Answer Up

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

"Answer up when your name is called…"

"Schnider."

"Schnider…"

"Jeezus Christ Jack, I know you're here… I just saw you."

"No Chief, he went to draw a cup of coffee… I'll take his mail."

"Murphy…"

"Yo."

"Murph, you mean to tell me someone in West Virginia can write?"

"Not really Chief… My sister sends me stuff from the paper on coon hunts."

"Anyone eat coon on purpose?"

"Hell yeah, Chief."

"Braxton… Looks like you're behind on your car payment again."

"Mendez."

"Mendez…"

"Hey wetback! Ya got a letter from some honey in Mexico. Save me the stamps."

"Peto… Holy jumpin' Jeezus, talk about perfumed prose… This shit would turn an embalmed monk horny… Whew! Man, get that thing outta here."

And so it went until the last envelope cleared the mailbag and the men who got… And the men who failed to get, magic pages to tuck under their flashpads… Returned to whatever they should have been doing before the big canvas bag fell out of the escape trunk.

Mail was the lifeline that kept a boatsailor connected to real live people who didn't make a living breathing air full of floating crap inside an iron tube.

In the spectrum of gradations of womanhood… The ones who occupy the uppermost rung are the ones who wrote to servicemen faithfully. I mean that sincerely. Any girl who took time from whatever else she had to do in life... Took pen and paper and wrote to some lonely sonuvabitch in uniform is a saint... An honest-to-God saint. They provided welcome news from home and fuel for late night fantasies.

Some of the stuff was funny as hell. Some clown on Requin got a red hot warning that if he didn't contact his local draft board… The Selective Service would put in motion forces that would hunt his worthless butt down and have him inducted into the armed forces immediately.

One time we had been out and down for a couple of weeks and we got a 'little orphan Annie' drop… P2V out of Norfolk came roaring over at a couple hundred feet and kicked out a can full of mail… We fished it out with a boathook and envelopes containing messages from the free world and sexual frustration-triggering prose, were distributed in the control room.

There was an envelope addressed to 'Resident, USS Requin (SS-481), Fleet Post Office, New York, NY.

Which resident? We never knew but we opened it on behalf of the unknown resident. Inside was a very personal 'Dear Resident' communication and a little aluminum key. It seems some guy named Uncle Dave of Uncle Dave's Auto Sales out on Military Highway had this fabulous treasure chest full of goodies that included the title to a 1960 two-door Chevy with air conditioning and what we held on behalf of mister unknown resident, was possibly the key to the lock that would bring instant ownership.

It didn't take the overactive brains of Hogan's Alley long to project into the future, which at this point was about a week away, and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we held the winning key… That by this time, had become known as simply 'The Magic Key'.

Problem #1. Who would hold the magic key? We created a rotational watch… The magic key keeper… And we held magic key exchange ceremonies… Feeling that the importance of the key should be understood by all aboard, we held our exchange ceremonies in the crews mess… A location where the elderly senior petty officers met to smoke pipes and stinking cigars, lie to each other, cuss the E-3 population, and listen to their arteries harden.

We would enter utilizing our version of the East German goose-step, halt and render our Hogan's Alley 'Secret Signs of Baseball' salute… And shout,

"Pre-seeeeeennt KEY!"

At which time the magic key would be held out to the subsequent guardian who would yell,

"Acceeeeeept KEY!"

Do an about face, render the aforementioned salute plus two Chubby Checker butt rotations, and goose-step into the control room to conclude the formalities.

Problem #2. We were scheduled to be out when the day… The only day that our dear Uncle Dave was going to allow use of the magic key. Our skipper failed to appreciate the importance of canceling our scheduled exercise and returning to pier 22… So we decided to appeal directly to Congress, the United Nations and General Motors. We worked on one of the most literate appeals ever penned by wronged American patriots… Who called themselves the 'Committee of the Most Worthy Keepers of the Magic Key.' And we certainly didn't appreciate being called silly bastards by the COB who posted our document in the G.D.U. These were the days of rampant insensitivity in the submarine force.

Mail was what kept us going. Life is funny. I once saw a program on maximum-security prisons… You know, the places where they send serial killers, guys who have non-consensual sex with nuns then hit 'em in the head with a tire iron and guys who boil babies to make soup. It hit me… These guys live in better conditions, get a helluva lot more exercise and sunlight, and they don't seem to be getting bug juice and panther pee.

The difference was we volunteered and were right where we wanted to be.

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