Trying to sleep in the Alley

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

There was, the captain's stateroom at the high end of the personal comfort scale as applied to smokeboat duty, and at the low end of the spectrum you had 'Hogan's Alley'.

I have no idea what life was like lying flat on your back in the Old Man's rack. All I know is, that after his stewards secured the officers pantry and crawled up in the bridal suite under the torpedo loading hatch in the forward room, his coffee source shifted aft. All the Old Man had to do was make a sound-powered phone call to the crews mess and get an E-3 to jackass a cup up to his stateroom.

Most of the time when the crew's mess phone made the 'Wh-i-i-i-rp, Wh-i-i-i-rp' sound, it was some sonuvabitch from the engine room or back in maneuvering, asking,

"Hey Dex… You guys got any more of that cake we had at evening chow?"

Or…

"Hey Dex… I'll kiss your ass, if you'll get someone comin' aft to haul back two black and bitters back here."

Or…

"Hey Dex… What're you bastards putting out for mid-rats?"

So, during the late-night hours, phone discipline went to hell.

'Wh-i-i-i-rp, Wh-i-i-i-rp'

"Rat Johnson's sanitary tank cafe…"

"Who am I talking to?"

"Depends… Who'n the hell are you?"

"The Captain."

"Er… Sir… I REALLY apologize… I wasn't expecting you to be calling."

"Obviously. What is your name?"

"Armstrong sir… The duty idiot."

"Armstrong, bring me a black and bitter and tell the diving officer to run with a three down and to pass that instruction to his relief."

"Aye, sir."

That night, I got the lecture on inappropriate skylarking. The skipper was not a fan of what he called 'uncalled for stupid shenanigans or idiot behavior'.

Every time there was a weird prank pulled off on Requin, Stuke and I always got a personal invitation to the 'Inappropriate Shenanigan Muster'.

"Gentlemen, were you two involved in this dumbass nonsense?"

"No sir…"

"Very well, return to your duties."

Then, there were some nights when he asked,

"Gentlemen, were either of you responsible for tonight's stupidity?"

"Sir, do we need legal representation?"

"Dammit, how many times do I have to tell you two clowns that a United States warship is no place to act like college freshmen?"

"Sir, we didn't initiate this nonsense or have anything to do with Mr. so-in-so's loaded cigars. Our involvement was confined to the rubber rat in the covered dish."

But this thing started out to be about sleeping in the alley.

The best rack in the entire Navy was the middle rack outboard in the after end of Hogan's Alley. Why? Well, with the medical locker being located in the after end, it formed a little dark cubby hole where you could stick your head… Kinda like having privacy for everything above your dogtag chain. If anybody had the slightest inclination toward claustrophobia, this was not the rack for them. For folks who wanted a little post embalming fluid preview of what it was going to feel like spending eternity in a satin-lined box, this rack was the ticket.

Another benefit to this 'head sanctuary', was that Doc held his daily 'sick, lame and lazy' muster in the Hogan's Alley passageway. It was bad enough having to listen to the daily litany of physical complaint, without having the added visual benefit of having to watch Doc treat abnormalities of the tallywhacker at eye-nose level or lance butt boils six inches from your nasal passages.

"Doc, I've got this chronic itch, can you help me out?"

"Doc, I think I may have contracted a case of the mechanized dandruff."

"Doc, you got anything for sonar shack hemorrhoids?"

You spend a couple of years in the Alley next to the medical locker and you could qualify for a general practice at any hospital in Zambia.

The Alley's after bulkhead that Doc's magical 'cure for damn near everything' locker was bolted to, was a CRES sheetmetal partition. The damn thing was so thin, you could hear all the conversational exchange between guys using the sinks, urinals or showers.

"Hey Bill, you going to Philly when we get in?"

"Not until those guys up on Orion tell me if they can fix number one scope."

"In that case, I'll probably take Trailways."

