From the upstairs balcony in Old Town's Dixie Tavern, Second-Class Petty Officer Ben Craney pointed an imaginary gun at the crowded bar below.
"Blam!" he yelled. "That was a kill! Kill!" He picked up his half-finished rum and coke, and with a look of wide-eyed dementia, turned back to the sailors around him.
It was 10 pm, three hours after Craney's ship, the destroyer USS Howard, pulled into Portland on June 7 and disgorged her crew of 300. Craney and his shipmates were already drunk, and the Great Northwest Cougar Hunt of 2007 was on.
That's what Craney and a handful of his friends dubbed their four-day mission in Portland: simply put, to have sex with as many women as possible, using a formula of cheap alcohol, disarming humor and sheer determination.
Their first night in town, the Dixie Tavern was their stalking ground. They spent five hours there pounding drinks and hitting on women before ending the night alone in defeat, squandering several opportunities and hundreds of dollars in drinks along the way.
Their Bacchanalia is all part of what's unofficially known as Fleet Week. From June 7 to 11, our otherwise-liberal city hosted four U.S. Navy vessels, four Canadian Maritime Forces ships and three Coast Guard cutters moored downtown on the Willamette River's west bank.
Craney and his friends struck out at Dixie Tavern in spectacular fashion, but sailors say they feel more welcome here—and get more sex—than anywhere else outside of Thailand.
"It's the best port of call you can get in the United States," said Second-Class Petty Officer Mitch Thompson of the USS Bunker Hill. Because Oregon has no military base, sailors say strangers in Portland stop to shake their hands, and women will trade sex for a hat or a pin from their uniform that costs them $20 to replace.
One would think Portland is the last place the military would feel welcome. The city's March 18 protest on the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war was the country's biggest, with 15,000 marchers. And Portland drew nationwide attention when protesters here burned a U.S. soldier in effigy.
But besides a few antiwar signs when the ships arrived for Fleet Week, Portland offered the Navy little resistance. Under a banner reading, "Hail to the Fleet," sailors danced to John Mellencamp and Mötley Crüe at Dixie Tavern, where about 100 of the 250 guests were wearing Navy dress whites.
"I love it. They make me so horny," said Megan Dessimoz, a 21-year-old waitress who spent the evening dancing with a succession of sailors. Her friend Lindsey Bleth agreed. "We just want to show them a good time. We want to show them what Portland's about."
Others were more jaded. "It's nice because, you know, they buy us drinks and we never have to see them again," said Nicole Robinson, a 28-year-old dental hygienist. "They've been all over the world. I never go anywhere. I'm married, so I have a boring life."
As Robinson turned to look for her girlfriend, a sailor smacked her behind. She forgave the intrusion. "It's a very slappable ass," she explained.
The bartenders—all female and attractive—said Fleet Week sailors are lousy tippers but otherwise well-behaved. The sailors were quick to say they deserve a little R-and-R. The Howard and the Bunker Hill returned in March from six months guarding oil rigs in the Persian Gulf.
Lisa Kosher, a 22-year-old Portland bank teller, spent her teen years charming sailors into giving up their hats during Fleet Week. This year she brought her friend Lindsay Evans from Chicago, and Evans was impressed.
"It's like a Halloween draw," she said, surrounded by Craney and his friends at Dixie Tavern. "You get to pretend you're someone else."
After a round of Jäger bombs—a sickly combo of Red Bull and Jägermeister—Second-Class Petty Officer Keith Korkis had Kosher in his arms. She returned his kiss, but she and Evans refused to take Korkis and Craney home at closing time. Korkis remained upbeat about the cougar hunt as he made his way back to ship.
"Ask me again tomorrow," he said.