If It Won't Fit in a Seabag...

by Ron Gorence
 
 

We were to play war games with a Destroyer Group. The surface Navy needed some Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) training, and the Razorback was handy. The group was on a northerly heading to intersect our track somewhere over the Marinas Trench within the next few hours. Razorback had been headed for Bangkok for R&R, and the crew had not been pleased with the delaying message. The Skipper had cranked on all-ahead full when he'd first received the orders, to make sure we wouldn't waste any time looking for them. As a result, we'd had swim call in the deepest water on earth, and had been circling on station at ten knots for several hours with the Radar watch and lookouts on full alert.

I was standing port lookout, and Tommy Thompson was searching the horizon to starboard. "Ever been to Thailand, Mr. Green?" I asked the Officer of the Deck. He looked about my age, and nearly as salty. Nevertheless, it wasn't a dumb question because a commission required a college degree, so I knew he was at least four years older.

"No. Only one in the wardroom who's been there, besides the Captain, is Mr. Colson. He says the religious temples there are the most beautiful in the world: absolutely stunning."

I rolled my eyes at Tommy, and was just about to ask him what Mr. Colson had to say about Thailand women, when I suddenly sensed that there was something abnormal on the horizon off the port bow. I squinted my eyes - nothing. Then I raised the binoculars, "Mast on the horizon at three-two-five, relative," I said above the sounds of the engines.

Immediately, the 27-MC barked, "Bridge, Radar: Contact bearing one-four-zero true, range fifteen thousand yards."

"Left full rudder, come to course one-four-zero," the OOD shouted down through the upper conning tower hatch, "All ahead full."

"Left full rudder, come to course one-four-zero, All-ahead full, Aye . . . Rudder is left full. Answered all-ahead full. Coming to one-four-zero, Sir," replied the helmsman.

During the ten minutes after the Skipper was informed, our speed, course, and position were transmitted to the Surface-Skimmers; we closed our distance to the Tin-Cans as fast as our engines would carry us.

My estimate on the contact's bearing had been off by only five degrees; I'd hoped that Mr.Green would take notice, and be impressed, because he was responsible for signing-off several of the schematics that I'd traced-out and diagramed.

To get my Dolphins - which would designate me Qualified in Submarines - I had to prove that I knew the boat. It was as if I'd flushed the toilet at home, and immediately everyone in the house became anal-retentive about the destination of my deposit. The qualified guys, who joked and laughed and kidded about cops and women and typhoons and everything else, were downright anal when it came to putting a signature on my qualification card. The bottom of the toilet on the ship and the sides had pipes attached, with valves and elbows and seals; they all came from - and went to - somewhere. Tracing meant following each pipe associated with a piece of equipment through slimy bilges, watertight bulkheads, pressure-hull seals, and spaces so small only a flashlight could fit. Knowing the boat was an intimate thing. Toilets were easy, but something like the IMO (Internal Movement of Oil) Pump was complicated, with a dozen hydraulic lines going in or coming out. Electrical or electronic gear had wires, properly called cables, instead of pipes to trace out and draw. Each qualified man had created his own schematic of every system onboard, so when if mine didn't compare, I started over. They also compared each other's, so cheating was impossible. Dolphin-wearers seemed to make light of everything sacred, dangerous, or even patriotic, but not submarine qualifications.

Instead of being impressed by me, the OOD wrapped his brain around this ASW exercise, as if nothing else mattered. We'd told the Skimmers exactly where we were. Then challenged them to come find us. Mr. Green passed the word on the 1-MC throughout the ship, "Make all preparations to submerge the ship." Christ, three days ago the Old Man had waited 'till the OOD got a cup of coffee on the bridge, and then surprised him with an emergency dive, I thought, Now we are making preparations? We've been prepared to dive since we left port.

"Clear the bridge," Mr. Green shouted, though there was no wind and only one Fairbanks-Morse diesel now on line to drown out his voice. He pulled two short blasts on the diving alarm, shouted "Dive, Dive." into the 1-MC, and then twisted around to jump down the upper conning-tower hatch, where Tommy and I had just disappeared.

Tommy and I had a running bet with the Quartermaster on watch that we could beat the ship's eight-second record for clearing the bridge. I figured we had a good chance, having been prepared. Tommy was first. He'd tucked his binoculars under his shirt - to keep from eating them as he descended - and jumped down the eight-foot ladder into the conning tower with his hands on the rails, feet well away from the rungs. He twisted to his right, grabbing the lower-conning tower hatch rail, and dropped another ten feet - again, hands-only on the ladder - into the Control Room where he pivoted to his right, pressed my bow planes rig-out the switch, and sat at the stern planes. I was there a second later, turning the large chrome wheel toward ten-degrees down.

