There Was a Time, Long Ago

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

In our day, going to sea was an adventure. People would never understand how cramped our world was. In movies, it always looked neat, clean and roomy.

When we loaded stores for several weeks, we had to store it everywhere… A few examples.

We had two enlisted showers. We had to keep one clear so corpsman, cooks and messcooks could stay clean. The other got three croaker bags of spuds.

Big cans of sugar, flour and coffee were stored two high, outboard the engines. It was hell to crawl back there when the damn things were hammering out turns.

We laid down a cardboard carpet of can cases on the after battery walking deck… Two deep… Made you feel two feet taller when you made your way forward and also made the poor bastards in the lower bunks have to damn near Crisco their butts to get into their racks. Once in, you had some idea how claustrophobic a coffin must be.

When the messcooks bricked in the passageway with the cases, they used a marking pen and a code known only to themselves and possibly the Jolly Green Giant. This was supposed to allow them to enter the compartment when the animals were sleeping and locate stuff the cook needed. At times, this became damn near impossible. Those times the cook would turn on the white lights, bang on the bottom of an aluminum pot and yell,

"Okay ladies, rise and shine… Need six cans of beets… Six cans of beets… Up and at it."

"Screw you and the horse you rode in on… Turn off the gahdam lights and get your ugly butt outta here."

"Beets, sleeping beauties… Six cans."

"You gahdam gut bandit! Everything you cook tastes like shit anyway… Go get something you can find and turn off the f------g lights!"

"You're so sweet my little garbage mouth darlings and I slave over a hot stove just to generate this outpouring of love and affection… Beets, sweethearts… Beets… The sooner you find 'em, the sooner you little ungrateful, worthless sonuvabitches can go beddie-bye again."

It was either find what he needed or shoot him, so we usually located the stuff.

There was one obvious benefit to living in the after battery. You were literally surrounded by stuff to eat. This allowed you to enjoy the diesel boat sailors equivalent of breakfast in bed. You could knock a hole in a case, grab a can, zip the lid out, and chow down. Granted the contents of the can had to lend itself to be eaten without preparation like heating, cooking or mixing, which limited the menu, somewhat.

The all-time crew favorite was 'pigmy peters', known in the surface world as Vienna sausage. You could knock the lid out of a can of peters and pass it around… Fish the little rascals out and enjoy a little nocturnal snack with the last man tossing the juice filled can into the head waste bucket.

Another crowd pleaser was crackers and peanut butter. We were a Peter Pan boat… Other boats were Skippy boats. We killed Skippy eaters and shot their remains out the GDU. We stored peanut butter in the portside waterway and always had five or six boxes of saltines stored above the vent lines in the alley.

We had an unwritten code that governed life in the alley. One of the cardinal no-nos was using anything other than a designated eating utensil to dig peanut butter out of the communal jar. This rule became necessary when an engineman striker was found using his comb to spread peanut butter.

It was simple. You got a spoon, drilled a hole in the handle and hung it on your bunk chain with twenty-one thread shot line or a piece of dog tag chain.

All it took to launch a food fiesta, a little subsurface luau, was to yell,

"Let's feed the roaches!"

We shared space with little brown multi-legged creatures that thrived on cracker crumbs and God knows what else. They never looked like they were missing meals. Periodically, the Navy would fumigate the boat and we would return to find our little pals lying around like empty peanut hulls… We missed their little gentle footsteps across our faces at night as they searched for an ear or vacant nostril to homestead and bear their young.

Cockroaches multiply at a rate that would eclipse the Chinese. A National Basketball League player would have envied the sex life of an average SUBRON SIX sea-going roach. We did.

Their favorite hangout was the bread locker. We used to say,

"If you don't like raisin bread, shake your slice and all the raisins would get up and run away."

As a courtesy, we would knock on the bread locker before we opened it so they could go hide. Rumor had it that sudden bright light hurt their little eyes.

The Navy gave us spray cans of stuff that was supposed to send them to cockroach heaven in large numbers. We read the contents and decided the last thing a diesel boat needed was to add all that weird crap to air that already had enough strange shit running around in it. We had no desire to father three-headed kids or watch our toes turn green and fall off. We deep-sixed the stuff and continued to feed the roaches… Besides, we had gotten used to roach exploration expeditions, discovering new worlds in our ears.

There was another delicacy known to all boat sailors that went by the most indelicate names… "Horsecock.'… 'Donkey Dick'… Or Italian hard salami. It had a butcher twine loop at one end that allowed you to thread the loop over an operating vent handle. They would swing back and forth in a rolling sea.

Horsecock and mayonnaise sandwiches was a mid-rat staple… And a fond memory. Wish I had a nickel for every night I stood there dripping wet, sharing a cup of hot coffee, wrapping myself around a two-layer donkey dick sandwich and enjoying life with some of the finest people I've ever known.

At battle stations when they set condition Baker, they would call you on the XJA and tell you to open the access plates behind the bulkhead flappers so the cooks could pass donkey dick sandwiches and coffee thermos's in to the hungry apes in the forward room.

You had to be one of us to understand. Life on those boats did something to you… It made you appreciate the little things in life… Stuff most people took for granted. It established the common denominator that allows me to know that in writing about our life, there are men out there who will understand, appreciate and remember. I have carried these wonderful memories for years with no one to share them with. I hope I'm not boring anyone's socks off.


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