The Big Picture was Never in Focus

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

Me'n Stuke worked for Arliegh Burke. We had no gahdam idea what middle management between the skipper and "31 knot" Burke looked like or did for a living.. And frankly, didn't give a damn. Admiral Burke was a bluejackets' leader. He was a meat eater... Absolute King of the Jungle. He was an action man in a world of 'All talk, no do'. Burke was the kind of individual who would hunt Bengal Tigers with a 22 and drag the dead ones home. No shark would ever eat Arliegh Burke out of reciprocal professional courtesy. Every mother in America could have no finer wish for a son, than wishing he would grow up to be just like Admiral Burke. The heart of a lion packaged in a kind gentleman who understood leadership from 'A' to 'Z'. As far as we were concerned, the squadron staff on Orion were shore duty personnel... 9 to 5 useless overhead. Outside of constantly losing our pay records and hauling us up to sick bay and poking hypodermic needles in our butts, they never seemed to be doing a whole helluva lot that contributed to the 'Big Picture'.

Officers talked a lot about 'Big Picture' stuff... I think they dabbled in it on a kind of 'Nibble around the edges' basis. If there actually was a big picture, it never reached Hogan's Alley on Requin, that's for damn sure.

Speaking of big pictures, in 1959 if some clown had come down Pier 22 with a forty-foot high photograph of the squadron commander on a sixty-foot pole, every E-3 topside would have said,

"Who'n the hell is that?"

If he turned up on 'What's my Line' and we could have won two weeks at The Waldorf-Astoria with the Playmate of the Month, we would have still been stumped.

We knew he existed because several times a day some pea brain on Mother Onion blew a damn bos'un's pipe and announced to a world that could have cared less,

"Subron Six arriving..."

But as far as we were concerned, he lived in the same nether world with the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and other folks we had never met or seen.

We saw the Atlantic Sub Force Commander, Vice Admiral Elton W. Grenfell... He was a good egg. I don't have any idea what he did for a living other than sit around in a room jam-packed with four-stripers and think up weird stuff for submarines to do.

One time he came aboard. We knew he was a big cheese because the COB underwent a fast pop religious conversion and had us take down all the nekkit lady pictures, including the really great one of Janet Pilgrim in a lace nightie taped to inside of the after battery head stall door. An admiral wearing three stars could have had a mammoth attack of the green apple quick step and still there was no way in hell he would have gone in there. Didn't matter, the COB always won. We spent half the damn night turning to converting our clubhouse for seagoing idiots into the best imitation of a Sunday school we could come up with... And for the rest of my enlistment, whenever I was parked on the aft head in the after battery, I stared at the little pieces of tape that outlined where Janet and those 44 DDs peeked through that flimsy white nightie had been, and cussed Sublant.

The Admiral came. He had porked up a little since he tied knots in Tojo's tail and he had a sizeable pack of staff toadies nipping at his heels. They formed us up in dress canvas, including mess cooks. The standard drill, two ranks of stationary seagull crap targets aft of the sail. The Admiral gave us the mandatory 'You men are doing one helluva job for The U.S. Navy' speech... The one where the duty messcook always has that 'What in the hell is he talking about?' look on his face.

"Yes sir gentlemen... Wish I could fill you in on the big picture and you would understand how vital your individual contribution is."

Always big picture bullshit... It always came by one-ton loads. After the speech, the Admiral came down each row of bluejackets and spoke personally to each one of us. He didn't have to do that, but he did. You can't help liking an old smokeboat bastard who makes you feel like he really wants to shake your hand and say something to you.

He asked me if there was anything I would like to ask him.

"Yes sir... Is there any way you could work it so the geedunk truck would take Canadian money?"

He looked at me like I had three heads and a tail and moved on. The COB looked at me like I was a total idiot.

Here was my idea... At some time or another, every ship based in Norfolk put into Halifax. When it shoved off, the bunk locker drawers were loaded with left over Canadian money roaming around in them. Canadian money in '59 had a par value greater than U.S. money. In sizable amounts, the difference could add up. If the roach coach took Canadian money, it would substantially increase sales because it would be the only place thousands of bluejackets could dump the stuff. The navy mobile canteen folks would get a boatload of it and make out like Chinese bandits on large amount exchanges.

But if an E-3 thinks it up it's gotta be stupid... Not 'big picture'.

After we broke quarters, the COB came over shook his head and said,

"Next time the admiral shows up, I'm locking you in the paint locker."

I'm not sure that at nineteen the big picture matters much. Political alliances change... National identities change... Enemies come and go. You figure all that out much later in life. 'Big pictures' never remain the same... Maybe they are not really 'big pictures' at all, just snapshots of moments in time.

At nineteen, the Russians were the bad guys. All targets were designated Ivan...They rode boats hauling ordinance destined to be parked in your backyard. They were vermin and you were the Orkin man. A boatload of Russian boat sailors flooded at 350' was a cause for celebration. That was that much less ordinance available for package delivery.

Recent events make clear that somewhere between nineteen and sixty the big picture got refocused and things changed. But we were young... Didn't have time for anything resembling the big picture. Beer was a buck a pitcher at Bells... Slim Jims were a dime and on a lonely night if you were lucky, a barmaid would take you home for a hot shower and a late breakfast.

'31 knot Burke' could shuffle around the big picture and we had complete faith in him.

If Grenfell ever showed up again, I had some other ideas to bounce off him like moving the damn dumpsters on the pier closer to the nest, robotic chipping hammers and paint scrapers, and putting a couple of gals on the boats as Backscratchers Mates.

Women on submarines. At nineteen... Single... And a long way from home... Not a bad idea.

 

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