|One of the benefits of growing old
is the gift of time... Time to look back and revisit your collective
For old smokeboat sailors, that means
time to shuffle through memories of pissing against the wind in faded soft
dungarees, frayed raghats and zinc chromate-spattered brogans. You
can close your eyes and be transported back to a time when men wore acid-eaten
uniforms, breathed air worse than the primate house at a poorly managed
zoo, whittled mold and rot off food of advanced age being reclaimed by
the gods of purification, and surgically carving off the stuff and eating
it. You survived and built up an immunity that could handle leprosy,
lockjaw and cobra bites. We survived. Submarine duty was rough.
Many of us 'hotsacked'. For those
of you who missed that life experience, hotsacking was sharing sleeping
arrangements (to put it in easily understood terms). A system that
required lads at the entry level of the undersea service profession, to
crawl onto a sweat-soaked flashpad just vacated by another bottom-feeding
shipmate. Lads of today's modern technically advanced undersea service
would find it damn near impossible to imagine a day when lads who hadn't
showered in weeks, climbed a tier of racks sharing sock aroma on par with
three-day old roadkill, with his bunkmates... A time when raghats
communally shared blankets that looked like hobo camp hand-me-downs.
It was a time when the common denominator
of the naval supply system was the cockroach, with the longevity of Jack
LaLanne. Cockroaches that could deflect claw-hammered blows and could
reach rodeo entry size.
In the late 50's, the submarines built
in the twilight years of World War II were rapidly approaching an advanced
age comatose state. The navy quit making many of the replacement
parts for these seagoing antiques, so we cannibalized the boats in line
heading to the scrapyard. It was like harvesting organs from a dead
Rockette to keep the chorus line going. After decommissioning, the
old boats would have electricians and machinists crawling all over them
with shopping lists and wrenches.
Memory is a wonderful God-given gift.
There were sunrises and sunsets, rolling seas, visits to exotic places,
and ladies with loose panty elastic and no AIDS. There were consumable
combustibles on par with the liquids that propel hardware to outer space.
It was a time when the world's population
loved the American submariner. Boat sailors in port meant good times,
hell-raising and calling in the night shift at the local brewery.
It was a time when the United States Navy had no recruitment problems,
paid no incentive money and had to kiss no butts to entice grown men into
accepting their manly obligation to their nation. Men signed up for
undersea service, motivated by patriotic obligation, a sense of history
and adventure, and to follow the gallant submariners who rode the boats
against the Japanese empire. We wanted to wear the distinctive insignia
universally recognized as the symbol of the most successful and demanding
submarine service on earth.
We were proud. We had a right
to be. We were accepted as the downline fraternity brothers of the
courageous men who put Hirohito's monkey band all over the floor of the
Pacific. We rode their boats, ate at their mess tables, slept in
their bunks and plugged the ever-increasing leaks in the hulls they left
us. We patted the same barmaid butts they had patted when they were
far younger and half as wide. We carved our boats names and hull
numbers on gin mill tables in places that would give Methodist ministers
We danced with the devil's mistress
and all her naughty daughters. We were young, testosterone-driven
American bluejackets and let's face it... Every girl in every port
establishment around the globe both recognized and appreciated the meaning
of a pair of Dolphins over a jumper pocket. Many of these ladies
were willing to share smiles and body warmth with the members of America's
It was a time when the snapping of American
colors in the ports of the world stood for liberation from tyranny and
the American sailor in his distinctive uniform and happy-go-lucky manner,
stood for John Wayne principles and a universally recognized sense of decency,
high ideals and uncompromised values.
It was in every sense of the term, 'A
great time to be an American sailor'.
There were few prohibitions. They
were looked upon as simply unnecessary. It was a time when 'family
values' were taught at family dinner tables, at schools, the nation's playing
fields, scout troops, Sunday school or other institutions of worship.
We were a good people and we knew it.
We plowed the world's oceans guarding
her sea lanes and making her secure for the traffic of international commerce.
