Vow of a Sailor

Written By Richard Drebert

©Good Catch Publishing

The Polaroid flashes stung my swollen eyes as my mother snapped pictures, stifling her sobs to hold the camera steady. Photos of my bloodied face quivered as they slowly developed in her fingers. They should have been pictures of me fishing for salmon or posing with a brace of ptarmigan I bagged, but instead, Mom gathered evidence of a crime.

After the first blow of the baseball bat, I had given up the fight with my four attackers, but they had pummeled me repeatedly to prove my martial arts skill was no match for their brute force. Now I lay on the couch, drifting in and out of a haze of vague colors, noises and shapes, suffering a far deeper trauma in my soul than in my body. It seemed that the room overflowed with phantoms, and from between two dimensions, someone rapped at our door.

A Hoonah policeman shoved his way inside, and it took all my concentration to collect fragments of his voice: “… the boy is pressing charges…”

Of course I was! I had sidestepped the fight for months until my nemesis and three of his comrades chased me down. My Karate training had probably saved my life, though his knife sliced through my thumb and thigh before I wrecked his elbow and took the weapon from him. I punished him with blows to the face until I felt the weight of his friend smash me to the ground and straddle me. Like my martial arts instructor had taught me at the dojo, I wrenched from under him. Buoyed by my conquest, I heaved this second attacker into the mud, and that’s when the cursing, the buzzing of insects and the glow of consciousness fell away like someone punched the off switch on our house generator. Darkness pinned me to the dirt, and somehow, I ended up in my living room at home.

For some reason, Mother seemed incredulous, almost frantic as she faced the officer. I launched what was left of my consciousness for a final glimpse at the evil card revealing my future: The boy pressing charges wasn’t me, but my foe.

In the months ahead, I would face a deceived prosecutor who believed that I was the knife-wielding aggressor, and most of my eighth-grade year would be spent in the hospital. My father would exhaust his retirement savings to keep me out of juvenile prison, the episode becoming a wedge between my family and me.

I became an emotional zombie after my ordeal, as rejection festered in my heart, and by my late teens, I turned to alcohol to numb the pain. Seduced by twisted longings, I crossed into occult realms for empowerment, and brutality became routine in my life. Later, as a sailor, Coast Guard regulations polished me outside, but inside, I still felt abandoned and violent. I sneered at anyone who told me that Jesus had a plan for my life — until I fell in love with my shipmate, Theresa. In prayer, she requisitioned my heart for salvage and became part of an unfolding miracle.

***

“Rattlesnake!”

My 9-year-old sister danced around the pickup on tiptoes, her face in a pixie grimace while Dad buried the snake’s diamond-print body. In the past months, an explorer who lived behind my dad’s blue eyes had broken loose. Dad had been managing a grocery store in Central Point, Oregon, and now, not even a rattlesnake could slow his dogged pace while loading up the old Ford pickup that was bound for Alaska.

At 6’1”, with a week’s growth of auburn beard, Dad looked the part of a burly trapper on the Last Frontier. With a teaching certificate in hand, he believed he could land a job in the north, and he had convinced my mother that the money was great in the Great Land. Surely they could retire to the “easy life” more quickly in Alaska, with the higher salaries, than in Oregon. Our Aloha camp trailer seemed to shiver in anticipation as Mom popped in and out, loading up coats to brave Fairbanks’ winters. I chased behind her, an adventurous, noisy 4-year-old.

Oregon summer was in full bloom as we drove past Medford, where my grandfather worked as an electrical inspector. Then we passed Grants Pass, where I was born. A few hundred miles further, the I-5 freeway died out in a maze of tunnels and overpasses in Washington State. Then our canary-yellow pickup fluttered through Canada with our camp trailer in tow. Oft passed by semis and faster cars — and at least one of our own trailer tires — we breached the Alaska border after seven repair stops.

