Small Ships

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

We rode small ships. We knew everyone on board. We knew their hometowns, their girls, the type books they read, what beer they drank, what they smoked, and who had five bucks two days before the Navy paid us. It is hard for me to understand what it must have been like to ride a carrier. It would seem to me to be like living in New York City... No way you could know everyone... I would think you would get lost in the mob. The berthing compartments must be like suburbs.

Nope, the smoke boat dungaree navy was tight... We lived in each other's hip pockets. It was so damn tight at times that you had to go topside to realize there was a big world beyond the pressure hull.

I got lost on a carrier once. Got so damn lost I started to wonder if my enlistment would run out before I got to where I was supposed to be. They sent me over to deliver our DRT tracings to the CIC on the Valley Forge.

I finally found some first class airdale something or other, confessed that I was one lost sonuvabitch and he provided me with an E-3 seeing eye dog who got me to the CIC. When I got there, I had to sign this logbook. I wrote: "Armstrong, R.D. TM3(ss) USS Requin (SS-481)... Delivering DRT Tracings as ordered."

"What's a TM?"

"Toymakers Mate Third."

"A What?"

"Can't go into it..."

"What's 'SS'?"

"Special sailor... Make really good toys."

"You're a wise ass."

"I've been told that... And you don't know shit about working rates. If you guys could find a rubber duck in a bathtub, I wouldn't be here."

We exchanged a few more pleasantries and they led me into a compartment that had more electrical gedunk whizzbang stuff than I had ever seen. They had every piece of hokey crap any government had hawked to the Navy since Noah... All of it connected by six million miles of coax.

I remember standing there like a tourist in Frankenstein's castle and thinking to myself, "These guys are wading knee deep in electronic Buck Rogers gear and the sonuvabitches can't find an old tired-ass diesel boat with scrapyard pencilled on her dance card... We're in trouble, Bucko... These clowns couldn't find a June bug with a string tied to its leg." They had officers in there that were standing on top of each other. Hell, if they had put diving masks on half the surplus officers in there and tossed 'em over the side to look for us, they would probably have pinned the tail on our donkey.

The only other thing I can remember is that I used to have the seamstress at Bells take my iron-on dungaree crows, iron them on blue flannel, cut them out and double stitch them on my shirts with the top open so I would have a pocket for smokes. This fashion statement attracted the attention of this Twinkie-brain Master at Arms... A five hundred hashmark E-6 built like Godzilla. He raked me over the coals in a ten-minute tirade where it became obvious that "personal eccentricity" and "whimsical appearance" were new terms he wanted to try out... It also became obvious that his theatrical performance was geared to his little, timid, intimidated, fondling, non-rated worshippers. I told him I was a boat sailor and uniform regulation rarely visited our quarterdeck. He wrote me up and I shoved off.

A month later, Obrian the yeoman grabbed me as I was going through the forward battery.

"Dex, what's this all about?"

He handed me a report chit... It read like a Dick and Jane "See Spot Run" book. My favorite line was, "This sailor needs a lesson in naval courtesy." Well, I certainly did. Obrian laughed and tossed it in his shitcan. He smiled and said,

"We sure can't send you on anymore good will trips to the big city, hayseed..."

I loved the boats... Wiser men than we were had boiled all the horse manure out of sea service and concentrated on first rate operating skills. Our leading POs gave us pride in doing good work... Being good at what we did. We worked at things like knocking seconds off our dives... Effecting fast reloads... Maintaining depth so you could build a house of cards on a messdeck table... Giving the old man fish that ran 'hot, straight and normal'... And doing our dead level best to give the old man a white "E" to paint on the sail.

We were a squadron full of wise asses. There was nothing more fun than exchanging verbal harpoons... Sinking one in a shipmate and snapping it off at the shaft. It was known as "Breaking one off." At chow you would hear, "Man, did Stuke bust one off in Dex..." It made life worth living. If you never rode the boats, that will make absolutely no sense to you... If you did, you know what I mean. The fun of 'breaking one off' in a guy in ship's company was never understood by the uninitiated.

We had our first reunion in 1993. My wife and I helped out at the registration desk. Shipmates would get out of cabs and their cars and yell,

"Dex, you worthless sonuvabitch! You're a sight for sore eyes..."

"Armstrong, you idiot... Figured someone would have locked you up long ago..."

"Hey bucko, you look like you spent a lot of years going through the chow line twice."

My little bride didn't know that she was witnessing the diesel boat equivalent of exchanging Hallmark cards.

Even my skipper told her that he couldn't understand how such a lovely girl could spend thirty plus years with the duty screwball. The sincerity of his firm handshake and pat on the back was the finest gift I got that year.

The best compliment came the next morning. Stuke, our wives and I were having breakfast in the coffee shop... The exec came in with his wife and spotted us. He looked at us and said,

"Stuke and Armstrong... I want my money back!"

We hollered back, "Don't worry sir, we've got the helm."

"Sure scares hell out of me..."

Good men... Good memories.

For years, I had no one to talk to who would have any idea of what we did or why we were like we were... Our weird humor and how great our shipmates were. Rontini and Stone have given us an opportunity to touch it all again. My gratitude is impossible to express. Thanks doesn't cover it... But it's the best I can muster.

An old boat sailor sent me an e-mail... Never had the honor to serve with this gentleman... He calls himself 'Old Gringo'... Well, he sent me the kind of message you fold up and put under your pillow... It was undeserved and far too laudatory, but to have your credentials as a boat sailor validated by a submariner of such caliber was better than a weekend with Gina Lola-whatever... I found his website... Old Gringo was, and still is, one of those old smoke boat bluejackets who made silver dolphins one of the finest insignias a man can wear. To have Old Gringo buy you an e-mail beer was heavy duty juju. Thanks Old Gringo... Wherever in the hell you are chasing lizards in Baja... Men like you made it possible for idiots like me to know how to do it. I just hope you have a grandson running around somewhere who knows he has saltwater and bunker oil in his blood chemistry... And that you leave him that dolphin patch they gave you in the 30s. Keep a zero bubble and thanks again.

Small ships produced a helluva lot of good men.