The only place I ever met him
Was on a Caribbean Isle
While a member of a ships crew
Going through war like trials
I now understand that he is done
Confined to a cell
Like the Last Mohican alone
In his glassed in hell
The last of an island tribe,
That turned things screwy
A Cuban brewed beer
A New Day
Green seas, gray sky, a ship of white
rolling to and fro
Oscar Sierra is the position plot.
The next twenty days or so
Bridge watch is manned and next door.
Combat is closed up tight.
Below, messmen muster and show their hands
Cooks, the range fires light.
Under the M.A.'s direction, the mess deck
is scrubbed and swabbed
While reveille is piped on the 21MC
loud enough to make your head throb.
With groans and oaths all hands arise
making their way to the heads
Except for the mid-watch standers,
retreating under the blankets of their beds.
"Clean sweep down fore and aft,"
the early call goes out
Up all bunks, gear stowed away
nothing left to drift about.
"First Class and watch standers
to the head of the line."
Eggs over easy, bacon crisp,
coffee hot on which to dine.
As the sun rises from the sea
the clouds fade away.
Boredom and tedium seem to flee,
at the start of a new day.
All Over Again
Brown water passing below the keel
The special sea detail has been called
Sea buoy sighted with bearing plotted
Pilot aboard with the Jacob ladder hauled.
Twists and turns are met and made
The dram tree is ahead on the right
Two thirds of the crew are all smiles
while one third has the duty tonight.
Pass the State Ports, northward bound
Still no sighting of the dock
Showers are running full out
cleaning up the sea going flock.
At last the bow line goes over
and fast to the bollard it is bent.
The gangway is soon to follow
and the arrival in port message is sent.
The ship lays silent, or so it would seem,
after thirty-seven days underway.
Moored port side to awaiting her stores.
Seventy days hence is her sailing day.
A weather cutter, tired and rusty
has such a very short time in.
Only to be returned to the sea
to do it all over again.
Victory at Sea
Frothy and white the sea foam boils
As the water flows past.
Sells seem to rise slowly under her stern
Then rapidly drifts aft.
Sunset of red, purple and gold
Colors the clouds into many hues
The duty bos'n mate musters amidships,
A read boat crew.
Gently the ship rolls to and fro
As if taking her rest
Like some strange white seabird
Building a watery nest.
Alive with a soul of her very own
Never silent nor stilled
Sailors know of her many ways
Her bowels with BTs and Enginemen filled.
The evening meal prepared and served.
Mess deck now clean.
Enters the off duty watch crew,
Awaiting the flickering screen.
With the smoking lamp lit.
Coffee cups fill.
Friends and Mates tend to gather,
Sea stories to spill.
Salts spin their many doubtful yarns.
Boots are all ears.
Tales of other ships or stations,
And rescues they hear.
Lights go out, voices cease their drone.
A shaft of white cuts through.
The projector clatters a monotonous sound,
As "Victory at Sea" comes into view.
A Radioman's Dream
You awake with a start to the Bosn's shake
Feet hit the deck before you awake
Out of your pit and into your dungs
Then up the berthing ladder, rung by rung
Onto the mess deck with lights too bright
For a horse cock sandwich to last the night
A cup of Joe, a butt or two, then off to the shack
Your duty to do
You climb to the Oh one deck, through salty spray
Dark clouds above march past in their dress grey
White water amidships, bow goes under green
Water swirls aft, sweeping decks clean
You enter the hatch, fresh coffee you smell
Along with stale smoke and the new man's pail
Transmitters emit a hot bees wax odor
Aging capacitors sound like outboard motors
Two weathers are pending and NMH is not here
We lost him on twelve, they faded into thin air.
Eight was tried with out success, four is no better.
Comms are a mess.
Five hundred is still alive and noisy with code.
NRUS tried to relay but lost her M.O.
The Chief will be up at quarter till three.
Copy press and publish the Daily.
