I was listening to an internet radio station yesterday, tuned in to a modern/alternative rock channel when a song caught my attention. The song itself didn’t impress me all that much but the title got me thinking, yes it was “1985”. So, I went to Youtube and searched for that song and found an entirely different tune by a different band with (more or less) the same song title.
It got me to thinking about that year and how it was really the springboard into a new phase of my life at the time. My first year of active sea duty in the Navy based out of Halifax, being a young man unattached to anyone or anything that did not suit me at that very moment. It was one hell of a memorable time so good, bad or otherwise the attached youtube music video really triggered some memories.
This is my attempt to tell you about that year, almost entirely from memory as I was not keeping any written accounts. Other than some letters sent to my sister, grandma Cowan – also known in our family as Gumra, she was Norwegian – and my buddy Ian there is nothing in my possession to make dates etc accurate.
I arrived in Halifax late one night into the teeth of a nasty early January blizzard, after an exhausting 2-day journey from Vancouver via military transport planes. The original Air Alcohol (Air Canada as some of us referred to the commercial carrier that was used by the Canadian Armed Forces at the time…free booze yeah yeah yeah!!!) had been cancelled out of Vancouver due to fog. After spending the better time of the day waiting around in the airport, I was finally advised that I was being flown to CFB Trenton on a transport plane. What fun!!
Strapped into canvas web seating, shoulder to shoulder with other servicemen for what seemed like an endless journey. Stops in Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg before finally arriving in Trenton, the garden spot of Ontario in January. I trudged off the plane with duffle bag over my shoulder with everyone else and found my way to the Base Accommodations Office for a bunk. Grabbed some chow in the mess hall (open late because of all the comings and goings of aircraft) then crashed out.
Leave the next day? Of course not, it was the CAF. Nothing happened in a hurry. I was advised that I would be leaving the following morning, this time from Trenton to CFB Greenwood which is NOT Halifax but rather about a 90-minute drive away. So be it, I idled the day away as any good young sailor would. At the Junior Ranks Mess swilling ale, shooting pool and essentially doing what we all knew how to do well. Hurry up and wait for it.
The next morning another packed transport plane with various servicemen, knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder as the loud noisy beast of an aircraft lumbered Eastward. At least it was a direct flight this time. We landed in Greenwood in the early afternoon and it was nasty. Snowing hard, wind screaming in from the Northeast. Welcome to Nova Scotia son. Those of us for Halifax piled onto the big ugly green bus and off we went.
Upon arriving at what I thought was my destination, HMCS Fraser I was informed that I was to report to CFB Halifax itself and not the ship I had been posted to. The quartermaster gave me a taxi chit and I headed to the base for what was an extended stay. You see, I was lacking my TSQ/AB which was essentially a land based basic seamanship course. Until I had that weighed off, I couldn’t sail. Which also meant that when the Fraser sailed to Puerto Rico and other ports in the Caribbean in a week or so, I would not be going. Well didn’t that suck.
I was going to be stuck in Halifax, living in the luxurious accommodations of Windsor Park while I completed the course. A month living in barracks with a bunch of gung ho young men fresh out of basic training waiting to get the same course under their belts and get on board their first sea posting as well. I could not recall now one single name of any of those men nor any particulars of the course itself. I just wanted it to be over and done with.
After completing the TSQ/AB I had another month or so to wait until the Fraser returned to home port. So, pack up my shit and head over to CFB Halifax and single quarters there to wait it out. I spent my days attached to the Comm School, working as a gofer for the instructors there and keeping up my standards. It was there that I met CPO1 Earl Korne, who showed me what the Navy was really all about.
It was during that time that my Grampa Percy Cowan died back in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan where he had retired to. I’m stuck on the east coast with no means to get to his funeral. That was when Chief Korne stepped in. After speaking with my mother, he got me on a compassionate CAF flight to CFB Edmonton and back again to attend the funeral. I was going to be able to carry out one of Grampa’s last wishes after all, to have the honour of being a pallbearer along with five other of his grandsons. The greatest honour of all was that I was going to be in uniform.
What a strange and emotional experience that was. After a hurried and exhausting flight and long drive (my dad picked me up in Edmonton after a big screw up, don’t get me started on his drunken behavior on that part of it… I could have murdered him, I swear) I arrived back home. The farm, where I spent so much of my childhood under the care and guidance of Grampa Cowan in the long absences of dad who was never around.
The farm, where I learned the values that only a life on a farm can teach you. Grampa showed my brother Allan and I through stern but loving instruction what it takes to be a farmer, how important it was to get up every single day and get done what needed doing. Through his example we learned self-reliance, how to do what needed doing and as we grew so did our responsibilities. We were given the opportunity to prove we could handle the job, no matter what it was. Once we did that then we were trusted to simply get it done.
It was a cold and grey prairie morning for Percy’s funeral, at least not a blizzard which could easily have happened that time of year. I don’t really remember a lot of it, sort of a blur with all the emotions ripping through me. Through all of us I suppose from grand children to his children, all my aunts and uncles dealing with the loss of the Cowan patriarch. What I recall clearly is carrying him from the hearse to the grave site with my brother and cousins. Allan and I sharing the load with the other boys, taking Percy John Cowan to his final resting place.
