If there is a mold for career Coast Guard officers, a veteran bookie might have bet against Capt. Aylwyn Young back in 1978.
The newest Florida Keys Coast Guard commander, now 51, stood in the halls of his new office Thursday acclimating himself to his surroundings. Outgoing Capt. Pat DeQuattro handed over command to Young on on May 4.
"It's a command assignment and it's Key West," Young said. "The bottom line is that there is tremendous trust in any individual given this command. So, I'm excited and my excitement level comes from wanting to be an exemplary and effective leader with this team I have here. I certainly have every confidence in meeting and exceeding those expectations."
The Chicago native joined the Coast Guard when he was 18. That was more than 33 years ago, when the then-seminary student decided that he wanted to have a family one day.
"The pope was not ready for me to have a wife and kids," Young said, smiling.
Outside in the hallways of Sector Key West command headquarters, his staff was sending faxes and answering phones.
He sat back in his chair, thinking of what else led an urban kid from the biggest city in America's heartland to the Coast Guard. He leaned forward, recounting a time he and his friends were walking home on Martin Luther King Boulevard when they were stopped by police.
"There was four of them and they were big guys," Young recalled. "They all had their guns drawn. They wanted to know what we were up to."
Finding nothing wrong, Young remembered one officer glaring at him and saying that if they ever found him doing something wrong, "it would be our pleasure to put two bullets in you."
It was one of several bad memories he had involving police patrolling Chicago's inner neighborhoods in the 1970s. Young said he was called every name in the book by police as a kid.
Young is the first African-American commander of Sector Key West, which includes stations in Marathon and Islamorada. He and his wife Donna have two sons, Aylwyn Jr., 16, and Donald, 13.
Young's resume covers a lot of military ground: Drug Interdiction Assist Team, first lieutenant aboard the cutter Tampa, commanding officer of Station St. Clair Shores, Mich., chief of the Office of Defense Representatives at the U.S. Embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica, and commander of Coast Group Ohio Valley.
With his inner-city encounters with Chicago police behind him, and after deciding to leave seminary, his thoughts took to the sea.
"I went and found an encyclopedia and looked up Coast Guard," he said. "There wasn't Wikipedia or anything like it then. I think the encyclopedia entry had one picture of a ship with the text. I had to go out and find the recruiting office in downtown Chicago at the Customs House."
"So, here I am," he said smiling. "I knew less than a tenth of what the Coast Guard was all about at that point. I didn't know a thing about our high-endurance cutters or of our other cutters, the ice-breakers, and so on. No idea."
Young comes to the Keys by way of Portsmouth, Va., where he was the executive assistant to Coast Guard Atlantic area commander Vice Adm. Robert Parker. Prior to that, he was deputy commander of Sector St. Petersburg.
In the Keys, Young steps into one the most active Coast Guard sectors in the country.
"There is no off season here," Young said. "It's the major leagues. We're going 365, 24-7."
Young says the Coast Guard will remain committed to oil spill readiness in light of an exploratory platform off Cuba, which is drilling about 70 miles off the Florida Keys.
Under DeQuattro, the Coast Guard expanded its oil spill contingency planning with Monroe County, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and other agencies.
"There is no single agency that can deal with a catastrophe like the Deepwater Horizon incident," Young said. "Our strategy is that the whole of government has to look at and work with the whole of the community, and all the players need to be brought to the table. Leveraging those partnerships will absolutely continue."
It all seems like a long way from the streets of Chicago for the one-time, would-be priest.
"When I decided to join I planned on doing four years," he said.
He was dating a young woman then whose mother fell in love with his new uniform.
"She paraded me all over town and this woman saw men with gold up and down their sleeves and I said, 'Those are chiefs, but I won't be around that long for that," Young said. "And there were these other guys with gold across their sleeves and I said those are officers, but I won't be in long enough. She looked at me and said, 'You are wrong. It will happen for you.' That woman turned out to be quite prophetic."