The U.S. Military came up in the discussion somehow, and I mumbled something about my personal history.
"Submarines? You were on submarines?" He squinted and looked directly into my eyes, pausing like he was trying to plumb the soul of a Martian, and stumbled on, "Don't you get . . . ah, y'know, ah . . . takes guts, . . . I could never do that."
Did he say nuts, or guts? Either way, my habitual response was, "It's not so bad. You get used to it. Yeah, claustrophobia could be a problem."
This Deja vu conversation happens at Christmas parties and during short airplane flights - anywhere abbreviated autobiographies are expected. It's eventually been part of every one of my permanent relationships. Afterward, I always think, "I wish I'd said . . . ," but then I shrug, "They could never understand."
The problem is, he or she, seconds ago, was trading polite grins with an apparently-normal human being; suddenly, it dawns: Normal humans do not sink themselves in a sewer pipe and then materialize on a far shore grinning because it came back to the surface. It is quite natural to wonder whether insanity is a main prerequisite for, or the result of, becoming a submariner.
Since nuts cannot know they are nuts because they are nuts, I can only hope that by recounting some nearly-true personal experiences, I might offer my next acquaintance something more than an unsatisfying shrug.
Starting at seventeen, I served during the cold war with WW II heroes who wore Combat Patrol pins, and later with unappreciated Vietnam bubbleheads on diesel boats. In the Submarine Nuclear Navy I served with rocket-science-educated Nukes. I admit that all submariners are unique individuals, just as each boat has its own personality, but moving from one group or boat to another was sort of like a kid, in a large family, swapping beds. Nothing to write home about.
The level of psychoanalysis needed for maintaining submarine manpower would haven driven Freud nuts. The task requires a bureaucracy in which alchemy really produces gold.
Submariners have always been volunteers, but volunteering in the military has, since time immemorial, been associated with stupidity. Contrariness is a necessity for those who volunteer for something considered not only stupid, but dangerous. For instance, by Navy definition, a "boat" is a craft that can be hoisted aboard a ship. Except for Submarines. Submariners have never, ever, balked at a mission, but when they went, they went "riding their boat." Bravado is also a common trait, but it must survive brutal screening and withstand ridicule. Patriotism - mistakenly regarded, by most screeners, as an infatuation to be outgrown - must be lodged deeply between heart and spine, where it is immune to scorn, not on the sleeve. Self-esteem does not come with mother's milk, but is earned, and it is always subordinate to veneration of brothers-past. New volunteers may not feel a tightening in their chests upon hearing names of missing submariners or those boat skippers who were posthumously-awarded the Medal of Honor in WW II , but they must possess that capacity. This results in an uniquely cantankerous personal honor. They cannot yet know why the names Thresher or Scorpion cause a submariner to stop dead in his tracks in spontaneous salute to lost brothers, but they must be able to understand why it might. I personally volunteered for the sub-pay. Not for the dollar-amount - a naive Congressional inducement - but because, when they paid me a nickel more than the guy standing next to me, I was up there with John Wayne and Glen Ford manning the periscope. Only a bureaucracy could screw up so successfully.
Selection of "volunteers" begins with psychological testing: claustrophobia tests, personality tests, academic tests, intelligence tests, Rorschach tests, interviews, consultations and interrogations. They asked why I had a tattoo.
"Because I had eight hours of freedom from boot camp, four dollars, and two beers."
Right answer! Most of us who made it through screening agreed that they had rejected everyone who had passed, and kept the nuts.
Physical examinations were intended to eliminate candidates over six-foot-four or two-hundred pounds; they could not have flat feet, and needed 20-20 vision. I memorized the eye chart when the guy in front of me read it aloud; we both missed the same two letters on the bottom line and we both passed. I leave flat-footed footprints like a duck's, and I've known many giants riding the boats. As with the headshrinkers' psychological criteria, failing wasn't necessarily failing. The physical was more like the final exam of the psychological testing: those who managed to show innovation and resourcefulness were passed on to sub school. From the late thirties through the eighties, a few men slipped through who were exactly what the silent service needed. I hope things have not changed.
I spent Christmas of '60 on the Bashaw (SSK-241), a diesel submarine commissioned during the war. She was in Pearl Harbor undergoing a mini-overhaul. Not enough to go back to the West Coast for a full six-month overhaul, but enough work to keep her off SubPac operating schedules. Yard-birds were installing more sophisticated sonar gear in the enormous bubble which had replaced and disfigured her wave-cutting Guppy II bow.