In Fairbanks, we set up camp at the Norlight Camper Park — a gravel and grass intersection for hundreds of wayfarers. There were tourists camping in boxy motor homes, fishermen in hip waders, lugging salmon, hunters on 4x4s and job seekers for commercial fishing, tourism and the oil industry. Sarah, the proprietor of the park, baked salmon for guests in the evenings, while local talent played country tunes with an Alaskan flavor. Gold nugget rings and bracelets weighed down her fingers and wrists, and no one forgot her beefy hands flipping salmon steaks, or her hospitality. She even offered showers for a quarter, which my family relished after absorbing miles of grit during weeks on the road.

Fortress of the Bears

My father’s first teaching assignment landed us on a million-acre island where grizzly bears outnumbered humans by nearly three to one. The Tlingit Natives called their island Kootznoowoo, meaning Fortress of the Bears, but on the Alaska map, we read “Admiralty Island.” Most of the Tlingits on the island lived in Angoon, a “metropolis” with one street and two schools. At Angoon, my family moved into what the people called the teacherage, an apartment complex built near the schools to house itinerant instructors (who seldom survived more than one school year).

The Angoon high school teacher enrolled his daughter in my first-grade class, distinguishing her as the only other white student in school besides me. My native classmates rolled out the welcome mat for me — with fists flying. It was in Angoon among the Tlingits that my survival instincts sharpened, and soon, I defended my ground and gained respect.

I ran wild in Angoon, living among people who lived a subsistence lifestyle, fishing, hunting and gathering berries as their people had for centuries. My first school year flew past, and unlike other families of teachers, we stayed through the summers, learning how they lived. But we weren’t studying their culture — we just had no money to fly in and out of Angoon again. Somehow these gentle people must have understood that we needed a home; they opened their hearts, inviting us into their private world and accepting us. After the first year at Angoon, we moved from the teacherage to a mobile home site on a hill overlooking the bay. From our kitchen window, we marveled at humpback whales breaching and spouting noisily, and I accepted the scene as typical, like city traffic at a busy street corner. At 8 years old in Angoon, I was home and embraced my Tlingit brothers’ and sisters’ culture as my own.

As a child, I had no idea that a demonic influence had traveled with me to Alaska, and like slowly unwrapping a gift, I learned of a spiritual world that my mother seemed drawn to. She often smudged our house, waving a feather to spread sage smoke into every corner of a room to cleanse it from evil spirits, before losing herself in deep meditation before various small altars. It became a natural part of family life for me as I grew up.

***

“Bear,” I whispered, not to my mother or to the little woman near me who had taken us to her special blueberry patch. I mingled the word with my breaths, coming in short bursts, as I backed away from the deep green bushes where the other harvesters bent. Our dog had seen the brown bear first, and now he sat in the car, wondering why Mom and me sidled like crabs toward him, instead of bounding in panic. The grizzly had saliva swinging from his half-opened mouth and blueberries stained his golden fur. It towered above the bush, overshadowing the native woman who stood still as an ice sculpture, staring up into his eyes.

Was she paralyzed in fear?

The bear also stood statue-like, with only his eyes moving, measuring the dog for a meal and then me. Then his full attention seemed drawn to our Tlingit friend who was standing between us. She was speaking, with an arm upraised. I couldn’t make out what she was saying — it was so low and mesmerizing — but the bear suddenly dropped to all fours, huffed like a steam pot and ambled away.

We moved to a new blueberry patch, and later, the story circulated at potlatches. A potlatch is similar to a potluck except whale, caribou, moose and fish are served instead of Kentucky Fried Chicken and ground beef casseroles. Tlingits tell stories at potlatches with their dances, and the elders gather everyone for timeless tales about ravens, bears and famous hunters. And though I could understand little of the Tlingit language, at one celebration, they embraced my family as part of their clan, a deeper tribute than just becoming ceremonial members of the tribe.

But Dad had grown restless, and after a brief stay in Fairbanks, our family moved to a new school in a community called Anderson, in the northern part of Alaska.

In the Shadow Of Denali

Anderson seemed like a foreign country to me at 8 years old. In the 1950s, a homesteader had chopped his land into lots and sold them to military personnel, then called the area a town. Clear Air Force Base lay to the south about five miles away, and Dad taught at the same Anderson elementary school that had been founded nearly 40 years before. It was a small school system with a total enrollment of about 100 kids from kindergarten to 12th grade, and I felt like I had landed in a club of the devil. It galled me that I had to leave my home in Angoon, and over and over, I fought with the same kids, until my mother decided that the only way I would survive (more brawling lay ahead if my father kept us hopping around Alaska) was to unleash my “inner power.”

