Internal Air a Man Could See
by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

I catch hell about writing about life on submarines, specifically confining my observations to diesel boat duty.  There's a reason for that.  I rode leaky old wornout diesel boats...  Smokeboats on the verge of scrapyard euthanasia.  I don't write about life on nuke subs because I've only been on two...   Walked through Nautilus and Toledo...  I might as well have been taking a guided tour through a dinosaur colon.  I didn't have a clue.

 Smokeboat sailors are like cannibals and nukes are like college students.  We had as much in common as Hindus and Holy Rollers.  I write for the lads who rode petrolium-powered boats that collapsed before reaching 1,000 feet (depth gauges stopped designating depth at 800 feet because the law of physics would have a smokeboat crew shaking hands with marine life at any depth below that).

 One thing you didn't see on a moonbeam boat pier were raghats walking around on a hot day in red lead spattered dungarees with a pack of sea store Luckies carried in a twisted tee shirt sleeve.  Right about now, old smokeboat sailors are smiling and moonbeamers are asking each other, "What 'n the hell is he talking about?"

 Today's modern day sailor grew up in a world that fully understands the negative effects of tobacco smoke.  In the 'old days', the navy sold cigarettes to be distributed at sea, in international waters beyond the jurisdiction of all domestic tax authority.  In the late '50s, we got 'nickle-a-pack' sea store smokes that were distributed from cases of cartons, stacked prior to issue in the forward torpedo room.

 "Attention, all hands...  We have cleared the international buoy and sea store cigarettes are being issued forward."

 When you arrived in the forward room, there was the Chief of the Boat...

 "Okay...  Okay...  Keep it down.  Gahdammit, get into line!  Pall Mall smokers up front.  Jack, bust open a case of them Pall Malls."

 "Hey chief, how 'bout bustin' open a case of Camels?  I'm out."

 "To hell with you, hacksaw...  Bum  a smoke off Stuke and get the hell in line."

 "Any you bastards smoke Raleighs?  Nobody in their right mind smokes gahdam Raleighs...  It'll take 35,000 Raleigh coupons to buy an iron lung."

 "Hey chief, find out if anyone has Zippo flints."

 "Mr. Andrews...  JGs hafta' stand in line with the animals...  You gotta be a two-striper to go to the head of the line."

 "Pipe down, Willie..."

 "Mr. Andrews smokes Kents...  I thought they only smoked Kents at girl scout camp."

 "Girl scout camp and the air national guard."

 "You buy two cartons of Kents and you get a free pair of nylon panties."

 As the COB handed out the pre-purchased cartons of smokes to the animals lined up in the forward battery passageway, men with armloads of cartons worked their way aft.

 Buck a carton Camels, Pall Malls, Winstons, Marlboros, Philip Morris, Tareytons, Kools, and Kents were picked up and hauled aft to be ratholed and squirreled away in bunk and side lockers, above ventilation lines and tucked away under flashpads on bunks.

 Diesel boat submariners smoked.  We lit up on the bridge topside, at ordered depth, snorkeling, watching depth gauges when operating the bow and stern planes, battle stations after the old man 'lit the lamp', and at morning quarters.  Smokeboat sailors smoked.

 When the non-rated bottom-feeders (like me) passed through the boat emptying butt kits, it was common to fill an empty sharpshooter bucket with discarded butts.

 The atmosphere of an American diesel submarine contained enough of what today is called 'secondhand smoke', that the crews had to clean nicotine film off gauge face lenses.  Part of the signature stench of a veteran smokeboat was recirculated cigarette smoke.  It permeated everything...  Uniforms, peacoats and blankets, to name a few.  I would hate to find out what percentage of our breathable atmosphere was oxygen laced with incinerated tobacco gas.

 No complaints...  No idiot aboard enjoyed an 'authorized smoking lamp' more than I did...  And I wasn't alone.  There was nothing any more relaxing or satisfying than a smoke and a cup of coffee, strong enough to float three links of your anchor chain.

 Most of my most wonderful memories are wrapped around recollections of 'coffee and a smoke' conversations with my butt parked on a padded crews mess potato locker.

 Caffine and nicotine seemed to facilitate discussions on very important subjects like the effect of engine stroke, low and outside ball pitching, bust sizes, and sex with fat girls.

