Pardon Richard “Ducky” Brace when he says there was no middle ground when it came to his service in the U.S. Coast Guard in the mid- to late-1960s: He was either hot or cold with it.
Indeed, Brace stayed toasty warm down in the engine rooms where he served as an engineman for two years aboard the USS Eastwind, followed by two more on the USS Glacier. Or he literally froze to death just about anywhere else on the ships, both of which were icebreakers clearing the shipping lanes for commercial vessels supplying the U.S. Antarctic Program at – where else? – Antarctica.
“It was 30 degrees below zero in a heat wave,” Brace joked. “We made little ice cubes out of big ice cubes.”
He does however, get a warm feeling in his heart each August 4, when the Coast Guard celebrates its birthday, this year being its 230th. As the only Coast Guard veteran living at the Veterans Homes of California-Ventura, he is the celebrity of the day. He soaks in the love. He gets to cuts the cake.
On August 4, 1790, Congress authorized the building of 10 ships to prevent smuggling, enforce tariff and trade laws, and protect federal revenues. Over time, its duties expanded to aid ships and sailors in distress. Initially named the Revenue Cutter Service, it merged with the U.S. Life Saving Service in 1915, and was renamed the Coast Guard, but celebrates the 1790 date as its official birthday.
A native of Buffalo, New York, Brace joined the Coast Guard as a 19 year old in 1965. He split time being stationed in Boston and Long Beach, but with the exception of cruises to Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Alaska, he spent most of his time in Antarctica.
The frozen landscape offered few recreational activities.
“We teased penguins,” he said, meaning from a distance. (No penguins were harmed in the making of his story). “There were a lotta penguins.”
Because the base lacked clubs or bars, Brace and his buddies made homemade “wine” out of anything they could get their hands on, which consisted mostly of potatoes. That, of course, concocted a beverage more akin to vodka than wine. Who cared? If it had the same effect as antifreeze, they were good with it.
He left the Coast Guard after four years in 1969, and ran a tow truck service in Michigan.
“For four years,” he said. Then he worked at a grocery store there. “For four years,” he said. “Everything, for four years.”
A visit to California in 2009 reminded Brace of how much more he liked being warm than cold.
“I came out here on vacation and stayed,” Brace said.
Just over two years later, he moved into CalVet’s Veterans Home in Ventura, where a staff member nicknamed him “Ducky,” perhaps because he’d begun collecting toy ducks for a hobby around that time. More than 30 of them now adorn his room.
There are no penguins among them, though. They would only remind him of a very cold time in a very cold place.
Because when it comes to anything to do with ice, he’s just “Ducky” about the honor of slicing through the icing of the cake each year as Ventura Home’s lone Coast Guard veteran.