Within just a few weeks of graduation from PHS, I reported to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT. I had little idea what I was getting into, but it was a lot better than facing the draft and slogging through the jungle in Vietnam. My family really had no means to pay for a college education for me. As it turned out, it was a great choice for me. The regimentation and academic rigors of the Academy were a challenge, but I managed to graduate in the middle of my class.
I majored in Ocean Science, but didn’t use much of what I learned in that field until after my Coast Guard career.
My first assignment after earning my commission as an ensign, was aboard a cutter, the SEBAGO, based in Pensacola, FL. It was what we called a “weather ship”, whose primary mission was standing what was then called Ocean Station duty.
That was in the days before weather satellites and GPS navigation. Our mission was to proceed to a designated spot in the North Atlantic, drift “on station” for a few weeks, and provide weather observations and navigational data to trans-oceanic aircraft. The weather on station, for the two patrols I pulled was horrendous!
Before graduation from CGA, I had taken the aviation aptitude test, and applied for flight training. I served only a few months on SEBAGO, and was sent to flight training in Pensacola in March of ’72. I earned my wings as a Coast Guard aviator in March of ’73.
By that time, my first child, a daughter, Jennifer, had been born. After flight training, I was posted to the Coast Guard Air Station in Corpus Christi, TX. While there, I flew both the HH52A helicopter, and the HU 16E, better known as the Grumman Albatross, a fixed wing aircraft. My son, Brent, was born there while I was stationed in Corpus.
I continued my Coast Guard career with duty stations including Cape Cod, MA, Mobile, AL, Honolulu, HI, Scott AFB, IL, New Orleans, LA, and St. Louis, MO. While stationed in Mobile, my deteriorating marriage finally fell completely apart, and my first wife and I parted ways.
My tour of duty in Alabama was probably the most interesting, and in my opinion, the best tour of my career. I was assigned to Polar Operations Division at CG Aviation Training Center Mobile. I was in the unit that deployed helicopters aboard polar icebreakers on missions to the Arctic and to Antarctica. My first deployment was aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Glacier, a polar icebreaker based in Long Beach, CA.
I was the head of the aviation detachment on that ship as we proceeded on a 7-month mission supporting Operation Deepfreeze ’81 to Antarctica. The Glacier was the first icebreaker to have women as part of the crew. There were two women officers aboard, and 20 enlisted women, which in those days, was quite unique.
It was fortuitous that I was on that particular deployment, because a few years later, I married one of the women officers from the ship. We are still happily married, after 33 years of being together. It is always fun to tell people that our first date was in Suva, Fiji, and our second in Wellington, NZ. We got married while both of us were stationed in Hawaii, but we went back to her home town of Highland Park, IL in December to get married! (It was minus10 degrees that day!!!)
I retired from the Coast Guard at the rank of Commander, in June of ’92 while assigned to the Second Coast Guard District office in St. Louis, MO. I had served on active duty for 21 years. My retirement ceremony was held along the banks of the Mississippi River, beneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch. My wife continued her Coast Guard career until she got to the 30-year mark in 2009. We were thrilled that my friend, and Academy classmate, then Commandant of the Coast Guard, ADM Thad Allen came to Kerrville, where we now live, to preside over her retirement ceremony. People may remember his name as the one who took over from the FEMA director for Hurricane Katrina recovery in New Orleans, and more recently in dealing with managing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill aftermath.
After retirement from the CG in ’92, we moved from St. Louis to Houston, where I completed my master’s degree in secondary education at the University of Houston- Clear Lake. I also completed the teacher certification program, and began my second career as a high school teacher. I found that many of the courses I took at the Academy for my Ocean Science major provided an ideal background for my chosen subject area for teaching: ‘science’.
My wife and I moved to Kerrville in 1994, where we built our home on some land we had purchased just outside of town. We’ve been here ever since. We designed and built our home, and are very happy to be enjoying the peace and quiet of country living.
I taught in the public schools in the Kerrville area for eleven years. My first few years, I taught both at the high school and middle school levels. I taught science to middle schoolers (or at least I tried to teach them!). My real calling, however, was teaching high school chemistry and physics. I taught at Center Point, Harper, and Comfort. After eleven years of that, I was eligible for early retirement, which I pounced on.
My retirement didn’t last long, however. Only a few months after giving up the public school classroom, a great opportunity arose for me to teach part-time at a newly opened Catholic High School in Kerrville. Teaching Chemistry, Physics, and Environmental Systems at Our Lady of the Hills Regional Catholic High School, was a dream job for me. I loved that job every bit as much as I did flying helicopters in the Coast Guard.
Although my job description was that of a part-time teacher, the reality was, it was a full-time occupation. With the hours spent on campus, time spent on preparations, grading papers, and other duties, it really amounted to full time. No complaints, however. It was a great working environment with a student population of only about 200. That made most of my classes relatively small. Also, by teaching a variety of subjects, I often had the same students for two or three years in a row. That was a real gift as well.
I taught at that last school for eight years, making that the longest specific job I ever had! After a total of nineteen years as a teacher, I finally decided to retire for real. I have been on the retired list since 2013, and am so busy with a variety of things, I wonder how I ever had time to work!
Ralph Lewis and Deborah Dombeck
My wife, Deborah and I are both members of the Military Order of the World Wars (MOWW), which is a veterans’ service organization. One of the Order’s primary focuses is youth leadership. Deborah and I are the directors of one of many Youth Leadership Conferences (YLC) held across the nation. Our particular YLC is held aboard the USS LEXINGTON Museum in Corpus Christi. We plan and carry out an intensive 5-day, 4-night program for about 60-70 high school seniors from across Texas and Oklahoma, every June. The program focuses on leadership, patriotism, and the free-enterprise system of economics. This is a very gratifying way for two former teachers to spend their time, on the youth of America!
I always take the opportunity to share a little personal story with the students of the YLC. When I was stationed at the CG Air Station in Corpus Christi, the USS LEXINGTON, a WWII vintage aircraft carrier, was still operational. It was home ported in Pensacola, but transited back and forth between there and Corpus to serve as a training platform for the Navy for student pilots to practice landing on a carrier. One “dark and stormy” night, a jack-up oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico capsized. This constituted a major search and rescue mission for the CG Air Station. The day after the mishap, I was flying a sortie searching for survivors about 50 miles offshore. The LEXINGTON was on-scene at the time, and was providing radar tracking and communications services. I realized that I could extend my sortie by refueling on the LEX rather than going back to the beach for fuel. So, I landed on the LEX, got some gas, and continued my mission. The students love hearing that story and seeing the spot on the flight deck where I landed that day.
Other things that keep me busy in my retirement include producing wood sculptures. I donate most to the local Catholic schools for fundraisers, or give them as gifts to friends and relatives. I specialize in birds and fish. We built a workshop next to our house in order to support my habit of turning chunks of wood into chips and sawdust!
I guess I could sum up all I have written here in just one phrase: “Life is good!”