The Men who followed Old Gringo

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

Call 'em snipes... The black gang or just plain raggedy-ass enginemen and motor macs. Every boat had them and they had the roughest job in the Navy... Two miles ahead of whatever came in second. We never told them that... We would never admit that being an 'engine house mouse' made you King of The Jungle.

I was a torpedoman. We worked with tools, enginemen looked on as toys...

"Hell, the guy who fixes my watch has bigger tools than you loafin' bastards."

If I heard that once, I heard it five million times. It was true. They had stuff back there that you could have used to perform a hysterectomy on The Statue of Liberty. Hell you had to be one helluva man just to pick up some of their tools.

The words 'light' and 'delicate' were meaningless terms to an engineman. They wrestled junk the size of railroad locomotive wheels. My memory of them always brings back laughing guys. Oily rags and greasy bloody fingers wrapped around coffee cups... Cussing inanimate objects that were misbehaving.

They worked the hardest... Earned their pay twice over and in a world of generous, good-hearted men, were themselves, the most generous.

They also were loud… Damn loud. Hell, you spend your life buttoned up with a couple of 1600 HP Fairbanks Morse rock crushers pounding in your ears, waddya expect? They make gahdam soccer balls out of bull hide thinner than enginemen's' eardrums. Oilers and throttlemen could whisper and be heard in a sawmill.

Nobody in his right mind tangled with the 'heavy wrench mafia'. They traveled in pairs and to them punching your nasal cartilage out the back of your skull would have been light work. When you gave them hell, you smiled so they would let you get away with it. Your worst nightmare was a pissed off engineman with Dolphins.

They drank coffee out of the dirtiest cups I ever saw. If you came into the crews mess and saw a cup with greasy fingerprints all over it, you didn't have to confer with Dick Tracy to know some engine house animal had been there... All enginemen blood was three quarters Maxwell House and the rest cheap whiskey.

When a snipe came to the bridge to air his armpits, you knew you were going to get a lecture on loafing, fresh air topside life. When you are King of The Jungle you eat monkeys for breakfast... Enginemen dined on messcook and lookout butts.

All Old Gringo and the Teenage Throttle Adjuster have to do is jump in and you know heavy objects and bar furniture will be thrown, so tape your Blue Cross card to your chin before you attempt to throw your first punch. There is a lot of fun in pinning the tail on Old Gringo's donkey, secure in the knowledge that he can't throw a 2,000-mile haymaker.

We had an engineman who was prototypical of the breed. He was built along the line of King Kong and had the social grace of an orangutan. He was called John T.

When the Salvation Army got rid of unusable clothing... Stuff nobody would buy at a thrift store, they would boil it and bale it up as 'sterile rags', and sell the bales to the Navy for engine wipes. Amazing things came out of these engine wipe bales. Once an engineman turned up decked out in coveralls from a Cadillac dealership.

But the worst sight we were ever called on to witness was John T. waltzing into the crews mess wearing a red polka dot sundress and yelling "gangway for a fifty-dollar whore!"

Every engine house on every smokeboat in the navy had a hidden jug... Or jugs. The guys that designed pigboats provided numerous places where an oily rag-wrapped fifth could be secured for sea.

I was hundreds of miles from the source of all distilled spirits when I passed final quals... After all the guys from ships company had congratulated me, I turned in to a rack in the alley. I had just drifted off when someone shook me. I wiped the sleep out of my 'what the f*ck?' eyes, when I see four greasy snipes.

"Dex, the exec said you sneaked through."

"Yeah, got my fish."

"Congratulations you gahdam, obnoxious little bastard."

Someone handed me a dirty cup full of liquid that could have dissolved a lug nut...

"Dex, welcome to the qualified world."

Without enginemen, we wouldn't have pulled away from the pier. They were the heart and soul of every submarine.

Nuclear propulsion is clean and quiet. I suppose that is a good thing... Progress. But it is not necessarily a good thing. No enginemen with dirty fingers... No lousy coffee cups and no loud talking, good-natured men who would unselfishly give away their worldly goods for the sake of a shipmate in need.

I would miss that ... I would miss being able to work my way aft after a wet night in the shears and toss my soaking gear over a hot engine cover and swap a couple of dirty jokes with the good natured bastards who lived there.

I would miss knowing what a man who calls himself Old Gringo... A man who rode S-boats... Knows what depth charges sound like... Wore cloth dolphins and still leaves large footprints in the jungle... Did for a living. I miss the fact that because of generational separation... Gringo and I never got to share a cup of coffee and swap a few lies while his engines steamed the saltwater out of my bridge parka. That boys and girls, to me, would be a keeper memory.

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