Capt. John J. Vandale, USNR (ret)

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

This is written as a tribute to a gentleman who was beyond a doubt the greatest influence on my life. A lifelong friend, a father I wished I had had and a man who had faith in me when nobody else did (for very understandable reasons).

He was six foot four or five, a Texan. 100% Texan and tougher than a sack full of wildcats. Not superficial tough… Tough… Real tough.

In his heyday, John Vandale could have punched his way out of a gahdam bank vault. He had fists like Fairbanks piston heads. We used to rough house with him, as stupid teenage idiots. It was a good time if you liked to go around with weird lumps on your head. We used to gang up on him when he wasn't paying any attention to us. We made elaborate plans… Tactical wonders… Highly thought out and executed… Always with the same result. He cleaned our clocks and damn near killed us.

The man had a grip like a blacksmith's vise… It was like shaking hands with King Kong. I shook hands with him once and the monster bent my high school ring. John Vandale could have squeezed juice out of a pool ball. I'm prone to exaggeration but this sonuvabitch was for real.

The man ate steaks the size of tractor tires and drank sour mash Bourbon out of glasses that could have doubled for coal buckets. He was what John Wayne wanted to be on a good day.

John Vandale was the complete package and the United States never turned out a finer naval officer. He was old hard-nose navy. An old 'thirty knots and no smoke' sailor whose motto was,

"Throw the donkey in the wagon mamma, we're about to haul ass."

When he was a four-striper, he commanded Desron 34 and the lads made him a flag that had a donkey sitting in a wagon. When they two-blocked that rascal to the truck, everyone knew it meant flank speed. He was the tin can king.

When I enlisted, I was as green as they come. Lanky, big-eared idiot of seventeen, far from a prize package. John's first reaction to my service selection was "God help the Navy."

I was processed in at the Washington Navy Yard. At the time, joining the Navy was not a way to get college education money and Navy recruiters weren't standing in line to kiss your butt. The line was,

"Son, if you are smart enough and convince us that you are good enough, we'll take you."

Stupid sonuvabitches went Army or Marines. I never knew anyone who went Air Force. I just knew they dressed like Greyhound bus drivers and flew stuff that moved a helluva lot faster than I could think.

So there I was… One hundred fifty-five pounds soaking wet with a brick in both hands… Dopey looking kid with ears that stuck out like a cab with both doors open. And, they took me. They may have had 'Buyer's regret' but I never did.

They tested me… Poked me… Peeped in orifices I didn't know I had… Vampire tapped me… Made me hop on one foot… Turn my head and cough, and swear I wasn't related to anyone who had advocated the overthrow of the United States government. I told them I was a direct descendent of a man who did his damnedest from 1861 to 1865 to keep the house burning, chicken stealing United States Government up North and out of the South. They said that didn't count… I told them I wouldn't know a gahdam communist if one fell out of a tree and landed on my head. They said that was good enough and that at some hour of the night, I would be sworn in and did I have any questions…

"Yeah, when do I get a sailor suit?"

They shook their heads.

High school girls went for blue-jackets… Having a genuine sailor suit was the primary reason any immature stupid idiot joined the Navy… I was certainly no exception. Once you owned a United States Navy genuine set of dress canvas, you owned the keys to the bloomer locker. The Navy would have gotten a lot more idiots like me if they had put out a poster showing a grinning E-3 up to his neck in discarded lingerie.

At some hour when there was nobody up but burglars and bad women, they called my name. I came into a room and there was (at the time) Cdr. Vandale… Dress uniform, half acre of service ribbons and a very serious look. He looked like the preacher at a shotgun wedding. He told me to hold up my right hand and promise to hence forth and for all time obey The President, The Navy, Congress, The Supreme Court…and all the cats, rats and dogs in North America. He ended with,

"You can put your hand down now, and give me a salute."

And I did. Then he looked at some smiling barnacle-encrusted Chief, lit up one of his high dollar foot long cigars and said,

"The lad's all yours."

He said it like… Well, he's roped and branded and you can toss him in with the herd.

I had no idea what lay ahead and how my life would be changed. Today The Navy has a slogan… 'Let the adventure begin.' It did… It was more like a romp with a great bunch of guys. We were undersea warriors who owned the sea and had the world by the tail… Capt. John J. Vandale gave me that.

When I left the Navy and was at the University of South Carolina, I got a call extending an invitation to attend the captain's change of command when he assumed command of Desron 34.

I came aboard. It was a weird world. I was in civvies because that's what I was… A twenty-four year old college freshman civilian.

Tin can sailors are totally squared away… No frayed raghats… No dirty messcook aprons… No dolphins. I always get lost on surface craft. The only way to get lost on a smokeboat would be to crawl out the 'garbage gun' and take a left at the screw guards.

They had the Change of Command. The outgoing Commander was one long-winded sonuvabitch. According to him every bastard in the squadron could change water into wine, raise the dead and walk on water. I got the distinct impression that someone was going to have to shoot the sonuvabitch to shut him up.

Capt. Vandale walked to the microphone… Slipped on his reading glasses, acknowledged the previous CO's fine words… Said,

"Cox'un, break my pennant."

His pennant was run up and broke free. Then he took off his glasses, tucked them away and said,

"With the captains' concurrence how bout three section liberty."

The animals went nuts.

In the confusion, I went below and found the messdeck… And drew a cup of coffee. I was sitting there, touching my wonderful memories… Sifting through the mental images… Listening to the inane blue-jacket bullshit. I was 18 again running at flank on four and pissing against the tide. I was home. I was where I belonged. I was with my own. Then some clown in starched whites shows up.

"You Armstrong?"

"That's me."

"Captain Vandale requests your presence in the wardroom."

"Tell Captain Vandale, I'll be along in a minute."

"Aye, I'll pass the word."

And he hauls forward.

I go back to catching a smoke and draining a cup of hot sailors brew.

The First Class pain-in-the-ass mate returns.

"Capt. Vandale wants you to get your worthless butt up to the wardroom if you don't want him to have to come down here and jerk a knot in your spine."

The idiot in whites though that was a bullshit friendly meaningless threat. It wasn't. I crushed out my smoke, tossed my cup in the deep sink and hauled forward.

I entered the wardroom. It was jam packed with ladies in nice tea party dresses…Wall-to-wall polite conversation… Officers in high collar whites… Little finger sandwiches on silver trays… And coffee that wouldn't have passed for baby chick piss on a North Atlantic smokeboat bridge.

I was out of place… A whore in church. Drank a cup of coffee… Ate a bowl of sherbet… Shook Capt. John's hand and went over to the first class and said,

"Enjoy this horsefly… Things are about to get a helluva lot tougher in this rust bucket Fletcher class fish fry… You can bet your thirteen button blues on that. If you were smart, you would make book on it. And, the coffee is gonna get one helluva lot stronger, you can bet your surface craft ass on that."

He learned.

He was one tough sailor. And he WAS that… Six foot five of United States Navy.

I owe him more than a fellow could repay in a lifetime… Two lifetimes. He gave me a place to grow from boy to man. He gave me sunsets at sea… And he gave me saltwater over the bridge… He started me on the road to life.

Only disappointed him once… Never did it again. His approval has been my life compass.

They named the Amarillo Texas Naval Reserve Training Center after him. If they were looking for a sailor's skipper, they got one… And a tough rascal rolled into the bargain.

Capt. John J. Vandale, USNR (ret), the genuine article.