First she drove me to Fairbanks, 76 miles away, where we found my sensei (teacher) who schooled me regularly in Shotokan Karate. Then Mom continued to open my mind to a mixture of Asian and New Age ideas by kindling my interest in shamanism (special relationships with, or gaining control over, spirit beings). Knowing that I could “share” power with other beings gave me a fresh confidence as I excelled in Karate. Soon, I could hold my own when the bullies pressed me to fight after school. A violent seed had been planted in my heart, and it was growing.

During the four years I lived at Anderson, I discovered a few friendships and acquaintances I will never forget. One was a half-Clydesdale horse named Old Jody, owned by my pal, Jan. We swung up and around massive Old Jody, jamming his sides with our heels to make him move and screeching war cries like Apaches. The gentle giant had just one pace — slow — and he barely tolerated us.

Gator was a taxidermist we knew, and I loved to visit his spacious log cabin just to see the wolf. It stood like a snarling sentry near Gator’s throne, which was built completely of moose antlers from bottom legs to backrest. The antler chair was Gator’s Alaskan Lazy Boy, and he seemed nearly as proud of his creation as he was of his son, Skeeter. Gator was a renowned trapper around Anderson, and Skeeter was heir apparent to his fading trade.

Hypothermia On the Homestead

Spruce boughs drooped under a heavy white blanket, smothering the landscape everywhere I looked. I glanced at my bearded father whose lower face reminded me of a walrus. The warm, moist breath from his lungs had condensed on his mustache, and ice spikes dangled from both sides of his mouth along with a clabber of thick rime around his lips. We grunted and pounded nails in a world as alien to human life as the moon and as silent as death. The only sounds came from my father and me as we hoisted logs one upon another for our cabin walls. The weak glow from the sun bled away, leaving us just enough pale light to stoke up a fire, one of my favorite times of the day.

I felt like I was home on our 65-acre homestead, and the walls of the cabin were nearly built. Anderson was almost tolerable when I was working with my father at the homestead, and here, I felt that I could drop my guard. Health problems and drinking had been stirring up discord in my family. Here in this solitary place, I could stoke up my fortitude for the next round of emotional turmoil.

Dad and I had staked the homestead (established the boundaries) together, and I learned how to drive the three-wheeler, an all-terrain vehicle (it looked like a tricycle on steroids), to haul lumber and supplies to the cabin site. On this trip, we had walked two miles in from the George Parks Highway, and now we huddled close to the fire in the shadow of 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, also known as Denali or The Great One.

During the day, a chill had stolen through my wool coat while I worked and seeped beneath my skin, cooling down my blood. As I sat in the fire glow, I began to shiver, then quake, and by the time my father noticed, I had surrendered to hypothermia. He handed me a hot drink as he threw a pack together, but I couldn’t hold the cup. I read the panic in his eyes as I tried to stand; my knees felt like the bones had dissolved, and I buckled to the dirty snow. My hands and feet were missing somewhere; they just weren’t where they had always been.

Dad half-carried and half-dragged me the two miles to the truck and got me home before the hypothermia could strangle my beating heart. Frostbite claimed nerves in my fingers and toes, but no gangrene set in. Though I still suffer pain in cold weather, at least I don’t remember our Anderson sojourn because of amputated fingers or toes.

I was about 12 years old when we left the shadow of Denali and moved to Hoonah, an Alaskan village on Chichagof Island. I had spent my formative years in a Tlingit culture at Angoon, and now, Tlingit behaviors showed in my lifestyle without me even knowing. Hoonah was predominately Haida, with a native culture and customs distinct from the Tlingits. At Hoonah, their centuries-old rivalry would collide in my life and send my future careening out of control.

Spirits In Hoonah

Besides one boy from the logging camps, I was the only white kid in school at Hoonah. I had missed Angoon when we moved to Anderson; now I missed Anderson, where I left my few friends and a stable life. At least we had kept the homestead, and my grandfather planned to fly north to check on it periodically. The land in the shadow of Denali had staked a claim on me, and I couldn’t wait to see it again.

