Locker Clubs

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Locker Club? What in the hell is a Locker Club?

Bet that is the first question asked by one of today's modern bluejackets.

There was a time, not that long ago, when the United States Navy did not try to be all things to all people. There were no enlistment incentives, bonus bait…education credits or bright colored ribbon bucket dips. Also, the naval leadership encouraged the wearing of the uniform…not civilian clothes.

Men were proud to wear the uniform. This may have become an alien concept, but many of us enlisted simply to wear the uniform that was recognized around the globe as the symbol of the finest, sharpest, cleanest navy in the world.

Civilian clothes were not allowed on navy ships. Well, there were exceptions, like being allowed to carry them when visiting Bermuda. The government of Bermuda discouraged the wearing of the U.S. military uniform because it 'reduced the level of the foreign travel experience for American tourists'.

Shame on them. The men who wore that uniform protected them, defended their island and fed them by airlift during World War II. Remember 'Lend Lease'? Under Lend Lease, we got a 99-year naval base lease in Bermuda in exchange for the armament the British Isles needed for national survival and Bermuda got to crawl under America's military umbrella and get a regular chow call.

What we actually got was "asked to vacate' after 50 years and after 20 years…not to wear our uniform.

But travel to Bermuda was the exception.

Since back in the 50's, boatsailors assigned to SUBRON SIX had no barracks or 'ashore accommodations'. So there were locker clubs…establishments with row after row of metal lockers. They were the kind of lockers found in high school locker rooms and country clubs. They cost between seven and ten bucks a month.

Bell's Locker Club…1959. What did you get? You got an upright locker and access to a shower that steamed up the entire locker area…and what may have very well been the world's largest collection of sour towels.

There was a shoeshine boy. We called him 'buff 'em up, muthafuck' because that's all he ever said. Had a coffee can on a string around his neck. The can held two rolled up buffing rags, several wadded up polish application rags and three cans of black Lincoln shoe polish. (Adrian Stuke handed me back this memory…a very important part of our boat's history.)

The little kid was one helluva businessman…he probably owns a couple of hotels now or a major fast food chain. Hope so, anyway.

We'd come in from sea. Once the skipper put down liberty, we dropped off our laundry and hauled for Bell's for a beer and a hot shower.

The shower was a kind of international exchange of Athletes' Foot. It was like the global transfer point. I picked up a world-class case. They had exotic Athletes' Foot germs in there the size of crickets.

There was always a lot of noise. Married sailors, the quiet, mature sailors had homes to go to with hot water and other comforts. Senior rated single naval personnel normally had 'living arrangements' that included mixed gender back scrubbing and other mutually agreed upon advantages.

The 'Animals', the unmarried idiots occupying the lower rungs of the naval advancement ladder, made up the majority of the 'park your crap in a locker' society of saltwater buccaneers.

Chatter, nonsensical banter, bullshit exchange, hooting, hollering, cursing, the singing of ditties whose lyrics would make a female lumberjack blush, could be heard 24 hours a day.

Towel fighting of epic proportions took place…not Girl Scout camp terry cloth flipping love taps…no, we're talking towel gladiatorial combat that took triangular butt divots the size of the little pieces of meat in pork fried rice. I don't think anyone ever actually died in a Bell's Locker Club towel fight but several became Olympic champions and one poor fellow, if the unlucky sonuvabitch is still alive, probably still has an identifiable scar near the business end of his tallywhacker.

The clientele of Bell's Locker club had absolutely no taste in clothing…Esquire Magazine never held male fashion photo shoots in Bells' Locker Club.

Tribal Chieftains in Ping-Pong, New Guinea, blind Gypsies and Chinese homosexual fire dancers dressed more conservatively than the After Battery Rats off diesel submarines.

I once saw an electrician off the Carp hold up a lime green sports coat with copper metal threads interwoven in the material.

"Hey guys…you think the chicks will go wild when they get a load of this baby?"

The airlines put paper bags in seat pockets to handle what I thought of that coat. Whereas I had a Madras sports jacket that looked like a Mau-Mau bedspread.

Guys coming in from a long time at sea or a northern run would still be in the throes of channel fever. These euphoric idiots would come in hauling their 'duty-free' combustibles…open jugs and pass 'em around.

Sailors you had never seen before in your life would yell,

"Hey Buddy…have a snort."

And you took a swig…didn't matter what it was or if the bastard looked like he had terminal gum disease…it was like smoking the obligatory tribal peace pipe. It was proper low end bluejacket etiquette, like moving over to make room for another baotsailor when the Bell's men's head was so loaded that guys were peeing down the floor drain… a matter of seagoing courtesy.

Bell's Locker Club…that and all the others are gone now…consigned to the memories that live on in old sailors and in stories they swap among themselves in the twilight of their lives.

Gone are the old COBs who would say,

"Son, welcome aboard…give your orders to the titless wave forward. Stow your gear in this side locker and haul the rest of your crap up to a locker club up on Hampton Boulevard. Don't let 'em charge you more then ten bucks and hey, invest in some good shower shoes if you don't want to pick up some major league foot rot."

That's all gone now. But on a cold winter's evening when a bunch of old worn out SUBRON SIX smokeboat once-upon-a-time banditos are parked around a table sucking suds and swapping long ago memories, Ray 'Olgoat' Stone, an old diesel boat Chief Torpedo Pusher, takes out his old butt-bent leather wallet and gently removes a small piece of readily recognizable naval history…the highly regarded fraternal order of…