The Common Denominator

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

If you worked for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey at any time in your life, you were always circus people. Din't matter if you set up the tent, showed up to shovel zebra poop or were the ringmaster... You were always 'circus people'. You knew the language of the circus... The secret handshake and how elephants smelled.

Same with boat sailors. From mess cook to the skipper, you were submarines... You were always a boat sailor... It came with Dolphins.

My wife met me after I rode the boats. She knew nothing about my service days because the only evidence left by the time we married was an old, tarnished set of Dolphins in my cufflink box... A cherished photo in a silver frame of our skipper, Cdr. Edward Frothingham and my old foul weather jacket that my new bride kept trying to send off to the Salvation Army.

In 1991, I found out that the Requin was in Pittsburgh. I told Solveig that I wanted to see it again... But I realized that it would mean very little to her. So, I decided to take her to New London, the Vatican of Undersea Warfare.

Not wanting to drive a helluva long way to be turned away by some jarhead at the gate, I phoned the base. I got some operator who didn't know where to route the call. The next thing I knew, I was talking to some four-striper.

"Sir, I know you're busy. They should have connected me with your 'stupid questions' J.G."

"I don't know... What's your question?"

I explained that I was a qualified diesel boat sailor. I emphasized that I was NOT an officer... In fact, I had spent most of my tour as one of the lowest life forms in the submarine force. I told him I just wanted to see the base once more.

He asked,

"Do you still have your Dolphins?"

"Yes sir, sure do."

"Did yours come with an expiration date on the back?"

"Expiration date?"

"When you go home tonight, check your Dolphins and if there is no expiration date on the back, you are still as valued by the submarine force as you were the day we pinned them on you. We will expect you and your wife at the main gate at zero eight hundred on such and such a date. Plan to spend your entire day with us."

That conversation validated the brilliance of the decision we all made to ride the boats. They treated us like visiting royalty.

That night, at the Mystic Days Inn, for the first time my little blue-eyed Norwegian recognized that twenty-five years earlier, the fellow she had married had once been one of a special band of men.

I'm sure somebody did something so evil they took away his Dolphins but I never heard about it. It's like a girl giving up her virginity... Takes place once and the condition lasts a lifetime.

Dolphins are unique.

Officers get gold Dolphins. If you wore gold Dolphins, you must set an example... Never admit that you know games of chance take place on board... That cross-pollination occasionally took place on the bridge on duty nights... And you never stood topside watch. You lived in a nice residence and could afford personal transportation.

Enlisted men get silver Dolphins. If you wore silver Dolphins, they allowed you to set an example for monkey house residents and you lived in an off-base gin mill... And you never forgot the men who accepted you as their shipmate.

Most books about submarines are written by gentlemen who wore gold Dolphins or guys like Clancy who became an expert by mystic innoculation and never saw his name on a qual card.

But there is a book... A book written by a real raghat who wore cloth Dolphins and a combat pin... A fellow who knows what little lethal packages called Japanese depth charges sound like. His name is Ron Smith... His book, Torpedoman. If you haven't read it, you should... If for no other reason than former torpedoman Ron Smith is in dire need of clean socks... And he was one of our silver Dolphin representatives in what Tom Brokaw calls 'The Greatest Generation'.

I can relate a personal fringe benefit of reading Ron's literary masterpiece. When your bouncing bride puts it down, looks at you and asks,

"What is strip poker?"

If you play your 'cards' right, you are in for a very interesting evening. You won't find anything like that in other books written on the topic.

Silver Dolphins... We got the complete lifetime package. Not the Ginsu knife lifetime 'Where-will-they-be-when-I'm-eighty?' warranty. No expiration date... No 'Use by...' instructions or 'Mail in by...' warning. Just a complete lifetime knowing guys who forgive your sins and accept you, warts and all.

Dolphins... The damndest common denominator ever made.

 

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