The Center of the World

by Mike Hemming

Today, the center of my world is too large. At one time, it was 15 x 20 ft and in it we would pack almost 30 men for a movie. Or 24 men sitting in contact with each other for a meal, 6 each at 4 tables. From the coffeepot to the airtight door leading to the AB berthing area, the mess hall was the center of our world.

It was where an enlisted man went for everything; recreation, knowledge, food, entertainment and believe it not, solitude. Solitude in an area often filled with other men, but when a shipmate got a certain faraway look, he was usually left alone. Unless someone thought he needed some cheering up and then his "cheering up" was liable to be at his expense. Abuse about almost anything would be heaped upon the victim until he had to laugh along with the crowd knowing it was the only way out. A little cruel maybe, but nobody ever cracked up in my times aboard either, so I guess our psychiatrist's couch was there too... Right along with 80 other crazed, self-appointed psychiatrists ready to harpoon your self-esteem in the butt until you were as happily loony as they were.

Long discussions on all subjects would evolve through many men coming and going, the length was limited only by the need to set up for the next meal. Day and night, which is a useless measure of time aboard a submarine anyway. Men cycle through to go about their lives. On watch, off watch, eat, hit the rack and study quals, a constant churning of men.

It was our doctor's office too. Doc Rohre would set up to do paper work in one corner with his pipe lit and you knew he had his shingle out. Not that you couldn't stop him or wake him anytime, if you had a serious concern.

Once I was studying quals in the mess hall late one night at sea. Doc was in his corner when a sonarman, we called "Lover" came in and sat down. Lover waited a bit, I think now, hoping I would leave, and then started talking to Doc in a low voice. I paid no attention until I heard Doc say in his gravel-voiced not so low tones, "Well, when were you exx-posed?". It was then I realized that you never had any privacy on board. Lover mumbled an answer that I interpreted as 5 days ago, which sounded about right to me. After all, I had seen all those flicks warning us about trying to spread our pollen among the "bad" ladies. After 3-5 days your willy goes AWOL and you die or something horrid like that. Well after some more consultation, off they go to give "Lover" his cure.

His quiet questions became useless when an after battery rat awoke to see Lover's hairy butt being injected with the requisite amount of medication next to his head. That must have been a real eye popper.

At the next meal the guy comes in and announces for all to hear, "Hey, Lover's got the clap!" Less than 3 minutes later, the whole boat knew. For the rest of that cruise "Lover's" arrival in the mess hall would be announced by the sound of applause.

Movies are best shown in the mess hall. I never liked watching a movie in the forward room... Too much room, I guess. Plus the fact at sea, the up and down motion on the surface added an extra little something for those disposed to looking for 'Ralph'. The junior men got to hold down the projector and the screen. Sitting close enough to a movie screen to hold it down makes for crossed eyeballs trying to focus on the picture.

Mess hall movies had their own extra added attractions and additions, like the hairy-backed EM1 that always got in the picture at the wrong time, while looking for a clean coffee cup. Even Ursula Andress's lovely breasts lose a lot when projected on a hairy, sweaty back.

Then there was the duty foul butt that would ease out a silent but deadly stinker in the middle of a reel. The Carp had a guy that had apparently invented the stealth fart; it oozed to the far side of the compartment before it started exploding in everyone's nasal passages. Causing them to place the blame for it on everyone else in the mess hall. Added to the body odors of 20 other men far too long away from any sorts of hygiene other that brushing their teeth, it was amazing any of us survived.

I remember once after a reel was over and the lights turned on, it was discovered that there was no film on the take up reel. 1200 feet of 16-mm film in the waterways in a tangled soggy, oily mess. It took some time to straighten that one out.

Between reels, the coke machine was hit. Actually hit, for if it were done at the right time it would stick and dispense coke until hit again. The ship 's party fund never made much from the coke machine. Sometimes popcorn was made and ice cream dished out. If you wanted ice cream you always tried to not be the guy to drop down into the freeze box to get it. If you did, you missed half the next reel dishing out ice cream for the rest of the audience.

The mess hall was our game room for acey duecy, bridge, canasta, cribbage and poker.

Carp was a poker boat... At sea, the table behind the 'pass-through' was the poker table. The metal rim pulled up, a blanket put over the top and rim pushed back down and voila!! A poker table for 6. Seven, if the junior man wanted to stand at the end.

Games ran from clean up from chow to set up for it. Rules were simple... Bring cash, no borrowing, fifty cent limit, no kiddy games that took any explanation, cards spoke for themselves. The COB who often played or just sat and watched, enforced the rules. I never saw anyone that went away from the table busted too bad, just a mite broke. But our main form of recreation was verbal; talking, joking, teasing, lying to or about someone was easy. It took no equipment except a brain and a mouth. Some however seemed to leave their brains in another compartment, even then. These verbal jousting tournaments were not for the faint-hearted or thin-skinned. If you couldn't take it, stay in your bunk and out of the 'arena of death'.

You could always take heart in the fact that no one won these verbal "to the death" battles all the time. If it was decided it was your turn in the barrel, it was best to grin and bear it, and then leave for your next watch, bloody but unbowed.

Every once in a while, I miss that tiny center of what was once my world. A 15x20 foot world almost always filled with men. Men that tried to hide the fact they cared with rough, crude language. A world now only remembered by some crusty old men, tied together by a silver emblem of their belonging, fading slowly away. One by one.