Swinging The Hook in Strange Places

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Remember approaching your boat late at night in the launch making the rounds returning bluejackets to their ships? Remember the feeling of pride you had when the kid standing 'bow hook' lit up your hull numbers with his searchlight? Three great big white numbers on the side of your conning tower fairwater that was your address… Your portable address that you hauled all over the world.

Sure, we had one of those high North Atlantic sails… One of those fiberglass monsters held together with twenty seven zillion Monel metal bolts. If you matched the sail up with the World War II fleet boat bow, the one with the hawser hole in the bullnose, you had the Requin. But there was something about that great big 481 that made you smile.

When the cox'n laid his launch alongside and you grabbed the hand hole above the limber hole and the topside watch gave you a hand to crawl aboard, you were home.

"Hey Dex… You find anything over there worth seeing?"

"Nah… Just hit a bar with Stuke and Bobby Ray, and ate something I bought off some guy selling weird food from a cart… Some kind of meat on a stick."

"Jeezus… You know what kinda meat?"

"Not really… Didn’t taste bad."

"Hell Dex, you probably ate roasted cocker spaniel… I wouldn’t eat anything some sonuvabitch was selling off a wagon in that roach-infested hellhole."

"If it tastes good, maybe it’s better not to ask what it is… I was in line behind guys off the Cubera and the Grampus… They didn’t fall over dead, so I figured it was okay"

"You’re an idiot…"

Nobody ever listened to a topside watch.

Used to like to stand topside late at night, catch a smoke and watch the harbor lights. Watch the galley lights come on, on tramp steamers around 4 AM and harbor tugs and pilot ships head out to pick up incoming merchants standing in at first light.

One nice thing about life on the boats… If you couldn’t sleep, you could always draw a couple of cups of coffee and crawl topside. There was always someone to talk to, have a coffee with and pass time with. My definitions of life’s pleasant moments include late night conversations with topside watches, below decks watches, night bakers, insomniacs, and duty officers. I always liked late night aboard ship. It was the most personal part of being a sub sailor.

I also liked to listen to local radio in foreign ports. Couldn’t understand a damn word… I would find some program that was predominantly music, punctuated with monkey jabber, or I would listen to the BBC World Service.

The problem with the damn BBC was the sonuvabitches broadcasted gahdam cricket matches. Cricket matches are as interesting as potato germination, bug sex and fermentation. I don’t know how folks can get interested in that game.

In the early morning, all the ships in port raised their flags, each in keeping with their national custom. I always enjoyed that. I learned to recognize the flags of most maritime nations while standing lookout and watching morning colors in foreign ports, as most of us did.

There was another thing about morning in a foreign port… For many of us, it was the first time we heard the distinctive sound that heavy anchor chain makes as it makes it’s way up and rattles through a hawse pipe on it’s way to the chain locker.

We all collected our special foreign harbor memories.

I remember this highly puffed-up government official who came aboard from a little poverty populated Central American country, whose national economy was based on the exportation of body lice and venereal disease. The little fellow had a great big hat and a whole lot of deferred dental work. The little toad was very impressed with his own importance. He had epaulets, pins, badges and a load of meaningless gedunk pinned all over himself.

In less than five minutes, the skipper, CDR Ed Frothingham taught him that if you did not wish to be verbally taken apart like a Swiss watch in front of a laughing bunch of American bluejackets, it would be advisable not to point your finger at a sub skipper and yell. At one point we thought Frothingham was going to grab the little bastard by the ankles, make a wish and rip the sonuvabitch in half. Everybody knew that the worst time to bug the skipper was in the middle of his third cup of coffee.

The one common denominator of foreign port was flies, big flies… Flies one step away from becoming birds.

One visit to Panama, me and John T. O’Neil went over the side to visit the local attractions… The part of town we visited had only two major attractions, open sores and body odor. We stopped at a street vendor selling barbecued monkey strips, a submarine sailor delicacy.

While John T. bought one and brushed the resident flies off it, I happened to glance up the street… A smiling, middle aged lady looking straight at me, hiked up her skirt, squatted down and took a whiz. While she was spattering her bare ankles and feet, she was brushing away flies. I looked at the flies all over the vendor cart and the pee running down the gutter, connected the dots and never bought anything from a vendor cart in a foreign country again.

Standing topside one night, gazing at the shore light of some country where the local citizens had been killing and eating each other thirty years prior to our arrival… The Skipper and his trusty old pipe joined me.

"Man, Captain… That sure is a festering boil on the backside of the goddess of human decency."

"Dex, don’t judge countries by their seaports. Many seaports, especially in emerging nations, attract a seedy element…"

"Sir, the going rate to get laid over there is two cartons of Lucky Strikes."

"Son, you see, they’ve made great progress… In the old days, you could get yourself a woman for a pack of gum… By the way Dex, you gettin’ anything on that thing but cricket scores?"

"No sir… Just those gahdam cricket scores."