With the watch relieved and gone below
I adjust my key, sending real slow
Searching for a station to rid us of traffic
Finding nothing there but that darn static
You have braced yourself, wedged into position
Fired the FRT23 up and started transmission
She suddenly rolls to port, lurches ahead
Bangs into a wave and seems to stop dead.
Shuddering up, shaking her prow
Ridding herself of the water somehow
Through all of this with a coffee cup balanced
Not a drop spilled to foul the Chief's palace
On eight a tone, five by the signal comes through
You get rid of weathers, another message or two
The OBS period over, no AMVERS to steal
Quite proud of yourself is the way to feel
Your watch starts drawing to an end
You think of wife and family, start to grin
For it is day twenty-one on station for you
No more watches, it's over and through
Underway watches leave little to be done
You are homeward bound from Delta, "Ole Son"
But suddenly you wake up and it is all a dream
Of Ocean Station days, your youth's past seen
No more station in the middle of a grid square
Nor a Radioman to found, not anywhere
A key of brass, an Underwood mill
Are of the past, are over the hill
The mission is still there, waiting to be done.
The challenge laid down, accepted by younger ones.
Radioman are gone, the code also you see.
Tradition carried on by computers, remotes and TCs
Southport and Oak Island are to starboard
as ancient Baldhead light looks down.
Mooring lines are struck below
as the single screw makes a drumming sound.
Added turns brings her up to speed
She is a warrior old and true
now doing duty in a friendlier clime
Past retirement but her time is due.
On a course plotted to an Ocean Station
for Echo is where she sails
to the far side of Bermuda
With smooth seas and seaweed trails.
Down below on the boiler flats
BTs build steam by the pound
which turns the turbine to drive her there
Through the seas, again outward bound.
If ever you had a broken tool
Machines that did not run.
Never discard or throw them away
Their usefulness is rarely done.
You took it around to Alton's shop.
He would tear it down.
His skills in fixing these many things
Was really quite renown.
With oil can, pliers, screwdriver or wrench,
Common sense that is rare,
The mowers, blowers and tractors
Soon were in good repair.
Overhauling pumps or fixing brakes
Changing an engine's oil.
Helping others as best he could
Gave satisfaction to his toils.
Today his father called to him and said,
"Bring your kit to do repairs."
It must be to oil the Pearly Gates,
Or fix the Golden Stairs.
Just what drove men to serve aboard
those small ships painted red.
With a fog horn so deep and loud,
when sounded, would wake the dead.
She never sailed nor even much moved
but round bottom anchors out.
Even when you wee trying to talk,
more likely you have to shout.
With their names pained on the hull,
white letters, freeboard high.
Advising of the rocks, shoals and reefs,
to many vessels passing by.
Places, such as Nantucket and Frying Pan,
where ships had gone aground.
Were the locations of these boats
their names of some renown.
There never was any fame or glory,
for those sailors of the Guard.
On their ships that never did sail,
except to or from the yards.
In fog, rain, sleet and snow,
the beacon would flash away.
Fueled, polished, painted and serviced,
tediously, day after day.
Now that they are no more,
it's still hard to know.
what made the men want to serve
each tour of fourteen days or so.
I say, "Hats off" to the lightship crews,
prayer of thanks to all deities.
For better is to have been them,
than it had been me.
Stores piled on the dock.
Fuel barge port side in.
All hands called to muster.
Even the duty crew.
Smoking lamp is out.
Snipes are pumping oil.
Lines of moving men.
Sweaty from their toil.
Master at Arms making sounds.
Searching below deck spaces.
Routing out the slackers.
From their hiding places.
Meats are frozen solid.
In cardboard boxes stacked.
All are struck below.
To waiting reefer flats.
Canned goods boxed and bagged.
Bales bound by steel bands.
All to be stowed away,
Awaiting cooks' talented hands.
Piles of goods have dwindled.
Until the dock is bare.
Even the stench of fuel oil,
Has cleared from the air.
Baker hauled smartly down.
Fuel barge dragged away.
Liberty call at last sounded.
After a laborious day.
Sunday at Sea
Rain squalls scurry across the sea,
Leaving its surface calm.
