Years in Chambray Shirts

by Mike Hemming

This evening, I grabbed a shirt off the hanger that I had bought last summer made of chambray like our old dungaree shirts. The material sliding up my arms and across my back brought back memories of those shirts. I looked into the mirror to see an old face in a new shirt, not the young face in an old faded shirt I remembered. When we think of those days we mostly think of ourselves and shipmates in dungarees. As well we should, we spent far more time in chambray shirts than we did in dress canvas. Every working day in port and every day at sea for weeks on end we wore that uniform. We lived in it at sea, day and night, on watch or off. Most of us slept in those shirts just kicking off our shoes to roll into an empty rack for some Z's.

The first real salty looking sailor I can remember was in a dungaree shirt. Not some starched, 'pole up his ass' Master At Arms surface skimmer puke type. This was a real sea going first class in a faded to almost white Kleenex soft shirt. Remember how nice that felt when they got like that? And how you tried to keep one going for one more cruise sealing tears and holes with masking tape on the inside as a quick sew job? I had two of those by the time I got married. This freaked my new bride out when she kept finding balls of soggy wadded up masking tape in the washer and wondered where they came from. My explanation made her shake her head in disbelief. Anyway, I wanted to look like that salty first class. I made first class and had shirts that were faded to near white but that was the only connection I had with him. My shirts were often torn and always stained with black engine grease and fuel oil. If they were the ones I stood still watches in, the nitercake for cleaning the stills had eaten huge holes in them. I came to realize while I might be at least a little salty, I would always look like 'Joe Shit the Ragman' in my most of my dungarees. But now forty years later, I remember myself looking like that first class, sharp and salty. Yeh, I know its selective memory, but it's my memory.

Those shirts were modified by us as needed, sleeves could be shortened for on deck working in hot tropical climes. Or they could be cut or torn completely off for at sea engine room watches. The cuffs unbuttoned and rolled back two laps to look cool. Or the sleeves rolled all the way up to the bicep if you didn't want to cut them off. They could be worn tails in or out, buttoned or unbuttoned as needed according to the temperature. The two button closed pockets could hold a wheel book and a couple of pens, if the owner thought he was important and could read and write. Otherwise a pack of cigarettes was about all that we carried. If you couldn't button it closed, you knew when you leaned over on below decks watch to check bilges, whatever was in the pocket would end up in the lower level.

In the pre-poopy suit navy, you were supposed to have an iron-on crow on the left sleeve. The crows that peeled off after five washings if you didn't sew them on to boot. I never had them, but I did write '1st class' on my sleeve after getting a ration from an Orion puke for being out of uniform. I knew I was a petty officer, my shipmates knew it, what did I care if some skimmer knew or not? You were supposed to have your last name over the left pocket. Most of us didn't. Again, your shipmates knew it and the last thing you wanted was a tender MAA being able to read it. If he didn't have you cornered with your cumshaw items why give him the advantage of knowing your name if you had running room? Did you ever borrow a shipmate's shirt with his name on it to pull off some nefarious naval crime on a surface craft?

One time I found in the rag bin a piece of shirt that had an ESSO gas patch on it. I cut the patch off and glued it onto my shirt with a 'B' inked onto it.

When we reach that silver submarine tied at the golden pier in the sky, the uniform of the day will be washed to a faded almost white Kleenex soft chambray shirt and Seafarer dungarees. That's how I want to spend the rest of forever. Finally, I will look like that real first class.

Hell, I'll even iron on a crow and stencil my name over the pocket if that's what it takes for admission.