The Officers and Crew were surprised when I reported aboard as a third-class Quartermaster because the ship had a complete complement of QM's, so there was no billet for me. The Navigator suggested that I might be interested in running the deck gang; if not, he would go through service-records to determine seniority and move another QM. As a veteran boat-sailor, I had no problem with that either. Sub sailors pretty-well agreed in those days that the guy who polished the thunder-jugs in the head was as important as the one who plotted the ship's course. Fear of a VD or Bubonic Plague breeding-site was as frightening as a graveyard of rusting hulls aground on a Pacific atoll. I accepted the deck assignment.
The Submarine Navy conducted informal covert security tests in those days. To ensure that no foreign agent could breach a ship's security, the boat crews continually exchanged midnight raids on one-another and on the civilian support buildings. Daylight excursions were particularly insidious because the perpetrators generally were sober and extraordinarily sly. A ship's nameplate sign hanging on the sail-handrails, or painted on canvass and hung from the brow stanchions, were the more common targets used in the constant drive to improve attentiveness among topside watchstanders. Mooring lines, heaving lines, ship's logs, below-decks-watch check off lists, and deck wrenches exchanged ownership frequently. A ship's bell was a particularly significant trophy because it symbolized the submariner's reputation for stealth. It was guarded more tenaciously than an armed MK-14 torpedo on the topside deck. One of my seamen, Harly, was a kid who knew nothing of Naval Security before my tutelage. He haunts me now from time to time.
A couple of weeks into my new assignment, the Bashaw's chrome bell disappeared. It had been engraved with the ship's name and hull number so, if we could locate it, proof of ownership would be no problem. I told Harly to go find it. He returned after a full day and shrugged his shoulders. I told the Chief of the Boat that I was certain that we had scouted every ship on the Sub Base. He was busy chewing out someone else at the time, but kindly interrupted himself for my benefit, and informed me that he was really too important a person to listen to sob-stories. He put his hand on my shoulder in a fatherly way (but without fondness) and told me, with verbal punctuation too colorful to repeat, that Bashaw was going out to test our new BQS-something in exactly four days . . . at which time we would have an engraved Bashaw-bell . . . or I would spend the rest of my career in sickbay. Of course I had been anxious to test my relatively-new Third-Class Petty Officer authority, and the leadership skills the COB had demonstrated, so I went topside and grabbed Harly by the shirt collar.
"I don't wanna hear that, 'I did my best,' crap! A fish out of water does its best to swim, but that don't impress anybody! The Old Man signed an emergency requisition. Find out what's holding that up. Get another chit. Talk to somebody in supply. Check with base security. Get a piece of brass and start chiseling," I had to take a breath, "I don't want to hear you say 'can't' again. 'Can't' ain't in your vocabulary. You got until taps tomorrow night to get a bell hung up on the front of the goldam doghouse." Harly was cowering now, "If we ain't got a bell by then, I'm gonna lend you to the black-gang. You'll spend the next month in the Forward Engine room lower-flats scraping greasy bilges till they shine and you stink." He walked ashore, across the brow, with a look that changed from fear to hate and to what I desperately hoped was determination.
Next morning at chow, someone said, "Nice bell, Gorence. Where'd you get it?" So I scrambled up the ladder to topside and there it was - glistening like gold. Took about ten minutes for Harly to tell me how he'd gotten it. He'd swapped twenty pounds of ground coffee for a pallet of five-gallon cans of zinc-chromate primer. Then he traded for an eight-man inflatable Marine Corps Recon rubber boat -- I lost track somewhere between the guts for an auxiliary-gyro and a set of Fairbanks-Morse valve rings.
The COB got back to nodding in a fatherly way at me again; he was particularly pleased that our new brass bell required elbow-grease to keep it shined -- as opposed to the old chrome model. When the First Lieutenant in charge of the deck-gang asked me how I had managed to do it, I pushed out my chest: "Harly swapped a few tins of coffee for eighty gallons of paint, and then . . ." He cut me off, "Never mind," He put his hands to his ears, "I don't need to know. I never asked you."
Always ready to hone my leadership skills and learn by example, I developed a unique relationship with Harly. Whenever I hinted that we might be able to use a such-and-such, it appeared magically, but I insisted strongly that the details were his business alone and I adamantly respected his privacy. Even when he insisted on telling me, I never heard a thing.