A wet and lush rain forest swallowed Hoonah. Ferns as tall as me skirted massive spruce and hemlock trees, and roads meandered like muddy corkscrews about mountains. Logging trucks hauled massive, denuded trunks to the port for barging inland to be milled into lumber, and on those same dirt roads, I learned to drive in my dad’s old Ford F-100. One good memory of Hoonah wedged in between regrets. My parents bought me my first guitar, a Harmony, which is a knockoff of a Fender Strat, and my father and I began playing together. Dad had a plan: Just a few more school-teaching gigs at villages (or maybe at a school district near Anchorage), and he could retire.

In Hoonah, I made a few friends, but often I would bicycle to the airport and fish for stranded salmon in saltwater tide pools alone. During the summer, my family would move to another part of the island to the Excursion Inlet Processing Plant where they worked on the slime line, preparing fish for canning. It was good to be away from Hoonah and the constant threat from teenagers who sought to prove their manhood. Fighting had become a way of life for me on the island.

At our house in Hoonah, Mother began ushering me through portals better kept locked and bolted by a loving parent. Our living room was a shrine to the spirit world, and my mom studied techniques of shamans (spiritual healers) and began teaching me how to focus energy through my hands to heal. Two shaman’s masks held special significance. One was green with feathers and one was gold-colored, and they fit more than three-quarters of a human face. The masks helped a shaman channel spiritual power.

During Christmas, just before my life began to unravel, a few friends had come to visit, and my mother brought out the tarot cards for their readings. Afterwards, we were chatting about the spirit world when the atmosphere in the room suddenly seemed charged with expectation for an event. All at once, our Christmas tree levitated up out of its stand, as if invisible hands cradled it, then tilted to a horizontal position and drifted to the floor to lie perfectly still. We gasped, believing that a Kushdaka (native evil spirit) was in our house. Our dipping in and out of Satan’s realm had cleared the way for evil to encroach upon our family, and sometimes, figurines on shelves clattered to the floor in response to “invitations.”

Portal To Imprisonment

In 1989, I was in eighth grade, absorbed with playing the newest songs on my guitar, hunting, fishing and discovering everything Alaska had to offer. I had violent confrontations now and then, but they had died down, except for one schoolmate who seemed bent on proving himself by fighting the “white kid who knew Karate.” After school one day, as I made my way home, he found me alone and challenged me. I was smart enough to know the odds were stacked against me when I looked into the eyes of three other native boys standing around me. I tried to leave, but my challenger blocked my way.

The knife in his hand forced me to stand my ground, and I took the offensive, but before I could fasten my grip on his arm, he sliced my hip. The blade nicked my thumb as I grabbed for his wrist.

During the whole struggle, I ended up with the knife in my hand briefly, before his friend slammed the bat against my head.

At 14 years old, my whole life could be summed up as a series of meetings. Some were with lawyers to fill every hypothetical gap in my story before my trial, and some were with the prosecuting attorney. I seemed to have entered a world of ghouls in suits, practiced in the art of tearing families apart, and I was the contemptible teenager who forced his parents to burn up their hard-won retirement savings.

I felt used up, alone, with no more energy left inside me to channel. Any spiritual entities that had previously revealed themselves to my family seemed to be waiting to see my case go to trial, too, just like everyone else. No amount of meditation or hoping could deliver me from my fate, and the fear of being locked away haunted me day and night. The worst of it was that my father and mother’s dreams were hopelessly tied to me, as my ship continued to sink.

Then, as suddenly as the baseball bat had ended my fight, the prosecutor dropped the case against me altogether. I felt jubilant for a time. The threat of juvenile prison had vanished, but a sense of abandonment stubbornly dug in and rooted deeply in my heart. I went back to Hoonah with a vow to survive. In body, mind and spirit, I would train myself to defeat anyone who would challenge me, and I didn’t need my family or anyone else to help.

***

“Whoa, man, look at that…” I breathed to myself aloud.

