The Floating General Store

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Talk about a captive market. DesSub Piers had no supporting services. No ships service… No geedunk… No gas station… No theater… No laundry and dry cleaning facility. Outside of a couple of phone booths with no phone books and a pierhead parking lot the size of Kansas, we might as well have been living on an Indian reservation.

We smokeboat Indians were forced into trading with the Orion 'Frank and Jesse James' thief market… The Orion’s ships service.

The damn thing was run by some first class storekeeper. I can’t remember his name… That’s just as well because I would need a lawyer after this. The sonuvabitch was put together when meat was cheap. I’ll bet if you went back far enough in this bastard's lineage, you would find whores, pickpockets, flim-flam artists and at least one lowlife sonuvabitch who sold rot gut whiskey and rifles with bent firing pins to the Comanches.

This guy had no ethics… No shame, and no compassion. The bastard was the kind of guy who would drop kick a kitten to see if it really would land on its’ feet.

A warning to any of you who have lived a misspent life… That fat bastard is going to be running the only general store in Hell when you get there.

He opened at 0800… He waddled in at 0745… I remember that he had a belt that was so big he must have swapped something to a hippo for it… And a brass halyard clip with a key to everything in North America on it. He would unlock this big-hinged metal plate… Swing it up and hook it to the overhead with a big screen door latch.

“Okay, okay… Who’s first? The rest of you idiots get in line.”

“Who you calling idiot, you fat-ass tender oyster?”

(Note: Adrian Stuke and I were once riding a bus down some street in a weird part of Norfolk when we passed a seafood store. It had a sign in the front window of the store reading 'Tender Oysters… $5.00 per…' Stuke yells,

”That’s what those bastards on Orion are, tender oysters. They don’t do a gahdam thing, so they must be tender oysters.”

Adrian never read Dale Carnegie’s How to win friends and influence people but he did write How to get a Bar Fight Started in Five Minutes.)

There was always some two-week reservist who would stand in line for the better part of an hour for something stupid like a pack of gum.

“Sir, do you have Wrigley’s Spearmint?”

“Hey kid, don’t call that dumbass snake-oil trader, 'sir'. And second, didja ever chew gum ya bought on a tender? You gotta have teeth like a gravel crusher. Tender gum is 20 years old.”

“Yeah kid…I once got a pack the exec on this tub found in a mummy’s pocket… On the Requin, we take tender gum and drive it into the pressure hull with a nine pound sledge and hang our peacoats on them.”

“Knock it off… Son, don’t ever listen to an idiot off a submarine… Now, you want anything else?”

“No sir, just the gum.”


“Hey cheapass, you got any of those official SubRon Six Zingo lighters? The ones that the insignias fall off in a week? The ones that eat flints like a mechanical shark and that totally fall apart in a month?”

“What'd you expect for eight bucks?”

“I sure as hell don’t want to have the Japs get even for Nagasaki and Hiroshima one gahdam lighter at a time.”

“Mine works.”

“Yeah Horsefly, how many times have you had the sonuvabitch in the instrument shop to get the cover hinge fixed?”

“Here’s your lighter.”

“We’re making a 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' run starting day after tomorrow… If this mini-mechanical marvel craps out before we’re making turns for home, the minute we shove our brow over, I’ll be up here to rearrange your facial features with a chipping hammer.”


“You got any Lincoln shoe polish?”

“Naw… Got Kiwi and Esquire.”

“Forget it.”


“Tenshun on Deck.”

“Morning sir.”

“Morning sir.”

“Morning sir.”

“How can I help you sir?”

“Got a Blitz cloth?”

“No sir.”


“Aye sir.”

(Note: The Army… Air Force… Marines all spend a major chunk of their enlisted life shining brass buttons, hat insignias, collar brass,shoulder brass, belt buckles, all kind of stuff. Bluejackets don’t have any brass except belt buckles and our jumpers covered them. All our buttons were plastic… Including peacoat buttons. A little known naval trivia fact… Who had the world's largest collection of peacoat buttons? The Hampton Roads Bridge -Tunnel Authority… On Friday night and Sunday night, all cars hauling bluejackets tossed peacoat buttons in the toll hoppers. When the arm went up after registering payment of the toll, we tossed a peacoat button in the hopper as we rolled away.)


“Hey Horsefly, you got any writing paper with submarines or Dolphins on it?”

“Nope. 'Cause I never knew you submariners could write.”

“Smartass, how’s your wife gonna like you with all your teeth punched into your colon? Now give me a box of damn writing paper.”


“Hey lardass, you got any aspirin?”

“Naw, they don’t allow us to carry medical items. They don’t want you bubblehead jerks self-diagnosing yourself… Go see your Corpsman or hit Sick Bay.”

“Thanks, Florence Nightingale.”


“Blimpman, have you got playing cards?”

“Yeah, how many decks you want?”

“Ten decks.”

“Ten decks?”

“Ten decks… Whazzit to you?”

“What kinda game takes ten decks?”

“It’s called 'Fleece The Tender Guys'.”


“Lighter fluid… Soap… You got Lucky Tiger?”

“Yeah… How many you want?”


“Five packs of Blue Blades… Tube of Ipana… Ace comb… Two Lifesavers.”

“What flavor?”

“Anything that will mask iguana butt breath…”

“Anything else?”

“Naw, but you can toss in anything you’re giving away free.”

The Orion’s ships service was the Hudson’s Bay trading franchise. It was like a dead elephant in East Africa… The place where all the animals, big and small came to feed and haul off what they needed to survive. It was where goofy bastards came to stand in line… Engage in inane bullshit… Rag Dumbo, the anchor-bound elephant… Restock their under way supplies… Exchange news with the lesser animals from other boats and watch officers butt in line. It was the hollow log that the bugs crawled under to find stuff to haul back to their holes… The E-3s’ Bloomingdale’s.

Most of the crap sold there was made by the same sonuvabitches that brought the U.S. Navy, the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway.

It was our equivalent of the Avon Lady… Except that our 'Avon Lady' wasn’t a lady… Was ugly… And appeared to be building his fortune by not buying razor blades and had to use a set of Toledo truck scales to check his personal tonnage. Every time the sonuvabitch went ashore, the Orion’s draft decreased three feet.

The Orion’s’ ships service was our small town drugstore… The meeting place.

Smokeboat riders were a communal mob. In SubRon Six, our hull numbers were our small town mailbox numbers… The pier was Main Street… Orion was the center of town… All we needed was a Masonic Lodge, a Kiwanis Club and a park with a bandstand.

Someone sent me an e-mail telling me that SubRron Six still exists… I hope it is still the happy kingdom we knew.

One last memory concerning the ships service on 'Mother Onion'… Around 1960, our skipper decided that Requin needed a new ships insignia. Requin (SS-481) had undergone a conversion in the Charleston Yard and the radar picket insignia no longer made sense. Once a design was selected, we took the resulting image up to the ships service on Orion.

'Buffalo man' sent it off to the 'Land of the Rising Sun' and ten or fifteen kamikaze pilot widows produced 150 patches.

What we gave to the Orion’s storekeeper was an anatomically accurate rendition of a very vicious looking man-eating shark… What we got back was a patch with what appeared to be a walrus with a dorsal fin and a Martha Rae mouth transplant… Science fiction fish.

It was all part of the diesel boat Camelot… Pier 22. When they tore our pier down, the trucks that carried away all the chunks of busted concrete, hauled away the last of our magic.