"Ten-point-five seconds," shouted the Quartermaster.

Meanwhile, the Chief of the Watch had opened the main-vent valves. Main Ballast saddle-tanks, surrounding the hull like life-vests, immediately filled with sea water and the ship was no longer capable of floating on the ocean's surface. Our rumbling diesel engine, requiring air, was shut down, and main motors, attached to the screws, shifted to battery-power. The Skipper took her to 200 feet, below the temperature layer, and changed course ninety degrees to the right.

The surface fleet pinged with active sonar and scoured the depths for two hours, until the Old Man finally got on the UQC, the underwater telephone, and announced, "This is Lobo; we hold you bearing two-two-zero, approximately three-thousand yards; my contact, designated 'S-1', over."

Pinger's on voice came over the 27MC, "Conn, Sonar, contact S-1 changing course toward; speed increasing."

The return communications suggested that the skimmers had known where we were all along, but we knew better. Finally, they all closed in and simulated depth-charging. If it had been a cowboy movie, we'd have picked up the UQC mike and said, "Agh, ya got us." but the Old Man calmly acknowledged the kill, and asked if they'd require additional services. We all grinned at the negative reply.

Tommy and I had failed to beat the record for clearing the bridge, and I hadn't impressed the OOD enough to get any signatures, but we had allowed the Destroyer Navy to feel potent. The only really exciting thing about the transit had been a star that moved rapidly across the sky during midday. Someone said it was Sputnik, which had been launched by the Ruskies, but I didn't believe an object the size of a basketball could give off that much light in the daytime. I privately resented the Russians' success in space, and worried about them having both Sputnik and The Bomb, but I'd been informed that earning dolphins was my appropriate contribution to world affairs. My opinion was not needed, and besides, what was once called the Kingdom of Siam was just over the horizon.

None of us in the taxicab had been to Thailand before, but we had been briefed by the saltier members of the crew regarding the unique superiority of both Thai females and Thai souvenirs. Somewhere way back in our brain, where things like "Yes, Ma'am," and, "Thank You," were stowed, we all planned to buy souvenirs for mothers or sweethearts back home. Prolonged deprivation tends to rearrange - or create its own - priorities. We had many American dollars and few inhibitions thanks to thirty days at sea. I looked at my closest buddy with a let's-be cool-and-not-rush-into-the-bar-like-hungry-dogs-look and he nodded back, so Tommy and I displayed a steely self-control that anyone would have been proud to tell future grandchildren about.

Our shipmates rushed headlong into the Rose Tattoo Bar, fumbling to get their money out before it became invisible in the bar's dim lighting. Not Tommy and me. Across the narrow street from where the taxi let us out, a large hammered-brass coffee table glistened like gold in the sun and caught our eye. We ambled across to the large shed filled with Thai hand-crafted items hanging from the rafters, and from every vertical surface. We were so nonchalant - so cool - that anyone would have thought we'd just spent all night in a cathouse. The shop was no different from other shops interspersed between Neon-signed bars up and down both sides of the street - except for the brass table - which was marked "$5, U.S." in big red letters. Tommy was losing his resolve until I pointed out that the Rose Tattoo was within spitting distance.

When I showed some interest in the coffee table, the shopkeeper inexplicably pulled me by the elbow farther into the store and showed me Teak chess-sets, Jade Buddhas, Ivory elephants and more coffee tables - half as big and twice as expensive as the one out front. I began to suspect that the table I liked was a come-on, intended only to get sailors into the store. We had been "cool" for more than five minutes by now, and Tommy was getting antsy. He was shifting his weight between his feet and I could see the sweat starting to bubble out of his forehead as he nervously glanced across the street and then bought a deck of cards adorned with naked ladies. When he said they were for his mom, I told him he was nuts. He responded by looking back and forth between me and the table and rolling his eyes. The proprietor had been doing everything he could to avoid my brass table, but after I glanced at Tommy who was acting like he had to use the head, I forced the guy to admit that the table had been marked $5 because he knew it would not fit through a submarine's hatch. He assured me that the dinky tables in the back were of a lighter, more elegant brass, and that they had genuine plastic legs - as opposed to the garishly carved rosewood I admired on the monster table. I snapped, "no thanks" and we left empty-handed - except for the cards.

