The Printed Word

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

The guys who rode the old boats will remember.

The literature... Make that, the reading material we had was rather basic. To put it another way... Nobody ever tripped over a Herman Melville novel or the collective works of Shelly or Keats going through the after battery, heading to his battle station. We read to fill time.

The chaplains passed out little pocket size New Testaments. Everybody had one. They only seemed to appear during 'rig for visitors' and the week before Easter and Christmas. I'm sure some lads read them regularly, but they didn't live in Hogans Alley.

We dealt in worthless, 'no literary merit' paperback trash. At sea, the official currency of the United States had little value. Horse trading took place in a barter system involving smokes... Razor blades and trash books.

Some guys were hooked on 'shoot-em-ups'... Westerns... Showdown at Laredo, Big Jake, The Running Gun, The Last Gunfighter... You name it... We had them all.

Most of us gravitated to titles like Swamp Woman, Boarding School Babes, Dream Doll, Dixie Darlings. There were two major publishers of this underground garbage... Fabian and Nightstand. These things got passed around until they fell apart.

Be honest, how many qualified men out there read books at sea knowing full well they would never see the last fifty pages? To this day, I have no idea how Harold Robbins' The Carperbaggers came out. Electricians standing watches on the sticks on a split-cubicle Tench boat would rip books in half so they could pass the part they had finished reading to their buddy so he could start reading the book while the other idiot was finishing the last half. Main power, diesel boat electricians lived a weird existence of which tandem reading was one of the strange things they did. Crawling around in the battery wells at sea was not conducive to rational behavior. The electrician rate was more of a goofy cult than a rate. Acid ate up thier dungarees faster than a two hundred pound moth. Poor ragged bastards lived on two part literature and incubating plausible rumors. They could dress up the damndest lies and peddle them to their unsuspecting, gullible shipmates in ten ton loads. The worst lie they ever handbuilt was a rumor the boat was going to the Mardi Gras... They said they heard about it when they were listening to the secret wardroom conversation through the open battery well intakes in the forward battery. I bought it... And I wasn't alone. We had senior petty officers that got sucked in. Nobody on earth can lie with a straight face like an electirican. If Pinnochio had been an electrician, he would have had a nose the length of the Norfolk Tunnel.

I remember one book that every idiot on Requin read. I have no idea what the title was, but it was about a Navy pilot who got shot down by the Japs and bailed out over some unkown South Sea island. When he landed in his parachute, he was captured and enslaved by two hundred sex-starved Amazons with insatiable appetites for all sorts of perverted lust and they were cursed with large bust development. In 1948. two Baptist missionaries and a company of Marines liberated the poor fellow... By that time he weighed fifteen pounds, was blind... Had been promoted to full commander and had six years back pay coming. Great book. A smokeboat best seller. Everyone figured if he had been a pig boat sailor, it would have taken six plastic surgeons more than a year to get the smile off his face.

We would have read anything just to fill the time after we qualified. Leaking chevron packing and condensate drips... Lousy movies and sea stories had their limitations when it came to bluejacket entertainment. The printed word became rather important.

After three or four weeks out, we found ourselves reading the labels on cans... The list of vitamins on the back of cereal boxes and the 'rig for dive' bills. You knew you were intellectually starved when you found yourself reading the drycleaning instructions sewn in your peacoat. If you rode the old 400 FT maximun depth, rock crusher-powered submersibles, you've been there.

One time, some officer forward gave one of the animals on board a copy of a big fat book called The Rise And Fall of The Third Reich. The Israelis had just cooked off Adolf Eichman and there was a lot of rekindled interest in the stuff that went on in Nazi Germany. It was a two or three-inch paperback. Guys who wanted to read it wrote their names in it. By the time I got to write my name in it, the inside cover was full and guys were signing up on the title page. The way it worked when the fellow above you finished it he gave it to you. When you had digested the monster you gave it to the lad whose name was below yours. My enlistment ran out before I got it. I guess the guy who was reading it, just drew a line through my name.

We rag airdales. That's the way it works. There is some kind of unwritten law that requires submariners to play 'pin the tail' on all aviator donkeys. I never understood why. I have a friend who was a World War II boatsailor personally decorated by Admiral Nimitz for risking his life to fish drowning flyers out of the Pacific. His name is Art Smith... A torpedoman who rode the USS Skate. Ray Stone introduced me to Art. Stone knows damn near everybody who rode the boats. The man dredges up old boat sailors like Dick Tracy.

I understood 'Tailhook'... In the words of Mike Hemming,

"It was like Bells Bar got hijacked to Las Vegas."

Aviators, God bless them, made the little Orphan Annie drops that brought love letters to stinking ratty submarine sailors poking holes in the North Atlantic. They would also put stuff in those mail drops simply bacause the bastards were good folks.

Newspapers... Time... Newsweek... Colliers... Readers Digest and if you were lucky, a Playboy magazine. They didn't have to do that, but they did. Hell, we didn't care if they could't hit a bull in the ass with a base fiddle... Any aircrew that made 'Annie Drops' to diesel boats were 'Top Gun' in our book, We didn't have poopie-grams or whatever in the hell they call them now... We had pilots and sneaky bastards called radiomen who could tuck secret stuff in officially allowed radio traffic.

Killjoy Hyman would have boiled smokeboat radiomen in oil. But then I don't think Rickover ever gave a damn about how New York made out against the Bears.

Subs contain minature societies... Little muninciple jurisdictions beneath the seas. Libraries of books stored in sidelockers and stacked in overhead vent lines... And you didn't need a library card. All you had to do was scare up a swap by yelling,

"Anybody wanna read Goldilocks and The Gunners' Mate?".

 

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