Wednesday, September 05, 2018

God Bless The Helm

     Listening to some old school Petra reminds me of the fun times I had in Alameda from 1984-86.
      I was on the USS California, which was homeported at NAS Alameda at the time along with the carriers Carl Vinson (Navy didn't have to spend any money transferring my ass from the Vinson to the Cal, I literally walked across the pier.), and Enterprise, and sister cruiser, the Mississippi, and the tender Samuel Gompers.
     NAS Alameda wasn't like the big behemoth Navy bases at Norfolk and San Diego, where you couldn't swing a baseball bat without hitting a squid. It was a small base on a small island across the Bay from San Francisco. Oakland and SF were only a bus and BART ride away.
      But Alameda was a quiet little town of about 100k or so.  The West end of the island was taken up by the base and the businesses that catered to the Navy, and the East end of the island was mostly for the civs.
      I liked it there. The people were nice, Town/Navy relations were civil, as far as I could tell.  I wasn't really much of a carouser or drinker during my time in service, although there were a few things that I'm sure I can't talk about--the statute of limitations hasn't run out on them yet. A couple of them are related to the eagle ink I have on my right arm.
      But while I was in Alameda, I decided to get back into the church. I was raised in the church in my youth and when I joined the Navy, I left it behind.  My days on the California were stressful. Didn't really get along with a lot of my shipmates, and the ship wasn't a lot of fun, either.  So I needed a place to unwind, decompress and chill. I found a little out of the way house on Central Ave off the main drag of West Alameda. It was a Christian servicemen's center called the Compass and Helm.
     It was the kind of place, where if you didn't know about it, you'd walk right past it. It catered to the base and its tenant ships. They barely advertised, no sign in front of the house. In theory, all of the churches in Alameda supported it, but most of the support came from an equally small, unobtrusive church around the corner named Westside Baptist Church. A member of the Conservative Baptist Association, Westside also depended on the base for a lot of traffic.
       A rather small and plain looking building, Westside topped out at about a couple hundred on the rolls, but depending on which ships were in port, regular attendance ran about 30 to 60. The congregation was a multi-racial mix of townies and Navy and it was my kind of church. Small, friendly, not a lot of frills, preached a simple message.
      The Helm, as it was known was run by a middle aged quirky, but very friendly couple named Chris and Cathy. They lived at the Helm with their daughters, Bethany and Holly. A couple of sweeties. The Helm existed to give sailors a place to hang out and chill.
       They held a Bible study on Thursday nights and allowed sailors to crash for the weekend as long as they found a church to go to on Sunday.  They had books, games, a ping-pong table, a small kitchen with the requisite coffee pot. All in all, a place where we could leave the Navy behind for a while.
       I made a number of good friends at the Helm, the most prominent being a de-nuked ET named Stewart. He and I hit it off as a couple of weirded out geeks. We loved computers and techy stuff.
       Most of the Helm rats were from the Enterprise, a few off the Vinson and the odd Gompers or Mississippi sailor. I was the lone California squid.
       We occasionally went to the Oakland Coliseum to watch an A's game or to whatever venue a Christian band was playing. Especially Great America down in San Jose. Saw Petra there a few times.   
        But most of the time, we hung out at a local diner called Tillie's that was open 24 hours a day. (Think of Ritter's for Pittsburghers.)  They served great breakfasts and we'd go there after church or Bible study and just hang out and talk. 
         I ended up becoming a member at Westside, and won the trust of Cathy where she allowed me  to open the Helm up and make the coffee. Cathy had a strict rules of not opening up unless either Chris or a male that she trusted was there. She was very protective of her daughters.
       But while I made the occasional trip to San Francisco, most of my time in Alameda was spent at Westside or the Helm. That was between 1984 and 86.   
        The Helm's not there anymore. Probably pulled up stakes when the Navy closed NAS Alameda in the late 90's. Have no idea what happened to Chris, Cathy, Bethany, Holly, Stewie, or any other Helm Rats. I pray they are all well, those that are still alive anyway.  They were good friends who helped me get through a pretty tough part of my life. God Bless the Helm.

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