Rainlockers and Rainbow Soap

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Smokeboat showers were designed by an undertaker who buried Munchkins, or some bastard who turned out phone booths for the relatives of Snow White's dwarfs. You had to Vaseline your butt to turn around in one of the sonuvabitches.

Water squirted in your ear at the rate of a blue jay taking a pee and the men in the forward engine room who made the freshwater, would threaten to kill you and all your unborn children if you took more than sixty seconds to satisfy your immediate personal hygiene needs. Diesel submarines took an hour to produce 50 gallons of pure water.

This was just enough to satisfy the needs of 252 tons of wet lead-acid batteries and produce a reasonable mildew crop in sour towels.

When a smokeboat was turning out fresh water, the stills (evaporators) produced heat at twice the Dante's inferno level, which in turn produced hot, sweaty, foul smelling enginemen and machinist mates. These stinking, ugly bastards kept watch on the use of fresh water tighter than parents keeping an eye on their seventeen-year-old daughter's virginity.

The standard practice aboard diesel submarines was to secure the showers except for one reserved for the exclusive use of cooks, messcooks and the corpsman. The secured showers were used for potato storage. Messcooks would come aft to cut holes in the bags holding the spuds and fill pots. After several weeks, the deck between the shower stalls and the crew's sinks was covered with cut up gunnysacks.

You could run a sink full of water and take what was commonly known in the old boatservice as a 'douche-down'… A birdbath… Armpits, face, and that was about it. Going without regular showers was one of the rough adjustments you had to make to ride smokeboats. There were no women… You take the presence of women out of the equation and it takes about twenty minutes for men to revert to cavemen and develop the vocabulary of sewer digger parrots… And the personal hygiene characteristics of primates.

When you're a submariner, there's no way to replace stuff you run out of at sea. There are no roving 7-11 boats that run around the North Atlantic selling cigarettes, toiletries and Playboy magazines. I have seen men read magazines with missing critical pages… Read paperback novels being passed around in three or four sections… I have seen men read the ingredients on the side of cereal boxes being that starved for the printed word.

I've seen guys dig through a tuna can butt kit wired to the bunk chain at the head of their rack and fish out butts to strip, to pack a pipe for a smoke.

That brings us to rainbow soap. There is a point in the life of any bar of soap… Near the end where you can damn near see through it. People abandon soap in the last stages of its useful life. It's hard to toss something that isn't all the way gone, so every After Battery head had a load of soap slivers. If you ran out of soap six weeks out, you could create a bar in the same way lumber companies make plywood. You would stack seven or eight slivers together and compress them into something resembling a multi-ply, multi-colored bar of soap… Hence the term 'rainbow soap'.

We learned that razor blades could be resharpened by rocking them back and forth with your forefinger in a glass or coffee cup. We sewed peacoat buttons on with dental floss. And wrote letters on the back of DRT tracing paper and maneuvering board plots.

It was called making do… Inventing 'make-do' was a part of submarine sailoring back then.

I once knocked a boot heel off on a ladder, clearing the bridge. Unlike nuke boats, we didn't carry a duty cobbler who fixed boots. I tried to reattach the heel with two flat head screws. Bad idea… They dug a divot out of my heel the size of the Grand Canyon. I finally unbolted the unsuccessful make-do and ripped off the other heel. I spent the better part of the three weeks remaining looking like I was wearing Aladdin's shoes.

As the leading seaman, I once used my web belt to lash down a line locker lid whose lock down bolt was screwed up by a practice depth charge, allowing it to flop back and forth next to a hull (NLM) noise level monitor.

We cut gaskets out of red rubber hot water bottles, using a tuna can for a pattern. We made gland packing out of an oil-soaked chunk of cut up heaving line. Nukes never had to do that kind of stuff.

One boat ran out of toilet paper and used pages from rate correspondence courses, and some back issues of 'All Hands'.

We were good at what we did. With all the attention given to our nations great undersea technological achievement, it is important for those of us who rode those old worn out smokeboats to remember that we took them to sea and kept nursing the bastards through their old age years and invented the 'make-dos' that got us by. It was what we did and defined us as what we were. We were lads who prided ourselves on getting by, who leveled out the rough spots, put up with the cramped quarters, dead air, lack of gentility, loss of contact, roaches, dirty laundry, leaks, heat, hot sacking, and hard riding in heavy seas, simply because of the pride we had in being able to call ourselves 'pigboat sailors.'

Save your sweat-soaked dungarees, the smokeboats and hydraulic oil-laced coffee will rise again.