Every morning I routinely open our front door and send the dog out to the end of the driveway to fetch the morning paper. I usually place the paper on the kitchen counter while I rummage under the sink to get a treat for the dog as a reward for her service. But on that morning, the dog had to wait. The headline “Coast Guard to cut operations” had caught my eye through the plastic bag, and this woman’s best friend was not going to get her treat until I finished scanning the front page story to see what was going on. For several years I have read with great interest anything the Coast Guard is up to – ever since a young enlisted person did something which had a powerful impact on my life.
On August 31, 1994 the U.S Coast Guard Cutter Nantucket was cruising the Florida Straits in response to the Cuban Refugee Crisis.If you were standing on the cutter’s deck that day, a crew member would have explained that all the rafts you saw floating in the water and the Cuban refugees sitting in them were still within the territorial waters of Cuba. Beyond the line of rafters the crew member could have pointed out not only the skyline of Havana but also a Cuban gunboat cruising within her own territorial waters.
Allan Weisbecker, a writer from New York and on board the Nantucket that day, could see that the Nantucket’s crew of sixteen was having a busy day. Once the ship spotted a raft which had made it to international waters, she pulled aside and boarded the refugees. Ten days earlier the Nantucket had been in the process of boarding refugees in heavy seas. The raft had capsized, and three crew members had jumped into the rough water, near the jagged edges of the capsized raft, and rescued the drowning people. In four months the Coast Guard and Navy had rescued 50,000 Cuban refugees.. The Nantucket’s crew alone had saved 1208 lives – young women holding infants, feeble, dehydrated old men, young men claiming to be political prisoners.
It was routine for the ship’s crew to dispose of the empty raft so that it would not become a hazard to navigation. Most of the rafts encountered were no more than an inner tube with some framing of odd pieces of lumber and were disposed of quite easily. However, this day the Nantucket came across a vessel structured of metal piping filled with foam. They knew that this one would be tough. Two crew members boarded her with pickaxes and set about their task. One of the crew members then saw a refugee rise from the collection of Cubans sitting on the deck of the Nantucket and exclaim, “She not sink, never!” The crew spent twenty minutes hacking away at the La NINA, the name inscribed on her stern. The craft would wallow, but it would not sink. The Captain finally ordered them to just set the vessel adrift. As the two Coast Guard crew members boarded the Nantucket, one made his way over to the Cuban who had spoken . He asked the Cuban if he built La NINA and as Weisbecker put it, the refugee fearfully nodded yes. The crew member then offered his hand in respect and admiration. The Cuban, having very little dignity left in his present situation, sat down, and unsuccessfully tried to hold back his tears.
This story has haunted me since I first read it in 1995. My husband and I were separated for a year due to the Cuban Refugee Crisis, and for a long time, I am ashamed to say, I had no sympathy for Cuban refugees. I knew this anger was wrong, and I worked on getting over it. I held onto that story about this crew member of the Nantucket as my own life raft of sorts. I knew that if he could show such empathy and compassion in the midst of yet one more of a long line of twenty-hour days working in the heat of a Florida Straits summer, then surely I could get over it.
His simple gesture speaks volumes for the unique culture of the United States Coast Guard. A simple gesture on our part, in return, would be to support the Coast Guard’s call for full funding, so that these dedicated people can continue to not only respond to all search and rescue calls but also to fully enforce fishing laws, prevent illegal aliens, keep drugs off of our streets – and set a much-needed example for selfish folks like me.