My uniform was immaculate, my shoes spit shined to a high gloss. I remember looking down at those shoes and seeing the bottom of the casket clearly in their reflection. What a strange thing. While I was burdened with grief, I was also so proud of being able to carry out this somber task in the uniform of my country. My mother had told me previous to this how proud Grampa was of me and I could think of nothing better than to be doing what we were doing at that very moment. Even now it brings a tear to my eye bringing up those memories, as memories can oft times do.
As thirty years will do to memories, all that comes to me after the epic Cowan family wake was being back in Halifax and a return to duty. A few more weeks at the Comm School and then finally on board HMCS Fraser where I was reunited with several mates from both boot camp and the time spent at CFB Esquimalt in training. More training alongside, getting used to living on board short lived as it was to be. I was going to be attached to HMCS Annapolis for a training exercise in the Bermuda Ops Area. Essentially a gunnery and weapons testing run with but one port of call in Bermuda itself. I didn’t care, I was finally going to sea!!
I knew a few guys on the Annapolis and quickly settled into the learning curve of life at sea for a green OD. Back watch of course, living on minimal sleep and just soaking it all in. Putting into practical use all the training as a naval radio operator, hands on with the gear and learning more each and every watch. All kinds of emergency station drills to respond to at random times (usually it would seem when I was trying to catch a bit of sleep), signing off the required basic seamanship book and more.
I was bunking in number 2 mess which is forward, under the foc’sle and of course the forward mounted gun. I admit to not remembering the caliber of it but she was some loud trying to sleep under it!! Being that far forward also made sleeping a challenge in heaving seas. As the ship rode through each big wave, the bow was dipping diving and crashing back down again with regularity. I loved it and never had any problem with motion sickness.
Bermadoo…my first foreign port. It was late April or May and the weather was fine. Quite warm and of course I got my first taste of (semi) tropical sunshine. Got a sun burn but thankfully not too bad. One of my lasting memories was after spending a few hours in the beautiful town of Hamilton with some of the lads I decided to walk back to the dockyard. It was only a few miles down the way, a narrow winding two lane coral paved road that hugged the beautiful pink sandy beaches and stunning blue ocean. The sun was shining and I was so content. This was the bonus of being a sailor, spending a few days in a paradise like this one, a place that a kid like me would have never dreamed of being able to experience otherwise.
As I walked along with my feet on the coral road and my head in the clouds, wasn’t that what was exactly what came along. A fast moving weather system moved in overhead and before I knew it the skies opened up. There was I, in a torrential downpour that was absolutely wonderful. The rain was warm and refreshing, soaking me to the skin in no time at all but I didn’t care. It was such an incredible sensation, the scent of that rain unlike anything I had ever encountered before. Within five or maybe ten minutes it was over, the clouds having swept by and the sun back upon my back. By the time I made it back to dockyard, I was completely dry again. Amazed and amused by it all, shared with no one else.
One last memory of that deployment to the Bermuda Ops area is a strange and tragic one. We headed back out after a few days alongside for more sea ops and exercises. One thing you should know is that particular operations/gunnery area under control of the US Navy is it is smack dab in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. Among its public notoriety is also the fact our radio communications in that area had always been lousy. A lot of natural interference made LF, HF and even VHF radio communications spotty at best. This isn’t the only place on any ocean or sea where this happens (off the Shetland Islands comes to mind) but on this particular night it was bad. The weather had turned suddenly and we were also dealing with fairly heavy seas, lots of pitching and rolling about. No big deal, it was actually something I was enjoying
My first stormy weather back shift, our work as radio operators was being challenged by difficult atmospheric conditions and being in the middle of an exercise heavy radio traffic as well. So there we were in the wee hours, some call it zero dark thirty, dealing with all of it when suddenly there was the dreaded “bong bongs”. Emergency stations, man overboard except this one was not a drill as we found out very soon. I scrambled to my station and found out we had a man overboard from our ship. This was the real man’s life hung in the balance and it was a SHITTY night out there. Wave height had to be at least 10 feet, maybe as much as 20 feet when a big swell came along. Darker than a whore’s heart, wind whipping making a sub-tropical night storm chilly and nasty. It didn’t seem like our man had a chance.
He didn’t have a chance as it turned out. A suicide note was found on his bunk, he had simply left that there, gone to the diver’s equipment locker to get a weight belt and apparently just walked off into the deep dark water with a 25-pound weight strapped around his waist. Straight to the bottom of the Davy Jones’s locker never to be seen again. I can’t even remember his name, me being a new and temporary hand on board. What I do remember is shortly after we all returned to our regular duties the storm subsided and communications restored to normal. Really, really weird shit. Welcome to the Bermuda Triangle boys and girls, my true to life no shit story.
Back in Halifax within a week or so, finally lodged in my own ship with my own mates alongside for a while. I had departed on the Annapolis during a dirty late winter day and came back to home port with glorious late spring weather in full swing. The city was alive, vibrant and I fell in love with it. It was also the 75th anniversary of the Navy itself so there was a lot going on associated with that. You have to understand the relationship between the Navy and the city, sort of a love/hate thing at times. While the presence of the Navy was highly visible and undeniable (at all levels, social and economic), it became even more pronounced during that summer.
