More Lookout Memories

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

You saw some very interesting stuff standing lookout... Whales... Sea turtles... Oil drums... Phone poles... And once a red VW bug. But the clearest memory was finding yourself in the sea lane at night with what we called a trans-Atlantic liner... The equivalent of the modern cruise liner, at night.

The navy had a policy of contacting the bridge of a passenger liner and exchanging pleasantries... Asking if they held us on radar and if they did, telling them we would be darkening ship... Turning off our running lights and 'lying to' so as not to become an attractive nuisance that would cause passengers to flock to the rail. That was the official word.

Scuttlebutt had it that Rickover didn't want the world to know that America had sailors who looked and smelled like apes at the zoo and old, worn-out rust-stained boats with missing paint and a couple of line locker lids. In any case, we would sit there, darkened ship, watching a seagoing festival of delight go churning by... Like street urchins watching a passing ice cream truck.

"Look at those sonuvabitches... The bastards are up there swimmin' and slow dancin' and it's damn near midnight."

"Yeh, and you can bet yur ass the bastards who drew the eight to twelve won't be going below and finding horsecock and Velveeta cheese midrats. The cook will look up and say, 'Pierre, do you want wine with your lobster?' Not, 'Hey Dex, you want bug juice or panther piss with your vulcanized, damage control patch sandwich?'"

"Ride one of those whomping monsters and you'd never hear the word 'hotsack'... Those lucky bastards probably get staterooms bigger than the Old Man's."

As they passed, you could hear orchestra music drifting across the water. As she slid by, you could see men who were dressed far beyond the level of an E-3 with sub, sea and foreign duty pay... Dancing with good-looking gals in dresses that would have knocked a sizable dent in a carrier's slush fund.

"Hey, Stuke..."

"Yeah, Dex?"

"Gonna ride one of those sonuvabitches someday. Gonna book one of those cabins, where some big-titted honey named Olga comes in every night and scratches your back 'til you fall asleep."

"If you get married, what'chu think your wife is going to say about this triple 'D' cup Olga?"

"Anyone ever tell you that you are one lousy fantasy-torpedoing sonuvabitch?"

"Yeh, yeh, yeh, go on with your bullshit."

"Gonna call up the Chief of the Boat and say, 'Hey Chief, how about having one of your non-rated gofers run me up some two-inch sirloins, couple of lobsters and melted butter, and a bottle of Chateau Jesse James big bucks champagne... And just put it on my tab."

"So Kemosabi, whatcha gonna be using for money, eh?"

"Gonna marry some royal princess, an oil well widow or one of the Kennedys... A family that size has to have some 'ugly as hell' gal somewhere that they are having one helluva time trying to unload."

"Dex, you ever consider actually working for a living?"

"Yeh, once... But I got over it."

"How much do you think a ride on one of them baby's would set you back?" "Hell, an arm and a leg... Those folks hoppin' in and out of those two swimmin' pools aren't folks you'd likely be running into at a Salvation Army thrift store sale... You can bet'chur ass on that."

"Much wampum, eh?"

"Heap big wampum."

So, you hung in there, looking like a bum that lived in a cardboard box, scanning the night horizon through your 7x50s and dreaming what it would be like riding one of those Cinderella glass slipper monsters.

For damn sure, there wouldn't be no hairy-faced below decks watch wacking your ass with a clipboard yelling,

"Dex you sonuvabitch, roll out... You've got fifteen minutes to relieve the watch. C'mon, you worthless bastard... Roll out. HIT THE DECK!"

No sir, there would be a gentle tap on your mahogany stateroom door and Julio would say,

"Mr. Armstrong, breakfast is being served in the grand salon, should you care to partake."

Then you would roll over and gently shake your little blond bed partner...

"Darlin', you wanna go to morning chow?"

"No sweetheart, lets have breakfast in bed."

I never got to do it but that was a great fantasy, standing on a dark bridge with two guys as ugly as you, watching one of those heavy-duty playpens go by.

Watching lights... Running lights, range and masthead lights moving back and forth at night, kept you connected to life on the planet. They told you that there were still human beings out there beyond the pressure hull. Your world might be contained in nine watertight compartments but that wasn't the entire extent of civilization.

Night steaming on station was the best. You arrived 'on station' somewhere late at night... The exercise didn't start until 0800... So you just ran around in the ocean, topping off your batteries and plowing up the ocean just for the hell of it.

The helmsman could bullshit with the radar operator and let the damn boat wander all over hell and half Georgia. You could tell the sonuvabitch was goofing off... You'd hit the arm of the other lookout, point at the wake that looked like a big snake chasing you, and laugh.

Once, we were steaming on station... Night steaming... The young OD set a course to run an outward leg, then at a certain point in time, he would call for a LORAN cut, reverse course and put us on station at the appointed time.

Adrian Stuke and I had been in the shears about thirty minutes when a kid hauled coffee to the bridge and whispered to us,

"Art said to tell you to keep Mr. Whatzizzname's attention... He's gonna throw a big loop in the wake."

One of Stuke's many talents was the ability to hold extremely intelligent conversations on stuff he damn near knew nothing about. Some of the subjects under discussion were:

Artificial insemination of crocodiles... The location of Noah's Ark... Mating rituals of aboriginal societies nobody ever heard of... The little-known secrets of interplanetary space travel... How to distill Lucky Tiger hair tonic and get something resembling bourbon... How to get beyond a Catholic girl's bloomer elastic.

Stuke was the master.

While my running mate engaged the O.D. in a running discourse, I watched the moon slowly do a 360-degree rotation around the boat... Ten degrees at a time... Then return to our original course. When the O.D. called for a LORAN position report, he said,

"Jeezus, we should have been here... Or somewhere near here at one-third speed. But, we're HERE! Hell, we could row this damn thing back and be on station by 0800. I can't figure it out... No sea state... There's something wrong..."

He never figured it out, but it didn't take the COB two seconds to figure out the mystery.

He paid us a little visit when we had been relieved and were standing around in the crew's mess laughing and stuffing our goofy faces with midrats.

"You idiot jaybirds think you are real cute. You bastards pull that stunt one more time and I will kick your butts so hard, you'll have to unbutton your shirt collars to go to the head. Never, I repeat, NEVER monkey with an ordered course! They hang bastards who pull that kind of crap. I MEAN IT! This is straight gauge, no bullshit talk! Now go hit the rack and pray that green kid doesn't figure out what you stupid bastards pulled off tonight. JEEZUS! You guys make regular idiots look like Nobel Peace Prize winners!"

"Chief, how did you figure it out?"

"Because anyone with the intelligence of a frigging oyster could see it plain as day... And knowing the idiots involved, it didn't take two seconds."

Night steaming. Killing time plowing saltwater and watching for the Fletcher class cans coming to hunt us and dump all sorts of noisy crap all over us. That was about as good as it got.

It never got any better except when the night baker made cinnamon rolls.