The normal supply channels were cumbersome and slow. The bureaucrats in Washington had set up controls which included incentives to double-order everything, and throw mistakes over the side. Erroneously-shipped items required more hours of paperwork to return than they took to order in the first place. Praying that a requisition would get filled before equipment became obsolete was sort of like throwing virgins off a cliff in the middle of the desert hoping King Neptune would calm angry seas. We saved Uncle Sam and Bashaw thousands of dollars worth of clerical time. The term was cumshaw (not to be confused with scrimshaw - a completely different fine-art). Rickover's top-priority nukes were supplied at a snail's pace by comparison. They had horsepower; we had Harly.
Harly tried to tell me one day about a project he was working on in his off-duty time. "You have a periscope?" I normally didn't want to hear, but he'd hooked me, "What do you mean, 'a periscope'?"
"Yeah, it's over in the torpedo shop." He was really proud, "Wanna come see it? You can watch the Marines change guard at the main gate."
"You mean somebody lets you use a periscope for . . . "
"No." He interrupted, "It's MY scope. Come on, I'll take ya over."
I asked him what in hell he wanted a personal periscope for, and he said something about being fascinated with optics. I knew I was getting into shoal waters so I grabbed his arm and said, "No. No more. Don't tell me anything. Nothing. Never." He looked disappointed, but I finally convinced him that I could be proud of him even if I didn't know anything - especially if I didn't know anything.
Years later, I read that someone had been arrested for selling diesel-submarine battery cells to civilians from the Sub base. Of course, smuggling one-ton acid-filled monstrosities past the Marine gate-guards had a familiar M.O. Harly haunts me still.
Most of my short time aboard Bashaw was in port, with exception of a few sea-trials in Hawaiian waters. Other boat sailors scoffed at the enormous bone she carried in her teeth when she was surfaced, a constant tidal-wave pushed ahead like a Colorado snow-plow in slush, but they had a healthy respect for the fact that she could hear things underwater like no other ship in the world. The "K" in her designation stood for "killer." Killer-subs hunted other submarines, so the scoffing was muffled. My old boat, Razorback could make over twenty knots in fair seas; I never saw Bashaw make over twelve. Nukes could outrun both of them, but sounded like runaway submerged locomotives and couldn't have sneaked up on a buffalo stampede. Speed wasn't her strong card, but I had learned to appreciate her unique capabilities, and nearly managed to establish myself as a member of an expert crew; I had just begun to look forward to a leisurely six-month West Pac trip, when I received orders to the Swordfish (SSN-579). Apparently, they were shorter on QM's than we were.
Swordfish was a fast-attack nuclear boat. The nukes had recently broken through ice at the North Pole, and made many transits under it. Several had cruised around the world at record speed so I sensed adventure. The Navy had finally realized that they needed me at the new frontier. I was going to a better place than smoke-boats. I was to be in a more modern Navy, more sophisticated. Maybe I was luckier than these poor diesel slobs, or maybe my hard work and dedication had paid off. I was full of myself and elated - until I found out how rough it was to say goodbye to those proud specialists crewing Bashaw. They were testing advanced sonars only to see if it was good enough for the nuclear navy, and they hadn't even been asked to teach anyone how to use it. The emotional experience convinced me that "better" was not the right word when I applied it to Razorback and Bashaw vs. Swordfish. Twelve, twenty, or fifteen-knots are measures of speed, not importance. I calmed down and accepted that I was just going to a different place.
I lost track of Harly because if he ever made it into the nuke navy he was either promoted to a Supply Officer or made brig trustee; I didn't travel much in either circle.
My seniority problem came up again when I was introduced to the Swordfish QM gang. Chief Hart asked if I was on the list for promotion to Second-Class. I was. So was Earl. Same date. The Chief had to verify who had made Third-Class earliest, been in the Navy longest, whose mother was the oldest, or whatever Navy Regs required to determine seniority.
Meanwhile Earl and I went to have a beer at the Dolphin Club on Beretania Street. We'd made the mandatory tour of the ship so I knew where to stow my gear and where the mess deck was, so by ten in the morning we were downtown.
Brownie was already in the bar. He was a very large Swordfish Torpedoman with a bad hangover and a nasty disposition. Brownie was too busy to shake hands with me: there was a delicate tulip glass of red wine sitting in front of him, and he was attentively fumbling with a piece of tinfoil.
