Tropical Time Out

Published 10:12 am Friday, July 12, 2013

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

Time passes slowly at Gitmo. I have few jobs other than flying patrols. I have no collateral duties involving specific divisions and personnel; it’s a change from my other fleet experience. My squadron’s officer personnel are already assigned to the routine management of the unit. I am the only newcomer to the outfit. There are other junior officers, but I’m the newest.

I find ways to pass the time. Our support facilities include a well equipped metal working shop. I become well acquainted with the metal shop crew and spend time learning about each machine. They permit me some “hands on” practice. They discover a cache of empty brass cannon shell casings and there is much excitement about what novelty items can be made at Uncle Sam’s expense. I’m included in the fun. We decide to make ash trays.

We find that the Cuban nickel is about right for three rests around the outside with a center rest mounted on the spent firing fuse. We make sure that all fuses are not active. The brass is easy to cut to size and the center round fuse can be used to mount the object on a drill press for smoothing and polish. The coins are gently shaped to be used around the rim and center. The welding job is done by proficient personnel in the division; I’m not permitted to use the torches. Probably a good idea.

Many heavy brass shell casing ash trays are made as souvenirs of the time we spend in Cuba. No one seems to care that the cache of brass is lessened; there’s a large quantity left. Smoking is very popular in the military. Here in Cuba at the exchange, cigarettes are eleven cents per pack. There’s not much financial motivation to stop; it goes well with the ten cent per drink happy hour at the clubs.

One weekend, we are offered an opportunity to board a US Navy destroyer for an overnight cruise to Jamaica. We’ll be guests of the ship’s crew for the trip to Montego Bay, spend two days and nights at a beach resort, and be picked up by a cargo plane on Monday for the return. It’ll be about fourteen hours on the ship. I can’t turn down a trip like that and embark with a few others.

It’s another world on the relatively small warship. Everything is cramped and functional. Overheads are low throughout the ship, with hatchways even lower. Moving about is a learned activity. Our hosts are gracious; I’m assigned to a ship’s officer that has a spare bunk. I’m impressed at the efficiency of the whole ship operation, but I can’t imagine the level of activity necessary if the ship were under attack or attacking.

The hotel stay and beach experience is enjoyable; nightlife includes the traditional “spitting fire” demonstration and island music. Food is fresh and different. I learn about raw sugar and bitter coffee. The stay is under the “modified American plan” which includes lodging and two meals daily. They assume guests are going to be out and about during daylight. It works for me. Excursions across the island are fairly expensive and my budget does not allow venturing far afield. The beautiful beach is right across the road and I feel the need to go no further. It’s a casual interlude from military life, and I enjoy it as such.

We board our aircraft for the flight back to Gitmo on schedule, and land late in the afternoon. It’s another lesson in spatial relationships that the trip down took about fourteen hours and the trip back about an hour and a half. I’m very conscious of the difference air travel makes for the general population.

I know that the passenger ship United States is the fastest ocean liner in the world. I also know that the era of international jet aircraft service is well established and does not bode well for shipboard ocean crossing passenger service. The idea of days at sea loses its appeal when one can be in a distant country in hours. I’ve just experienced the difference in miniature.

I remember little about the hotel and beach at Montego Bay. I can vividly remember standing at the taffrail of the destroyer, watching a straight line wake disappear, feeling the deep throbbing of powerful engines, hearing the sounds of the sea, and smelling the salt air. I understand the meaning of a sailor’s wish for “good winds and following seas.” As those who have gone before me, I feel the call of the sea.

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