Being a Dead Broke E-3

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

One time in East Tennessee, a fellow was talking about being 'dead broke'. I was about eight and had no idea what being dead broke meant.

"What's being dead broke mean?"

"Ain't got no money. If a man came down this here street yellin' 'I'm sellin' bonded whiskey for ten cents a gallon...' all I could do is yell, 'Damn, that's cheap!'"

You don't get any broker than that... That's rock-bottom busted.

At somewhere around $150 a month base, sea, foreign duty, and sub pay rolled in, a red-blooded American bluejacket could achieve 'dead broke' status without a whole lot of effort. Beer at Bells and dining on Beer Nuts and Slim Jims regularly could put a sizable dent in your personal finances in one helluva hurry. Tom Clancy missed that in his books... Tom Clancy never missed the opportunity to buy bonded whiskey at ten cents a gallon because all he could come up with was pocket lint.

You eventually learn to innovate. An E-3 (SS) learned the 'between paydays survival skills'... It was either that or become a celibate, tee-totalling mystic. There were none on Requin.

One weekend, Stuke and I were shifting pocket lint back and forth when we came up with a great master plan.

We signed up for the beat-up, wired together car that was co-owned by every non-rated idiot in the after battery. We scraped together close to twenty bucks, hit up the slush fund, some poor bastard who had fallen behind in quals and was restricted, and an old Chief who was sitting around waiting for some sonuvabitch to invent Viagra.

We poked four cans of beans in our foul weather jacket pockets and wangled a one pound can of wierd coffee from a wardroom steward... Had stuff called chickory in it... Folks in Louisiana like it. Folks in Louisiana would drink boiled alligator bile and like it. You could boil a lumberjack's jock and get a better cup of something to drink... But a dead-broke E-3 will drink damn near anything.

We were too stupid to grab a couple of spoons... Forks... Stuff a birdbrain would recognize would be required to convey food from can to mouth... Tools God rarely delivered from the clouds. We did take some blankets from the alley... Blankets that in their entire naval careers had never seen fresh air, sunshine or any form of sanitizing agent. These were the days before moonbeam propulsion, when enlisted men at the lower end of the submarine power grid lived like migratory lettuce pickers and had blankets that had been left over from Hindu funerals. Always visualized nuke guys wrapping themselves in down comforters and being tucked in by the below decks watch.

We were clever enough to misappropriate two clean Pyrex cups from the rack over the messcook's deep sink... You remember... The one with the heating element on the rinse side... The one that by the third seating, had water roaming around in it just under two million degrees that gave you boiled lobster fingers and fogged up your wristwatch.

Tom Clancy has a Rolex... He never owned a fogged up Timex.

We put five bucks worth of gas in the duty rattletrap and stopped to buy a cheap three buck coffee pot. For five bucks in those days, at 29 cents a gallon you could drive to the beach in North Carolina and back, and still have enough left over to cruise Virginia Beach and 'check your traps'... Nobody ever heard of an OPEC oil minister and they were still pumping oil out of the ground in Texas. Once the Arabians discovered Rolex watches, things went to hell and we got into big time fanny kissing in the land of sand and camels.

The coffee pot... This was a major purchase for two defenders of peace, freedom and the projection of naval power in the North Atlantic. Stuke bought the damn thing. At three bucks, you got a contraption made out of aluminum that was one grade higher than aluminum foil... Dent-prone and lighter than a pillow feather. Any homemaker would have recognized our pot was a total piece of crap at fifty feet.

We drove to a stretch of deserted beach south of Kitty Hawk. Just sand... Miles of sand-anchoring snow fence and a sign reading 'NO OPEN FIRES... NO ALCOHOL... USE PUBLIC RESTROOMS'. We couldn't understand the prohibition of peeing on the beach since every naval ship heading into Norfolk blew poop tanks off Hattaras on the way in. Being in possession of that knowledge made us figure if we took a couple of wizzes during the night, the state of North Carolina would have a rough time sorting out our contribution from what was floating up from a passing carrier or a couple of cans. When you are stupid, you figure out stuff like that. You would be amazed how the qualified E-3 mind works.

We also figured if we ripped a couple of dozen slats out of the dune fence and built a fire... It would probably be an 'open' fire... We never did figure out how to distinguish an 'open' fire from a 'closed' fire. We didn't go to Annapolis and nobody at New London covered obviously allowed 'closed' fires. So, we figured if we lit a fire, with our luck it would be the wrong kind and the two of us would wind up on a North Carolina road gang and miss the third class exam.

So we opened a can of beans and heated it up over a couple of railroad flares we found in the trunk, using a pair of needle-nose pliars for a handle. And since we didn't understand the physics of proper coffee pot perculation, we tossed away the guts of the pot and threw in generous handfulls of Louisiana horse manure blend coffee, and attempted to boil it up on the engine block of the four-wheeled mechanical wonder car.

What we ended up with was a lukewarm brew that could float a lugnut and tasted like something you''d find snorkeling around in a Pakistani bus station toilet. In the annals of lousy coffee, that little 'wardroom delicacy' ranked up there with the absolute worst ever invented.

We rolled out our blankets, zipped up our foul weather jackets and spent the entire night discovering why folks didn't go to the beach in the wintertime. Sometime during the night, one of the gentlemen who was unknowingly making what would later be known as a substantial contribution to the winning of the Cold War, went to take an unauthorized pee and stepped on the coffee pot.

The following morning found the two bulwarks against Russian domination of the sea lanes, doing their damndest to reshape bent aluminum into something that would allow them to heat up another load of something remotely resembling coffee... This was complicated by having to keep damn near frozen fingers in jacket pockets to ward off eminent frostbite and keep ice from forming in the blood stream. We also noted that the dye in the bandana we had been using to strain out coffee grounds as we poured the Louisiana hog plasma into the cups, was considerably reduced to zip at the point used in the straining process. We amused ourselves discussing the culinary possibilities of railroad flare cookery.

Standing there, dew-soaked drinking coffee... Or something half-warm and liquid... Rolling up soggy blankets, we took stock of the positive side. When had two goofy diesel boat sailors gone to the beach for twenty bucks, not had to put up with mosquitoes, avoided big-busted girls with tight fannies running around in scanty bikinis, pioneered cooking techniques, done a lot of illegal peeing and gotten away with it, and proven that they weren't candy-asses in Arleigh Burke's navy?

A smoke boat sailor could do more dead broke than a surface craft whiner could do two days after pay call.

One hundred fifty a month, bad air, shared bunks... Hand-me-down foul weather gear... Worn out boats... Geezer Chief petty officers... Lousy mid-rats and the company of some of the finest men that ever lived. Oh, to be nineteen again.