The Fraser was sent on a cruise visiting ports all over Nova Scotia and New Brunswick as part of the 75th. Places like Yarmouth, Digby, St Andrews by the Sea, Louisburg and St John. We had a great time, well received wherever we went. Essentially it was a great big three-week party all around the Maritimes. What a fantastic time, very little in the way of exercises or drills while transiting from one town to the next and almost no radio traffic to deal with while doing so.
I was living on board during those months and would continue to do so for most of my time posted to the old girl. Cheap living as room and board were simply a given, one could blow off an entire pay on whatever you wanted and not worry about a roof over your head and three meals a day. Talk about a stress free life!! Short work days, hitting the gym or going for long runs every day and enjoying the night life in a fantastic city with my mates as often as I had a few dollars in my pocket. If I didn’t, the beer was unbelievably cheap on the ship. Life was pretty god damned good.
Our next deployment was a convoy escort exercise from Halifax to Southampton, England. Essentially the Fraser and several other ships would be escorting a group of civilian freighters across the pond. Once we got there, an extended port stay then a long intense multi-national exercise. I was pumped about it, my first real hard-core sea time on my ship with my crew mates. This was what I had signed up for, this was the shit I was so keen on doing.
It was only a few days out of Halifax and man oh man did the North Atlantic get nasty. We encountered heavy weather and some really big seas. For almost two weeks the upper decks were out of bounds for safety reasons, a man could simply get washed overboard the waves were so huge and violent. If I recall accurately they were 30 to 40 feet high most of the time, at times cresting out to over 50 feet. Even on board a destroyer escort, that is some pretty damn big water. She was bucking and heaving, waves crashing OVER the bridge windows more often than not. If you haven’t experienced such a thing, it is hard to describe.
During that entire time the crew was doing our thing. Working around the clock shifts, emergency drills and all that good stuff. The North Atlantic doesn’t take a break just because it is your meal time, shower time or try to sleep time. You just adjust to the fact everything is in motion and to be honest it isn’t that big a deal. It’s what we signed up for and personally, I loved it!
Southampton! I hooked up with Marc who had made the same trip on his own ship and to this day he loves to give me a hard time about our first day ashore. Suffice to say it involved opening a pub first thing and a memorable if not messy afternoon in a nearby park during the (at that time traditional) afternoon pub closures. Warm been, tequila and the worm combined with my own bad judgement combined for a few blurry hours!
I also made a run into London by train with a couple mates, Steve Burris and another guy whose name escapes me. I can recall his face and his nickname, Spike but that’s it. After the one year on the Fraser I never saw him again. At any rate, we spent two nights at a cheap B&B, wandering the sights and streets of London. Pub food and beer sustained us, doing some sightseeing during the day and partying during the nights. Absolutely classic Canadian sailor in foreign port behavior with no police involved thank you!!
Upon departure from port, we headed off to the North Sea for almost a month of readiness drills and exercises. It was exhausting, intense work during which time I was learning more and more about my trade as radio operator. In those days we actually used radios to receive and transmit, Morse code and old fashioned paper tape encoded messages. Looking back, it was easily the most challenging and at the same time rewarding work I had ever done to that point.
By the time the task force arrived back in Halifax it was late and winter was just around the corner. 1985 was soon to come to an end as was my time on HMCS Fraser. She was scheduled to go into what is known as a zero man refit, that is going into refit with the majority of the crew being permanently posted to other units.
Backtracking a little here…before departing for England that late summer I had secured an apartment ashore. Marc, Blake and I found a nice 3-bedroom unit out in Spryfield. While life on board was fun, it was also a bit confining. So we collectively bought all the essentials of life from scratch and moved out partying life style to our own place!! Blake stayed behind that trip on course while Dusty and I went to sea. It worked out pretty well, the three of us got along very well and it was cheap living.
The year closed out rather strangely and not as anticipated. I knew I could not afford to go home for Christmas, nor could Blake and Marc. So, we had pretty much resigned ourselves to a bachelor’s Christmas in our apartment. At the last moment however, both of their families stepped up and paid for them to get home for the holidays. Suddenly, I was going to be utterly alone. Not exactly what I had expected and certainly not something I was looking forward to.
Saved by a ship mate!! Mike Anthony, whom I had sat next to during our entire TQ3 and was also a mate on the Fraser is from a burg in Hants County. I want to say Scotch Village but I know that isn’t quite right…close but not quite. Anyway, I gathered my things and spent a few days with his family for Christmas. It was remarkably like being home as Mike is just a good old country boy not really all that different from me other than the fact he did not grow up on a farm and I (pretty much) did. After a couple of days of too much good food and rum, a day of rabbit hunting and getting to know the Anthony family it was back to Halifax to close out the year. I had arranged to be on duty aboard the Fraser for almost a week straight, a trade off with shipmates. I had the Christmas break, they had New Year’s. So, I spent my first New Year celebration watching 1986 come marching in washing dishes and cleaning the cafeteria. All part of the deal.