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A seaworthy stanza

The Baltimore Sun

Recording an entry in the Coast Guard log is usually a staid affair.

But once a year, on New Year's Eve, some writers show their poetic flair.

This year, the tradition of applying verse to the midnight log - normally a matter-of-fact accounting of the day's events - fell at the Curtis Bay Coast Guard station to Petty Officer Stephen Park.

"It's not often it gets published or gets submitted into a poetry contest," Park, a humble bard, said of the New Year's Eve rhyme. "Everyone just gets a giggle out of it."

In a watchroom overlooking Curtis Creek, surrounded by maps, computers, TV screens and crackling radios, Park worked yesterday on his poem. By late morning, Park had a draft, subject to revision as the end of the day, and the year, neared.

It still included a large dose of Coast Guard jargon and alphabet soup, but it also contained lines like: "With all other equipment and operations normal, We stand ready to answer calls false and formal."

The New Year's log tradition practiced both on land and at sea in the Navy and Coast Guard pre-dates World War II, although military historians have been unable to pinpoint when or how it started.

It has been suggested that the tradition began as a way for officers to pass the time on the New Year's shift, according to the book, Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions.

Some midnight logs have been inspired by famous poems such as "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (with the opening lines "'Twas the night before Christmas"), and others have been written as odes to overbearing senior officers.

The key to a memorable effort is to incorporate humor, said Thomas Cutler, a naval historian, who wrote his own midnight poem once.

"It's especially good to work in someone's personality quirks, but you've got to be careful not to be too humorous with your captains and senior officers," he said.

While Park volunteered for the task, many in the Navy and Coast Guard dread the assignment, because it means they'll have to execute a challenging writing exercise while their colleagues revel in the New Year's celebrations, Cutler said.

"You have to incorporate a lot of strange things," he said. "You can't write a poem about snow on the glistening meadow. You have to write about a ship at anchor, how many boilers are steaming, how many ships are in company. Sometimes they have strange names. It's probably not a fun task."

Naturally, some of the officers have resorted to bemoaning their assignment in the logs.

"This New Year's midwatch poetry/Comes hard to men who go to sea," one sailor wrote in a poem recorded in the book on naval traditions.

Another wrote: "But with license poetically I'll say here/I'm grateful New Year's comes but once a year."

On most days, officers concisely record the status of their station or ship with sentences such as: "Station round completed. All secured. All other ops and equipment normal."

"It's sterile, a bit boring and it still keeps the facts accurate," Park said.

The challenge at New Year's is to take the facts for the log, and the military terminology and acronyms, and churn them into verse. On whether Park hit that mark, he said: "If I would've written that for school, I would've gotten low marks."

Park's biggest challenge in writing his 22-line poem was coming up with the rhymes. With no rhyming dictionary to be found in the watchroom, he had to pull the couplets out of his head.

"Our commanding officer's name is Whitbeck, and it's hard to think of something that rhymes with that," he said.

Park was to patrol the ships at the Inner Harbor underneath the fireworks at midnight. If anything changed, the next officer on watch would have adjust his poem, he said. Park said he worked on his poem line-by-line on a computer for three hours over several days.

He ended his effort:

"Now my fingers ache from typing this entry here,

I assume the watch eagerly and wish a quiet New Year."


Midnight Log

A draft of the Midnight Log from Curtis Bay Coast Guard station

For the first time in this year of 2008,

The first station round is complete, a fact I shan't negate.

CG's 41359, 25567, 25581 and 25585 are moored here in status B-0.

Ready at launch at a moment's notice to assist us in being a hero.

I report with regret the status of CG 41330 is Charlie,

It is awaiting some maintenance so it may soon join the party.

With all other equipment and operations normal,

We stand ready to answer calls false and formal.

Our officer of the day is BM1 Bradley

who typically dayworks, A truth we admit sadly.

Command Duty Officer, BM1 Whitbeck stands,

sitting at home with the phone in his hands.

Our XPO is BMC Guyer overseen by the OINC BMCS Hines,

Providing us guidance learned through their lives and times.

Our operational control is held by sector Baltimore,

Who issues our missions before we bolt out the door.

Coast Guard District Five has our tactical controls,

Overseeing the security of Port and guiding our patrols.

With all of these facts layed out as a neat hand of cards,

I gladly assume the VHF 16 and 83A radio guards.

Now my fingers ache from typing this entry here,

I assume the watch eagerly and wish a quiet New Year.

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