12 to 4 Topside Watch

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

You have to have been a non-rated raghat to fully understand and appreciate this one.

People who want to feel secure while they are asleep, acquire great big dogs that bark loudly, move at a rate just below the speed of light and are fully capable of chewing off major anatomical appendages.

The Navy takes non-rated idiots, hangs a pistol on them and parks them in a plywood coo-coo clock box by the forward brow. Being a 12 to 4 topside watch was a lot like being a safety patrol on a deadend street.

The only thing moving at that hour of the night was the dumpster jamboree being held by the pier rats… Night rats on Pier 22 were just several ounces short of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby. Then there was the Orion quarterdeck… The night bakers on Orion, Kittiwake, and the boats nesting at 22, cabs delivering drunks or early arriving two-week reservists and shore patrol dropping off shipmates, who (A) didn't know exactly where they were, (B) had been naughty, (C) had been dumb enough to get caught, (D) and could have cared less.

The Exec or the onboard duty officer had to sign some document that the shore patrol presented on a clip board and take custody of our returning hero.

"Excuse me sailor, but could you enlighten me regarding this lads litany of transgressions?"

"Sir, as near as we could tell, the sonuvabitch was carrying a package… Make that 'hauling one hell of a load' and thought giving mambo lessons to five other drunks on the centerline of Taussig Boulevard was 'a good idea'.

Duty Officers always turned to the topside watch and said…"Son, bear a hand and assist this under-the-weather fellow into the boat.

Note: 'Under-the-weather fellow' is wardroom talk for, 'frigging drunk'.

Drunks came in all sizes and conditions. You had 'happy go lucky' drunks. They could be entertaining and provide all the topside watches in the nest a good laugh.

One guy off Cutlass stepped in the middle of the brow between Requin and Redfin, in a driving rain and gave a spirited rendition of Singing in the Rain accompanied by a slightly off-centered imitation of Gene Kelly's footwork. His audition came to a screeching halt, when he bounced of Redfin's tank tops. Nobody told him that Cutlass was the outboard boat in the after nest.

The worst kind of drunks were the inebriated citizens who had tossed their cookies all over a peacoat, dress canvas or a set of whites.

Invariably, there was a light breeze and you got the wafting aroma of gastric juice, beer and partially digested Slim-Jims, as the returning warrior started to cross over the inboard boats.

It didn't take you long to recognize that herding a barf-covered bluejacket to either the bear trap or the After Battery hatch was best accomplished by poking the sonuvabitch with a three-foot section of a busted boathook.

Some of the late night returning gladiators bore evidence of hand-to-hand combat. A bloody nose can really screw up a set of Seafarer tailor-made whites.

"Jeezus Jack, you look like tried to stop a railroad locomotive with your nose."

"Naw, had to bounce an Aviation Bosun' mate off a marble bar top. I was tryin' to put my order in for a gahdam burger and fries and this simple bastard kept pushing, poking and shoving me. You know that waitress station down at the end of the bar at the Jolly Roger?"

"Yeah"

"Well I grabbed that idiot jaybird by his neckerchief knot and slammed his kisser down on that marble top bar."

"What the hell happened to you?"

"Well it appears that the worthless sonuvabitch had at least six friends."

Hustling drunks took up only a small fraction of your late night / early morning tour topside.

You listened to Norfolk late night radio. It was mostly slow dance music interspersed with commercials directed at servicemen, cab drivers, all night drug store employees, guys on death row, insomniacs and folks with lousy credit.

"Yes sir, this is Crazy Eddy out on Military Highway. This very day I can put you behind the wheel of a 1938 Hudson with only 450,000 miles on it… Reconditioned engine… White wall recaps and clean ashtrays. Act within the next 24 hours and Crazy Eddy will throw in absolutely free two Gulf station roadmaps of states of your choice and a pine-scented air freshener. Don't worry about your credit rating… If you have an Armed Forces I.D. and an extremely low I.Q., Crazy Eddy can fix you up with nominal transportation."

There are old E-3s from the 1950s who are still mailing monthly checks to crazy Eddy's widow or poking monthly payment in the collection box bolted to Crazy Eddy's headstone.

According to late night Norfolk radio there were folks in the Tidewater area of Virginia who would sell any member of the United States Navy, three quarters of the known world for 'no money down and 37,000 monthly payments with balloon interest payments exceeding the national debt of Venezuela.'

Every guard shack had a phone… An official business phone. Once in a while, the phone was actually used for official business and, when a boat slid alongside from a four or five month Med deployment or extended Northern Run, every phone in the nest did a land sale business in "Honey, I'm back" communication.

Guys would come bounding out of every orifice that the returning steel monster had. All the married guys had a gigantic load of dirty laundry and intentions of getting laid sometime within thirty minutes of linking up with their wife, or the neighbor's cat.

Inside of your average topside watch dog shack you would find more than ample evidence of the hieroglyphics of ancient submariner civilizations. Great meaningful messages like:

'Annie will do you and two of your closest shipmates for fifty bucks U.S… No kissing.'

'For a good time call Ruth, Elmwood 5-9602.'

'Don't do no business at Crumpackers Appliance Mart… The sonofabitchers is thieves.'

'For rides to Philly see Barney Google, Forward Room on Carp.'

Most of the wisdom of Western Civilization was recorded in ballpoint pen on dog shack plywood.

A 12 to 4 tour ended before the Krispie Kreme truck came rumbling down the pier. A good relief would save you and his Below Decks Watch, three apiece. Topside watches looked out for each other, because nobody else did.

There was an invisible union known as the International Brotherhood of Topside Watches, Hull and Superstructure Maintenance Technicians and Refuse Disposal Facilitators. Those of us actively engaged in the above enumerated professional specialties belonged and we didn't know it at the time, but the benefits have lasted a lifetime.

You would be both surprised and amazed at the number of former practitioners of those sophisticated occupational specialties, you meet at your average smokeboat reunion. Guys who can still throw a square knot in a weighted GDU bag tie up and whose nickname was still whittled in a wooden tabletop up in Bells when the wrecking ball ripped the roof off the national treasure.

Somewhere around 0345 your relief appeared with two Pyrex coffee cups filled with steaming, all night, bottom of the pot liquid Laytex panty girdle cement…

"Got a smoke?"

"Yeah, how long you been out of butts?"

"Since two hours ago."

"That's like giving up sex for Lent."

"Not exactly."

"Anything happening?"

"Not really… The rats seem to be having a real party in the edible garbage dumpster tonight and word has it some diver on Kittiwake got engaged to that red-headed barmaid up at the Victory."

"Anything else?"

"Naw… Just all lines secured, moored as before…"

"Oh yes… The two magazines of 45 Ball are in the watches desk forward of the conning tower fairwater… The magazine holder on the pistol belt has a couple of Clark Bars in it… They're yours."

"Thanks, shipmate."

COMSUBLANT could have trained dogs or monkeys to do it… The gahdam Air Force figured that out. But if the Navy had used dogs, you know who would have ended up scooping up the dog crap after morning quarters, when the CPO's went below for their third cup of 'morning coffee'.

 

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