Warren Walls didn't know what his Father's Day gift was going to be this year, but he knew it was going to be a surprise. And when he pulled into a Staten Island yacht club for a Forties Forever reunion in June, he knew he was in for a weekend of reminiscing about the Coast Guard.
"I probably wouldn't have gone on my own," Walls said. "But I'm glad I did. It was a beautiful day."
The term forty refers to the 40-foot boats used to patrol the United States coastline in search of wrecks and lives to save. This was the type of boat Walls routinely drove during his time with the Lewes and Indian River Coast Guard stations. He began his service in 1958 when he enlisted at the age of 18 for a four-year stint.
It was in his blood.
"My grandfather served some 30 years in the Coast Guard," Walls said. "I was born and raised next door to the Lewes Coast Guard Station ... I was the only boy on the beach back then and made friends with a lot of the people at the station."
His roots run deep in Lewes. Dating back to the 1900s, his grandmother owned and operated a rowboat business in a two-block square area near the Lewis ferry terminal and his family all built homes and lived there.
While in the Coast Guard, his duties required him to patrol the shoreline, sometimes 30 to 40 miles away and out of sight. Radar would help pinpoint locations.
Shortly after enlisting in the Coast Guard, an American oil tanker ran aground off of Fenwick Island and split in two. He remembers people going out and claiming furniture and decorations off the African Queen and said a man died at sea trying to stake claim of the tanker.
After his four-year service was up, he said he honed his carpentry skills at – using the old-time vernacular – DuPonts in Seaford, and various building jobs throughout the area.
He met his wife, Mary, in Lewes when her father's fishing boat brought the family to Delaware, and Walls built a garage apartment there where the couple lived their early years together.
But the sea kept calling.
At an armed forces day at Fort Miles in 1981, the Coast Guard Reserves recruiter displays caught his eye. The reserves required one weekend a month at Indian River and two weeks a year at a location of choice. It was a job he would do until 1998, when they made him retire at age 42.
"I miss it a little," Walls said, to which Mary emphatically interjected, "He misses it a lot."
Traveling was a highlight of his service. California, Florida, Nova Scotia and New York were some of his favorite locations.
"I did harbor patrol when they relit the Statue of Liberty," he said.
But he and his family also had their share of serious moments.
Walls recalled saving a diver who almost drowned while exploring an offshore wreck and then there was the 1962 Nor'easter.
"We had a second floor apartment about 500 feet from the bay," he said. "The water came in 3 to 4 feet in the house and my wife and baby stayed in the second floor apartment until they were evacuated the next day."
During the thick of it, Walls was stationed at one of the lighthouses off the coast.
"I was really worried about him then," Mary said.
A couple of children later, the couple outgrew the apartment and built a home in Holland Acres where they lived for 29 years.
Walls finished out his Coast Guard career doing lighthouse maintenance on the five lighthouses stationed off the Delaware coast. After the Coast Guard abandoned the lighthouses in the 1970s, he said they were in great need of paint and carpentry work which he provided. He also helped remove lead paint and asbestos from the aging structures.
Now fully retired, Walls still keeps busy with carpentry and target shooting on his 32-acre farm in west Lewes. His brother and sister both have adjoining property and a radio tower broadcasts BBN, a Christian radio station at 91.7 FM on his plot.
He did all the trim work in his home, including mahogany panels in the dining room, and built his fair share of furniture decorating the home.
His passion, however, is in the Coast Guard boat replicas he made by hand - some by kits and others from scratch. He has replicas of the boats he operated while in the service and others that were part of the fleet. It's a labor of love to put all the small parts together and painstakingly paint the pieces. But one can tell it's his pride and joy by looking at the prominently displayed works around his house.
"We need another room to put them in," Mary said jokingly.
Chances are, she wouldn't have it any other way.