The ship was the most beautiful vessel I had ever seen. Gleaming in the sun, piercing the bay like a white harpoon, the Coast Guard Cutter Liberty drifted close to our Hoonah dock. I tossed over my bike and trotted over to the men tying off.

“Wanna help?”

Boy did I! I grabbed the rope, and the two sailors in spotless working blue uniforms showed me how to weave a knot over the dock pegs on the fuel pier.

“You wanna look ‘er over, son?”

“Yes, sir.”

The words seemed to roll off my tongue, as easily as “let’s eat,” and it would be the first of thousands of “yes, sirs” I would be aiming at Coast Guard officers in my future. After my tour of the Liberty from stem to stern, the hope of a career in the Coast Guard fastened in my mind. I didn’t know it then, but God had given me a glimpse of my future, just as surely as he had rescued me from prison. Liberty would someday describe my experience when God delivered me from the enemy of my soul.

White Needle of Death

We were at the Norlight Camper Park again, flat broke and waiting for a teaching job in South Central Alaska to surface. Dad hoped to land a gig in the Matanuska Valley, perhaps Palmer or Wasilla, when a job in Glacier View appeared, and not a moment too soon. We had been living on hot dogs until Sarah hired my dad and me to play guitar together for the salmon bake customers. We played for all the salmon we could eat and free camping.

Near the end of summer, we drove down to Glacier View to a school situated along the Glenn Highway, northeast of Sutton, not too far from a community called Sheep Mountain. My sister had graduated and moved to Southern Oregon University on a basketball scholarship, and my dad would teach elementary grades at a school with a total of 54 students, including me. During the year at Glacier View, I learned how to play hockey — a way to legally bash in faces without suffering the consequences. I sunk deeper into depression, searching for an identity I could latch onto. I excelled in irritating the adults in my life by piercing my ear and wearing crazy clothes, and I had no clue who I was or why I was alive. After a year at Glacier View, Dad moved us to the Matanuska Valley where he took a new teaching position.

Our move to the Palmer area delivered a fresh excitement for my family as we had access to the “big city,” Anchorage, at least a few times a month. I applied for a work permit at age 16 and began to make my own way in the world. Like two strange dogs, my dad and I passed each other in silence each morning if we mistakenly saw each other at all. I usually left earlier for my job at Burger King to avoid my father completely.

Dark thoughts of suicide bore down upon me during days of depression, and I barely resisted the tow, planning every detail of my own murder. Mom worked at the Palmer library, and her knowledge of the occult still fascinated me. During my last three years before I graduated, I divided my time between working, partying in Anchorage and learning to acquire spiritual power. What I learned in the occult fused with every part of my life, and my heart seemed dead to normal relationships with people. I slid closer to becoming an occult healer, until God reminded me about the gleaming white Coast Guard Cutter Liberty on the Hoonah pier.

On my 18th birthday, I signed papers in Anchorage to join the Coast Guard and secured my first tattoo. Alone in my decision, I was on my way to the toughest boot camp in the military branches, except for the Marines. After training at Cape May, New Jersey, I was sent to Alameda, California. A ship became my home at sea, and the crew called our boat “The White Needle of Death.”

***

It wasn’t the congestion of the city that shook me; I could have handled the bright lights and wild nights in the San Francisco Bay area. It was my first duty aboard the 378-foot Coast Guard Cutter Munro that tested my resolve. I wanted to jump ship and swim to the shore those first nights. I breathed everyone else’s air, and it sickened me. The cutter was the equivalent of a Navy-class frigate. It was a village unlike any I had ever lived in, one that rolled atop ocean swells, manhandled by wind.

Aboard the Munro, 20 men slept in the same bedroom, used the same three toilets, the same three sinks and the same three showers. Private moments? There were none. For one year and nine months, I yearned for the mountains and rivers, bays with breaching whales or even a grizzly bear to chase me down — anything but my cell aboard the Munro.

Somehow, I had assumed that the Coast Guard would be my gateway to freedom — I chafed under family expectations when I lived at home — but aboard ship, I found my life awash in more rules and regulations than my parents could have ever dreamed up.

***

“Are you listing?”