We were both amazed at how a little self-imposed discipline and abstinence could improve the taste of a beer, so we ordered two more each, and then finally relaxed. But not for long. I was fully aware that an unmarried eighteen-year-old diesel-boat sailor doesn't have much need for a hand-hammered, hand-engraved, hand-carved, shiny brass five-foot coffee table, but my shipmates in the Rose were paying attention only to Tommy's version - he said that I had been fondling the engravings. No one said a word about his mom's cards.

"Jeeves! Light the candles on the golden table by the fireplace in the lib-ree!" shouted Tubes, pinky finger in the air, as he held his beer bottle up in salute. The gal on his lap flourished a dollar taken from his breast pocket and put it in her bra with similarly-exaggerated finesse.

"The King's entourage will be arriving at six P.M.." he continued.

"No . . . Make it 1830, mon petite cheiri," answered a sonar tech, called Pinger, "Need time to press my smoking jacket and starch my white hat." He returned the salute as a long-legged gal put something tasty, but unidentifiable, into his laughing mouth.

She raised her glass in agreement, and he nodded to her, then to no one in particular said, "I think I'm gonna marry this one." He was already drunk, so no one thought that arguing with him would be worthwhile.

Stu, our skinny little hundred-and-thirty pound cook, said, "Let's help him get it aboard. We can use it to serve horse-cock horse-douvers in the crew's mess," and everyone laughed a toast in my direction.

At the table next to mine, the wisdom was traditional and somber: "Did Uncle Sam issue it in your seabag?" The invariable answer, "No? Then you don't need it! Gov'ment wanted you to have a brass table, or a wife, they'd a issued you one-each - like a peacoat - in boot camp." No dissent possible.

"It's called a 'Loss Leader,'" some Quartermaster shouted above the barroom noises, and over my head.

I'd watched Tommy disappear for a half-hour at a time with his gal - the one he'd chosen for her "great running lights" and I suppose he'd lost track of me a couple of times too, but we finally got together and decided to add up what I'd loaned him, and what he'd loaned me. Duke had paid me back the ten he'd owed, but had borrowed twenty from Tommy - that was definitely gone 'till payday; Tubes lost a ten under the table, but we couldn't find it. After four or five hours, I had five dollars and taxi fare left in my sock. It was getting dark as I carefully nursed my last drink, but I could still see that coffee table, reflecting Neon greens and reds, through Rose's open door.

"How'd he know we were on a submarine - that the table wouldn't fit through the hatch?" I asked Tommy.

"How many U.S. Navy ships do you think there are in Bangkok now? . . . You dumb shit!" He motioned to the door, "You think all those legs hanging out of the bat-wing doors were there yesterday?" Tommy somehow made it all clear: Everything around us was a set up - just to get our money. So I walked through the neon rainbow and bought the gaddam table for five bucks. Sometimes you gotta do things just because they say you can't.

The taxi ride back to the ship was uneventful. I was the only one with three dollars for cab fare, so everyone agreed to hang an arm or two out the window to hold my twine-wrapped treasure safely above the road surface. Several legs were also hanging out of the taxi's windows to port. I hid my treasure behind the dumpster at the head of the pier and hit the rack.

I had week-end duty, so on Saturday I smuggled my prize into the rear sail-area, and on Sunday, as Leading Seaman, after the deed was done, I signed off, "Topside, secured; ready for sea." which was supposed to mean that there were no foreign objects laying around which might make noises or stop valves from closing when we submerged. We were heading for Yokosuka, Japan, for fueling. There were 'sea vans' in Yoko, like small trailer-houses, where we could put anything, smaller than a taxi, for later delivery by surface ship to our home port, San Diego.

The Rosewood legs were hinged in the middle, so with a few screws removed, I hid the parts above the air-conditioning piping over my bunk in the After Battery. When everyone was involved in a showing of Love is a Many-Splendored Thing - which was a mushy love-story, but a great Hong Kong travelogue - I suspended the brass table in the sail. It was just aft of the periscope housings, and just forward of the UHF antenna mast.

Twenty-one thread is strong enough to support a man my size, and I used two large spools of it to secure the piece of brass in space. I used a bowline knot every time I needed a loop to create tension; I tied double-becket-bends when I needed to connect 21-thread to heaving-line. I spared no government expense, and used all my marlinspike seamanship knowledge to create a spider-web of support for the one-eighth-inch thick, hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind, brass masterpiece. When I was convinced that I had duplicated the best attributes of both beehive-construction, and spider-web-engineering, I doubled everything. We only had to make it from Bangkok to Yoko, but I wanted to be sure.