The sun rises from her bed,
Sending out a red tinted dawn.
Gently the vessel rolls on a swell,
As the watch makes their rounds.
Performing the needful chores and tasks,
While making little sound.
Only members of the relieving watch,
Are roused from their beds.
To the mess deck for a breakfast,
Then to duties up ladder treads.
A white and gold pennant is bent on,
Two-blocked at the yard.
The smoking lamp is extinguished,
While games of chance are barred.
On the fan tail men come together,
Under the Captain's steady gaze.
To offer up prayers of thankfulness,
And sing to the Lord their praise.
The seventh day has at last arrived,
After six of labor and toils.
Making Sunday at sea a quiet time,
As troubled waters tamed with oil.
Have you ever shot a game of Craps
Sailing on a tossing sea?
Rolling dice across steel decks,
Down on bended knee.
Waiting for the ship to pause,
To make your lucky pass.
Only to have rise to meet the cubes,
When released at last.
"Fever in the pump house,
Run Johnny run."
This very strange prayer or chant
To Lady Luck is sung.
Piles of cash on the blanket lay,
Waiting for the call.
Whether it be "Eleven or Seven,"
Shooter takes it all.
Now I have participated
In just such a game.
Wasted many an hour,
Trying for fortune and fame.
My advice to you young sailors
On cutters every where.
Wait till moored to a dock
To toss dice through the air.
Brown water passing below.
Lookouts scan the seas,
Searching for sampans,
Wooden freeboard one inch high.
Too small to be seen
By the trusty scope watchers
On their orange colored screens.
Most are honest fishermen
Eking out a living.
Trying to stay alive
In a world so unforgiving.
The white ship and her crew
Perform their jobs well.
Preventing the flow of arms
Into this south eastern Hell.
Most would rather be back home
Making minimum of a dollar and a dime.
Than to be sailing the Gulf of Tonkin,
Enforcing Market Time.
Headed for Home
Decks tremble and seem to shimmer
under the glare of overhead light.
Her bows cut through the building seas
as she races through the night.
Two hours away a vessel lies dieing
down by the head her holds filling.
A distress signal repeated on failing power,
boats swing out over water that's chilling.
Sea conditions and distance are mutual factors,
reducing their hope of rescue in time.
Deck crew assembles the ready gear aft
while victims call for intervention devine.
A cutter's white paint, stained by rust and soot
had been standing by on her station.
She and the crew leap now to render aid
to seaman, brothers of another nation.
Neither can speak the other's tongue.
Their dreams and customs differ as well.
Both crews offer up their prayers
for a deliverance from a cold watery Hell.
Twenty foot sea, eighty from crest to crest
sending clouds of spray on the fly.
The Captain of the cutter swears an oath
and promises "this night no one will die."
Far away on the sweet and dry land
other watch the drama unfold.
Only those who have been there know the truth
extracted from words so cold.
Knowing the truth of a group of men
trained and drilled into a team so fine.
Made up of snipes, deck apes and cooks,
without hesitation lay it on the line.
Pulling together in one great effort
from disaster, a victory is created.
Bringing on board a group of strangers
only to find all are related.
A swirl of froth, a belch of steam does rise
like a mist into the air.
As their vessel slips beneath the waves
with tear in their eyes they stare.
A job well done with no loss of life,
nothing more than expected,
but messages fly through the air.
Congratulations given and accepted.
As the small white ship comes about,
her screws beating the sea to foam.
To the crew, now doubled, word comes down,
"We are leaving station and headed home."
Perched at the briny water's edge,
where the tides ebb and flow.
Built of stone quarried from coral
the location "Old Coasties" will know.
Green shutters stand out against the grey,
while with black trim, the name is framed.
a cool, quiet and thoughtful place,
where steins of ale or "Pollie Girls" are drained.
The location seems to have been strategic,
as it is where the ship's boats do land.
Athe the foot of the old town square,
where the punishment stocks still stand.
Iron guns that no longer belch flame and shot,
are buried with muzzles down.
