Percy Turner, Engineman

by Mike Hemming

If this was Readers Digest's 'My Most Unforgettable Character', I would have to take the $250 they give you and spend it all buying beers in a submarine bar somewhere. There are some things you just don't take money for and my memories of Percy are one of them. So you get some of them for free.

He was many things to many people on Carp... Friend, enemy if you needed one, joker, nick-name giver, but most of all he was an enginemen. He knew them, how to fix them and make them run like tops. A big man from Harlem, I saw him break cylinder liner nuts loose with a ratchet when we had to hurry a repair at sea a couple of times. He could lift heads off outboard by himself. He knew engines and was willing to pass it on if you wanted the info... Listen, and he would teach you about engines and being a good sailor.

I had the good fortune to be in the engine room he was assigned to when he came aboard. Percy was a 2 hash mark second class... Me, a slick-arm 3rd. He rapidly became the saving grace back there, helping us through two rather poor 1st class bosses, in the next 2 years. The first one knew his work but was lacking in any social graces, even in an animal pit of a smokeboat engine room. Percy as second in command acted as a buffer, kept our morale up, and got the work done on time and right. He kept the 1st class from over exercising his power over his peons and things running smoothly.

Later when 'Z', who was pathologically mean and stupid, replaced that first class, Percy kept us going under trying conditions. Even though it meant making 'Z' look good to pull his chestnuts out of the fire to protect us from the meanness, Percy did it. Which of course meant that 'Z's career sailed along somewhat smoothly before even the forward battery began to notice things were not well in engineland.

Percy personally saved me from a possible trip to Leavenworth one night in San Juan. When after whispering to Percy,

"Watch, I'm gonna push that shit in front of this next bus..."

As I maneuvered behind 'Z', at the last second, a strong black hand pulled my jumper collar just enough to make me lose my balance.

I don't know to this day if I was going to really give him a shove.

The incident was only mentioned between us once. The next day, He said,

"You were really going to push him, weren't you?"

I said, "Dunno..."

"What about now?"

"Nope, won't happen again."

He was somewhat pissed and said,

"I hope not, 'cause I'll have you transferred."

Even today I am shamed by the incident only because Percy was unhappy with me. But finally the devil got his due and 'Z' was sent packing.

I saw many leave the boats I was on in my 6 years, but only once did men come topside to cheer as a man crossed the brow for the last time. It happened for 'Z' and deservedly so. As there was no other first class around, Percy got the nod to be in charge of the AER. In one minute, it went from a hell to work in, to one of the happiest places I ever worked. We busted our butts when needed, loafed when possible and laughed and joked all the time. Nothing got us down, from swallowed valves to busted spring packs, we would fix them and have a laugh while doing it. It was the happiest year of my career.

The one thing you noticed first, last and always about Percy was his belly, it was big, no question. But it was different than most, it rode high above his belt. His most famous act was to walk into a bar and lift this belly and set it on the edge of the bar and with a flourish point to it and say to the wide-eyed bartender, "Fill 'er up."

Percy was the Carp's name-giver... At reunions, his creations live on. Grits, Elli Mae, Shaft, Nubs and Loins. Now old men, but forever tagged by him, are reborn every two years at every Carp reunion in his honor.

All of us have our heroes, the big ones we don't often know personally; the holders of Silver Stars, Navy Crosses and Medals of Honor. But we must remember the little heroes in our lives, the ones that do the right thing, even when it hurts. This is why Percy is one of mine. After that wonderful year with him in charge, I made first class. On Monday, I came to work with my new crow perched above my 1 hash mark, nervous how would he react to this, as he was still a 2nd class. After quarters, I dawdled in the ATR for as long as possible, so when I got to the engine room he was waiting there with the whole gang. As I stepped through from maneuvering he handed me the big pitcher that we all drank his great lemonade from, and said,

"What's up for today, boss?"

Taking a swig I said,

"Let's finish that head outboard #4 and get that leak stopped on the fuel oil line."

Those 5 words of his were the words of a great man, and made my next few months in the AER go easy. When a 1st class senior to me came aboard I was moved to the FER for the rest of my time aboard. I took Percy's engine knowledge and his example of how to run a smokeboat engine room and keeping its inhabitants in line with humor and example with me.

A few years after I got out, I heard he had died while working at Norfolk Navel Shipyard, of a heart attack. I hope that whenever I get to where I end up for eternity, Percy is there with that big pitcher of lemonade, still giving out nicknames.

Percival Alexander Turner... Engineman and friend.

Hand Salute......