The clarion call of freedom

Published 10:00 am Friday, June 7, 2013

by Archie Howell

The usual assortment of human derelicts are visible out my car window; some walk, some sit, others sleep or, at least, appear to. Eyes follow my arrival as they have each day since spring. New Orleans is long past that sprouting, renewal time and has slumped into summer doldrums. Heat rises from pavement fractured by thousands of auto and truck wheels. I turn into a parking place next to the Firestone Store where I’ve been employed since leaving the Navy four months ago. This is Camp Street, the industrial district of New Orleans, right in the middle of skid row at its finest.

It seems a long way from the beaches of Bermuda.

This is a full service Firestone store. We pump gas and sell tires and industrial products for the oil industry, with a small showroom for appliances, mostly sold on the installment plan. Most of the installment business is my job. The back garage section is for brake jobs and tire installations. We have a road service crew for large truck business, and have a fairly large tire recapping business. Seven employees operate this store; it seems to function well. My bosses are caring and considerate and the local corporate offices are pleased with our performance.

The paycheck leaves much to be desired, but it’s a start in this civilian world.

I’ve applied to the naval reserve offices to join a reserve squadron; it’ll certainly help finances. They have no vacancies. Until Cuba. I receive a phone call one day from the personnel officer of the local reserve unit. It seems the local squadron is being recalled to active duty and I am invited to join them. In a week. I quickly perceive that such an action will probably prevent my starvation and stagnation in this job, and I agree. My bosses aren’t too overjoyed by it all, but they are patriotic and wish me well. I start the recall process along with all other personnel assigned to the unit.

I have recent fleet experience and can bring a certain level of tactical experience along with me. I also have time in the particular aircraft (S2F) and will not need extensive training. The check in goes hurriedly, I am assigned to a crew, and we pack up for deployment to Boca Chica field near Key West, Florida. I also have recent experience with the Florida Straits area, and the north coast of Cuba.

National leaders have confronted one another and tensions are palpable in the Florida Keys. The political public displays do nothing to allay American citizen’s fears. Television has provided a milestone for public awareness, but I don’t think anyone knows just how critical all this posturing really is. Our patrols carry live weapons; we can do a lot of damage to shipping.

One day my crew starts its regular patrol at dawn, flies a first leg over to Cay Sal, turns for the north coast of Cuba, and stays just outside the territorial limits along Cuba’s north coast. We identify and photograph all shipping encountered. A little west of Havana harbor we turn north for our return to Boca Chica. Our radar operator reports a target a few miles to the northwest and we investigate. It’s a small target; we’re thinking submarine.

We find a twenty five (approximate) foot inboard boat towing a thirteen foot (best guess) outboard. We can’t get an accurate people count; bodies are packed fairly tight. We know, by their position and course, that to continue in that direction will miss Key West completely. It is obvious that they are seeking the keys. We circle a couple of times and drop a series of smoke flares in a line toward Key West. We feel relief when the boats change course and follow the flares. We also make a report to the Coast Guard, who go out to intercept the group for their safety.

After that experience, I think: “How much pressure or oppression would it take for me, personally, to give up all that I have in the material world, including friends and family, and set out across ninety miles of open ocean, in an outboard boat, just on the promise of freedom?” In truth, I cannot imagine such pressures.

It is the greatest single advertisement for freedom and free enterprise that I will ever experience.

It seems that the Soviet Union blinked first in this showdown; few will ever know just how close to the deadly edge of war we came. I have a new respect for the freedoms of my country, my home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at