The World by the Tail

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Why would anyone want to be a career E-3? What kind of a nickel-plated idiot would want to be an ambitionless jerk at the bitter end of the submersible community anchor chain?

We got more fresh air and sunshine than the poor bastards confined to the inside of the pressure hull by virtue of their acceptance of increased responsibility and the burden of leadership.

I had no little lady at home to chew up a pay allotment… No little kiddies that needed to be fed, needed shoes or Weekly Reader money. While responsible boatsailors were attending parent-teacher conferences and attempting to find the psychological reasons that little Sally was eating her crayons, I was parked in Bells... Butt-buffing a barstool, polishing off a pitcher of suds and dining on gourmet food like Slim Jims and Beer-Nuts.

In short, it was wild oats sewing time. To really sew wild oats, you have to be a worthless sonuvabitch… A hardworking, dependable, loyal worthless bastard. The Leading Seaman was a tailor-made position for a lad who liked to bust his butt then toss on a set of dress canvas and piss away his base pay on wine, women and juke box tunes. Besides, I was Adrian Stuke's understudy and Stuke was the all time 'King of Lunatic Behavior' and God's gift to every goodlooking single female located between Hudson Bay and southern Chili. Stuke set an unmatched standard… I never reached his stratospheric heights… But, dining on his leftovers was enough to keep you broke and up to your neck in enough hot water to keep you 'lobster-hide' red.

When you made E-4, they took away your sunrises and sunsets… Petty officers were relieved of lookout and topside watch duty. The gahdam submarine force confiscated your daydreaming and diabolical plot formation time… Just up and highjacked your 'stand out in Mother Nature's weather' time.

Acceptance of a crow meant that your dates with warm, tropical rain soaking your dungaree shirt and watching sea birds soar over the bridge got few and far between. Watching porpoise chase your bow wave like the friendly neighborhood puppy chasing the mail truck, became a thing of the past. Cups of coffee laced with North Atlantic seawater shared with men who would become life long friends, would get lost… Spray painting the old girl during the first night alongside… Stealing crap off the tender… Getting first crack at the morning doughnut delivery… Giving the deniable finger to the tender quarterdeck weenies… Herding drunks… Sharing a cup of bottom of the pot coffee and a Marlboro with the Duty officer topside on a star-lit night… Watching the damn kaki-sacking shore duty bastards parade their perky-titted honey's up and down the pier and getting to watch heavy duty naval hardware churn up and down the Elisabeth River… They took all that from you when they tossed your worthless ass in the below decks watch trickbag.

The Wardroom was more tolerant and forgiving of E-3s…They expected you to be stupid, dumb idiot bastards and we rarely disappointed them.

Dolphins were what mattered…The bastards treated you like Gunga Din before you got them, then adopted you blood brother style once the old man pinned them on you. Hell, it was like a tent meeting 'Come to Jesus'... You got religion, redemption and the right to read The Sexual Escapades of Swamp Woman if you could find all the loose pages.

As an E-3, you could hang around the messdeck and piss off Chiefs… Who felt everyone should be engaged in some kind of productive work 24 hours a day. To an E-3, a pissed-off Chief, raging about the Old Navy, where all the men devoted their spare time to knitting hawsers and making periscope lenses out of mayonnaise jars, was E-3 entertainment. I found that nothing in the Navy matched a red-faced Chief with veins bulging out of his neck, telling an E-3 what a good for nothing sonuvabitch he was and giving you a lecture on how your choice of reading material would rot whatever was left of your miniature brain.

"How in the Hell can you subject yourself to mentally digesting that garbage?"

"Chief, guys on nuke boats read stuff about quantum physics, great literature, philosophical bullshit, and stuff like that… Smokeboat sailors are prone to gravitate to studies of nympho behavior and large scale depravity of Amazons with abnormal chest dimensions."

"Dex, I hope you have a rich uncle who dies and leaves you ten or fifteen million or you're gonna starve to death, you worthless sonuvabitch."

It was nice knowing there was someone truly concerned about your future welfare. It gave you a warm feeling all over… That warm and fuzzy E-3 feeling.

You got to messcook. I learned the art of peeling potatoes… I'll bet I carved the hide off fifty tons of the damn things. Nobody can go through mashed potatoes like the animals who rode diesel boats. You could get your arm jerked out of the socket going for a bowl of spuds… Table manners were alien to messdeck protocol. If you want to replicate the smokeboat dining experience, toss a bunch of ripe bananas in a cage with a dozen or so gorillas.

Being an E-3 was a way of life. You could cross the tender quarterdeck wearing shoes spattered with zinc chromate, a tee-shirt that looked like a locomotive wipe down rag and a white hat that looked like the inside of a coal bucket… Give a J.G. a heart attack and turn a Chief Bo'suns Mate into a drooling maniac and all you had to say was,

"You guys got any good D.C. stuff in your lucky bag? I think I'm about due for an oil change."

If I want to drift off to sleep, all I have to do is think back to days in the shears… Looking aft at 'full on four' smoke and twinkling phosphorescent water sliding aft and cascading off the tanktops, and remember the gentle roll the old girl gave you on a balmy night. The bullshit conversation of Adrian Stuke as we passed contact lights to each other as they moved across fore and aft… Nights spent watching to raise the lights on the Chesapeake Lightship… It was like mother leaving the porch light on for you.

Those are E-3 memories. E-4 memories are about hauling coffee to the Chief parked on the hydraulic manifold, giving the Old Man his eight o'clock report and lining up to blow sanitaries.

Who in the hell would make that trade-off for access to unbridled power and greatness? Neither Stuke nor I could afford a John Paul Jones gene implant.

But one day, I woke up to find Adrian Stuke wearing a Quartermaster crow and my world crumbled… Adran Stuke had abandoned me and become a philistine.

I felt like the last guppy in the pet store fish tank.