The only real test in transporting my treasure was to be one trim dive. There was no reason to dive our submarine, since we were on a simple transit, except that a boat must always be ready to dive in an emergency. Consequently, the boat must submerge after leaving port just to see if someone put rocks in the Forward Battery - which would make us sink instead of submerge.

We dived a hundred miles out of Thailand, went to a hundred feet, and then surfaced. Trimmed-for-dive calculations had been confirmed, so the Skipper rang up three engines, all-ahead full, and set course for Yokosuka, Japan.

When things died down, the Yokosuka liberty party was ashore, and the duty section had settled into routine, I crept into the sail. I was startled at first - then I searched every cranny. My beautiful brass coffee table was gone! Disappeared. Evaporated. A single, frayed piece of 21-thread was dangling down from the superstructure. It couldn't have moved - but it did.

Then the perspiration came: I visualized my table floating into the back of the sail and fouling the main-induction valve as we submerged; I saw our little hundred-and-forty pound cook, Stu, trying frantically, impossibly, to close the valve manually from the crew's mess. I saw water streaming into the battery well and mixing with sulphuric acid, creating poisonous and explosive chlorine gas. I imagined the surfacing alarm, and the words on the 1MC, "Emergency Surface," repeated three times, followed by the collision alarm. I saw Razorback plunging, with an uncontrollable down angle, down thirty-thousand feet, to the bottom of the Mariana's Trench. I resisted the urge to throw up.

Then I began to think of what the crew would do if they found out. I'd signed what I'd thought was a stupid Navy Regs check-off sheet, and they had trusted me. There were many things that a submariner could get away with, but not this. They would not do something as mercifully-conclusive as killing me - they would likely ban me from the Submarine Navy forever. I threw up.

I was shaking as I dropped down through the bridge hatch, through the Conning Tower, and into the Control Room, where the Chief of the Boat happened to be giving advise to a lovelorn Engineman, named Oily, who was standing below-decks watch. A married Chief Petty Officer didn't have a chauffeur, but damn near everything else he and his family needed. Most Chiefs had one house, two cars, three kids, and at least four five-foot coffee tables. Chiefs also had an old man's lifetime worth of opinions, and loved to talk. This one's normal talk was actually a snarl, but I felt a need to talk at the time so I hung around.

"Being in love ain't got nothin' to do with it." he was saying, "You wanna carry more than what fits in your sea-bag, it's okay... Up to you. Just don't bitch at the Navy. Uncle Sam only guarantees what you need, not what you want. 'Indispensable' is a big word, Oily - fills a seabag plumb-full."

I wasn't too aware of what they were talking about, but I'd previously been warned that the table wouldn't fit in my seabag, so that rang a bell just about the time Oily left to make his rounds.

"Chief, I gotta tell you something that's bothering me."

After I spilled my guts, I asked him, "You gonna tell the Skipper? He'll kick me out of subs."

He lit his pipe, and his snarl was almost a whisper, "Don't go anywhere. You're restricted. I'll give it some thought and let you know."

"When?" I asked.

He gave me his best COB frown, in a disgusted puff of smoke, which meant that I had been dismissed. It was the longest night of my life.

The next morning after quarters, the COB called me aside, and said, "Take another shower and relieve Ackerman on mess-cooking."

He regarded my response, mumbling that I had only been off mess-cooking for a few weeks, as an inappropriate interruption, "You are volunteering to sleep four or five hours a day, peel every gaddam potato in the Orient if necessary, and serve coffee in bed to anyone who asks you."

He had to pause to relight his pipe, "You will wash and sterilize all greasy Engine Room coffee cups, and will allow Smith to sleep while you take all mid-rats duties. Meals will be ready precisely on time, and the mess decks will be clean and spotless in time for evening movies. You are happy to volunteer because you think you deserve it! I agree. Plan on liberty sometime in March. This is between you and me! Understand?"

I'd gotten his point about half-way through, and was already feeling slightly better about my future, and things returned almost to normal for me about a week later when the crew threatened to assassinate me for an entirely different reason.

