Telling Time by Progressive Putrification

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Things that deteriorate, do it in some sort of sequential progression. In other words there are recognizable phases, in the standardized table of steadily increasing degree of rottenness.

Stuff going bad was a way to tell time aboard submarines. First thing to go was bread. Mold can begin to grow on bread the first time the conning tower hatch slams shut and someone yells,

"Green board!"

New guys get concerned over bread mold… Old guys just eat the damn stuff because someone tells you it won't kill you or effect your sex life. Cooks make great French toast out of stale bread. Bread was always the first thing to go… It was the parade leader of stores going bad.

Cockroaches must love bread. On every smokeboat I ever rode, roaches had set up housekeeping in the bread locker. The old joke went,

"If you got a slice of raisin bread and you didn't like raisin bread, all you had to do was shake it and all the raisins would get up and run away."

Also, you always knocked on the door of the bread locker before you opened it. This courtesy allowed the roaches time to run and hide. Light hurt the little begger's eyes.

Next, milk clabbered. When milk goes bad, you hope your nose picks up the scent before a mouthful gags you. Once one goes bad, you shoot the remaining load out the garbage gun in short order. Bad milk smells like the breath of a Pakistani opera singer.

The Navy experimented with frozen canned stuff called Sealtest Frozen Reconstituted Milk, in 1960. You mixed the contents of a can with the distilled water from the ships potable water system. Diesel boat potable water damn near always had hydraulic oil floating in it (The reason boatsailors got fitted for kidney oil filters). We all got used to oil slicks in our coffee, but rainbows in your milk were a totally unacceptable ball game.

Once the milk turned bad we went over to drinking 'bug juice' and 'panther piss'. Bug juice was purple (grape flavor) and panther piss was orange for orange flavor. We mixed the damn stuff with distilled seawater to drink with our meals. It wasn't half-bad. It would make a better tale to say it was really lousy, but it wasn't.

When the milk clabbered, we used 'armored heifer' in our coffee… Canned milk… Carnation milk… You remember,

Carnation milk The best in the land

Comes to your house in A little red can

No tits to pull No hay to pitch

Just poke a hole In the sonuvabitch

Next came black bananas and gray furry oranges. Ah yes… Mid rats green furry baloney. For those of you who never pulled an 8-12 watch at sea on a fleet submarine, there are culinary delights served to the 'on-coming' and 'off-going' watch-standers known as midnight rations or simply 'mid rats'.

Mid rats are tidbits similar to what inmates in a Karachi POW camp get, or what little nekkit savages who live in the upper reaches of the Orinoco River eat when they can't get owl guts and fire ants. Stale bread, navy 'self-healing vulcanized-scab' mayonnaise and green furry baloney that has undergone a hasty surgical green fur removal.

There is also something called hard salami or in the totally tasteless lexicon of the American submariner, simply known as 'horse cock'. Hard salami came bound in twine with a loop at the end. This loop allowed the salami to be looped over the end of an overhead operating vent handle. In heavy seas the four or five salamis suspended in such fashion, would swing back and forth.

For people with a propensity toward seasickness, several salamis doing the pendulum action slow doo-dah from an overhead vent-operating handle can cause the reappearance of stomach contents… Politely referred to by boatsailors, as 'shooting one's cookies'.

Oranges shriveled and grew gray fuzz… Potatoes got black spots. You learned to cut away rot and use the good parts. It was a life lesson for lads who had grown to adulthood in the most blessed land on earth, lads who had grown to adulthood eating only cosmetically perfect vegetables and not eating with utensils that had been dropped on the deck. After a year on the boats, every boatsailor would think nothing about eating an apple found in a deadman's pocket.

We learned lessons in making do with what we had. We learned that in life it is perfectly okay to cut away the spoiled spots and eat what's left. We ate stuff we would not have hesitated to have 'deep-sixed' a year before.

Take mites and weevils. The little bastards turned up in the dry stores after five or six weeks out. When you were a new guy, eating cereal with tiny bugs hopping around in it was disgusting and unacceptable… Bordering on totally nasty. Within a year, mites doing acrobatic tricks in your Post Toasties was just added entertainment… Live 'snap, crackle and pop'… A little animated floor show with your breakfast… A circus where you ate the tiny performers.

Smokeboat sailors ate bugs and assorted little critters and didn't think a helluva lot about it. It was just another part of the life of diesel boat sailoring.

Nukes probably have compartments that contain grazing farm animals… Dairy herds… Entire grocery stores… They get McDonalds' air drops… French chefs too, probably. Hell, the damn things are the size of heavy cruisers. It's a lot like going to sea with the Princess Cruise Lines.

We had laughing unshaven, tattooed cooks… Galley magicians in dirty aprons who fed us like kings. I would be an ungrateful liar if I failed to say… Never ate better in my life. I don't give a damn if we pulled bags of potatoes out of our 'secured for sea' shower stalls, with two feet of white roots growing out of all sides of the bag… I don't care if the cook then zipped the lid out of a can of 'mystery meat' and a can of corn… The cooks could throw together a great meal, damn near every time. I think a lot of boatsailors would agree that we ate better than any other service element.

That's what they did. They worked magic.

But the main difference was that in the smokeboat navy, our calendar was based on a table of progressive putrification and deterioration in days when the standard medium of exchange was stale sea stores cigarettes and skin books… And if you were lucky, you got a two-minute shower every seventeen days.

When your Timex broke, the lid to your Zippo fell off and your AWOL bag zipper wouldn't work anymore, then your enlistment was up.