 Submariners may be the most opinionated rascals inhabiting the planet.  They could create controversy out of the 23rd. Psalm.  The clowns could argue about anything from the par value of monkey bones in Palu Pango to the Statue of Liberty's panty size.  Most of the great discussions, debates, conversations, and heated arguements, were held over cups of King Kong strong, 'bottom of the pot' Maxwell house in a smoke-filled messdeck.  We solved complex international confrontational situations by applying the universal submariner solution...

 "Just drop The Bomb on the dumb bastards."

 Given our propensity for applying the 'bomb the bastards' solution, the guys assembling nuclear ordinance would have had to put on a late shift.

 Coffee came in 20 lb. cans.  When we loaded stores, we stored the cans outboard the main engines.

 Boatsailors love coffee.  In a situation where priorities would require choices to be made, diesel submariners would have traded 20 canned hams, their attack scope, the starboard screw, port bow plane, four barmaid house keys, ten whorehouse rain checks, and their corpsman, for a coffee resupply.

 Another point needs to be made.  Submarine coffee is about as strong as coffee gets before it makes the metamorphic transition to solid granite.  Late night, bottom of the pot, midwatch coffee was like liquid asphalt.  I came to consider regular restaurant coffee to be one step above iced tea.  Real coffee had to have hair, horns and tree bark.

 It is fair to say, that the undersea service operated on coffee, diesel fuel and 'nickle a pack' smokes.

 Returning to the value of sea store cigarettes...

 In Mediterranean liberty ports, cigarettes had a most inflated barter value.  It was amazing what a bum boat entrepreneur would offer you for a carton of sea store Camels.  One bum boat vendor had an ugly girl in his boat and was pandering her services for four cartons of Luckies.

 For a bunch of eighteen or nineteen year old, redblooded American hetrosexual, testosterone-loaded bluejackets who had spent the better part of four weeks filling their lungs with snorkel air, this appeared to be a wonderful bargain.  That is to say, it seemed to be a heaven-sent transaction until the Chief of the Boat showed up topside and announced that any member of ship's company who ventured beyond our tank tops, would see no liberty for the next six weeks.  That, and a closer look at this offered darling killed all erotic desire.  She was old, had a nice crop of upper lip hair, scraggly unwashed hair, and a face like Jack Palance.

 It will seem silly, irrelevant and of little or no importance to the uninitiated to discuss the relationship of cigarettes and submarine sailors.  But to men who rode those old scrap yard cheaters, those beloved stinking steel contraptions, there are wonderful memories associated with cups of joe, burning a butt and watching God secure His day with one of those magnificient sunsets.  Memories of conversations about home, growing up, childhood sweethearts, sports events, leaving blood on playing field grass, transferred or lost shipmates, and mom's vegetable soup.

 Any of you bastards remember when boats came with 'cigarette decks' aft of the bridge, shears and radar mast?  You've got to be long in the tooth and drawing Polident and soft rations to remember cigarette decks.  If you are old enough to have ventured topside at sundown to enjoy an 'after chow Camel and coffee', you probably have a dinged-up Zippo in a dark, forgotten desk drawer, that has visited a lot of seedy gin mills in faraway places you never mentioned to your dear mother and sweet old aunt Margaret.  You can probably remember tossing a spent cigarette butt in the air and laughing at the seagull that grabbed it in mid-flight.  You're also old enough to remember when the navy removed the deck guns, waved a magic wand and made gunner's mates into instant torpedomen, constipating the advancement process leading to a geriatric second class logjam.

 You are old enough to remember late night stores loading, tender paint locker raids and sixty-five cent blind barber haircuts given by wardroom stewards for beer money.  You remember hemp mooring lines and when the forward capstan was inappropriately called a 'niggerhead' (a practice long since properly discontinued to the credit of the person or persons who had the maturity and wisdom to shitcan the term).  You remember when the closed chock aft that had the stern light mounted on it, was called the 'bull's ass' and officer's and chief's garrison caps were called 'piss cutters'.  In short, you don't have to show I.D. to get a senior citizen discount.

 Saltwater and a good smoke go together...  Nothing better.  Yep, thanks to chief Clear, I've quit the habit.  My lungs still probably look like the inside of a locomotive firebox.  But if tomorrow, my doctor told me I'd be turning in my earthly issue in six months, I'd head out, buy a carton of Marlboros, find a nice spot at the beach and watch the sun come up with a coffee and a smoke, cuss seagulls and shuffle through a seabag load of stories, lies and memories.

 I would smile and restore my pride in having worn Dolphins and rubbed shoulders with the finest group of men I've ever known.  A smokeboat Zippo is an Aladdin's lamp.

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