The After Battery head was like 'the meeting place'. The 'at sea' information exchange location.

"Man, the racket of those rudder rams whacking into and out of the 'stops' is driving me nuts."

"Why'n the hell did you move to the after room?"

"Got my own bunk back there."

"Hey Jack… Who was that goodlookin' gal you had out at Ocean View?"

"Dixie's sister."

"I didn't know she had a sister."

"There's a helluva lot of stuff you probably don't know, horsefly."

And so it went… You could rack out in the after end of Hogan's Alley and listen to the head conversation and piece together a pretty accurate picture of 'on board' happenings.

There were sounds that became familiar to the lads who stowed their gear in the 'After Battery Crew's Zoo'.

There was engine vibration. To a smokeboat sailor, silence was an alien concept. On the surface, you got engine vibration and engine racket whenever some jaybird opened the forward engine room watertight door. In winter, we would get authorization to leave the forward engine room door 'on the latch' (open), so that we could become the beneficiaries of the warmth generated by the rock-crushers back there.

The entire advantage of this ambient heat could be cancelled out by some sonuvabitch opening the conning tower hatch, allowing igloo air to turn the place into something resembling a Butterball frozen turkey locker.

"Somebody slap some iron in that pneumonia hole!"

Then, there was the incessant grabass in the chow line. The cooks could only feed twenty men (absolute max) at a single setting. The remaining animals used to line up in the after battery for'n aft passageway and engage in all manner of inconsiderate grabass and clutch butt.

What you had was a line of supposedly mature individuals, punching and poking each other, sticking wet fingers in each other's ears and yelling "Rape!". Telling each other how socially unacceptable they smelled, making all sorts of bodily-generated sounds, singing, dancing, hooting, hollering, and imitating jackasses.

Every now and then, the lead element would open the airlock door and start yelling,

"Hey Peto, you one-way sonuvabitch… That's the third gahdam load of mashed potatoes you've parked on your plate. Give your shipmates a gahdam break, you inconsiderate bastard."

"Hey Rat… No dessert for Harry. He didn't eat any of his liver."

"Hey Rat… Stuke's putting fresh rolls in his pocket."

It went on and on… Grown men totally devoid of social grace or considerate behavior.

Then, you had animals searching for either 'right' or 'left' footwear in the glow of redlight, when riding the surface in moderate to heavy seas. Shoes and boots migrated around the After Battery like stray cattle. There is something in North Atlantic rolls that causes adrift boots to cha-cha off in different directions. I have seen men hunt for the better part of an hour for a left brogan using a Zippo for illumination.

You had ballast tanks surrounding the After Battery. When they opened the vents hydraulically, you could hear the damn things slam open… We called it 'roof racket'… The topside walking deck was affectionately known as 'the roof'.

The vents would open and if you had an outboard rack, you could hear the water rush in as 311 feet of steel monster slipped beneath the waves. After the old girl settled at her designated depth, air trapped in strange places would gurgle up in the tanks.

'Bloop… Blooble, bloop, booble, booble, gurgle, bloop, bloop."

It always reminded me of the sounds emanating from an old coot's stomach following Thanksgiving dinner.

And there were times when the old gal blew her packing and the Atlantic Ocean came calling. Water came in, in submarine terms, 'like a cow pissing on a flat rock'. If saltwater got into our battery well, things could get serious in a hurry. Salt water and sulphuric acid create chlorine gas. Chlorine gas in appreciable quantities is a 'turn your toenails blue' showstopper. You smell chlorine gas in a submarine and an undertaker will be the guy who will be emptying your pockets… Or when the hardhat divers come down and beat on your hatch, they will find 'Nobody Home'.

The After Battery was home. No one ever confused the place with 4-star accommodations in the Swiss Alps… Very few people truly knew what life was like there. Bums who lived in a cardboard box in a drainage culvert probably knew better than anybody. The actual residents wore twin silver fish over their pockets and stayed in touch with other former residents of the neighborhood all their lives.

