Night Steaming on Tropical Nights

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

There is nothing more beautiful than one of those tropical sunsets. They are whatever term is a step up from spectacular. I've seen some of God's most unbelievable Technicolor work, standing lookout 150 miles south of Key West.

In the early 50's, Richard Rogers composed a score to accompany a joint Navy / NBC presentation called Victory At Sea. The musical accompaniment of that historical accounting of the Navy's global effort in World War II, has since become an American classic, still available in recording stores today.

The recurring theme of the production later had lyrics added and was given the popular title No Other Love have I.

There were balmy nights where you stood in the shears with nothing between your chin and your bellybutton, but a pair of optical 7x50s on a frayed binocular strap.

On nights like that, No Other Love have I played over and over very gently in the void behind my eyelids. Once in while watching the soft rise and fall of Bow Buoyancy, as we sliced through the azure blue saltwater like a surgical instrument.

"No other love have I…la, la da la lah…"

"Mr. Whitmore, okay to fire up?"

"Okay…anything out there?"

"Two seagulls and a floating box."

"Yeah, light up."

"Thanks sir."

The ready locker Pall Mall behind the ear was the traditional E-3 giveaway.

The skipper smoked a pipe… an old charred Kaywoodie. He carried it in his leather tobacco pouch stuffed into the right-hand pocket of his khaki pants.

He would remove it from his pants pocket, shift the pouch to his left hand remove his old 'shot to hell' pipe…scoop up a bowl full of tobacco from the pouch and absent mindedly tamp the load into the bowl with his left thumb. The whole process looked strange because he had lost his thumb and forefinger on his right hand when a helicopter rotor blade ripped through the sail of his previous boat. As the story was told, his right thumb and forefinger were pinned in the twisted metal of the fairwater and nearly severed from the rest of his hand. He called the galley and had a cook lay to the Bridge with a sharpened butcher knife to finish the job so he could remove his hand and get some relief. The work was accomplished without the benefit of any anesthetic.

He would fire up his pipe with an old Zippo with a USS Runner insignia and snap it shut...take a draw and say,

"Gentlemen, it's a good night to be a sailor."

He smoked a brand of tobacco called London Dock. It's weird how worthless information like that, sticks with you for over forty years. Hell, I can still smell it.

"Look at that sunset."

"Aye sir."

"Aye sir."

"God puts some of his best creative effort in sunrises and sunsets…never miss any you don't have to…you never get em back. God only gives you so many and once missed, you never get them back."

Years later…many years later, I would attend a ships' reunion...three days of drinking beer and swapping lies with Mike Hemming, Adrian Stuke and Bobby Ray Knight.

The boat, USS Requin ( SS-481) has been turned out to stud in the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. It was a beautiful autumn day that rolled over into a lovely crisp fall evening. As I crossed the brow, I saw the skipper and his old trusty pipe disappear forward of the sail.

I followed.

"Evening, sir"

"Evening, Dex"

"Good night to be a sailor, sir."

"Dex…they were ALL good nights…being a sailor was one helluva great way to make a living."

And we stood there in silence watching God's kaleidoscope of colors and the day disappear into night, wreathed in that wonderful pipe smoke.

There had been many nights before when both of us were far younger.

Warm summer nights off Bermuda or the islands in the Caribbean. Nights where an offshore breeze carried the perfume of tropical vegetation that smelled like the inside of Bridget Bardot's lingerie drawer.

Kids today get enlistment bribes, educational flypaper benefits, and gratuitous medal and ribbon showers. All we got were nature's wonders, world travel with great folks and all the free 'float an anvil' coffee you could drink.

You could fit all your household goods in an ugly canvas bag, and you got a whole wardrobe of free clothes that attracted women like saltwater catnip.

And for no extra charge, they threw in tropical night steaming.

"Where're we heading, sir?"

"Nowhere particular…night steaming on station."

"Just pok'n holes?"