Now used to tie up boats and ships,
that sail into the harbor town.
I do not know if it is famous,
or if of any great renown.
nor even if it is still standing,
on the quay of Saint George town.
A quiet place, where shipmates met.
Passing on tales and salty yarns,
sitting back, relaxing in meditation.
Enjoying the White Horse Tavern's rustic Charm.
Fresh Hot Bread
Working his way aft on the port side main deck,
the Bos'n of the Watch does his rounds.
Making sure the vessel is all safe and secure,
water tight doors closed and hatches battened down.
A ready boat is out and to the strongback rigged,
with kapok life jackets lashed to the thwarts.
On deck, foam and water rush past,
as the night cook opens the galley ports.
The released aroma of fresh baked bread,
that lays cooling on their racks.
Drifts on the wind throughout the ship,
bring the watch begging from their tasks.
Now steak is great and lobster as well.
Even stew and rice are fine.
But nothing can beat fresh hot bread,
with melted butter on which to dine.
Den of Thieves
Have you ever been caught stealing,
Hauled before "The Man?"
Standing tall, eyes ahead, listening
To the charges brought to hand?
Hearing the complaint of others,
That are Oh so true.
Head not bending in shame
As others want you to do.
From your eyes, a fierce gleam
Made of pride does glow
As each count of the indictment
Is read, loud and slow.
Twenty two violations listed,
In this month alone.
But smiling as you are judged
Vowing not to atone.
All is fair in love and war
That's as it should be.
To the victor goes the spoils
The man with the faster key.
Loud and log came the cries,
From NMO, and NMG as well.
Who complain the most of theft,
Can go straight to Hell.
Fair play is recommended,
But totals better not fall.
Give the other station a chance,
To answer their calls.
As you leave to return to duty,
You hear the boss say:
Keep up the good work, "Sparks."
Get five move AMVERS today.
Tarnished wings that once glistened and gleamed
high up above the ground in the clear cold air.
Carried Guardsmen on mercy missions
into place and weather no others would dare.
Twin engines that roared with great power,
driving the Wright brother's dream through the sky.
Meal hide, all waxed, buffed and polished,
Protecting those who would ride inside.
Like her namesake she would soar,
from the land as well as the sea.
Struggling up from a watery expanse,
or dashing down runways, to break free.
This fine machine, built patiently by hand,
carried on the old traditions.
A faithful servant of the Guaard,
always completing her missions.
Living, working harder and longer,
than any other "Coastie" aircraft.
Short, stuffy but study built.
Light footed and of shallow draft.
Resting and rusting now in scrap yards.
Looking forlorn and in much disrepair.
No longer a source of crewman pride,
slipping through the cool fresh air.
The Albatross, built by Grumman.
Know to be tough and reliable.
No longer winging through clouds,
her attributes undeniable.
Known affectionately as the Gooney Bird.
Flown skillfully by young men.
A memory now of times gone by,
never to grace the Heavens again.
A key of brass or of chrome plated steel
stowed on a shelf high up and away.
Pounded by fingers or stroked by feel,
Have served with distinction, each had its day.
From out of the past we can hear "CQD,"
and the more modern "SOS."
Both are signals that Guardsmen did heed,
No longer copied by the nation's best.
What Morse gave us ages ago.
"What hath God wrought?" it was said.
Will only be memories, no longer to flow,
From trained hands, by transmitters fed.
Some will deny that it is for the best.
"Zeta Upsilon Tau," the cry.
Faster means are sending it without a rest.
Even its nemesis, teletype, will die.
Computer screens, downlinking and phones,
Makes on wonder what will be.
Laser Lights, auto copiers and drones,
Take away the feeling that were free.
Progress it is called, maybe it's better also.
Even now the mission is the same.
Whether by keyboard or a spark gap glow,
To transmit and receive on a reliable plain.
RMs changed to TCs, remaining as before.
Dedicated professionals who lead the way,
For those that follow the new means, to explore.
Are they satellites? TV? or lasers? who can say.