You see, the worthless, good for nothing, inconsiderate, unsalvageable sonuvabitches had once been fellow snorkellers in the submersible septic tanks of the North Atlantic, and indivisibly bound by the Goddess of the Main Induction's lip lock.

You remember that 'Rock-a-bye Baby' song your mother sung to you while you were still in three-cornered pants? Well the closest I ever came to being rocked to sleep after age four, was lying flat on my back in an Alley rack with heavy seas running. The ship rocked and rolled… Rolling back and forth with fore and aft bucking bronco action. You would gently roll back and forth and slide up and down in your rack. I loved the motion and could fall off to sleep in no time.

In real heavy seas, a round-bottomed diesel submarine rolled like a mad wild woman. The bad thing about living in the outboard middle rack in the Alley was having to listen to guys work their way back to the head to shoot their cookies… In a state-five sea, the interior compartment air carried the faint hint of vomit to add to the devil's mix that passes for breathable air in the world of the diesel boat submariner.

Then there were the balmy nights of surface cruising. Nights when you crawled into your rack in a sweat soaked dungaree shirt with the four engines on line sucking fresh air through the boat and you drifted off to sleep listening to the ever-present bullshit conversation in the Crew's Mess.

Someone once said that to a submariner, total contentment was defined as 'the opportunity to lie in a bunk riding surfaced in the wake of a carrier, reading a spicy skin book and scratching your athletes foot on your bunk chain'. I ask you, did it ever get any better than that?

There was a fellow listed on the 'Watch, Quarters and Station' bill as the 'below decks watch'. He roamed from 'stem to stern' checking gauges, bilge levels, level of sanitary tank contents, valve settings, sweating packing glands, and waking up the oncoming watch.

Waking the watch on a smokeboat was an exercise in lion taming.

"Hey... It's time to get ready to go on watch… Rise and shine, morning glory… You awake? Gahdammit, don't make me have to come back and whack hell out of you with this flashlight."

"You even touch me with that flashlight and some guy will be blowing taps over whatever is left of you, you simple-minded sonuvabitch."

There was one clown in underway section three who was hell to wake up until we broke the code. He was a big fellow and his bare feet stuck out under his bunk chain. So, when the below decks watch entered the After Battery with his ongoing watch list, he visited this clown first and stuck a lit Marlboro between his toes. Within a week, all you had to do was touch this guy's toe and he would pop out of his rack like he was shot out of a toaster.

When I left the Navy, I missed living in the Alley. I missed guys stepping all over me, crawling into an upper bunk. I missed guys yelling,

"Knock off the bullshit and let a working sailor get some sleep!"

I missed twenty guys snoring like some kind of walrus convention. I missed the wonderful smells of the night baker. I missed the North Atlantic wintertime coughing. I missed all the cursing when they blew #2 sanitary and vented her inboard. I missed all the chow line bullshit. I missed the farting contests and one-upsmanship. I missed guys rooting around in sidelockers looking for smokes.

What I truly missed was my home. The After Battery was a great place to be, if you were nineteen… Not attached to anything or anybody, except twenty snoring sonuvabitches who would gladly share all their worldly possessions with you to include their last Lucky Strike.

The bunks were hard… And when you tried to peel your sweaty back off a naugahide flash pad, you felt like a human postage stamp. The place smelled like a YMCA locker room in Pakistan. At sea, the place looked like grenades had been tossed in. By the time you had formed a loving relationship with a pin-up gal or Playboy centerfold, some Annapolis graduate would make you remove and dispose of it.

Janet Pilgrim was taped to the inside of an After Battery head stall door. I proposed to her three times on one northern run.

The After Battery was home. In port, somebody always left the light on for me. The Alley was the one place I have lived in my life where I know I truly belonged. It was like that nursery rhyme where the old lady had all those kids and lived in a shoe.


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