When Hull Numbers were our Addresses

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

After the evening meal, when the messcooks were washing and stacking dishes and the guys in the duty section were desperately trying to find three more guys for a card game, I used to climb topside.

We always kept a couple of empty MEK cans tucked in the superstructure. In the 1950's, empty five-gallon cans were 'topside furniture'.

God designed the E-3 butt to fit the bottom of empty 5 gallon cans. They could be padded with a folded up foulweather jacket and made comfortable enough to park your butt on and listen to five or six innings of a ballgame or waste an hour or so in totally forgettable conversation with the topside watch.

If things got so damn boring and you started to hear your toenails grow or found yourself watching a spider build a web between your dungaree pant leg and a line locker lid, you could break suction with the paint can and take a stroll on the pier, or go steal stuff off the Orion… USS Orion (AS-18).

It was customary to wander down by the dumpsters. The dumpsters served a purpose similar to waterholes on the Serengeti Plains in Africa. It was the location where all the SubRon Six loose animals gathered at sundown.

Every boat's messcooks hauled their garbage buckets out for dumping, to catch a smoke or two and exchange the verbal bullshit that passed for squadron news.

"Hey Dago… What the hell happened to Old Tangle Toes?"

"Sumbitch went nuke on us."

"No shit?"

"No shit… Up and went nuke. Bastard tossed his gear on the gahdam George Washington."

"What the hell is the George Washington? I thought subs were supposed to be named for fish or denizens of the deep?"

"Not nukes… You can name nukes after guys on folding money… Small town barbers, the days of the week, animals in commercials or Mexican motorcycle parts."

"Why did he wanna go nuke on us?"

"Said it was a smart career move."

"Somebody musta put him up to it… The sonuvabitch didn't have enough sense to figure that out for himself."

"I remember when the idiot wuz gonna buy a damn Oldsmobile that came with payments bigger than his gahdam pay rate."

"Yeah… He'll do great in the nuke navy."

"How's your sister?"

"Pregnant as hell."

"Pregnant… How'n the hell did she get pregnant?"

"Usual way… Girls in Ohio haven't figured out the relationship between Ford backseat action and childbirth."

"She gonna keep it?"

"I doubt it."

"Anybody here off the Cubera?"

"Yeah, whatcha need?"

"Nuthin', just wanted to know what went on over there this afternoon."

"Some kid was selected for OCS… Knife and Fork School. Good kid… Deserved it."

It was the nightly gathering of the fraternal order of the SubRon 6 Pier Rats. Men in faded shirts, soft dungarees and frayed raghats sharing smokes and swapping bullshit in what would become a lifetime of friendship.

From time to time a shrill Bosun's pipe would sound out on the tender…

"Orion arriving."


"Orion departing."


"Change into the uniform of the day."

Changing into the uniform of the day to the men who rode the old smokeboats in the nests outboard the Orion was simple. You took the Marlboro tucked behind your right ear and switched it to behind your left ear.

"The Navy mobile canteen truck is on the pier… Attention, the mobile canteen truck is on the pier."

Ah, the Navy Mobile Canteen Truck. They made hamburger patties that were tougher than the heel on a lumberjacks's boot. On a hot day, the mayonnaise was rancid, potato chips went limp and all the candy bars went soft… But the sonuvabitch was the only game in town. And, when you were an E-3, it was the only gahdam thing in the United States Navy that came to you, instead of you going to it.

Standing in line at the roach coach, I saw my first commercial beef jerky. 'Uncle Jack's Genuine Smoky Mountain Beef Jerky'. Did'ja ever see an Egyptian mummy with the wrapping peeled off? Looks just like Uncle Jack's Jerky. Two cellophane packs of King Tut hide would get you through a four hour topside watch… A little fact you missed if you went to the Naval Academy. Guys off the Argonaut called 'em Navajo Knee Scabs.

The roach coach had bald tires… Never understood that. Damn Navy was buying great big monster ships at ten gazillion bucks a pop and the damn geedunk wagon was hauling stuff on baloney skin tires. Later I figured out why.

No guys wearing heavy duty shoulder boards were ever out there pushing and shoving in line, yelling,

"Hey Horsefly, you gonna take all damn day?"

"Hey dumbass, when you order a gahdam cheeseburger you don't have to say… 'That's with cheese', you idiot."