The left-hand deep-sink on diesel subs was for washing and the right was for rinsing. Over the washing sink was a stainless steel box for liquid soap with a handy petcock at the bottom. One day at sea, I closed the petcock, but not completely. A little ribbon of soap trickled down the stainless backboard, and aided by the two-degree up-angle ordered by the diving officer as we snorkeled , gently curved aft and ran quietly into the rinse sink. Of course the rinse water foamed if I agitated it, but otherwise it looked completely clear. The COB happened by and asked me how long the valve had been in that position - just as I was about to shut it. I knew I couldn't have served more than two meals like that because I became suspicious when I'd had to change the rinse water so often. Submariners on diesel-boats were very concerned about wasting water.

Coincidentally, the next day, a plague struck Razorback: Everyone had raging uncontrollable diarrhea! We ran out of toilet paper in two days. We ran out of baled rags two days later, with another week at sea ahead of us. The crew used dirty laundry to wipe, and would have used corn-cobs if they'd been able to find any. The Chief Of the Boat, if he hadn't already owned me, could have guaranteed my eternal servitude, but he was so angry, he let the cat out of the bag. The Auxiliarymen threatened to remove my fingernails, one at a time, because they didn't enjoy disassembling the sanitary tank flush valves daily to remove rag fragments and pieces of skivvy shirts. People were awakened at all hours to relieve someone else who had to make a head-call. Even officers, who didn't eat in the crew's mess, threatened me because their toilet paper was gone too. Anyone with stomach cramps wanted revenge, and that was just about the whole crew. Tommy wouldn't talk to me.

The COB told me, "Forget about liberty in March. I may be committing suicide, but by God, you're gonna mess- cook 'till you do it right."

And I eventually did. By the time a couple of months had gone by, I was actually feeling so good about myself that I grinned almost all the time. I'd kissed butt, had tried to be every man's own personal food-servant, and had been cheerful no matter what was occurring around me. Sometimes, in a conversation, three or four sentences would go by with no mention of the screamin' shits. Only the COB truly understood. I'd begun to feel needed. Not one of my shipmates would have considered banning me to anyplace, because each of them had plans for personal retaliation. The crew wanted me around, and alive, so they could make me suffer.

Later on, I found that whatever the Chief had told the Engineman that day in the Control Room about true love must have worked, because before we'd been in Subic Bay for a week, Oily had been stricken again, and this gal had made him so broke that he sold me his Genuine Bangkok Brass Tableware, Setting for Six - for twenty dollars. I'd been restricted to the ship for so long that I had money coming out of my ears. I also figured I'd sell it back to him for twenty-five on the first payday after the Phillippines.

As my qualifications progressed, I became so close with the crew, that several men even intervened on my behalf when the COB was considering me for another tour of mess-cooking duty. Tommy and I were going on liberty together again as though he'd never even heard of diarrhea, and one night, in Subic, he asked me, "What did you say when the COB chewed you out about the table?"

"Chewed me out for what?" I asked, genuinely not understanding.

His eyes got wide and then he quickly bowed his head and muttered, "Never mind."

I tried to find out what he was talking about, but the most I could find out was that he had suddenly developed a tremendous fear of spending the rest of his life mess-cooking. I lost my concentration after the next couple of beers because, in Olongapo City, Subic Bay, a lot of people said a lot of things that didn't make sense.

Now, years later, every once in a while my eyes get a little glassy, and I feel like telling my wife about the coffee table but she inevitably interrupts with, "Yes dear, I know; you got drunk in Thailand when you were eighteen. I've heard about it before." And she's never shown any interest in trying out those forty-year-old brass knives and forks.

Occasionally, I'll quietly place a pewter mug of diet coke by her Weight-Watcher's TV-dinner on our simulated marble and mahogany-veneered particle-board tabletop, sit down next to her and close my eyes.

Our glistening brass table has romantically-taunting inscriptions from the Kama Sutra that cannot be seen with open eyes. Only a silver bejewelled chalice from the King's golden table is adequate to confer the choicest wines unto her lips.

There are beautifully engraved birds floating above elegantly-carved castles, and from one of them, a young knight slowly emerges. Even before he knows who She might someday be, he has gone out in search of a golden table for his Princess. He is armed only with fierce determination and a desire to prove his worthiness. He invades barbaric lands, outwits dishonest oriental merchants, survives poisonous potions, prowls the darkest alleys; he braves the wrath of King Neptune, enlists the aid of reluctant sea-faring comrades, and even defies the seas' depths.

She nudges me gently, and accuses: "Dear, you're snoring." Naturally, she refuses to concede that it is just possible that I might have been, in Fairbanks-Morse baritone, humming a love tune.

It's the thought that counts.

 

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