Everyone gets here on a ferry. Everyone leaves here on a ferry. For all its notorious isolation and locked-down security posture, there’s something oddly endearing about making your arrivals and departures to and from Guantanamo Bay on a friendly little putt-putt of a ferry boat chugging its way through the Caribbean blue.
The ferry boat is a part of GTMO life because the naval station here, like the bay itself, has two sides – windward and leeward. The airfield is over on the leeward side but the vast majority of base life takes place on the windward side. Geographically speaking, in some imaginary simpler time, one could theoretically drive around the bay, through the Cuban portion of Cuba, and arrive at the other side, I suppose. These days, however, what with the non-existent road, the two guarded fencelines, the one active minefield (theirs), and the one mostly-cleared minefield (ours), there’s no, shall we say, advisable way to drive from leeward to windward. You could try, but you would die, possibly even twice.
Better to take the ferry boat. Whether you’re coming or going, you get the gift of respite. Twenty-five minutes on the ferry, bobbing gently o’er the waves (or pitching violently depending on the bay’s mood). You can spend some time wondering whether the bi-weekly barge bringing fresh supplies to the base might be in port (possible), whether the flight bringing produce to the NEX has been delayed (probable), or even whether it’s really as hot as it seems today (oh, dear lord, yes). Perhaps it’s just the Pacific Northwesterner in me, but I love everything about ferries, especially the way they force you to slow down. There’s no requirement for reflection once you do slow down, but having already made it that far, one does tend to let one’s thoughts roam, a welcome interlude to stretch out and relax, mindset-wise.
The ferry dock is also the site of one of my favorite Guantanamo Bay traditions – the Gitmo Gainer. A big part of military life is change. People are always pulling up stakes and heading off to their next duty stations, only to be replaced by new arrivals. “It’s never ‘goodbye’,” you’ll hear them say, “it’s always, ‘see you later’.” Even so, they do call a move a “permanent change of station,” so nothing is promised. Perhaps that’s why the military is so good at marking transitions with ceremonies big and small.
In the case of the Gitmo Gainer, it’s all about saying goodbye to friends and colleagues as they take their last ferry ride from the windward side to the leeward side and on to the airplane that will fly them to the next stage of their lives and careers. As departees board the ferry for the last time, squeezing out a few last hugs, holding back (or not) a few last tears, those left behind peel off their shirts, shed their shoes, and as the ferry boat sounds the final farewell blasts of its horn and rounds the last set of pilings, one by one, they leap waving into the water from the adjacent pier. Front flips, back flips, belly flops, and swan dives, one after another they leap, crash, and tumble into the sea, most in swimsuits, but some in full clothing, as their friends look on waving from the ferry’s top deck.
It’s sweet, it’s poignant, and it’s powerful. There’s an affirmational quality to it, something that speaks to what we share with our fellow human. Probably we don’t commemorate moments such as these quite enough, although perhaps they’d lose some of their power if we did (“And here comes Sid Heaton and – YES! – he is taking out the garbage AGAIN with correctly sorted recyclables. How does he DO it? Give that man a trophy.”).
With the end of school, we are now more or less at the peak of “PCS Season,” as they call it, which means we’ve been down at the ferry dock quite a lot these past few weeks, saying goodbye to friends as they ride that last ferryboat across the bay. Quinn’s really perfected his front flip at this point and Kinsey’s working a credible cannonball. Kristanne, the newly-minted, 2017 Gilmer-Lehrman History Teacher of the Year for DoDEA (seriously, isn’t that incredible!), has a sort of half-topple, half-step in thing she does that works for her.
Tomorrow, it’s our turn. We’ll be taking our last ferry boat across the bay and I only wish that somehow I could take a quick jump off the pier for all the wonderful folks leaving with us and still make it back onto the ferry for our flight back to the US, back to California, back to our home in Nevada City.
We had no idea what we’d find here when we decided to take a leap of faith some 18 months ago, how we’d feel about it once we arrived, or whether we were making a colossal blunder, the likes of which would make us the laughingstock of family gatherings for years to come. To be fair, Gitmo has not been without its ups and downs, but as we prepare to depart, I’m struck by how many wonderful people we’ve all been able to meet.
Certainly, we’ve loved other aspects of being here – the diving, boating, swimming, and snorkeling, as well as just the focus brought to one’s life when the outside distractions are few (seriously, we didn’t have cell phones here until about six months ago) – but it’s the people that rise above all of that. There’s something about the shared purpose of being here that really cements relationships. Sure, there’s also some shared misery at work here (hurricane evacuations, anyone?), but the sense of all being in it together has brought back feelings I dimly remember from my high school and college graduations – that sensation that some shared experience, some bond that only those that were there really felt, was about to change, suddenly, and irrevocably. That’s some powerful juju, right there, all the more so since I’m sharing it with my wife and kids.
Thanks so much, GTMO – it’s been an unexpected, crazy, and delightful experience. “See you later!”