“Listing? How should we know? The waves are 30 to 40 footers, and winds are off the charts! Hurricane force…”

The radio operator aboard the Munro kept his voice even, hoping to impart a measure of calm to the man on the stranded freighter. “Where is the crew?”

“We’ve got 27 out on the deck in Gumbie (survival) suits, waiting for you guys. The fire in the engine room hasn’t spread much, but we want off this tub.”

“We have you in sight, Hyundai Seattle. Stand by for evacuation.”

It was my first patrol, and from the Munro flight deck, I caught a glimpse of the Hyundai bobbing like a cork. The green Bering Sea waves were dousing the orange human shapes that were clinging desperately to every protrusion. We motored toward the crippled freighter, the horizon bucking hard as the Munro flung sea foam high into the steel-gray sky. We were about 500 miles south of Adak, and it would be a tricky rescue. Our helicopter, an HH 65 Dauphin, could carry just one crewmember at a time, and from the way the Hyundai throbbed drunkenly across the swells, we realized she might capsize at any moment. In a onetime helicopter launch, we planned for a ship-to-ship transport of all 27 crewmen.

I manned the static rod for the Dauphin as it delivered survivors to our deck, while the wind tossed the aircraft above me like a toy. A hovering helicopter can collect hundreds of volts of electricity, and the static rod, which I grounded to the helo, dissipated the charge, protecting the crew from electrocution. When all the survivors had been offloaded, our Dauphin touched down just as the ship bucked, and the landing gear crumpled like plastic. The pilots and rescue team scrambled out, and our deck crew secured the helo before it could scrape overboard.

After a hero’s welcome in Alameda (TV cameras caught me guiding the rescue basket below the Dauphin), our White Needle of Death initiated us again with a 90-day stint along the coast of South America, without seeing land once. A drug boat had eluded the Navy, and we had been called in to assist them.

The ocean along coastlines can vary in personality and temperament. The Bering Sea is belligerent and smothers a ship in frigid gray or emerald-green. But the South Pacific’s disposition can change at the whim of an errant breeze, slapping sailors in a tantrum of blue and white. In the South Pacific, our White Needle of Death barely survived a storm that disabled most of our crew with severe seasickness. After the storm, we steamed into Panama for refit and, for most of the crew, a time of drunken oblivion. While aboard the Munro during my South Sea adventure, I began learning a job as ship storekeeper, and the man training me must have seen qualities in me that others had overlooked. Garcia trained me in the field that I would later pursue as a career, while I still steamed steadily toward alcoholism.

First Love

There was something different about Theresa. She didn’t have the coarseness that was common in most military women who jockeyed for status among men. In Petaluma, California, she studied to be a Coast Guard corpsman, and as our paths crossed during training exercises, I had a strange sense that she would be part of my life. Theresa had a son named Tyler who stayed with her family in the South, and I knew she would work hard to be stationed close to him. I maneuvered for duty in Louisville, Kentucky, within driving distance of wherever Theresa might end up. Both of us were flummoxed to see her sent to Louisville, where I was waiting.

Theresa had a compelling steadiness that captivated me, though the Bible she carried riled up something deep inside my spirit. Still, I loved my Baptist shipmate and yearned to be influenced by her quiet Christian character. Tyler’s father had abandoned him, and I understood the battle he might face. So, true to my impulsive nature, I asked Theresa’s father for her hand in marriage. It was miraculous for me to have been accepted by her family — I had only known her for a few months. In our marriage vows, I committed myself to protect and love my new son as well as my beloved wife.

As far as I was concerned, I had started my life over with a woman who loved me unconditionally. We stayed in Louisville, and a few months later, Theresa mustered out of the Coast Guard, while I remained active for a time. We attended a Baptist church as a family, though I had no faith in this Jesus that Theresa’s pastor seemed excited about. My faith lingered in the shaman gods of my youth who had demonstrated their power through me when I meditated and performed occult rituals. When Theresa and I discussed religion, we agreed to disagree. She worshiped God, and I worshiped my gods.

Sailing Through Dire Straits

How could I do this to my family?

