Topside Watch

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

The loneliest job in the world… Night topside watch… Outboard boat, after nest, pier 22, DES SUB piers.

I may possibly hold the SUBLANT record for standing topside watches. If there was a TopsideWatchman's rate, I could have skipped from E-3 to E-6 immediately. I was what you would call, the consummate topside watch. My statue was the first erected in the Topside Watch Hall of Fame. The inscription reads, "Inventor of Kiwi Golf."

What is Kiwi golf? It is played at night… Topside… 12 to 4 watch. You take an empty Kiwi shoe polish can … Start at the fwd. capstan and kick the can from bow to stern, using the salvage air connection deck plates as the holes… All holes being par three, except where you had to get it around the conning tower fairwater… That was the par ten hole. Arguments as to number of penalty strokes for a Kiwi over the side or slipping into the superstructure were never decided, so I guess Kiwi golf still has no hard and fast rules.

There were a million diversions to keep you from going nuts in the middle of the night. You could talk to the topside watch on the boat tied up next to yours. Invariably, he was from Fork-in-the-Road, Minnesota and would explain things like, if you don't milk lady cows often enough they would explode, and all the stuff that could go wrong with a hay baler. The closest I'd been to a cow was the third row in a Randolph Scott movie, so I never could follow the complicated stuff.

You could buy a pellet gun and fast draw on pier rats. This is a lot of fun until the eagle-eyed guys on the Orion quarterdeck sent the duty tattletale down to tell your O. D. that the man standing topside watch was "Monkeying with his pistol…". This brought about a midnight discussion where it was unilaterally decided that since perceptions being what they were and the negligible value of pier rat pelts, I should stop and devote more time to checking lines and keeping desperados from crossing our brow.

I never, on daylight watch, put Tobasco or Texas Pete hot sauce in rolls and toss them to seagulls… I never pitched Alka Seltzer tablets to the gulls… I did however, join a bunch of fellow mates and throw Saltine crackers in the air to encourage sea fowl to congregate in circles large enough to rain poop on the crew of the Redfin, gathered topside, in dress canvas for a ship's company photo. God has since forgiven me to the point that I am no longer liable for cleaning bills.

In the winter, they put a doghouse on the boat to protect you from the elements… What elements? The things were made out of plywood so thin you could damn near see through it, but it was too heavy to cut leg holes in the floor so you could carry it with you when you checked your mooring lines. We used to say that guard shacks were SUBRON SIX's way to save coffin money when burying frozen topside watches. They secretly buried frozen topside watches and paved over them… Thus explaining all that "Officer Only" parking at DES SUB piers. You couldn't fool us.

Who invented the gahdam peacoat, anyway? Probably some light in the loafers' avant-garde designer. They weren't long enough… You got chewed out for putting your hands in the pockets, which were so high and shallow that your arms looked like rigged out bow planes. They had a little ice cold chain sewn in to the collar that would give you weird neck sensations… And when it rained, they absorbed 20 gallons of water with no drips. Once wet, you stunk like sheep and had gained 35 lbs., then your ankles broke.

To lifers, the peacoat was an almost religious vestment. To bad mouth the peacoat was to trash Naval tradition… To denigrate those men of the deep water service who had gone before… Down to the sea in ships, braving danger to pass on the fine traditions that we unworthy useless idiots failed to appreciate. That of course was news to us, we just thought they hung around bus stations and amused themselves saying, "Hey sailor, get those hands out of those pockets!"

Everything that came aboard, passed the topside watch, including drunks and doughnuts. Drunken boat sailors can do amazing things and be extremely entertaining if you can convince them to stay out of the water and keep their clothes on.

Signing for doughnuts could make you power drunk. Having a gun with authorization to shoot thieves and twelve dozen doughnuts is a lesson in submarine behavior known only to topside watches and painted ladies. "If you have what a boat sailor wants… And you give it to him… When he's finished, he'll move on and never look back." Fickle fellows. When your popularity is directly tied to doughnut availability… It ain't love.

I think they replaced topside watches with an 800 number and sold all the dogshacks for Virginia Beach vacation bungalows.

It all happened long ago and far away in that strange and exotic world just off Hampton Blvd… The land of DES SUB piers. We were young… No money… No sense… And aberrant human behavior was a virtue in our line of work.