Five Bucks and full Peacoat Pockets

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

There's a lot of stuff they leave out of submarine movies, TV documentaries and Tom Clancy books. They conveniently omit any mention of anchor end riff-raff and the survival techniques employed by the bottom-feeding element of the diesel powered submarine social order.

On Fridays, the boats in Squadron Six put down weekend liberty. All the skippers knew that bluejackets move at the max rate of 50 miles per hour by plane, train, bus, personal vehicle, piggyback or hitch hiking. (Some wide-awake idiot wrote, "But Dex, hitch hiking was against regulations." So was sticking your hands in your peacoat pockets… Playing cards for money and peeing off the pier. But there were very few bluejackets in Portsmouth Naval Prison for the above listed infractions.)

"What are you in for?"

"Me?"

"Yeah, you."

"Pissing off the pier behind the geedunk truck."

"How bout you?"

"Got ten for hitchhiking and an additional five for hands-in-peacoat-pockets."

"What about the guy they've got chained to the bulkhead topside?"

"They're gonna shoot the bastard for participating in an after torpedo room poker game during a battery charge."

A good skipper would make the call to put down weekend liberty early and announce over the 1MC,

"Liberty will commence at 1000 hours for all hands except those in section three who have scheduled weekend duty .Let me remind you that other units operating from this location will be getting their weekend liberty much later. Hooting, hollering, emulating the start of the Oklahoma Land Rush will call attention to Requin's early liberty policy and could result in termination of the practice."

We assembled in the forward torpedo room and were released in ones and twos at three-minute intervals, just like the guys in the GREAT ESCAPE movie. Each man was told to make the facial expression of men on their way to get a root canal.

We had something known as the 'allowable radius', the maximum distance an American bluejacket was allowed to go in 72 hours, in case a sneak attack from Peru or Monaco required our presence. It was a totally bullshit policy invented by some idiot who obviously failed to understand sexual attraction and its effect on the ingenious nineteen-year old American seagoing warriors.

"Dex darling, what is an 'allowable radius'?"

"Sweetheart, you know your dumb dog, Ralphie?"

"Yes."

"You know how he's constantly humping people's legs and sniffing under old ladies dresses?"

"Yes."

"And you know how your dad takes him our in the back yard to avoid embarrassment and snaps a chain on his collar that is connected to a steel stake? Well, when Ralph runs out of chain in any direction, he's at his 'allowable radius'."

"You don't have a chain."

"It's an imaginary chain the Navy creates."

"That sounds dumb."

It is pure unadulterated horseshit… SubRon Six operates on the theory that if your destination is somewhere on a National Geographic globe, it's okay to take a 'there-and-back-shot' on a 72.

We also operated on the honor-bound traditional premise that if you found an incapacitated, mentally deranged or dead American bluejacket outside of his allowable radius, you were obligated to drag, haul or piggy back the worthless bastard to a point within his allowable radius, before dumping him.

We, the great unwashed, hitchhiked. We were poor… We lived both below the poverty line and the waterline. We packed more dead-broke sailors in the After Battery than the Calcutta building code allowed Indian landlords to pack Hindus in a refrigerator crate.

None of us ever had enough money. The United States paid an entry-level submarine sailor about what McDonald's was paying Gus the busboy. Serving at the entrance level of submarine sailoring, could best be characterized as a form of patriotic poverty.

When a member of Requin's ships company was going to 'stretch a 72', it became an 'all-hands evolution'. First, we all chipped in. We all tossed in the hat to make sure whoever it was making the long-range run had the maximum level of fallback resources he might need. The cooks would always make sandwiches and wrap them in wax paper. You could pack these rations in your peacoat pocket in the winter and tucked in the top of your AWOL bag in the summer.

Paying for food could put one helluva dent in traveling funds. E-3s used to use the term 'cheap eats' for stuff like grilled cheese sandwiches, dime store lunch counter chili, chicken salad and potato chips. Hell, at nineteen you can survive on mosquitoes and Cheetos for five to ten days.

America, God bless her, is a land where many male citizens have served honorably in her armed forces and never fail to recognize a lad on a long-range mission to pick up a little kissy face time with his girl back home. It was not unusual to call the waitress over and ask for your check, only to find that some gentleman or lady had paid it with her own when leaving.

This was not charity or some kind of sympathetic handout, it was the purest form of evidence of generational linkage between men and women who who had paid dues similar to yours, who recognized and deeply appreciated the personal sacrifice required in honorable service. I have discharged my obligation to reciprocate many times since I cleared my last Receiving Station.

Thursday evening, you rooted through your side locker… Found three sets of clean skivvies… Four pairs of socks, your shaving kit (known navy-wide as your 'douche bag')… The trashy paperback book you were reading. One guy taped a note on the cover of some real piece of literary garbage he was reading that said,

"If I get killed somewhere to and from Pittsburgh and you are going through my gear, throw out this book before you send the rest of this stuff home to Mom."

One thing the sub force taught you was to be prepared for every contingency.

Hauling on a stretched 72 was a lot like equipping Charles Lindberg to fly the Atlantic… The entire After Battery had a hand in assuring the success of the mission.

I always tucked a deck of cards in my AWOL bag… When you're on the road hitchhiking, you can find folks to get up a gin game with while waiting to catch a ride. I can remember playing cards once under a street lamp at midnight on the back of some guy's guitar case.

The best way to see this wonderful country, meet her fine people and see the wonders of everyday life, is at ground level. Meeting folks along the way… Taking time to shake a few old veterans hands and eat that second piece of pie and wash it down with the third 'free' coffee with the waitress whose brother was riding a can in the Pacific, was ALWAYS worth the time.

All low-end smokeboat sailors remember setting off on long-range adventure with your peacoat pockets loaded with ham sandwiches, somewhere between five and twenty bucks in your jumper pockets and a cardboard sign reading 'Madison, Wisc', 'Nashville, Tenn', 'Birmingham, Ala', or simply 'New York' on one side, and 'DesSub Piers, Norfolk, VA' on the other.

Nowadays, you never see an American bluejacket standing by the side of the road with his thumb making the 'going my way' internationally recognized sign… Hell, it was a great recruiting gimmick that cost the American taxpayer nothing. It put highly motivated boatsailors in cars with totally captive audiences. Boy, when the silly sensitive naval leadership put their sea boot down on catching rides, they tossed another wonderful bluejacket tradition past the shitcan rim.

And there were days when you were sitting on your AWOL bag by the side of the road with a set of Dolphins gleaming in the sun and you would here some bluejacket yell,

"Hey sailor, what boat you off of?"

"Requin outta Norfolk."

"Trigger outta Charleston… Jump in."

And you shared expenses and ham sandwiches… Cussed northern runs, powdered milk and the dumb sonuvabitch who thought submariners wouldn't tap-dance past an allowable radius like George S. Patton went through Belgium.

And as the car whizzed over the asphalt you both knew how great it was to be boatsailors and own the world.


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