Column: A landlubber survives the Coast Guard in style


How many times in your life did your parents or your spouse say, “You have to think before you talk”?

My wife tells me that all the time and I finally told her the reason I don’t think before I speak is because I like to be as surprised as everyone else with what comes out of my mouth.

Well, not thinking clearly is not a new thing with me. Can you imagine an 18-year-old boy back in 1957 being stopped on the street by a Coast Guard recruiter and being talked into signing up for two years’ active duty and six years’ reserve? Yup, I signed up on the spot, knowing nothing about the Coast Guard. Oh, and I’d never been on a boat.

The thing that sold me on signing was what they called “the buddy system,” which meant my cousin and I would stay together the whole time. Sounded good, except my cousin failed the medical exam and it was too late for me to change my mind, so I was signed up for the next two years. A couple of months later, I was in this thing called boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey, sitting in a chair while they were cutting all the hair off my head.

Thirteen weeks later, I graduated from boot camp and was totally convinced the ship life was not for me. This discovery led to a little white lie when I said I was a golf pro. Luckily, a few years before me, they had a guy named Arnold Palmer stationed in Cape May and they let him go. The commanding officer, Captain John Steinmetz, was a golf junkie and saw to it that I stayed in Cape May for the next two years. I was put in special services and was the only golfer with gymnasium duty along with all the baseball, football and basketball players.

I became the personal golf pro for the captain, giving him lessons just about every day while my friends from the gym had the unfortunate job of picking up the balls. I knew I’d found my calling. Let me share a couple of the many entertaining moments I loved while in the service.

One was the day the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Hirshfield, came to visit our base. It was an exciting day with everyone outfitted in dress whites and lining the streets to salute the admiral’s car. That was everyone except one Bob DeStefano who was sitting in the back of that car dressed in his golf attire. Few knew that once the car left the base, the flags were taken off and this car was heading for Wildwood Golf Club with an admiral, a captain and me.

Like Captain Steinmetz, Admiral Hirshfield loved his golf. They both shot in the low 90s and were eager to improve. They were taking instruction from a young man who could play the game but had no idea how to teach it. In those days I would have to read a book and whatever I read that particular day is what I would teach them. They loved their tips and I learned early on that if you teach with certainty, the lessons were more successful.

Golf was always good to me and my service experience definitely helped form my foundation to become one of the youngest head golf professionals in the country just a couple of years later. One of my golfing buddies in the Coast Guard is now the popular ex-senator from Georgia, Sam Nunn. I’ve only spoken to Sam a couple of times since we left he service, but it always fascinated me that my buddy eventually became the head of the entire Armed Services as Secretary of Defense.

My kids grew up on my stories of the Coast Guard and they know them all. One they particularly liked pertained to Admiral Hirshfield and one Chief McDermott. The chief didn’t play golf and hated to see me practicing on the base. One day, he couldn’t stand it any longer and proudly dragged me into the officer-of-the-day stating he caught me hitting golf balls on the lawn. He really didn’t like me and adored me even less when he was informed that I had the commanding officer’s permission to hit balls. That was fun but not nearly as much fun as the day the admiral’s car went by and when the chief saluted, he saw my face in the window. The 18-year-old wise guy that I was saluted him back and said “Carry on, Chief.”

I don’t know, but do you think he liked me any better after that incident?

As I look back, those two years produced more enjoyable stories than any other span in my life. Our group of guys had so much fun that we had a couple of reunions. The last one, our 50th, was cancelled because of the sudden death of Sid Kahn, the owner of the “Ugly Mug” bar in Cape May. Sid was doing all the work putting this thing together.

So, what looked like an irresponsible thing to do early in my life turned out to be one of the highlights.

Which makes my point: Perhaps we don’t have to think so much about what we have to do in life. A lifespan is short and we don’t know what is just around the corner. Maybe we can just prepare ourselves as best we can and have some fun taking our chances. Fortunately for me, I obviously didn’t think about it and it all worked out!