Fresh Air, Hot Coffee and Salt Spray

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

Running 'full on four' with a stiff breeze coming fore to aft and salt foam drifting off the tops of the rising and falling swells… Toss in a cup of strong 'bottom of the pot' coffee and no more than two, steady course contacts… That's the closest a lot of us are going to get to Heaven.

A fleetboat bow… The World War II, pre-cosmetic surgery configuration, was the best. It sliced through the sea like a surgeon's scalpel and turned the divided water into symmetrical wings that slid aft, mounted the tank tops, ripped through the limber hole openings, and worked it's way aft to cascade out of the superstructure and return to the sea.

You stood there in the shears in your trusty, beat up foulweather jacket and trusty raggedy-ass watchcap, surveying God's great ocean for fellow traveling mariners on our shared nautical highway.

The sea never remained the same. Sometimes she was as soft as a lullaby and at other times she engaged you in the Devil's Flamenco Dance. The unpredictable nature of the surface of the North Atlantic was part of the magic of being a diesel boat bluejacket.

Nowhere on earth do human beings experience season changes like the seagoing lads of the North Atlantic. I am sure that the same thing applies to the north and extreme lower latitudes of the Pacific. I never visited either place, so my knowledge of a crocodile's digestive tract and conditions in the Pacific Ocean are exactly the same… Never took a personal tour of either one.

When you say something about conditions riding smokeboats north of Cape May, there is always some old gray-haired, west coast thirty-year plus career bluejacket, who pipes up with,

"Hell, you shoulda' been with us on the old USS Crawdad when we rode out that typhoon off Bonga-Wanga. Now, that wuzza storm. We lost both bowplanes, our complete walking deck, the starboard screw guard and most of bow buoyancy."

Then some jaybird will chirp up with,

"Hell, that wuz nuthin'. In '56, we hit wind so bad it blew us back to the same pier we left three days before… Wind wuz so damn hard, it blew off the conning tower and we conned the boat by signal flags from the O.D. peeping out from the bear trap, giving course corrections to a signalman lashed to the J.T. soundhead, to relay to a messcook poking his head up from the after room hatch who hollered down and someone wrote a note for the below decks watch to take to the maneuvering room… Or to the fifteen guys working the rudder rams."

Guys on the West Coast lie a lot. The gentlemen who rode the East Coast smoke belching iron sewer pipes, were known far and wide for nothing but honest, non-inflated historically accurate and totally factual reporting of all events.

Naval historians used to visit Bell's to verify facts and get accurate first hand accounts of many naval events. Thelma once told me that the lads wore out so many New Testaments swearing to the accuracy of verbal accounts, that they started spray painting out-of-date Norfolk phone books black and stenciling 'HOLY BOOK' on the cover. That is why the part of the bar that contained no jars of pickled pig's feet, Slim Jims, pickled hard boiled eggs or packs of 'Beer Nuts', was known as the 'Altar of Accuracy'.

The best times were the balmy summer days. The days when the corpsman made you cover your nose with zinc oxide and the O.D. let you wear the aviator glasses you traded your electrician's knife for.

On days like that, the rhythmic rise and fall of the boat and squawk of the gulls looking for fish cut up by your screws to surface in your wake, made it as good as it ever got. On those days, the Richard Rogers' theme from Victory At Sea kept being replayed in your head…'Dah, dah dee dah dah… No Other Love Have I'. I can't remember it ever getting any better than that.

"Mr. So-In-So…"

"Yes?"

"I've got a contact bearing… Two… Five… Zero… That's 250 degrees. I would say she's a fully loaded tanker… Hull low in the water. She's opening… She's making turns to get somewhere in one helluva hurry."

"Very well… Report any and all changes in course or speed."

"Aye, sir."

"By the way…"

"Sir?"

'Where did you pick up the shades?"

"Airdale swap."

"Now, are we missing anything critical?"

"How critical is an electrician's knife?"

"Very well, we'll survive… I was worried about the Wardroom silver."

They were lighthearted times. Time spent with men whose faded names you would find in your family address book fifty years later… With a chronological daisy chain of all the locations where they could be found at any given moment the ensuing years.

You got sunburned together. Froze your butts off together. Bounced around in the shears as a duo. Bummed smokes off each other, laughed at each others rank amateur attempts to sew up ripped and acid eaten dungarees. If your running mate was married, you could always count on a free home-cooked meal for taking care of the 'first night alongside' family grocery list. Hey, that was part of the cement that held shipmates together.

You drank cheap wine in places where you couldn't make out the local gibberish.

It didn't matter, because no nineteen-year-old not raised in the Waldorf Astoria or related to the Rockefellers, knew what the hell decent wine tasted like. All we knew about wine was without a proper tool, it was damn near impossible to get the cork out of. But, if you could remember to stick a 4-inch bolt in your jumper pocket, you could drive the cork down inside the jug by using the bolt and the heel of a removed shoe, and drink it that way. This would account for the small chunks of cork you could see floating in liberty launch pier vomit.

Oh yes, the second thing we learned. Cheap wine can louse up a set of whites faster than swimming in ink.

And the saltwater rose and fell on your tank tops as the bow cut an invisible furrow across the roof of the Goddess of the Main Induction's ocean kingdom. The O.D. mindlessly wiped the TBT lens with his shirtsleeve, and the guy who would be your best friend for life would tap you on the shoulder and say,

"Dex, I've got one crossing aft… Slow bastard… Must be turning no more than six knots."

And the relieving watch would start making their way topside… You could hear the boots and the endless bullshit conversation, common in the raghat trade.

Soon you and Stuke would be elbowing your way into a place at an after battery mess table and chowing down on that damn great meatloaf you'd been smelling wafting up from the open conn hatch for the better part of an hour.

"Mr. So-In-So… Permission to lay below before my starving shipmates wipe out the meatloaf."

"Permission granted."

And we racked up another day at the office… In Arleigh Burke's Underwater Snoop Corporation.


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