Joe Schmo Goes to War
by Chris Demarest
[In May 2006, I was sent by the United States Coast Guard as an official Coast Guard artist to cover their work in the Persian Gulf. This is an edited excerpt of an essay I wrote about that experience.]
Sitting on the side of a US Coast Guard inflatable dinghy, I reach out to touch the cold steel hull of a huge oil tanker nineteen miles off the Iraqi coast. The metal is refreshingly cold in contrast to the staggering heat of the Persian Gulf. Above I notice several twenty to thirty foot-long horizontal scars running along the ship’s rusted side, testimony (I assume) to its many less than perfect dockings.
Another fifty feet up, a sweep party from the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat, Aquidneck, is going through the vessel looking over the ship’s manifest, checking for irregularities and personnel, a prerequisite before being allowed to link up with the Al Basra Oil Terminal (ABOT) to take on a load of crude oil. I look at Matt, the coxswain at the helm and Cody near the bow, both in brown t-shirts and desert camouflage pants, a welcome change from USCG blue.
Heavy black tactical vests cover their torsos. Each carries at least forty pounds of gear, M-4 rifles slung around their chests, and Beretta pistols strapped to their thighs. Sweat is pouring off of me. They seem unfazed. They’re used to this climate having been stationed here for close to a year. I had just left home in New Hampshire, spring yet to fully make its mark. A week later I sit here in 120 degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity, smiling. I chuckle to myself pondering the question: How the hell did a children’s book author/illustrator find himself sitting here in a war zone?
At this point in my career, I’d gone from doing humorous children’s books to serious non-fiction adventures, starting with FIREFIGHTERS A to Z, based on my experiences as a volunteer firefighter in a small Vermont town. Two more books on firefighting led to one on a US Coast Guard rescue and the other on Hurricane Hunters. For the boy in me, I was living a dream as research took me aloft numerous times in helicopters, Search and Rescue jets and twelve hours in an Air Force Reserve cargo plane flying repeatedly through a Category Four storm. Mighty Mouse had become Walter Mitty.
What I realized very quickly was how normal all these jobs were to the men and women doing them. It just happened they chose interesting, and, some would say, scary careers. I was often asked if I was afraid when I went out with them. Never, was my answer. These were, for many, careers. I trusted their expertise. In contrast, sometimes, by these same people, I was looked at askance. “Why would you want to paint me?” they would ask. “You make money doing this?” One Coastie, my second day on his patrol boat, started calling me “CG”. Pondering that, I asked what it meant. “You’re Crayola Guy,” he said, chuckling. I was. Have crayons will travel.
In the movie Bull Durham, Kevin Costner’s character says in response to Susan Sarandon’s character, after she claims to have been in a previous life, either Catherine the Great or St. Francis of Assisi, “Why is it,” he says to her, “everyone thinks they were someone famous in another life? No one ever says they were Joe Schmo.” That was it! I thought. That’s me: Joe Schmo, the average guy. I’m Joe Schmo in this life and as far as I know, no one special in a past life.
So here I sit bobbing in the Persian Gulf, Joe Schmo, taking pictures of Coasties climbing up and down the sides of huge tankers and container ships, boarding small fishing dhows eating meals in small mess decks, sleeping in cramped berth areas, the roar of the twin diesel engines two bulkheads away. Someone’s got to be Joe Schmo. I am loving every hot, sweaty, loud, numbing moment of it.
Chris Demarest lives on Bainbridge Island and is an author/illustrator, painter and he creates sculptural pieces. His current work is focused on creating dioramas, one as a book proposal on the history of aviation, and the other featuring a nautical theme, which will be exhibited at the Island Gallery and Eagle Harbor Book Co. this coming May and June. To read more about Chris and this series of articles, visit my previous post: https://theislandwanderer.com/chris-demarest-an-artists-journey-part-1/
Watercolor paintings by Chris Demarest. Images provided by Chris Demarest.