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F-4 Phantom

F-4 Phantom
F-4 Phantom

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Test of Character

The four years I spent in the U.S. Coast Guard almost 40 years ago now, were the most defining years of my young adult life.  It was an adventure beyond all measure...a time of challenge...a time of times, a time of having to face life and death situations under extreme conditions. Our small crew of about 20 young men faced an unrelenting sea that showed no mercy to those who were caught unaware of the intensity and power of the Pacific where it collided with the continent. We averaged over 400 Search and Rescues a year during my time there...most were routine...some challenged us beyond what we ever thought we could endure.

The following is a true story I wrote a few years ago for the Coast Guard Channel as part of their Authors / Stories section. 

 I realize it is a bit long...but I believe you may find it a revealing account of one of the most important adventures of my life during those years. I also believe it will provide a closer insight into the perils and courage of the crews of this often overlooked and most distinguished of America's military services.

Photo by Keith Bridgman - Circa 1975

On August 17, 1975, as a member of USCG Station Umpqua RiverWinchester Bay, Oregon, I was subjected to a test of character I had never faced before, one in which I was forced to reach deep inside myself and confront the demons of fear and pain that threatened to undermine who I was as a person and my obligation as part of a U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue team. It was a test by which I purged myself from a mundane existence, and explored for the first ime those heroic dreams born from youthful ignorance, and ultimately it was a test that defined the essence of why I joined the United States Coast Guard.

BM2 Michael Dobbins, FN Michael Cullimore, and myself were on a routine bar patrol on the Umpqua River Bar aboard the of the stations venerable 44 foot motor lifeboats. It was an extremely busy day with hundreds of pleasure boats, charter boats, and commercial fishing rigs crossing the bar to take advantage of the moderated ocean and weather conditions. 

We received a radio call from the station to the effect that one of the crew members on the fishing vessel Poky had suffered a heart attack and they were about a half-mile west and south of the bar. We immediately swung into action, but there were so many boats in and around the bar area we had a difficult time spotting the Poky. The fishing vessel’s only means of communication was by CB radio. They contacted the Winchester Bay Harbor Office that would, in turn, contact our station by telephone, and then they would relay the information to us on the radio. We requested that the harbor office have the Poky raise one pole and lower one as a distress signal so we could more easily find them.

A short time later we spotted them about a third of a mile west of our location. Within in a few moments, Dobbins pulled the 303 alongside where we discovered three adults, two women, a young man, and one small child huddled inside the coxswains flat, and one older gentleman lying on the deck near the stern--the obvious heart attack victim.

The Poky was a small double ender, rusting, old and slow with a dangerously exposed engine exhaust pipe that extended about three feet straight up from the top of the engine cowling in the center of the boat. I boarded the Poky and rolled the older man over to check his condition. It was the first time where my first aid and lifeguard training from previous college years would be put to use in a situation like this. My heart was pounding and I was afraid I would not remember what to do, but I suppose the Good Lord and the Coast Guard had prepared me for this day and somehow I found myself reacting instinctively.

Internet Photo
The older man was not breathing. He had no pulse and had turned an indistinct gray. Where he was lying was so cramped, I could not effectively begin CPR as there was no room in which to work. Standing in the coxswains flat was the young man, maybe a few years older than I was. I yelled at him to give me a hand so we could move the older man who, I assumed, was either his father or grandfather.

Together we lifted him and placed him in a still somewhat cramped but more open area on the port side. As I stood to reposition myself to begin CPR, my feet were caught between the body of the older man and the engine cowling. At the same time, the boat rolled to port on a swell causing me to lose my balance. Not being familiar with the vessel, I instinctively reached for the nearest thing I could grab to keep from falling over the side. Unfortunately, it was the exposed, red-hot exhaust pipe. Before I realized what I had done, my right hand was seared raw as tender skin cooked on the hot surface. Instantly, I jerked it away grabbing it with my other hand staring in disbelief, but it was too late. The palm and all the fingers were severely burned causing my hand to curl inward as it reacted to the shock. It hurt like nothing I had ever experienced before.

My hand screamed at me as the pain shot up my arm and my gut churned from the intensity of the injury and odor of burned skin, but mostly from the fear and anger that boiled to the surface for having done such a foolish thing. In seconds, my hand and arm began to shake from the pain and shock, and my sailor vocabulary violently surfaced as I split the air with the piercing sounds of four letter words. That’s when I looked into the eyes of the two women and child huddled in the coxswains flat and I could see the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty etched across their expressions and I knew they could see it in mine as well. The child’s face was half-buried in the lap of one of the ladies. She was sobbing, not comprehending completely what was happening.

No one else knew what to do, as they were in a kind of shock themselves. My right hand was all but crippled by the excruciating burn, but a voice inside said I had to keep going, so I began CPR as best as I could. With each stroke and breath, my hand rebelled in protest. It quickly became apparent the effectiveness of my effort would not be enough, as I could not easily breathe for nor massage the heart of the older man from where I was. So while I continued to perform CPR as best as I could, I gave instructions to the young man on how to breathe for our victim and in a few minutes he took over that role. He did a pretty good job with just a couple of corrections in his technique as we progressed.

