Butt Kits and Battle Lanterns

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Morning quarters, early morning, 1960… The COB looks at me and says,

"You new?"

"Yo Chief… Been attached to the Orion's T-Division waiting on you guys to get back from the Med."

"Well, sometime this afternoon, after the yeoman gets you checked aboard, I'm gonna stick you on messcooking. Until then, go through the boat and dump the butt kits and check the battle lanterns."

Thus began my illustrious naval career.

A little short of Lord Nelson, John Paul Jones, Hornblower, and Halsey, but on par with Barnicle Bill, Popeye and the Cracker Jack kid… The best years of my life.

Post enlistment rehabilitation didn't go well with me… It didn't matter how much Johnsons No-Roach I gargled, I still had the vocabulary of a trash truck operator. Pajamas were and still remain something you only wear when you have house guests. I've broken the habit of carrying my smokes in a sock... Or rolled in a T-shirt sleeve.

I no longer yell "Put the iron back in the pneumonia hole!" when someone leaves the door open.

I still drink my coffee black… Hot… Warm… Lukewarm… Cold… Doesn't matter. And I still favor that old bottom of the pot 'black cat' coffee… That stuff that turns you into Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire an hour later.

I can still go two days on tuna fish sandwiches and coffee.

I remember how to operate most of the stuff on my old boat… And to recognize that a lot of stuff has been unbolted for the Indian trade.

I have done my damnedest to keep my mouth shut when I visit some old taxidermy embalmed smoke boat and some non-qual visitors guide explains how our old boats operated a mile down, made 50 knots and carried one hundred and fifty torpedoes. I just move along in the tourist sheep dip line and look as amazed as the rest of the dumb clucks. I think that is known as 'old age mellowing' and that your wife has you saddle-broke and p-wipped. What the hell, who cares? What pleasure would it be to embarrass some non-paid sea scout volunteer by jerking his pants down in public? Hell, the kid is in fine company when you look back over the number of grand master liars, bullshit artists and thirty-third degree horse manure weavers the boat service turned out over the years. It is damn near impossible to use "Gospel truth" and "United States Submarine Force" in the same sentence.

I still get misty-eyed when I hear "Anchors' Aweigh" or smell fresh baked cinnamon buns. Every once in a while, I use the terms "get squared away" and "pop the sonuvabitch between the running lights."

When its hot, I can still see Bobby Ray standing in the forward engine room, dripping sweat… Looking at the 7MC where the skipper has just called back to inquire if it is hot…

"Hot cap'n? Hot? Hell, it's hotter'n two mice screwin' in a wool sock…"

My daughters grew up knowing only when it was really hot, the mice were back in the sock… Never told them what the mice were up to.

When I was in college, I used to sleep 'figure four' style. That's where you bend your leg and tuck a foot behind your other knee. That way, if surface rolls dump you out of your rack, you don't end up landing face-down in the passageway. I'd also tuck my shoes, toe first between my mattress and the box spring then dump the contents of my pockets in my shoes… My lighter, keys, pens, etc., even my dog tags. I did this every night. One night, my roommate asked what in the hell I did that for… Habit. If you have to roll out for battle stations in the middle of the night, you know where your boots are. You're not crawling around in the passageway with the rest of the sleepy-eyed mob, getting the hell kicked out of you by ships' company flying fore and aft… And whining,

"Any sonuvabitch seen my left boot?"

I took off my dog tags when I slept. Once on a heavy roll, I rolled over and smashed into a side locker with a dog tag wedged perpendicular to my rib cage. You only want to do that once… Since then, I took my dog tags off and tossed them in my boot.

A first class yeoman once asked me what might happen if we had some unforeseen occurrence in the middle of the night and no one could figure out who I was.

"Peabrain, every sonuvabitch in the alley knows me… Knows the bunk I use… Anyway, if we are talking major disaster, we all suck saltwater and get to a point where the only thing interested in you is eating you and doesn't give a damn about your name, birth date, blood type, or your religion."

I continued to toss my bead chain and tags in my boot every night.

Boots toes tucked under your mattress helped you stay in your bunk by making the opening between the mattress edge and the bottom of the rack above you too damn small to roll through. When I poked them in, it was a lot like locking the front door before you went to bed.

I am a creature of habit. I got used to the vibration of the engines when I slept… Loved it. Used to press my head up between my rolled up foul weather jacket and a side locker so I could feel the gentle engine vibration when we snorkeled or rode full on four on the surface. When I left the boats, I found the only way I could come close to duplicating this was to wear a loud ticking watch and sleep with my wrist under my ear. You lose all that with battery operated or digital watches.

I missed my old foul weather jacket. Sure, the damn thing looked like in belonged in a New Delhi dumpster but it was my old faithful pal. It kept me warm… Gave me a place to warm my hands… Pockets for hot buns or a piece of fruit… Told the idiots on the Orion that I was one of the 'great unwashed' nesting in one of the cast iron animal farms connected to their lower brow… And it allowed me to get those thirty-five cent Alcatraz haircuts Orion was famous for. Also, my old raunchy jacket made a great pillow and no one called you a sissy if you tucked it under your head. Some second class brought a pillow on board and the animals pinned so much hell on him, he shot the damn thing out the GDU the second week out.

I missed the awesome spectacle and incredible majesty of real heavy weather… The roller coaster ride of banging around on the bridge. It was the closest I ever got to God… He knew it and I knew it.

Most of all, I missed the crew… I missed guys passing you going fore and aft with greetings like,

"Dex, did your mother have any kids that lived?"


"Don't take this personal, but you are one ugly bastard…"

It was the Requin's mating call… Our 'When you care enough to send the very best' greeting.

And it all began dumping butt kits and checking battle lanterns.