Salvation Army Ladies

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

God bless the Salvation Army. I'm not overly religious, but I can recognize good Christians. No, not the 'glow-in-the-dark', born again, pain-in-the-ass zealots who aggravate the hell out of you trying to sell you their roadmap to salvation. I personally find them the most narrow-minded, myopic sonuvabitches on earth.

Having said that, no one reveres and respects the Salvation Army more than I do. The ladies who do their work are my angels. In my day, all bluejackets shared that opinion.

It didn't matter how skuzzy the beer joint or gin mill was that you were swilling suds in… They found it… Entered it and circulated silently holding out their tambourine at each table. Men with little money gave generously. Why? We loved them… That was it. We loved the lovely creatures and we knew they did God's work like God intended for it to be done.

When a Salvation Army lady entered a bluejacket dive, the language changed immediately. One minute, words that could blister paint and make a nun puncture her eardrums… The next minute, you could have held a Sunday school picnic in the place. Total, absolutely freely given respect. You can't bullshit a sailor… He knows when he is in the presence of goodness. He knows to give the respect deserved by people who have earned it. Salvation Army ladies have an unmatched record of taking care of sailors and their loved ones.

We called them 'basket hats'. They wore these black straw hats with a maroon ribbon that read 'The Salvation Army' on it. They wore black dresses and black granny shoes… You could put a Salvation Army lady in a potato sack and she would still be one of the most beautiful things in life. There is something to the term 'inner beauty'… I can't define it but I sure as hell know it when I see it.

We never felt that way about the Red Cross. The Red Cross was a phony outfit… We felt that way for a number of reasons. First, it was a social club for officer's wives, who didn't give a damn about sailors but just liked dressing up in 'gray lady' uniforms and having big lunches at the officer's club… And spending a lot of time telling each other about their humanitarian good works. They were the kind of folks who would put on rubber gloves before shaking hands with a messcook.

There is an old, worn-out story about the Red Cross selling doughnuts in World War I. I don't know whether it's true or bullshit… I missed World War I, unless you consider me a participating sperm… The old man was there.

But I do have my own Red Cross story. In 1961, I got an appendix attack… Was helo lifted to Norfolk and wound up over in Portsmouth, Virginia in Norfolk Naval Hospital. All I had was my uniform… a set of dungarees, when I arrived. After they cut me open and jerked out my appendix, I ended up in a rack in an open-bay ward.

The first day, this Red Cross lady turned up, pushing a cart with magazines, writing paper, toilet gear, and decks of playing cards.

"You must be new."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Have you notified your parents?"

It was none of her gahdam business…

"No ma'am… I'm twenty-something years old… I quit checking in with my old man years ago. Last thing he needs to know is that the family black sheep is laid up."

"Do you want anything here?" She pointed to all the stuff on the cart.

"I'll take a deck of playing cards."

"You'll have to give me a fifty cent deposit. You'll get it back when you turn the cards into the shift nurse when you are discharged and return to your duty station."

"I don't have fifty cents."

"I'm sorry… That's the policy. Some sailors have failed to return them."

I didn't get the cards, magazines or anything else off that hell wagon because I couldn't pony up the required four-bits.

I never saw any Red Cross lady do anything worthwhile for a bluejacket. I'm sure they have, but I never heard of it. I give them blood… They tell me that to get it, I don't have to put down a half-buck deposit… Doesn't matter… I wouldn't give the bastards a dime.

The Salvation Army and Navy Relief take care of bluejackets.

At Thanksgiving, you will find the 'basket hats' feeding bums… At Christmas, distributing toys to kids who wouldn't get any otherwise… And all year long, relieving pain, suffering and giving hope to the less fortunate… And going out on lousy nights to circulate among the lowest of the fleet and touching them with the gift of goodness, decency and their example of what Christian charity is in its purist form.

God bless the Salvation Army for what they will always mean to the men who ride this nation's armed ships.

"God bless you, sailor…"

"God bless you, ma'am."