Bells, The Center of the Universe

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

There was a diesel days definition for contentment… Racked out in the middle rack inboard… Riding in the wake of a carrier… Reading a sex book and scratching your athlete's foot on a bunk chain… It never got any better than that. Not unless someone could figure out how to run the boat aground on a nudist beach.

In port, there was Bells… Sign read 'Bells Bar and Naval Tailors' but to us it was just Bells. You could be sliding away from a pier in East Jeezus, Balookastan and yell to another SUBRON Six boat,

"See you bastards in Bells!"

And every bluejacket on both boats knew exactly what you meant.

Someone recently asked,

"Is there a good submarine bar in Norfolk… Like the Horse & Cow?"

Have no gahdam idea what the Horse & Cow is, was or may be in the future… But there was a time when Bells was the center of the submersible bluejacket's world. If Thelma's signature wasn't on your qual card, you simply weren't a qualified boat sailor. Look under 'Filthiest head in North America' in the Guinness Book of World Records and all it has is 'Bells, Hampton Blvd.'

Bells is gone… But sure as hell not forgotten. Each year, thousands… Possibly hundreds of thousands of old, worn out smoke-eating, gravel gut, rock-crusher propulsion submariners appear at the hallowed site… It has become a religious pilgrimage.

Most people just see a big ol' asphalt parking lot. But a real, genuine SUBRON Six man can close his eyes and smile as it all comes back.

In the background, Johnny Cash is singing 'Don't Take Your Guns to Town' from the most abused jukebox in North America. Thelma is yelling,

"Which gahdam tables want the two pitchers… Four drafts… And the Slim Jims?"

"Hey Thelma… Darling… Sweetheart… Fulfillment of all my fantasies and dreams… What does it take for a valiant defender of the free world to get a pack of Beer Nuts?"

"Nuts? I'll give you nuts… You don't pipe down, I'll kick your nuts up next to your eyeballs!"

It was very evident that Thelma never attended Vassar, right off.

"I'm only gonna say this once tonight, boys… Keep the gahdam wet glasses off the f*cking pool table felt!"

The pool table had a playing surface that was later used as a topographic model for the Ho Chi Min Trail. You could gently place a ball in the middle of the table… Release it and watch it do a drunken wobble toward whichever side of the table was closest to the equator. You could be a world champion pool hustler and lose at Bells… The secret was knowing how to bank shots off mole tunnels and avoid gopher holes… It was green and it resembled a table.

Bells was noted for four-star cuisine… If you were a Slim Jim gourmet or an authority on Beer Nuts, pickled pig's feet, hard-boiled eggs, and hot Polish sausage that floated in liquid that could dissolve a medium cruiser turret, Bells was your kind of place. I was told that Bells' Polish sausage was the subject of a heated debate in the 1964 Geneva arms reduction talks… The only thing I know from actual contact was that they could set the seat of your 'Fruit-of-the-Looms' on fire the next morning.

Yes, as you stand there in that empty parking lot, it all comes back. You would think that the city fathers of Norfolk… Once the home of those reckless warriors of the deep… Those protectors of the American way… Those drunken leap-froggers of parking meters… Out of respect, they should install a chrome floor drain, so we could pee down it just like everyone did every Saturday night… Hell, it might be so popular, Norfolk could hold the 'Festival of the Floor Drain'.

Did the Horse & Cow have a sign over the bar that read 'Sailors and dogs keep off the female employees'? Could you get your uniform steamed and pressed at the Horse & Cow while you sat in the bar in socks, skivvies and white hat, drinking beer? Did kids there go around with a box and a tin can hanging around their necks saying,

"Buff 'em up, motherf*ck? One fine shine… One thin dime?"

Is there a Thelma equivalent to yell,

"I'll kill the next sonuvabitch who drops a quarter in that gahdam thing and punches La Bamba five times!"

Do they have that?

If you call for a cab… When you tell them what bar you want them to come pick you up from, do they say,

"Are you shitting me? I wouldn't come down there with a large caliber handgun."

When you sit down at your table in this Cow place… Does a big blond come over and plant two great big warm ones between your shoulder blades… Lean over and whisper,

"What are we havin' tonight, sailor boy?"

Hell, maybe they've franchised Bells and named 'em after farm animals… Who knows? The secret giveaway would be the floor drain in the men's room… And the sign over the door reading, 'ALL THIS WAS MADE POSSIBLE BY THE DEVOTED PATRONAGE OF THE DRUNKS OF SUBRON SIX'.