Editor's note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.
NEWTON FALLS - From playing football on the polar ice cap with a sniper on the lookout for polar bears to cracking down on drug smugglers in the Caribbean, Gary Cunningham saw more than he bargained for in signing up for the U.S. Coast Guard as a teenager.
"I went to the North Pole twice, sailed through two hurricanes, but I never sailed on Lake Erie," Cunningham said.
Tribune Chronicle / Margaret Thompson
During his time in the U.S. Coast Guard, Gary Cunningham traveled to the North Pole twice.
When he was 19, Cunningham, now 58, of Newton Falls, said he was fed up with college and decided he needed to do something different.
"I got sick of school. I wanted to go out and see the world," he said.
So on Christmas break his sophomore year he went home and told his parents he wasn't going back.
Hometown: Newton Falls
Family: Wife, Mary Cunningham; daughters, Kaytee (Shaen) Evans, Kelsey Cunningham, Kerry Cunningham; grandson, Brody Evans
Service Branch: U.S. Coast Guard, damage controlman first class
Medals / Honors: Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation with "O," Coast Guard Bicentennial Unit Commendation, two Coast Guard Good Conduct Medals, two Coast Guard Arctic Service Medals, two National Defense Service Medals, Coast Guard Sea Service Ribbon and the Coast Guard Cutterman Badge
Occupation: Commercial refrigeration at Kent State University
His parents' response? "Well, son, you can't move back here," Cunningham said.
In 1974, he enlisted with the U.S. Coast Guard and headed to a 12-week boot camp in New York City on Governor's Island, where he learned, among other things, combat skills and firefighting.
He was assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Northwind, a vessel that Cunningham said was designed "like a football." The rounded bottom allowed the ship to edge up over ice patches before the weight of the ship would force them to break.
In this way, they would clear a path to Greenland through the frigid North Atlantic, leading a convoy of ships to a pair of U.S. Air Force bases there, he said.
"It's amazing. Here I am a kid, 19 years old, and I've never seen anything like it in my life and probably never will (again)," he said.
The isolated bases in Greenland were equipped with radar to track Russian movements.
"They were afraid the Russians would send missiles over the North Pole," Cunningham said.
Near the polar ice cap, they would also act as "traffic cops" for submarines and allow scientists to drill into the ice to collect sea water surveys, he said. Here, they would go out on the ice to play football and often sighted polar bears.
"What was it like? Cramped, very cramped," Cunningham said.
Cunningham's adventures weren't confined to the arctic. He was next stationed in St. Louis, where he was a rescue boat coxswain on the Mississippi River.
"It's amazing how much the Mississippi River floods!" he said.
Much of his time there was spent doing flood relief.
"I once saved a family of four from going over a waterfall," Cunningham said.
The motor on the family's boat had died and they were about to go over a flooded dike when Cunningham came to their rescue. He said his crew made the news with it, but his commander was upset over Cunningham's haircut, saying he disgraced the U.S. Coast Guard.
"He was probably right about the haircut," Cunningham said.
In 1978, his time in active duty was up, so he joined the reserves and moved back to Cleveland, where he met his wife in the toy department of a JCPenney's. Six years later, he would go on active duty again.
"It was 1984 and nobody was working in 1984," he said.
This time he headed for warmer weather aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Harriet Lane, a law enforcement ship.
"We went to the Caribbean looking for trouble, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants south of Cuba and Haiti," he said.
Cunningham recalled coming across ships overloaded with as much as 200 tons of marijuana.
"As soon as they saw that white hull over the horizon, they would sink their ship," he said.
In attempts to destroy evidence, the smugglers would throw overboard bunches of marijuana as big as bales of hay, he said. Sinking their ships was another tactic.
"Without evidence it would become a rescue mission," he said.
It was his job to stop the smugglers' ships from sinking or put out the fires that were burning long enough for law enforcement to gather evidence.
On Christmas Eve 1987, he said they came across a 65-foot boat packed with 230 Haitians.
"There's no poor people in America. Our poor have color televisions. There was a woman on this ship who had a chicken and that was all she had," he said.
He still remembers dropping the group off on Christmas Day in Port Au Prince, Haiti, where the immigrants were deemed criminals and immediately led off in leg irons.
Spending 270 days a year on a ship was something Cunningham said he loved but, with a wife and baby at home, when his four-year stint came to an end, he headed home.
"If you change one thing, you change everything," he said, "I wish I'd stayed in, but then maybe I wouldn't have had my other children or I'd have different ones, but these are the ones I want. At the end of the day, my life is perfect."
Cunningham said he was fortunate never to be shot at and so he holds members of all the military units in high esteem. His dangers were different, being on flaming ships to put out fires, navigating the flooded Mississippi River and even keeping an eye open for polar bears.