Auxiliarist Mentors Coast Guardsmen
The clock read 7:19 a.m. when the man walked through the communication center door, a small donut bag and coffee in one hand and black briefcase in the other. He offered a cheery “Good Morning” to all and left the briefcase, headed to the mess deck to catch a few minutes of news while enjoying his breakfast.
Commonly referred by the crew as “Mr. A,” auxiliarist Chrisman Abernethy has become as permanent a fixture at Coast Guard Station Lake Worth Inlet in Riviera Beach, Fla., as the clock on the wall. By 7:45, he was ready to relieve the watch.
Abernethy was born and raised on a farm in Pennsylvania, but moved with his family to Long Island, N.Y., when he was 12. He has led a life of public service, signing up in 1958 as a Long Island volunteer firefighter as soon as he turned 18, to a radioman in the Coast Guard from 1960 to 1966, then as a Bronx, N.Y., firefighter for 21 years. He continued to serve with the volunteer fire department for 32 years, simultaneously working as the station’s building maintenance supervisor.
During a vacation in 1990 to West Palm Beach, Fla., Abernethy found he loved the area and went back to New York to put in his retirement letter. Once in Florida, his path of servitude remained, volunteering at Yesteryear Village, a local historical park, as well as working as a tour guide at the old Coast Guard station on Peanut Island in Riviera Beach. He frequently wore his Coast Guard ball cap during his time on Peanut Island and a fellow tour guide, a retired Coast Guardsman, offered to take him on a tour of Station Lake Worth Inlet. That tour led to a meeting with the commanding officer, who suggested Abernethy might like to stand radio watches. He was hooked.
“Once I visited the station that was it. I never left,” said Abernethy. “I joined the Auxiliary just to work [at Station Lake Worth Inlet].” It was 1999.
As an auxiliarist, Abernethy faithfully showed up once a week to stand watch, then eventually worked his way up to five days a week during busy summer months. In addition to being a qualified watchstander, Abernethy qualified as an officer of the day and served in that position for several years before the Coast Guard phased out the program in 2011.
Never married, Abernethy jokes he “married my job.” He does have a figurative son though. During the late 60s, he met a young boy who lived in the low-income apartments next to the Bronx firehouse where he worked. The boy, Hector, began to show up regularly at the fire station and eventually a strong bond developed between the two. Abernethy took the boy under his wing, mentoring him as he navigated the sometimes-difficult years of being a youth living in the Bronx. Forty years later the pair remains close, and the man who never biologically fathered a child gets a phone call every father’s day.
“He considers me his real father, and I consider him my real son,” said Abernethy. Today Hector Berrios is a pitching coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
Though no one has formed a closer bond than Hector, Abernethy still mentors those who come through the station doors. On this day in the communications center, Abernethy has a break-in on watch with him, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew M. Nicholl.
“He has quite a personality, ” said Nicholl with a smile. “He also has an expansive knowledge of the area and can answer any questions I have. He’s always got an ear to the radio, no matter what is going on. With all the distractions that can occur in the comms center, he’s always listening.”
The radio in the communication center suddenly penetrated the room with an urgent voice. A conversation between a watchstander from Sector Miami and a recreational boater filled the radio waves, and until it was apparent the boater was well out of the station’s area of operation, Abernethy’s complete focus was on the voices. Satisfied the boater was not in distress and Sector Miami had things under control, Nicholl and Abernethy went back to the business of training. With 13 years at the station, Abernethy has assisted in training dozens of Coast Guard watchstanders.
“I tend to be a people person, and I do enjoy teaching and feel that I can relate to any level,” said Abernethy. Whether it is the naïve Coast Guardsman fresh from Cape May, N.J., or the petty officer that just transferred in, “I can start from the basics or do refreshers.”
Training doesn’t stop at the crew either. As his flotilla’s officer in charge of public education, Abernethy is a heavyweight competitor when it comes to teaching the public about boating safety. He organizes one of the largest monthly boating safety courses in the 7th District.
When not at the station, Abernethy does a lot of behind-the-scenes work for the boating safety program. His motto of, “Be out and be seen,” reflects in his dedication to personally visiting marinas and boat and dive shops. Last year he logged more than 4,600 volunteer hours for the service.
As the clock inched towards 4 p.m., a young fireman entered the room to assume the watch. With little happening on the water, the relief process was short. Abernethy gathered his papers, closed his briefcase and positioned his cover on his gray-haired head. His departure from the station will be short – he is on the schedule for the next day as well.
“I tend to put myself more than 100 percent into everything I do. I can look back on my life and am satisfied I put everything into it,” he said. “Put yourself into everything and you’ll be satisfied too.”