Yep, never heard that Second Class, whatever he was, yell,

"Admiral wants a Doctor Death Special with fries and a Yoo-Hoo."

Naw, it was just raghats with salt stained armpits in any line I was ever in on pier 22. Most of us were driving bald tires on our cars so the roach coach just fit right in.

Women used to visit the pier. In those days nobody worried about a bunch of camel jockeys with differed dental work turning up to blow your ass up, so on balmy summer nights, women used to turn up strolling the pier… Usually with some lucky bastard in tow.

Watching women was called simply 'Out checking your traps'. It was simple, cheap and harmless… Well, not so harmless if you slipped up and layed a wolf whistle on a four-striper's daughter or said, "Nice tits for an over the hill honey." within earshot of the Force Commander's wife. Do that once and you might find yourself shoveling ballast on a New York garbage barge.

Each SubRon Six boat had at least six semi-pro non-rated tit evaluators. You could find them topside with their worthless butts parked on empty stores crates judging every set of tits roaming the pier.

"Now there's a set of nines."

"Naw, back in Cleveland those wouldn't even get her an eight."

"Okay… Settle for an eight point two."

Old Chief's used to catch you and your fellow E-3 idiots with your worthless butts perched on big iron bollards.

"Son, sittin' on cold metal will give you a bad case of hemorrhoids."

"Sure Chief."

Folks, Chiefs no speak with forked tongue. Took damn near 50 years, but my previously paid for package finally arrived. I must've ordered the jumbo economy size… The Pier 22 whoppers. But back to women ogling, sometimes some really good-looking woman would come up to you and say,

"Do you know where I could find Charley Turner? He serves aboard the USS So-In-So and does something with electricity."

"No Ma'am… Me and my buddy here just got in. We've been underwater for the last year and a half and most of the guys we knew before we shoved off either died, went nuke, wangled a shore duty billet or married a nympho barmaid and moved to Chicago."

(Adrian Stuke, my forever running mate, lied a lot. But, he made them smile and that was step one in the Stuke method outlined in his international best seller, Earning Dolphins and Getting in Goodlooking Women's Pants.)

"Excuse me sailor, do you know where I could find Capt. Whatchmacallit on Com Dink Doo Lant Staff?"

"No sir, just got in from playing 36 holes with CinCLant and waiting for a ride to the airport to take me to a chess tournament in Indianapolis. One of those guys in that Canteen Truck line might be able to help you. I think they live here."

You had to be nineteen with everything you owned in the entire world crammed in three homesteaded side lockers in an After Battery or stuffed in a dented upright locker in Bells Locker club, to find bullshitting wandering visitors, totally amusing.

Hanging around the dumpster allowed you to find out what movies were being shown on what boat that evening. It was a messcook's job to know what movie was being shown on his boat and what the night baker would be turning out about 0100 that night. The latter info was critical if you were standing a 12-4 topside that night.


"The Orion will be starting SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS starring Natille Wood, on the boatdeck in ten minutes."


Watching a film on the Orion's boatdeck was a lot like attending a gahdam kiddie matinee in Chinatown. You couldn't hear a damn thing because every sonuvabich was a comedian and there were no officers or CPOs.

The officers preferred to watch them in the air-conditioned wardroom with stewards bringing them little silver plated dishes of ice cream and refilling their coffee cups.

The Chiefs preferred going ashore, drinking combustible liquids and removing lingerie from ladies who really looked scary after the sun came up.

So the nightly movie on the Orion's' boat deck was always a kind of idiots free for all.

Somewhere around 2100 the 'Goddess Of The Main Induction' put the Pier to bed. The officers were home getting wrapped around their second scotch. The bluejackets were watching movies, working on quals, wrapped up in some correspondence course or playing cards.

The drunks started rolling in about midnight and assigned personnel reporting aboard started arriving along with the bread truck and doughnut man.

During the night, especially when the bastards were blasting the gahdam Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel or it was one of those godawful high humidity summer nights, I used to get up… Grab two cups of that stronger than King Kong coffee (One for me and one for the Topside Watch) and head topside.

I would spell him while he dropped down in the bear trap and took a leak through the limber holes next to the impulse flasks.

We were young. Being a Smokeboat Boatsailor was a young mans game or a Lifers's way of life. Squadron Six was the Briar Patch where a lot of us paid our National obligation dues and grew from boyhood to the men we became. Looking back… they were damn fine days.