For several minutes, I didn’t realize that we were simply drifting on the swells and going nowhere until I tried to find the 303. Maybe it was the pain from the burn or the anxiety of the moment, but I’m afraid I wasn’t very polite when I yelled at the younger woman to call the harbor office and tell them we were returning to the Coast Guard fueling dock and to have an ambulance waiting for us, and for her to turn for home instead of just drifting around out there. The young man and I continued CPR for what seemed like forever as the Poky with its sputtering and coughing engine sluggishly made its way in. After we rolled across the bar and entered the channel, the Poky began to struggle up river fighting against the current. I realized then why the Poky deserved its namesake; it was terribly slow, much too slow for the seriousness of the situation.

Dobbins had placed the 303 about seventy-five yards ahead of us with the emergency light flashing and the siren blaring to clear the way as there were dozens of boats running in the channel. From my position, I couldn’t get Dobbins’ attention without stopping CPR. We needed to transfer the older man to the 303. Although somewhat slow in its own right, it was a much faster boat than the Poky. So I requested the younger lady call the harbor office again on the CB. A moment later Dobbins pulled alongside and Cullimore jumped across with the stretcher. We timed our CPR efforts and transferred the victim to the 303 in three quick movements where Cullimore, who did an excellent job, and I continued CPR. Dobbins throttled to full power and the 303 bit deeply into the channel leaving the Poky far behind. Once I heard and felt the staccato rumble from those powerful Cummins diesels kick in, I felt that we actually had a chance to pull this thing off. The next few minutes became a blur. I barely remember hearing the siren blaring, but from what I was told later, it was an impressive sight as dozens of boats moved aside like the parting of the Red Sea as we powered up the channel and arched into the harbor entrance.

Internet Photo
The speed limit inside the harbor was designated as a “No Wake” zone. Ignoring this, Dobbins powered the 303 down the narrow entrance channel at full throttle throwing out a huge wake that drenched several onlookers standing near the waters edge. Then, just before whipping the bow around the boathouse and into the fueling dock, he slammed the engines into full reverse and the 303’s transmission shuttered in protest as we lunged forward, turned to port, and slipped into the mooring--not exactly a  recommended docking procedure, but probably a world’s record for such a maneuver in a 44. And only Michael Dobbins had the grit to attempt, much less pull off, a stunt like that.

Waiting for us on the dock was the ambulance driver and one EMT, along with a good part of our crew, a large crowd of onlookers, and Chief Don McMichaels, the Commanding Officer of Station Umpqua River. The ambulance crew took over from there. As they were loading our heart attack victim into the ambulance, the lone EMT requested someone to assist him, and because my hand was burned and needed medical attention anyway, I went with the ambulance crew and helped administer CPR until we arrived at the emergency room in Reedsport, about ten miles away.

The older man, now under the intensive care of a physician, eventually began breathing on his own and appeared to have survived. And once all the excitement at the emergency room died down, the doctor treated my burned hand applying some antibiotic salve and wrapping it before releasing me. I was lucky. No third degree damage, just a huge second-degree burn that created a blister about the size of a baseball, covering the entire palm and across all of the fingers and thumb. I couldn’t open or close that hand for a couple of weeks. The doctor eventually had to cut the blister off to relieve the pressure and reduce the swelling and associated pain. I managed to get outof a lot of duty as a result, and spent time running the office and the communications room, and learning how to write and type with my one good hand.

A couple of days after the incident, the young man from the Poky who initially helped me perform CPR stopped by and personally thanked me and the crew for all our efforts, and asked how my burn was coming along. It was a nice gesture. It took some time, but eventually my burned hand did completely heal. Cullimore and I were credited with sustaining the gentleman’s life until medical attention could be administered, but I was to discover that this episode had not been his first heart attack, but one in a series of attacks through the years and this one proved too much for him. He succumbed to the stress of it all a few days later.

Photo by Keith Bridgman - Circa 2007
Eventually, Cullimore, Dobbins, and I were to receive commendations for our efforts, but in retrospect what I received from this ordeal was not something that can be displayed in an awards case. It was a hard-earned, well-served lesson about life, qualified through trial and fire, which proved a valuable test of character, one where the demons of fear and pain were engaged, then defeated, and once heroic boyhood dreams evolved into a reality befitting of a young man’s life. What happened on that day and the long-term effects it produced, became a far greater reward than what a medal worn on the chest could ever provide.

I’ve learned over the years how there are moments in time and places along the way that become turning points in our lives, turning points full of emotions that we too often tuck safely inside “out of reach” just for ourselves. Until that August in 1975, I never knew how I might react if I ever truly faced that kind of life and death situation. Although I did not fully realize it at the time, the test that resulted in the defeat of those demons on that day and in that place became the defining moment of my Coast Guard career, and ultimately, my young adult life. I knew I had passed a difficult trial.

Although I have on occasion spoken candidly of the incident in general terms, the emotional saga of that event is a personal insight of which I rarely speak.

Keith R. Bridgman
USCG 1973 - 1977
Umpqua River - 1973 thru 1975

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