But at eighteen, let's face it... We never thought much about the
noble aspect of what we were doing. Crews looked forward to the next
liberty port, the next run, home port visits, what the boat was having
for evening chow, the evening movie after chow, or which barmaids were
working at Bell's that evening. We were young, invincible and had
our whole lives ahead of us. Without being aware of it, we were learning
leadership, acceptance of responsibility and teamwork in the finest classroom
in the world... A United States submarine.
It was a simpler time. Lack of
complexity left us with clear-cut objectives and the 'bad guys' were clearly
defined. We knew who they were, where they were and that we had the
means, will and ability to send them all off to hell in a fiery package
deal. We were the 'good guys' and literally wore 'white hats'.
What we lacked in crew comfort, technological
advancements and publicity, we made up for in continuity, stability and
love of our boats and squadrons. We were a band of brothers and have
remained so for over half a century.
Since we were not riding what the present
day submariner would call 'true submersibles', we got sunrises and sunsets
at sea... The sting of wind-blown saltwater on our faces...
The roll and pitch of heavy weather swells and the screech of seabirds.
I can't imagine sea duty devoid of contact with these wonders. To
me, they are a very real part of being a true mariner.
I'm glad I served in an era of signal
lights... Flag messaging... Navigation calculation...
Marines manning the gates... Locker clubs... Working girls...
Hitchhiking in uniform... Quartermasters, torpedomen and gunner's
mates... Sea store smokes... Hotsacking... Hydraulic
oil-laced coffee... Lousy mid rats... Jackassing fish from
the skids to the tubes... One and two way trash dumping...
Plywood dog shacks... Messy piers... A time when the Chief
of the Boat could turn up at morning quarters wearing a Mexican sombrero
and Jeezus sandals... When every E-3 in the sub force knew what paint
scrapers, chipping hammers and wire brushes were for... When JGs
with a pencil were the most dangerous things in the navy... When
the navy mobile canteen truck was called the 'roach coach' and sold geedunk
and pogey bait... When the breakfast of champions was a pitcher of
Blue Ribbon, four Slim Jims, a pack of Beer Nuts, a hard-boiled egg, and
a game of Eight Ball.
It was a time when, if you saw a boatsailor
with more than four ship's patches on his foul weather jacket, he was at
least fifty years old and a lifer. A time when skippers wore hydraulic
oil-stained steaming hats and carried a wad of binocular wipes in their
shirt pockets. In those days, old barnicle-encrusted chiefs had more
body fat than a Hell's Angel, smoked big, fat, lousy smelling cigars or
'chawed plug', and came with a sewer digger's vocabulary.
It was a time where heterosexuals got
married to members of the opposite sex or patronized 'working girls', and
non-heterosexuals went Air Force... Or Peace Corps.
It was a good time... For some
of us, the best time we would ever have. There was a certain satisfaction
to be found in serving one's country without the nation you so dearly loved
having to promise you enlistment bonuses, big whopping education benefits,
feather bed shore duty, or an 'A' school with a sauna and color TV.
It was a time when if you told a cook you didn't eat Spam or creamed chipped
beef, everybody laughed and you went away hungry... And if you cussed
a messcook, you could find toenail clippings in your salad.
Our generation visited cemeteries where
legends of World War II undersea service were issued their grass blankets,
after receiving their pine peacoats and orders to some old hull number
moored at the big silver pier in the sky. We were family...
Our common heritage made us brothers.
There came a point where we drew a line
through our names on the Watch, Quarter and Station Bill, told our shipmates
we would see them in hell, shook hands with the COB, paid back the slush
fund, told the skipper 'goodbye', and picked up a disbursing chit and your
DD-214. We went up on Hampton Boulevard, bought a couple of rounds
at Bells, kissed the barmaids, gave Thelma a hug, then went out to spend
the rest of our lives wishing we could hear, "Single up all lines...",
just one more time.