The Beginning As I Remember It

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

We were young… Most of us were green lads in our late teens. Our seabags and much of the issue contained in them smelled like mothballs. Our white hats were still stiff and our jumpers still had original piping and boot stripes. We had boot haircuts… New shoes and no bent dogtags.

Nobody knew anybody else in the draft. We arrived by train. Some guys met each other on the train… I slept. I had come by bus to New York and fell asleep right after finding a seat on the train. Don't remember anything on the train ride up through Connecticut… My first memory was being shaken by some kid with a heavy yankee accent…

"Hey wake up! We're here… We gotta get off… Come on, wake up! There is a First Class out there with two buses… Up and at' em!"

Mr. 'wake-up man' never made it through the first week… One day he just wasn't there any more.

Some guys just quit. Some failed to comprehend the material and some got kicked out… Just sent packing.

To this day, I have no idea how the selection process worked. Have no idea what they were looking for. From where I saw it, it looked like some kind of voo-doo dance… They asked us a load of strange questions.

I remember that some very serious gentleman asked me if I would have any moral reservation or mental conflict with attacking the enemy by sneaking up in a ship from an unseen position.

"No sir… I could sneak up on a gahdam Russian and kill the bastard in his sleep with a sledgehammer."

He looked at me like I needed help.

Some jaybird with a clipboard and a medical coat went into great detail about the need to answer all his questions honestly.

"Don't try to guess what we are looking for, just give us honest answers. Do you understand? If not tell me."

"I understand."

"Just say, 'yes sir'."

"Did you ever wet the bed?"

"Yes sir."

"You did?"

"Yes sir."

"When did you cease to wet the bed… That is, assuming you have stopped?"

"Hell, I don't know… I was a baby… I didn't keep track of it… I guess I quit about the time I got out of diapers. I probably quit about the time you did."

He told me that in the future I could say 'no sir' if the bed-wetting question ever came up again.

Another clown had us jump up and down on one foot and put our index fingers on our noses... Weird.

One thing I remember clearly. The bunks in barracks 141 were double bunks… On one end it said, 'HEAD' and on the other end, 'FOOT'… And they were positioned where they were alternating from head to foot… Looked strange.

So after one of his, 'you stupid bastards' lectures, the Chief ended with…

"Any of you stupid bastards have any questions?"

"Aye Chief… How come it has that 'head' and 'foot' stuff stenciled on the bunks?"

"Armstrong, it's an intelligence test that you obviously failed. Why don't you learn to keep your gahdam mouth shut and let us wonder if you are a complete idiot… Instead of opening it and removing any lingering doubts?"

" Any other questions?"

At this point some jerk wanted to know if it was okay to throw away his Donald Duck flat hat… And in that split second, I went from the dumbest bastard in Diving Section 121 to the position right above the duty dumb bastard.

There was one other totally idiotic experience I had at New London that only one or two folks ever knew about.

They had a coin-operated laundry where Sub School students could do laundry. Kind of a way an enterprising, 'do it yourself' inclined young blue jacket could save a couple of bucks rather than send his uniforms to the base laundry.

They had vending machines where you could get soap powder for a dime and a bottle of Clorox for a quarter. I got one of each… I read the instructions on the packet of soap powder it read…

'Open and pour contents in machine… This packet contains a pre-measured amount of detergent, good for one load.'

So, I tore it open and poured it in… The vending machines gave you a pre-measured amount…'Good for one load'. I unscrewed the cap on the Clorox and poured the entire contents in the washer. I should have read the label.

Forty-five minutes later, what had been three sets of recently issued undress whites, had become the whitest, cleanest set of eaten up rags in New London… Even the rate stripes had turned white. It is amazing what ten times the recommended amount of Clorox can do to undress whites… The gahdam things just dissolved. So much for the economical advantages of 'do it yourself' uniform washing. It was also my introduction to non-reg patch pocket Seafarer whites… And the availability of greasy snake neckerchiefs.

There was a point where it all came together. The mechanical… The physical principles of submarine operation and the location and operation of most of the critical equipment, all of it came together and became totally fascinating and fun to understand. When I hear people speak about the breakthrough of a religious experience leading to personal salvation, I figure it must be like finally fully understanding how and why submarines operate like they do.

New London was where it all began. I never understood what they saw in me, but I will be eternally grateful for their faith in me… And I hope I never gave them any reason to regret their decision to send me to the boats.

I never have had any reason to regret my decision to try to become a submariner.

 

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