Now, as things are changed and moving forward,
Remember the dusty key upon the shelf.
It, the same as me once served aboard
Even as yourself.
"Set the special sea detail"
Familiar words are passed.
"Make preparations for underway"
The day dawns at last.
Shore ties broken, are stowed away.
After topping off the tanks.
Stations are manned and ready
Other hands fall into ranks.
Department head, to the Captain
Make their reports.
On mess decks below are heard
Some obscene retorts.
"Single up all lines.
Take in the brow."
Out of massive chaos
She's underway somehow.
In a fresh coat of white.
Her decks swept clean.
Bright work buffed and polished.
Sun give it a golden gleam.
Screws churn up a muddy froth.
The first of many stains.
Below, snipes blow their tubes,
Creating a sooty rain.
Salty spray builds a gritty coat,
On surfaces so recently clean.
Glass films over with milky scum,
As brass turns a turquoise green.
What has taken sixty days
Hard labor for everyone.
In just twenty four hours,
Seems to come undone.
But if it didn't come about,
As I've told you here.
In port periods would be a bore.
Not full of labor's cheer.
Chipping hammer and scrapers
Are God's divine tools,
Not only preventing rust and idleness,
Also sailors from making fools.
Tribute Too Small
In port, on board with the duty,
After evening meal is done.
Walking aft for a quiet time,
Awaiting setting of the sun.
Gentle movement catches my gaze.
A breeze unfurls her folds.
Colors, brilliant and vibrant call out,
Of deeds and meanings oft told.
I stop a moment and stare in wonder,
At emotion flooding my heart.
Why should cloth of stripes and stars,
Cause tears from my eyes to start.
From my childhood onward till now,
The banner has stood alone.
Sheltering me and my country,
Covering us with freedoms unknown.
Countrymen have answered the call,
To defend her through the ages.
Giving up life itself at times,
To earn liberty as their wages.
Some would burn and trample her,
Calling it a "Right."
God have mercy on their souls
They do such within my sight.
"On deck attention to colors,"
A Bos'n pipes the call.
Crewmen rendering a hand salute,
Seems a tribute too small.
There is a quiet place of honor
Where tears are freely shed,
By comrades who held similar dreams
As these, the inscribed dead.
A monument of shining black granite stands
Mute testimony to us all.
Of many Heroes whose names are carved
Into this mirrored wall.
I read carefully, each and every name,
Searching for those I knew.
Finding one here and there or together,
Three members of a crew.
Most of us come to pay our respects
To those who gave their all.
Who have paid their final dues,
Enrolled members of "The Wall."
In its reflective depths are seen,
This country's youth in ranks.
Spurned at first when they returned,
Now receiving belated thanks.
No one can come to this sad haven
And not feel the life once held.
Nor walk away forgetting those,
By hostile action, felled.
Time, we are told, will heal the wounds
Lingering in our hearts and minds.
I wonder if bitter tears will fall then,
In those far future times.
The Final Degree
A brother has taken his last step
From darkness into sublime light.
He's laid his labors before the master
So they be judged wrong or right.
He has given his last lecture.
Earned the final degree.
Received a purified apron
From God on bended knee.
He mounts the Heavenly stairway,
Past gate of pearl he strode.
Carrying upon his back,
All of his earthly loads.
Into the lodge paved with gold,
Built by the Lord's own hand.
Greeted at the misty portal
By singing Angels in a band.
A strong voice commands him
"Brother Roberts, sit to the right of the throne."
"Discard your earthly burdens,
You have reached your Heavenly home.
25 March 1996
The Seasons of Life
When I was young
In the Spring of life,
I took a fair maiden
To be my wife.
The first few year
She was an exciting Lover.
Bringing mystery and joy
Under the cover.
The middle years
Were busy indeed.
Now she had time only for
My children's needs.
Now that I am old,
Set in my ways,
She's become my best friend.
Love of her grows day by day.
30 March 1996
Ralph H. Davis Jr. RMCS
U. S. Coast Guard (Retired)
Crossed the Bar