The Poker Palace

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Requin didn't have an After Torpedo Room… We had what was called 'the Stern Room'. After World War II, at the beginning of what became known as 'the Cold War', the Navy created the concept of radar picket ships. It was before my time, but as I understood it, the Army and Air Force created something called 'the DEW line'. DEW stood for Defense Early Warning. It was a line of long-range radar stations that ran across the extreme Northern Latitudes of North America. Its' purpose was to give us the earliest indication that our pals the Russians were sending us a load of nastiness via the Polar Route. The early warning was intended to trigger an airborne interception committee that would prevent the bastards from parking their ordinance in our back yards. It must have worked… Can't remember any real estate removal.

They modified American ships to extend radar surveillance across the ocean so as not to leave a void… An opening in the defense line between Hudson Bay and Norway.

Requin became an SSR... A radar picket conversion.

When they were no longer needed, the picket boats went into naval yards to undergo another conversion. Going to and returning from a picket conversion was an extremely radical procedure. Try to mentally visualize sending your 90-year-old granny in for a surgical conversion where she went from a go-go dancer to a hockey player.

In the 1940's initial conversion, Requin lost her four stern tubes. When she left the Charleston yards in '59 following her return to an SS boat, she had no tubes aft. Instead she had a Stern Room… A haven for snipes. No, more like a zoo where the animals were in charge.

Mike Hemming was a card carrying limb-swinger in the After Swamp. The snipes ran a 24-hour casino back there.

Some jaybird in the last conversion came up with the bright idea of installing a massive diner booth between the rudder rams. An oversized table with an over padded horseshoe shaped red naugahide bench. Installing a perfect poker table in a snipe nest, was the modern day equivalent of selling rot gut whiskey and repeating rifles to the Indians.

Requin had a black gang that could have operated under the Jolly Roger. It took them all of twenty seconds after we took in lines to go into business. They ran the damndest seagoing casino in the North Atlantic. It had everything, but mainly it had 'officer insulation'. If they had located a world class sprinter, pinned shoulder boards on the sonuvabitch and assigned him to Requin, there would have been no way he could have made it from the wardroom to the Stern Room ahead of the sound powered jungle telegraph. By the time any officer passed the After Engine Room, the gambling community had rigged from stud poker to reading Peter Rabbit books and singing gospel songs. (In port, you dogged the deck hatch and hung a cowbell on the compartment side handle, in case the topside watch didn't XJA the word).

The Wardroom never broke the code or figured a way to Jack-In-The-Box out of #3 sanitary or crawl in through the signal ejector. Mr. Schilling knew what was going on but his hands were tied and he knew that spilling beans would violate the Silver Dolphin code. He still owned old jumpers with Silver Dolphin pinholes over the pocket. The man knew what we were up to way before we did.

There was a downside to life in the Stern Room. Riding the surface in heavy weather made living in the Stern Room a lot like bunking down in the colon of a bucking bronco. Jeezus, it gave you a nasty ride… Anyone who rode a diesel boat in rough weather remembers how the stern figure-eighted all over the gahdam place… Most of the time your rudder was flapping like mud flaps on a tricycle and you got treated to the lovely sound of the rudder rams slamming repeatedly into the hydraulic stops… And the sound of a galvanized barf bucket sliding back and forth across the deck. Two terms immediately come to mind… 'Wild-ass ride' and 'Stinking mess'.

Once Rat Johnson made ravioli. The acidic content of the sauce could dissolve the treads off a Sherman tank. Rat's ravioli was gastric nightmare. It tasted great but it kept returning for several hours... Kind of a yo-yo culinary treat.

On the old 481, the cooks never programmed their meals with sea state in mind… So right before a projected heavy rolls experience we got regurgitating ravioli. When the Below Decks Watch rolled me out of the rack, I stumbled forward to find a dry foul weather parka… There weren't any, so I made my way to the Forward Engine Room to see if I could find something halfway dry that was draped over a Fairbanks cover.

The watch was changing there and some throttleman yelled over the noise…

"Holy Jeezus… You don't wanna see the gahdam after room… It has become 'the land of reappearing ravioli'. At least ten guys have launched the evening meal… And everyone swears they are near death."

In today's Navy, we would have all received the 'Rat Ravioli Survivors' ribbon, but in the old Navy, all they gave you was a next day field day with pine scented disinfectant and a Chief's brogan in your butt.

When I visited Requin in Pittsburgh before our first reunion, I dropped down into the After Room. It was gone. Some sonuvabitch had stolen the entire red naugahide poker palace. Then I thought about this car somewhere out on the highway between Pittsburgh and the Eastern Shore of Maryland hauling a wad of folding money… Six decks of cards and Mike and Flo Hemming.

"Don't worry Sweetheart… Once I pick Stuke and Armstrong clean, it'll be feeding time at the Zoo… Hell, we'll probably drive home in a Mercedes."

I knew that Mike would have cardiac arrest when he found out that some low life had hijacked entire snipe butcher shop.