Remembering Submarine Bars

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

Submariners always stuck together. They worked and played as a crew and they gravitated to places where they could be with fellow submariners in locations where people who could tolerate the obnoxious conduct, impure verbiage and rollicking nonsense that was the standard by which smokeboat submariners were measured… Their hallmark, so to speak.

The submarine bar was unlike other naval watering holes and dens of iniquity inhabited by seagoing elements. It had to meet strict standards to be in compliance with the acceptable requirement for a boatsailor beer-swilling dump.

Loudmouth Barmaid.

The first and foremost requirement was a crusty old gal serving suds. She had to be able to wrestle King Kong to parade rest… Be able to balance a tray with one hand, knock bluejackets out of the way with the other hand and skillfully navigate through a roomful of milling around drunks. On slow nights, she had to be the kind of gal who would give you a back scratch with a fly swatter handle or put her foot on the table so you could admire her new ankle bracelet some ET brought her back on a Med run.

A good barmaid had to be able to whisper sweet nothings in your ear like,

"Sailor, your thirteen button flap is twelve buttons short of a green board."

And,

"Buy a pack of Clorets and chew up the whole thing before you get within heavie range of any gal you ever want to see again."

And…

"Hey animals, I know we have a crowd tonight, but if any of you guys find the head facilities fully occupied and start pissing down the floor drain, you're gonna find yourself scrubbing the deck with your white hats!"

They had to be able to admire great tattoos, look at pictures of ugly bucktooth kids and smile… Be able to help haul drunks to cabs and comfort 19year-olds who had lost someone close to them.

They could look at your ship's identification shoulder tab and tell you the names of COBs back to the time you were a Cub Scout.

If you came in after a late night battery charge and fell asleep with a half eaten Slim-Jim in your hand, they tucked your peacoat around you… Put out the cigarette you left burning in the ashtray and replaced the warm draft you left sitting on the table with a cold one when you woke up… Why? Simply, because they were one of the few people on the face of the earth that knew what you did, and appreciated what you were doing.

And if you treated them like a decent human being and didn't drive'em nuts by playing songs they hated on the juke box… They would lean over the back of the booth and park their soft warm tits on your neck when they sat two Rolling Rocks in front of you.

Imported table wipe down guy and glass washer, trash dumper, deck swabber and paper towel replacement officer.

The guy had to have baggy tweed pants and a gold tooth… And a grin like a 1950 Buick… And a name like "Ramon", "Juan", "Pedro" or "Tico". He had to smoke unfiltered Luckies, Camels or Ralieghs. He wiped the tables down with a sour washrag that smelled like a skunk diaper and said,

"How are choo navee mans tonight?"

He was the indispensable man… The guy with credentials that allowed him to borrow Slim-Jims, Beer Nuts and pickled hard boiled eggs from other beer joints when they ran out where he worked.

The establishment itself.

The place had to have walls covered with ships plaques, many of which had made the trip up the river to the scrap yard, ten years before you enlisted… The walls had squadron pennants and a hundred or more old yellowed photographs of fellows named "Buster", "Chicago", "S-Boat Barney", "Chief Boiler Maker", "Malone", "Honshu Harry", Jackson, and Capt. Slade Cutter.

It had to have the obligatory Michelob, Pabst Blue Ribbon and "Beer Nuts sold here" neon signs… An eight-ball mystery beer tap handle and signs reading;

"Your mother does not work here so clean away your gahdam trash."

"Hands off the barmaid."

"Don't throw butts in urinal."

"Barmaid's word final in settling bets."

"Take your fights out in the alley."

"Owner reserves the right to waltz your worthless ass out to the sidewalk."

"Shipmates are responsible for riding herd on their boat's drunks."

Typical signage found in classy establishments catering to sophisticated clientele.

You had to have a juke box built along the lines of a Sherman tank loaded with Hank Williams, Mother Maybelle Carter, Johnny Horton, Johnny Cash and twenty other crooning goobers nobody ever heard of. The damn thing has to have "La Bamba", Herb Alpert's "Lonely Bull" and Johnny Cash's "Don't take your guns to town" in memory of Norfolk's barmaid goddess, Thelma. If Thelma is within a twelve-mile radius of where any of those three recordings can be found on a juke box, it is wise to have a stack of life insurance applications within reach of the coin slot.

The furniture in a real good submarine bar had to be made from coal mine shoring lumber and was not fully acceptable until it had 600 cigarette burns and your boat's hull numbers carved into it.

The bar had to have a brass foot rail and at least six Slim-Jim containers, an oversized glass cookie jar full of Beer-Nuts, a jar of pickled hard boiled eggs that could produce rectal gas emissions that could shut down a sorority party, and big glass containers full of something called pickled pigs feet and Polish sausage. Only drunk Chiefs and starving Ethiopians ate pickled pigs feet and unless the last three feet of your colon had been manufactured by Midas… You didn't want to get any where near the Polish napalm dogs.

No submariner's bar was complete without a couple of hundred faded boat pictures and a "Shut the hell, up" sign taped on the mirror behind the bar… And several rather tasteless nekkit lady pictures.

The pool table felt had to have at least three strategic rips as a result of drunken competitors… And balls that looked as if a gorilla baby had teethed on the sonuvabitches.

Submarine bars were home, but they were also establishments where 19 year-old kids received an education available nowhere else on earth. You learned how to "tell" and "listen" to sea stories… You learned about sex at $25.00 a lesson from professional ladies who taught you things your high school biology teacher didn't know were anatomically possible. You learned how to make a two cushion shot and how to toss down a beer and shot… Known as a "depth charge."

We were young… A helluva long way from home. We were pulling down slave wages for twenty-four hour a day, seven days a-week availability and loving the life we lived. We didn't know it at the time, but our association with the men we served with, forged us into the men we became.

And a lot of that association took place in submarine bars where we shared the stories accumulated in our up to then, short lives… We learned about women and that life could be tough on a gal.

While many of our classmates were attending college, we were getting an education slicing trough North Atlantic black water… Running deep and plowing holes below the surface and rubbing shoulders with some of the finest men we would ever know in bars our mothers wouldn't have approved of.

Bars that would live in our memories forever.

 

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