(Originally published in Hippocampus Magazine, May 2015)
If you were to ask me what surprised me most about the first group of Haitian refugees I encountered in the spring of 1994, my first year in the Coast Guard, my answer would have to be this: I didn’t expect them to have such white teeth. I’d been warned about the smell—some of the old-timers called them “stinkies,” which, even at the time, I thought was unfair, because who wouldn’t reek after spending a week or more floating across the Straits of Florida on a makeshift raft—and so I was prepared for that. But not the teeth, gleaming in the pitch dark of the Caribbean midnight as we loaded these desperate people from their loose and wobbly craft into our small boats, and, from there, onto our ship, a 270-foot medium endurance cutter. One after another, the gunner’s mates and bosun’s mates guided the migrants (we weren’t supposed to call them refugees) past my position on the starboard boat deck and onto the flight deck, where they would remain until we figured out what we were supposed to do with them. The men were lanky. Many of the women were taller than me. Everyone wore shredded rags for clothes, stained through with salt and sweat. And they all smiled, huge, face-cracking smiles, every last one of them.
“It’s because they eat toothpaste,” one of the engineers told me. “Suck it right out of the tube. That’s what they eat when they’re out on them rafts.” That didn’t seem quite right to me—wouldn’t a toothbrush still have to do most of the actual work?—but I had no seniority, almost no real sea time, and no standing to question anything I was told by someone who did have those things.
Those Haitians, the ones we plucked out of the water in February or March, we ended up dropping them off at Gitmo (this was long before that term became synonymous with torture and waterboarding and a Kafka-esque approach to legal and human rights; it was just another Navy base back then) for processing. Then a week later, or maybe a month, another cutter would have carried them along the same route we were now hauling this batch, almost due southeast to Port-au-Prince, the capital city of the country they tried so hard to escape. And most of them wouldn’t even know it until they were almost there, because it was against policy for us to tell them.
Months later, in the brutal morning sunshine of late summer, we sailed southeast, through the Canal de Saint-Marc, just a few miles from the inner coastline of the Haitian claw’s upper pincer. The tree-covered hills reminded me of childhood car trips through Tennessee and North Carolina and Pennsylvania, to Civil War battlefields and the site of the previous year’s World’s Fair and our family’s ancestral homeland in the hills of Maryland. The undisturbed tree cover, high above the Haitian coastline, looked lush and peaceful from my vantage point on the bridge wing. In that moment, it was inconceivable to me that anyone would intentionally climb aboard a hastily lashed together raft and risk a horrible death at sea from sharks or drowning or exposure, just to escape a countryside like this.
Then there appeared breaks in the tree cover, scattered at first but cropping closer and closer together as we sailed further. Even at this distance I could see structures dotting these clearings. The sea was calm that morning, so I was able to hold the mounted binoculars just steady enough to focus on a few individual buildings for a few moments apiece. This one has a collapsed roof. That one, fire damage. This other one appears to have never been finished. None of the windows had glass. None of the clearings had any people.
This poverty of the countryside is what the people on our flight deck were fleeing. Or at least, that was part of it. Really, there were countless reasons. I knew this because I had listened as they spoke English to our officers and sentries, under the meager protection offered by the makeshift blue tarp tent on the flight deck, where daytime temperatures hovered well above ninety degrees. Others were fleeing the poverty in the cities. Or the violence—borne of poverty and politics—that was part and parcel of so many urban neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. And because we caught them risking everything to sneak into our country, our job was to scoop them out of the Straits of Florida and bring them back.
Many, probably most, of the people on the flight deck did not know they were coming home until that morning. They were passengers, not sailors, and except for the captain of their raft they could not read the sun. It wasn’t until they saw the familiar terrain off our port side that they knew they’d have to try again. I didn’t speak French or Creole, but I could tell from the change in their tone of voice that they knew. Earlier in the morning, just after sunrise, when there had been no land in sight, their chatter had sounded relaxed, upbeat even, as if they were convincing themselves that yes, we really would be shuttling them up to Miami this time. But now their words were clipped and spilled out quickly, with an unmistakable undercurrent of tension, of defeat, of barely contained panic.
But their captain knew where they were going much earlier than the rest of them did. “We are going back to Port-au-Prince,” I heard him say to one of our officers that morning. It was not phrased as a question; the flatness of his final syllable marked his sentence as a statement of definitive fact. “Why do you say that?” the ensign asked, trying to give away nothing. The raft captain, an older, heavier man with a face hardened from a lifetime of too much sun, just smiled. “I am a sailor, like you,” he said. “I read the sky.”
* * *
The invasion hadn’t even happened yet, wouldn’t happen for another month or two, but it had been all over the news that entire summer. The Americans were coming; everyone knew it. The only question was when it would happen. The Cédras regime prudently considered every American ship that drifted anywhere near Port-au-Prince a potential threat. Most likely knowing they could never repel an invasion head on, they employed more asymmetrical techniques. For example, the buoys. Normally when we approached a port, we could rely on two parallel strings of buoys—one string red, the other green—to mark the outer edges of the channel into the harbor. But, here, their heads had been removed, while the heavy steel bases remained chained to anchors resting on the harbor floor. They bobbed just beneath the surface, waiting for an unsteady helmsman to deliver them a fresh hull to tear open. By this simple method, navigational aids were converted into tactical defenses, cheap and effective threats to any sea-borne invaders.