Outside the homeless shelter, I nodded at two burly men in soiled military coats as I passed them, hoping that Theresa, Tyler and my 6-month-old son, Wyatt, would be safe until I returned. The dingy homeless shelter in Spokane, Washington, had been the last place I would have chosen to care for my new family.

On a hot job prospect, we had moved to Montana after I mustered out of the Coast Guard, but by the time we arrived in Big Sky country, the job had evaporated. In a ’73 Cadillac, we limped across the Rockies in winter to Washington State, hoping to be closer to job opportunities in the Coast Guard. Flat broke and without friends, the only housing we could find was the public facility.

Suicidal thoughts still shadowed me from the days of my childhood, even while I plotted my final course. Although I held active reserve status in the Coast Guard, it seemed that I had missed the boat for re-enlistment, so my only other option (distasteful as it might be) was to join the Army.

At least I could send my family back to Alabama with my $2000 signing bonus.

As I walked the streets, Theresa sat on the bunk at the shelter, holding our baby, while Tyler stared out the window at the cold city outside. Theresa had thrown all caution (and Bible admonitions about marrying an unbeliever) to the four winds. Her hope was to love me into God’s kingdom a little at a time; but now, alone in the homeless shelter, she realized no amount of hope would change me or the dire straits we were in. Now we faced the possibility of separation if she moved back to Alabama, and her desire to build a stable family with me hung by a thread.

God just has to break through, she thought. It’s time to PUSH. When Theresa began to refocus her attention on Jesus, things began to change. Back home, she had learned to “Pray Until Something Happened” (PUSH), and in Spokane, she was desperate enough to put her faith in God to the test.

“I’ve decided. I’m going to enlist in the Army tomorrow,” I told her after trying one last time to contact the Coast Guard recruiter.

“God’s going to help us, Charles.”

I glanced at the bed where a green New Testament sat on my pillow. Theresa had given it to me as a gift, and I wondered if a Bible might just inject some good spiritual energy into our situation.

The next morning, an attendant at the shelter handed me a sticky note. “Charles Anderson, you have a call.”

I recognized the number right away. “It’s the Guard,” I said excitedly and headed for a pay phone. Theresa silently prayed.

When I spoke to the Coast Guard Assignment Officer, I felt uneasy, like my life was being orchestrated by someone else. Yes, I could have my old job back and at the same pay rate. I had my choice of two duty stations: Tok (a remote area north of the Wrangell Mountain Range) or a station near Ketchikan.

I crossed my fingers as I asked the big question, “Can I bring my dependents to Ketchikan?”

“You bet. They can stay in Ketchikan while you are on duty,” the officer answered.

In a matter of hours, we were on the ferry to Ketchikan with money in our pockets. My beloved Theresa and Tyler were standing on the deck, enthralled by Alaska’s whales, puffins and glaciers. This was my country, and I couldn’t get past the feeling that a higher power had saved my new family from breaking apart.

New Heart, Final PUSH

At Ketchikan, I trusted Theresa’s faith in God and followed her to the First Assembly of God Church. An old hunger for spiritual revelation had resurfaced, and watching the church folk became a social event I began to look forward to. The Christians accepted me, in fact, even liked me, and I studied them as my wife studied God’s Word. I participated, too, from a safe distance in the sound system booth, until one night, God apprehended me before a performance of a play titled Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames.

The title of the play didn’t rouse any fear in my soul, but the zeal of the believers who practiced for the play took me by surprise. The drama, complete with props, costumes and sound effects, used novice performers from the congregation, and watching the rehearsals had an unwanted effect upon me. I began to open my broken heart to Christ.

The evening before the performance seemed electric with a sacred expectation for God’s Spirit to speak to the audience during the show. At the front of the church, my wife and others were praying for souls to be saved (though unnamed, I was included), and suddenly, I sensed a power flood the sanctuary that sent chills up my spine. Wasn’t this spirit reserved for his chosen ones alone?

Some of the cast members were lying on the floor, as if they had collided with a gentle, invisible hand, and others cried like children as they yielded to God’s compassionate spirit of grace. The outpouring of emotion made me uneasy, but I hungered to know this person who was in the room.

“God, I want to know what they are feeling,” I whispered.

Nothing. I watched another man fall to his knees weeping.

