The Longest Night

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

In everyone's life there are moments that are indelibly imprinted in a form that allows the event to be recalled in minute detail years later. The loss of Thresher was such an event.

I left the boat late that evening. I hung around waiting for some kid who was messcooking. I sat around in the crew's mess, bullshitting with the cooks and a couple of 'stay aboards' from the section pulling duty. Just cigarettes and coffee and aimless conversation to fill time. No real plans... Other than to fill another lonely empty evening with a few beers with mates and barmaids, eat some Slim Jims, wash 'em down with some suds and get a few whiffs of cheap perfume. Maybe have little Dixie sneak up behind me, lay those wonderful tits on my jumper flap and give me a kiss on the neck like she did in her devilishly playful moods.

Listen to a little Johnny Cash, Big River and Ring of Fire... Someone toss in a couple of quarters and punch up La Bamba and The Lonely Bull... Have Thelma yell at me to get my gahdam feet off the gahdam furniture, and head back before midnight.

When my messcooking running mate for the night finally got the dishes racked and tossed his apron to the cook, the 'stay aboards' were rewinding the nightly movie and the night baker was lining up the crap he needed to work his magic.

Topside watch yelled down the after battery hatch,

"Hey below!"

"Yo..."

"Just heard on the radio...Thresher's overdue."

"So what? You queer for some nuke on Thresher?"

"Gahdammit, they said she might be in trouble."

"Five'll get you ten they're full of it... Damn thing's brand new. Go take the slack out of your lines."

We didn't think much of it. In light of what happended that seems callous and uncaring now but at the time we truly thought nuke boats were invincible. The navy didn't lose submarines in peacetime. It was that simple.

The cook coming off duty... It may have been Custer or "Red" Wyatt, dropped us off at Bells.

We knew something was wrong when we got into Bells... No music... No customary racket... No clicking of pool balls. Just a bunch of Subron Six bluejackets in low conversation.

"Jeezus H. Christ... Everbody get a letter from home saying their dog died?"

"Knock it off Dex... Thresher's down."

"No shit?"

"No shit... Navy spokesman up at Portsmouth just said they've been unable to contact her for several hours... No UQC... Nothing since she reported she was buttoning up for a dive."

"Holy shit! the topside watch said he had picked something up like that but we didn't think it was possible... We kinda laughed him off."

"It's possible... In this case, a little more than possible."

"Poor bastards... I've got a buddy named Dick Hall riding her. Went to high school with him. Susan Elisabeth went through school with him."

Dick went to New London and cleared Basic Sub School in '58, a year before me. Got his ET crow (I'm sure he was an ET... But then again, it's been 40 years... Don't hold me to it.) and got sent to new construction. Thresher was his first and only boat. He may not have gotten his dolphins by the time she went down.

Somebody bummed a radio from an oriental seamstress in Bells' Naval Tailors and we plugged it in and sat it up on the bar. There was a landsale business going on in speculation as to what had happened, but the only things that were sure was that she had not been in a collision and that she had not been heard from.

At one point someone mentioned that a call had gone out for divers and ships' company of the Kittiwake, our submarine salvage vessel, to report to the ship. They also said something about the Sandpiper but we never heard anything more.

Bells was about as raunchy as boatsailor's bars came in those days. The possibility of it being listed as a four-star establishment in a Norfolk tourist guidebook were about as remote as Felix the Cat coming in first at the Kentucky Derby... But it became a cathedral the night Thresher was lost.

Barmaids were usually well-meaning sweet young things under 25, whose panties had passed their knees in various motor vehicles several hundred times before their 18th birthday... And at times, they were the closest thing to home a young bluejacket could find on a cold rainy night. Loved them then and still do.

On that night, they hurt right alonside of us. That night, I came to know that the most honest thing in life were barmaid's tears... That having a tiny corner in a tavern girl's heart was a very, very special thing and that holding a fallen angel when she needed a shoulder to soak up her sadness was a memory that I would revisit my whole life.

You would have to have been a twenty-two year old bluejacket a long way from home with tear-stained dolphins that night, to understand. It was a long night filled with the fear only boatsailors know and it didn't get any better the next morning.

I never had the honor of knowing the others but that night, the Creator took back a helluva fine lad...

Dick Hall.

 

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