"Just pok'n holes…the Quartermaster will get a LORAN fix at the start of the 4 to 8 and Mr. Schilling will get us on station. We completed the battery charge just before we relieved. First light, we'll rig the torpedo recovery boom."

Remember those nights? Phosphorescent glitter cascading off your tank tops, the smell of hot coffee rising up from below as the night messcook made his way from the Conn to the Bridge balancing three cups of coffee?

The unwritten rule was that the last six cinnamon buns on any tray placed on the Control room chart table belonged to the OD/Diving Officer, Port and Starboard Lookout (or Bow and Stern Planesman, depending the boats' relationship with immediate sea level at the time), the Helmsman, Radar Operator and Quartermaster of the Watch. The Chief, camped out next to the hydraulic manifold was the enforcer. You touch one of the last half dozen pastries on that tray and you would find a loose boot, formerly located on the right foot of the master vent operator, three feet up your colon.

On a night riding surfaced with a tropical full moon, you could read your wristwatch at midnight.

The Caribbean is loaded with tankers. A British sailor once gave me a Royal Navy Stack and House Flag Marking Recognition manual. But like birdwatcher books…all most people care to know is that the sonuvabitch is a bird…and flies.

All deck officers really care about is (a) is it a merchant or naval vessel? (b) estimated Closest Point of Approach…(c) course changes…(d) steady baring rate or any other indicators of a possible collision…Like say a flashing light message reading "I intend to ram you." and (e) last and most important, is there any chance of jinning up a good highline movie swap at daylight?

In the old days, nobody cared if your wake looked like the path of a Dean Martin sobriety test when you were night steaming on station. All that was required was that you didn't run into anything that could fold bow buoyancy up against the Forward Battery bulkhead or change oceans…Anything else was pretty much okay. Officers never actually said this, but the raghats figured it out.

In tropical waters you ran across cruise liners…big ol' multy-deck fun barges loaded with folks whose combined incomes exceeded the entire naval E-3 payroll.

The O.D. got the signal light up and sent the following message to the bridge of the floating amusement park…

"U.S. submarine…If you hold us on your radar, we will extinguish all running and navigation lights."

This kept us from becoming an attractive nuisance, causing passengers to flock to the rail on side of the ship, yelling,

"Look Ralph, a submarine!"

Fortunately, they were usually far enough away to escape our smell or get a load of the ratty-ass fashion statement we made in our underway foul weather gear.

You could damn near smell the perfume from all those honeys waltzing around on the duty dance deck.

There's nothing like hanging in the shears wearing a dungaree shirt with three pounds of armpit salt encrustation and a half gallon of dried sweat residue and giving off the same aroma as three day old, road kill…and watching little bikini clad darlings doing dives in a heated pool on the O5 deck.

"Someday, that's gonna be me and my old lady."

'Someday' has yet to drop anchor at my address.

Before dawn, the relief watch started arriving on the Bridge.

"Anything happening?"

"Yeah…working two contacts…one out there at two-eight-zero…one damn near hull down at three-two-zero...both opening."

"That's it?"

"Well about an hour ago, we were overhauled and boarded by thirty nympho Amazon pirates that had their way with us and shoved off…disgusting ordeal."

"Next time wake me up…I'm in desperate need of a disgusting ordeal…maybe two."

And you handed the half-asleep bastard your binoculars and layed below.

You passed the obligatory greeting and bullshit with the incoming watch in the Control Room and continued aft.

In the Crew's Mess, you could usually get a cup of that bottom of the pot, midwatch iguana plasma coffee and listen to a little Juanita Chiquita music on the RBO…you remember, that rhythmic, soft, sexy voice music that made you wish that you had paid more attention in Spanish class.

"Well folks…think I'll hit the rack…somebody bust me out for chow in the morning."

It was always great sleeping south of Key West…had something to do with gentle swells and liberty port dreams…big-eyed tanned gals…cold cervesa….big fat seegars…rocket fuel rum… and let live, constabulary forces and a series of monetary systems nobody ever understood, beyond the fact that intimate female companionship was measured in minutes multiplied by increments of five Balboas.