“Lord, if you are really here, I want to know what they are feeling. Show me what they are feeling!”

I edged closer, joining the circle of people laying hands on one another and praying, and I reached out to pray, too.

“Okay, God, it’s up to you,” I breathed.

I glanced at a heavy-boned young man, and the compassion of Jesus that I saw in his eyes triggered a surge of power through me that was unlike any energy I had ever experienced. There was love, forgiveness, mercy and acceptance. I was being airlifted from the deck of a sinking ship. Pent-up rage, fear and loneliness drained out of me in wracking sobs that swept through me like Bering Sea waves. The young man embraced me, and I him, letting down my guard for the first time in my life. Jeff became my first brother in Christ.

Pastor Lee knew that I needed a solid confirmation of my experience to lock me in for a lifetime of service to God, so he asked me to confess Jesus as my Savior aloud. Theresa could barely contain her joy; Jesus had answered her greatest need for a husband, a friend and now a man of God. A few weeks later, my son, Tyler, and I were baptized.

My marriage grew meaningful as Jesus took away the pain of my youth and gave me a strong new heart, softened yet empowered by the Holy Spirit. This was a miracle that, in months to come, I mistakenly took for granted.

***

I still thought I could drink alcohol. I still thought I was strong enough to party and tone down my old ways, but mixing light and darkness nearly ended my career and my life. I had been re-stationed in Petaluma. Looking back, I recognize Satan’s scheme unfolding when my family was separated from our church fellowship. In Petaluma, we drifted away from Christian friendships. I gravitated toward old shipmates and began to party. The former brutality resurfaced, and I backslid into heavy drinking that led to self-destructive, violent confrontations.

My wife was “PUSHing” again when the surprise email from the assignment officer woke me up.

Would I like to run supply on the Coast Guard Cutter Anthony Petit out of Ketchikan?

Jesus was carrying out a “one-time launch” to save me from myself. The basket had been lowered, and all I had to do was crawl in. My heart leaped, much the same as it did when those Coast Guard sailors asked if I wanted to tour the Liberty at the Hoonah fuel pier. My Jesus was watching my back, even when I was running away from his grace.

We had a homecoming at Ketchikan, where God initiated a fresh spiritual salvage operation on my mind and one final “training exercise.” At a port in Victoria, British Columbia, I faced my alcoholism for the first time when paramedics forced a tube down my throat and pumped oxygen into my lungs. My heart had stopped after a drinking binge, and friends had found me sprawled in a bathroom, covered in my own vomit. I couldn’t recall how I had created an international incident or why I faced charges, but I knew that I teetered on the edge of doing time in the brig.

“I know I messed up. I’m off the booze for good. In fact, put me down for designated driver for everyone as long as we’re in Victoria.”

My executive officer looked doubtful. He had heard it all before, and it was unlikely I could even last a week without drinking. But God finally had control of my mind and had chosen to deliver me from disgrace and court-martial. I sailed home a free man, fully aware that I was an alcoholic and that I could never drink again, not even a drop. The following summer, after my near-death “awakening,” I was placed in charge of the Coast Guard warehouse in Ketchikan, a dream come true for my beloved Theresa and me. My supervisor at the warehouse was my mentor in the South Seas when I sailed aboard the White Needle of Death — now Senior Chief Garcia.

My whole family and church is PUSHing for our unsaved loved ones now. We grieve for their blindness but trust God for their salvation. If Jesus can save an abusive alcoholic who was steeped in the occult as I was, he can save anyone.

Vows of a sailor may be influenced by death, violence, loyalty or love and are often embroidered upon a bicep to show who he has become. The seaman’s tattoo is a testimony stronger than words. Jesus has revealed his mercy to me in a way I shall never forget, and I found a way to tell my story. A striking tattoo depicts my struggle with the enemy of my soul and my ultimate victory in Christ Jesus.

On my right forearm, a demon’s wing, a bottle and the word DEATH draws the eye. But as I change the angle of my arm, the same tattoo shows a guitar, a dove’s wing and the word LIFE. When shipmates or acquaintances ask me about the meaning, I tell them the truth that set me free:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ my Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

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