OF HUMAN ENDURANCE
WHERE TO DRAW THE
COMEDY AND TRAGEDY? PUT YOURSELF
ON THE RECEIVING END OF THIS NAUTICAL
ENCOUNTER AND THEN DECIDE -- IF YOU CAN
--- by TONY WELCH
"Another beautiful Caribbean morning, laden with cumulus clouds
towering high above the waters off Puerto Rico. At the moment I'm
aboard Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station's crash/rescue boat, putting
together a feature story about the vessel's purpose and function.
The skipper, chief petty officer Emil Bardowski, is instructing
two wannabe bosun's mates in a practice rescue exercise, using various
floatation and retrieval devices. Chief Bardowski even thought to
bring along a life-sized uniformed mannequin. Its bobbing head protrudes
above the water -- pleading to be rescued. We're adrift now, the
boat's twin Packard engines in neutral. My intent is to document
various life-saving maneuvers, using my trusty 4x5 Speed Graphic
camera. In the distance there's a light cruiser anchored in the
middle of the roadway.
"From out of nowhere comes a hell-bent Marine Corps jet jockey
behind the controls of an A-4M Skyhawk. He flashes overhead, then
goes inland in a wide half- circle and re-enters the roadway, passing
directly over the cruiser. I judge he's doing close to 250 miles
per hour. He then cuts sharply to port and drops down to maybe 100
feet, the port wingtip pointing at a steep angle to the water. He
continues banking left as he lines up to approach the cruiser for
another fly-by. For whatever reason - known only to the pilot -
the plane drops even lower - and lower still. The wingtip touches
the water just as Chief Bardowski cries out: 'GEE-ZUS KEE-RYST!'
- in total disbelief as we all are - races to the cabin and gets
underway, full throttle. In the distance we can see a rush of activity
aboard the cruiser, and then what appears to be the captain's motorized
gig being lowered over the side. The chief enters the debris field,
slows down to a crawl, and orders the two seamen to stand by on
either side of the bow with a pair of 15 -foot boat hooks. 'Keep
a sharp lookout!' he shouts through a bullhorn. 'And use hand signals
to put me on course if you spot something.'
makes a couple sweeps up and down. I decide to climb atop the wheelhouse
roof, which vantage point greatly increases my field of view. Between
film exposures, I keep looking for signs of life despite the overwhelming
odds against that happening. A couple times the bottom of the crash
boat makes noisy contact with submerged fragments of the plane.
There's lots of back-and-forth exchanges once the gig arrives within
shouting distance. After a few minutes the commotion subsides, and
that's when I notice one of the sailors lean over the bow and pull
something on board with his boat hook.
down and go forward just as the boat comes to an standstill. The
chief's abandoned the wheelhouse and his attention is now focused
on tossing a line to the gig approaching from the starboard side.
I continue forward, only to discover what proves to be a fuel-soaked
khaki pants leg and an equally shredded pair of boxer shorts laid
out on the bow deck. The seaman who's trawled this conglomeration
from out of the briny is down on his knees, alternately poking and
pulling with his fingers. He suddenly gives a tug and comes up with
-- it can't be anything else, even to an untrained eye -- a spermatic
cord, from which dangles a solitary mangled gonad.
it gradually dawns what's in his hand, the sailor springs to his
feet and begins frantically scanning his immediate surroundings.
Suddenly-- a solution! He quickly scoots across the deck to a ledge
running along the inside of the gunnel - upon which sits an open
goes the gonad.
it be known that Chief Bardowski is a seasoned pro - a mix of half
bosun's mate, half coxswain. In later conversation, I learn he's
driven infantry landing craft during two island invasions in the
Pacific. And survived a kamikaze attack while aboard ship. He has
many WW11 mementos and souvenirs relating to his time in combat,
but none does he hold closer to his heart than an over-sized ceramic
coffee mug with its array of 18-karat gold leaf lettering that spells
out all the battles he's been through. The mug follows Emil wherever
he goes; it can truly be said that the chief and his coffee mug
are inseparable. Do I mean to imply joined at the hips? Nay! Higher
than that. Try joined at the lips. I repeat - at the lips.
the chief meanders over and discovers what lies nestled at the bottom
of his beloved mug, he instantly freezes. His unbroken gaze lasts
all of 10 seconds. Then, with a lion's roar, he smashes the cup
on the deck and turns to face his tormentor. The seaman in turn
spins around and runs pell-mell for the wheelhouse -- the chief
at his heels. Had the miscreant reacted a few seconds later, he'd
never have made it inside and latched the door in time. Make that
two missing in action -- almost.
nearby gig pulls in the slack line and half-a-dozen swabbies - alarmed
by all the shouting and cursing - climb aboard. They coax the frightened
sailor to come out of the wheelhouse and then form a protective
ring around him. And that's how we make our way back to the dock
-- with CPO Emil Bardowski outnumbered and blaspheming behind the
wheel, and the gig following in our wake.
the Marine jet pilot? Turns out his brother is the engineering officer
aboard the cruiser. They'd talked ship-to-shore, and the engineer
asked his brother to pay a visit the next time he was airborne and
do some fancy aerial gymnastics to impress the crew. Impress them
he did - far above and beyond the call of duty.
write a first-person account of the crash - it's big news on base.
Missing from the narrative are certain unmentionables. Until now,
that is. What you've just read is made possible by the inexorable
passage of time - more than a half-century, if memory serves. And
the passing of Chief Bardowski as well....rest his tormented soul.
Roosevelt Roads (Puerto Rico) expanded to become the largest U.S.
naval facility in terms of acreage, sporting over 1,300 buildings
and home to 7,000 personnel and their dependents. Then, in 2004,
the military suddenly closed Rosey Roads for good - leaving behind
the U.S. Navy's costliest ghost town. The sole remaining resident
is Kilroy, who refuses to abandon his post.