There's some kind of law that says that no matter how bad you need a gahdam kidney, you can't go to the nearest old folks home and jerk one out of granny between bingo games. Why? Because it's wrong That's why. You can't use old people for walking parts lockers. Even messcooks know that And nobody ever accused a submarine messcook of hauling a heavy load of common sense.
Gil Bohannon, the 'Ali Baba of The Forty Torsk Thieves', was kind enough to send me a video tape of a recent salvage trip to the USS Orion (AS-18).They took lights and a video camera and took an extended tour through what is left of 'Mother Onion'. The old girl is not quite dead I mean she is still watertight and above water in the James River. She is visited regularly by two legged vultures with pipe wrenches, doo-dad removal shears Acetylene torches Dynamite And portable hammerhead cranes. Gil Bohannon heads up a mob of house calling physicians that could do a complete hysterectomy on the Statue of Liberty in less than twenty minutes. Gil is aided and abetted in this nefarious activity by the master quack of the Torsk Family, none other than Larry Deroin aka 'Torsk Doc'. Far be it from me to disparage Doc's medical credentials but according to highly credible scuttlebutt originating in some Subron Six After Battery, Doc once prescribed a termite enema for Pinocchio.
So Gil mailed me the tape. It is a five to six beer tape with two piss calls for ex-bluejackets over sixty. If you see it, rig yourself for an emotional state five with heavy rolls. I sat back, knocked the cap off of one of those Aussie Fosters vision enhancers and hit the 'Play' button on the VCR.
Gil starts it out with one of those ship photos Ones that they take from Navy planes Stamp 'OFFICIAL PHOTO' on the back of and give to a Yeoman to keep in a locked file drawer. Officers got them free but Yeomen charged E-3s, three packs of sea stores smokes or sex with your older sister Or an aunt below 40 Or a goat that had been trained to use Listerine. Gil got a photo of Orion Don't ask how he obtained it Some guys had to wear fishnet stockings and talk like Marlene Dietrich.
The tape was okay, until they started panning the camera around in the internal compartments. There is no light Only the light provided by hand-held illumination devices. The tape is eerie Weird You find yourself saying,
"Gil, what'n the hell is that?"
Then it hits you
"Holy jumpin'jeezus That's where the old super attenuated mammy jammer used to be. Some sonuvabitch done stole da mammy jammer! Holy hoppin'sumbitch! Da bastards done unbolted the hydro dynamic multi-doo-dad Done used a cutting torch on da rassafractor and ripped off the whatchamacallit!"
You keep seeing wires danglin' down where stuff oughtta be. It's like the Boltcutter Bedouins have come through and ripped the old girls' guts out.
I was a stupid kid I never really fully appreciated what happened to old ships. I wasn't so gahdam dumb that I thought that Father Neptune came down and took'em up to ship heaven, but I always pictured order and a dignified ending for noble and gallant ships. I certainly never thought I would be parked in my den watching an autopsy being performed on something not yet totally dead.
At one point Gil and his 'You asked for it' camera crew enters a darkened compartment and pan the camera around Wow! Take a look at that! A fifteen to twenty foot gash in the side of the ship. You can not only see daylight through it, you can count 30 to 40 hull plate rivets on the next orphaned sub tender in the nest And it is obvious that nobody gives a damn. Nobody cares To the modern command element The forward thinkers of todays space-age Naval Force Mother Onion Old Dear Mother Onion, who could provide tits to seventeen to eighteen deep water seagoing submarines Mother Onion, the old floating sanctuary for non-rated goof offs The girl who winked and looked the other way, while diesel boat bluejackets fleeced her Radiomen for clean raghats To today's brass she's just another mass of rusting steel they will eventually have to deal with if the weekend visiting cannibals don't eat her all up in small chunks.
It was sad I sat there watching the screen and Gil and Torsk Doc led me on their 'Alice in Wonderland Tour' The memories came back The smells came back. When the gut robbers on Mother Onion were frying up chicken, every sonuvabitch on the Pier had his tongue hanging out like three fathoms of red blanket.
You wonder about these modern Navy guys Do they still love ships? Or do they view their boats as motels with screws? Why is it that I feel as if nobody really gives a flying rat's ass about the old AS-18? What do you have to do to get dignified closure to an honorable career? What is happening now to the Orion is the same as sitting granny on the front porch and letting the squirrels, crows and chipmunks eat what's left of the sweet lady, piece by piece Eyeball by eyeball.
And the tape went on And on. And I sat there in the fading light of day damning a system that failed to honor past service Cussing the paper mache sonuvabitches who failed to see how ignoble such complacency is Men who piss on tradition. Why? Has it no value anymore?
One of the latest generation of Naval Officers recently explained to me,
"Dex, in warfare there is no place for rank sentimentality... It is strictly business."
Horseshit It has always been a business. That of trading blood and armor piercing steel for freedom. No sentimentality?
I have seen hardened men with faces weather-beaten from years at sea, in service to the Nation of their birth, stand as if they had an I-beam for a spine Hand raised in reverent salute with a tear in their eye simply to acknowledge a Naval legend like Admiral Arleigh Burke. If that is not sentimentality in its most sublime form, I will introduce you to my monkey nephew.
Our generation loved our ships We identified with them. In the final analysis, they were what the Navy gave us The love of ships. We weren't enticed by recruiters standing on top of each other to kiss our ass and promise us big bucks and beaucoup wampum for future education.
No sir, we were seduced by saltwater, the company of fine selflessly patriotic bluejackets and the love of deep water, seagoing ships.
Everything has a lifespan, including ships. As we grew old, so did they. Nothing remains forever young Youthful loves now have silver hair. The barmaids we once knew and loved bought their last box of sanitary napkins years ago 55 Chevy's rusted out Mickey Mantle died and the Naval Force reinvented itself. I hate the term "reinvented". What it means is, "traded away the meaningful for superficial bullshit."
I guess the day will come when they will strip our spiritual gun tubs, yank our gizzards and park our worthless sentimental butts out in the James River Boneyard with the rusting hulks that once comprised the finest Naval Force the world has ever known The USS Orion (AS-18) served this nation well and deserves a better end than being nibbled to death bolt by bolt. Old girl, this tear is for you.
So, what makes what Gil and Larry are doing different from the horde of scavenging sonuvabitches eating Mother Onion chunk by chunk?
They are helping the Old Girl do what she always did And did best. They are using their valuable personal time to locate and salvage items needed to keep one of mothers children, the USS Torsk an old Subron Six boat, left to disintegrate in Baltimore, in good presentable shape. Like Orion, Torsk was abandoned to folks whose primary and seemingly singular purpose was to milk the old saltwater shark for tourist bucks until she collapsed and sunk.
If the world was as it should be, barmaids from Hell to Hong Kong should stand in line to hug and kiss the magnificent bastards who call themselves the 'Torsk Bandits'. They do Gods work when he is on TAD.
But then we all know the world is damn near never "as it should be" We rode the boats.