I had been standing at my position as helmsman for perhaps forty-five minutes before we reached those twin strands of decapitated buoys. One of our junior officers—like me, just a year out of school—crouched in front of the helm, a camera lens pressed against the glass of the bridge’s front window. He kept as low as he could; we all knew what he was doing at that moment was dangerous. Several months before, supporters of the Cédras government had fired on the USS Harlan County, chasing it out of the harbor, because they thought the Navy ship was on a spy mission to gather intel for the upcoming invasion, whenever it came. I had no way of knowing if they were right about the Harlan County, but I did know that that was exactly what we were doing.
As we sailed on, the landscape changed. Here, closer to Port-au-Prince, there were fewer and fewer trees, cleared away to make room for the higher concentration of squat block buildings. These were the outskirts, the semi-urbanized fringe of Port-au-Prince. I saw three or four narrow towers, like smokestacks, not too far from shore, but no smoke billowed from their mouths.
We crept closer, our engines pushing us ahead at a careful pace. My hand tightened on the helm, the sweat from my palm slickening the rubber grip. I didn’t dare let go of the helm to dry my hand, not even for a second, not with those killer buoys out there. The inside of my mouth was dry and rough, like sandpaper, and in my mind I flipped through the catalog of all my previous failures as a helmsman. Once, a couple months before, I had heard and understood a simple, routine order to steer right fifteen degrees, but for some reason I steered left fifteen degrees instead. At the time, in the middle of the open ocean, the only consequence had been my own deep embarrassment as we slowly chugged through three-quarters of a circle on our way to our intended heading. A similar mistake now would not be so benign.
“Watch out for this asshole,” someone said, and I looked up. A shirtless man rowed an unpainted wooden dinghy directly across our path. His rowing was frenzied, and his eyes were fixed on our bow. He saw us, and he knew what he was doing, there could be no doubt.
“What the hell?” I said. “Who does something like that?” But then, as he was joined by two, three, six more rowboats and roughly an equal number of sailing dinghies, I realized exactly what he—they—were doing. They were trying to rattle me. They were betting my reluctance to crush their tiny crafts would make me twitch, hoping to force my hand into a sudden disastrous movement, a poorly timed jerk left or right and out of the channel and into a buoy. They brushed closer and closer to our hull, some swerving out of the way at the last possible moment, close enough to leave a palm print on the trademark orange stripe. I looked down and locked my gaze on the compass just above the helm. If we hit one of them, I wouldn’t know anything about it until it was too late to steer away.
Soon the engines slowed. We were close now, beginning our approach to the pier, and I looked up to see Port-au-Prince. The city itself was a skyline of bleak tenements, carved out of a landscape of steep hills and stacked precariously on top of each other. The pier in front of us was crowded with people, men mostly, the agitated ones waving sticks or just their arms, others just milling about. A lone Coast Guard officer—a lieutenant commander, if I read his epaulets right from that distance—stood on the pier, straight and dignified and completely isolated from the chaos that surrounded him. A stack of tires burned just yards away from him. If he noticed, he gave no sign of it.
Then one of the deck hands down on the forecastle threw his heaving line in a wide sidearmed motion, the bright red nylon coil unspooling in a great slow-motion arc toward the pier. Then another did the same, and our two forward mooring lines slithered over the side. Once they were draped over the bollards on the pier, the capstan cranked each line tight, and soon we were secure.
Compared to the approach, docking was a straightforward matter, and it was only a few minutes before the brow was across and our passengers began to disembark. The stream of Haitians trickled over the brow and onto the pier, flowing around our liaison officer, into that world of tire fires and gaunt men shouting and waving clubs at the Americans. One man stood on the dock and stared at the bridge as the others disembarked, his head cocked at a slight angle. To his chest he clutched a plastic bag filled with everything he thought he’d need in America; maybe he’d sold everything else before he left, or maybe he abandoned it. But now, back in Port-au-Prince, it was a reminder of everything he’d sacrificed to end up right where he started. He dropped the bag first, then his pants, and he pissed all over our mooring line. Everyone around him cheered, clapped, laughed. His gaze never left the bridge.
I couldn’t blame him. What harm would it really have done if we had taken them to Miami? The impact these few extra people would have had on America would have been infinitesimal, but the impact America would have had on them, that would have been incalculable. Surely he had to know this. He had to know that we knew it too, yet we still allowed ourselves to be part of the system that forcibly brought him here. In light of what he’d risked and lost, and what he’d stood to gain if he’d made it, pissing on his captor’s property is pretty weak revenge. But weak was the only kind available to him. So he took it. I knew that I would have too.
Then the engines growled to life, the mooring lines were lifted off their bollards and dropped into the water below, and our deckhands hauled them back aboard. Our visit to Port-au-Prince was over. Less than thirty minutes after our arrival, we were backing away from the pier, executing the nautical equivalent of a three-point turn and preparing to once again run the gauntlet of murder buoys and kamikaze skiffs. I took a breath and shifted my weight, trying to give some temporary relief to my aching calves, while the ensign in front of me pointed his camera and snapped and clicked, snapped and clicked.