Captured Memories

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

There are a lot of special moments that touch a boat sailor's heart... Intimate moments in time long remembered, that define us as what we were and remain to this day. We will carry such memories until our final sleep... Moments that can only be fully appreciated by the men who wore twin fish and went to sea in submersible ships.

This is the time of year when it seems fitting to reshuffle such images of the mind... Unlock those private moments and pass them around among ourselves.

Acceptance by your crew cannot be captured in a single moment but rather a daisy-chain of warm memories... Cups of coffee handed to you by a shipmate without you asking... Small... Unspectacular, but a moment of acceptance.

The awarding of a nickname... A handle by which you will be known for more years than you ever expected at the time... 'Wingnut', 'Fly', 'Big Red', 'Slick', 'Baby Huey', 'The Chinese Whore', 'Rat', 'Mack'... Every boat did it.

You come alongside a long way from home... Hundreds of miles from the disbursing office on your tender, where your pay records that control your pay are gathering dust... Nothing can flatten an E-3 wallet like a long-range pay record.

An old Chief named 'Dutch' grabs you and pretends to straigthen your neckerchief knot as an excuse to shove a twenty in your jumper pocket.

"Gahdammit Dex, see that your running mates get a couple of beers."

The old bastard was the kindest man I ever knew. He wore Dolphins... Those big goofy-looking Dolphins that West Coast sub sailors got in Japan... Ugly as hell, but when you saw them, you knew the guy was far from being a new kid on the block. Had a Combat Patrol Pin and six rows of non-gedunk ribbons. Hard-core boat sailor with the pride that comes from plowing saltwater for more years than you had been on the planet. A big man in every way, especially in the heart... A man who never forgot how it felt to live at the lowest link in the Naval food chain.

The Old Man coming to the bridge, turning up the collar on a well-worn foul weather jacket with 'C.O.' stenciled in big letters between his shoulder blades, taking a good look at one of those million dollar sunsets... Smiling and saying,

"Gentlemen, damn fine night for a sailor... Red sky at night, sailor's delight."

Then he would pat his pocket like he was looking for an elusive pack of smokes... He never had any. We used to joke among ourselves that no pocket on the Old Man's sea jacket had ever seen anything containing cigarettes.

"Dex, what are we smoking tonight?"

"Marlboros' sir... Same as last night."

"Very well..."

He always knew where I kept mine and would fish one out, light up and fill us in on our op orders.

"Keep a sharp eye out... Cans will be out here poking around for us at first light. I'm going to pull a blanket over us next watch... Tell your relief."

"Aye sir."

"Good night, gentlemen... Like I said... Great night to be a sailor."

"Aye sir, great night to be a sailor."

Thirty-five years later, standing forward of the conning tower fairwater in Pittsburgh where the old girl has been dolled up and put out to pasture, I had the honor to stand next to the Old Man and enjoy our last sunset together.

"Great night to be a sailor, sir."

"Dex, they were ALL great nights."

He died a year later and if there's a submarine where he went, I hope the lookouts carry smokes and know they've got as good as they come.

On several occasions, we formed topside with the entire crew decked out in dress canvas... Damn, we looked sharp! Such a photo hangs on my bedroom wall... A gentle reminder that as Mike Hemming put it so well,

"It wasn't all a dream..."

No Mike, we lived it. Oh man, how we lived it!!

Then there were the goodbyes...

Funny thing about boat sailors. They figure if they say what they really feel, some wise-ass will accuse them of turning queer, so a sentimental goodbye for submariners goes something like,

"Goodbye you worthless bastard... As long as you've got a church key and a deck of cards, you'll make out okay."

Or...

"Take it easy Jack... Some poor lame-ass fishing boat probably needs a lousy cook."

There were nights you spent with damn fine men standing aft by the screwguards, watching the rippling effect of moon reflection in the current, daydreaming about the future.

"Think you'll get married?"

"I guess... Sure, someday."

"Gonna have a family?"

"Hell yes, gotta have kids."

"Anyone picked out?"

"Nah... What gal would get serious about some chronically broke idiot that disappears for weeks at a time?"

"A good woman can handle it.. A lot of 'em do..."

"Not that many good women around."

Like so many other things in life, I couldn't have been farther off base. One thing boat service taught us all... We know when we are in the presence of truly good women... And that it took such women to put up with us for the long haul.

No one ever turned you down for a standby when you really needed one... And I never saw a dime change hands over a standby. Small thing... But a big indicator of a tight crew.

Tight crew... We all knew that meant that any man on the boat would have piggy-backed any shipmate through the fires of Hell on any given day, simply for the honor of doing so.

I truly hope that has not been lost. Officers can be independent... Stand alone. not so, enlisted men. We had to lean on each other. We were the muscle and nerve system of those iron monsters. Without us, there would have been no functioning arterial system... We brought life to the boat.

By now, the world knows how full of crap I am about the Nuclear Navy. Sid Harrison has repeatedly jerked my drawers to half-mast and exposed me for the fraud that I am.

You nukes should take time to collect your moments and file them carefully away in a dark corner of your heart... Most certainly, you will want to retrieve them sometime way in the future, to share with your current mates in your twilight years.

And honor your enlisted naval heritage... I know, sounds like a load of crap... It's not. You got handed, through no personal exertion on your part, a heritage earned by good men and... Yes, good women... Who went before you. You aren't the first to Brasso brightwork, bucko.

That uniform... That impractical, Cracker Jack box-looking set of blues... The one with the flap that smacks you behind the ears on a windy day... The one with the stupid neckerchief that dangles in your soup, can be found in wooden boxes in the military cemetaries of the world. Men who ran out broadsides of eighteen-pounders from the gunports of wooden ships, wore the same outfit that's folded in your side locker.

More important, and probably more relevent to you, the boat sailors who crushed the Jap navy wore it and we who passed it on to you, wore it. That uniform and the Dolphins that look so good over your pocket, makes us brothers and allows us the credentials necessary to validate our right to jump down each other's smokestacks now and again, in fun.

None of your sister services has a 150 year-old uniform paid for in selfless sacrifice... Forget that and you diminish yourselves.

I'm not your gahdam mother... I am a has-been smoke boat sailor who knows he wouldn't make a proper pimple on the ass of a present-day submariner. But, having said that... I know we passed into your hands, an untarnished record that we have a right to expect you to maintain it in a condition that can be proudly passed to future contenders for the 'Brotherhood'.

Rest assured, there will always be the Sid Harrisons who will rise up and speak their piece when things are said or done that aren't in the spirit of what the sub service is... And should be.

But above all, don't let the moment get by. Take your slice of life from the middle of the pie and don't look back. Let the rest of the Navy scramble for the crumbs. You are 'bubbleheads' - boat sailors... You come from a long line of guys who whittled their names in some of the finest bar furniture on the planet.

Sid said it far better than I ever could. "Propulsion doesn't matter..."

Hell, they may be running boats off Kellog's Corn Flakes in ten years... Betty Crocker may replace Hyman as God's gift to underwater warfare... They may find they can conserve electricity by turning off the lights and handing out Dolphins at the Lighthouse for the Blind... Who the hell knows.

But one thing is certain... There will always be boats and there will always be men who volunteer to man them... And there will always be liars who rode boats and love to dabble in the bullshit trade over a cold beer in the company of shipmates.

And with that, this old man should hit the rack... You have kept him up far past his bedtime. It's time for old coots to shut and lock eyelids, and dream of a land of big-busted girls, Viagra trees and blind shore patrols... Where rum and cokes go for a dime and Ray Stone has all the good phone numbers.

Merry Christmas.

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