"Yearrrh, " he growled, which meant, "Welcome Aboard."
He finally succeeded in opening the packets and dropped about half-a-dozen Alka-seltzer tablets into his wine. He waited until the pink foam had fizzled down the crystal stem and onto the bar-top before he belted it down and chased it with a double-shot of bourbon. His whole demeanor changed. His eyebrows lifted, and the wrinkles came off his face. His hands stopped shaking, and he turned back to me and said, "Yearrrh, " Obviously feeling better.
Earl and I agreed that Brownie would be at home on any diesel-boat, where problems are solved - not complained about - and so we discussed Swordfish for most of the day over cool Primo beer and cold Chinese food. I couldn't get a thing out of Earl when I asked about the fleet-wide rumor that she'd had an underwater collision with a Rusky sub just north of Japan. He was dead serious about classified information and wouldn't budge. He admitted that the boat had repaired periscopes in Yokosuka, but I couldn't find out why.
Swordfish had completed a two-hundred-and-two-day patrol just after he'd come aboard. That tidbit diverted my attention. Made their own water and air, he said. Even had hydroponic plants for salads. He wrinkled his nose talking about that, but I forgot whether he said it was because the food was lousy or just that growing lettuce in a fish tank didn't work. The main point was, "Two-hundred days, completely divorced from the earth's atmosphere." Like in a space ship.
Now here's the way the world normally turns: When you run out of money, you go to sea; then when the boat runs out of diesel fuel, you go back into port, where more money has re accumulated on your pay records. Earl turned my world upside-down. I paraphrased: "The only reason you ever have to go into port on a nuke is if someone in the crew goes nuts." I waited for an argument, but Earl sipped his Primo and nodded, "Yup."
I'd never been much concerned with pecking-order or status, so when the chief made his determination, it became Earl's fault if anything went wrong, because he was senior, and I was as happy as could be. Earl and I were good friends and I soon got down to business re-qualifying on the boat. Most of the valves and switches and pipes served about the same purpose as on diesels, but they were all in different places. They'd inserted watertight compartments where they shouldn't be, and completely forgotten to attach a conning tower to the basic sewer-pipe layout. Astern of frame thirty-seven, I think it was, the reactor spaces were so highly classified, that minimal quals were required. Forward of frame 37 was the nose cone; aft was nuke-territory. I had to know a few emergency things like how to drop lead rods down into the uranium core to stop the little electrons from running into each other uncontrollably. These little guys got so hot and bothered when they banged together, they'd melt a hole in the bottom of the pressure hull if you didn't quickly isolate them with lead. High-pressure steam could only get so high before it made a hole in the other direction, so you had to know those emergency procedures as well. I learned that like the word FIRE on any submarine, SCRAMBLE was a bad word on a nuke. We had to draw diagrams of our reactor, and explain its functions to a qualified nuke, along with all associated systems; otherwise, nose-coners had little to do with anything aft of frame 37. The big exception was standing reactor watch. Everyone below Chief had to put in time watching the reactor do nothing. I spent many a four-hour watch hoping it would do nothing. We all wore little film-badges to see if we had received too many roentgens. ( I am exaggerating; they were really milli-roentgens, and much less nasty). If I got more than my allotment, I would sire deformed kids, and various body parts might fall off. We all shared core-time watches and roentgens. I ultimately fathered three healthy sons in later years - but now that I think about it, they were pretty mean when they were teenagers. I'd never have gotten my re-qual signatures if they'd known then that I have not to this day understood the purpose of reactor watch - although I concede that it must have been important.
The nukes maligned nose-coners whom they regarded as not only incapable of understanding nuclear fission, but also as hicks who thought Einstein was the name of a new model from Ford Motor. Nose-coners looked down on the nukes because they wore poopy-suits and probably had to drink white wine with chicken. Nose-coners genuinely believed that nukes' purpose was providing propulsion so that important people could get to strange places across the seas and do the Navy's work. Nukes would have used phrases like harmless repartee to describe a situation which was simply healthy rivalry. In fact, I saw it exactly that way, and was on good terms with everyone aboard. There was a closeness between groups that none of them would admit to, which I attributed to the taboo incident which had resulted in periscope repairs in Japan. I knew absolutely nothing about it, but I was aware that no stronger bond exists than among men who have faced death together. Someone finally pointed it out to this Pollyanna: the nukes went to one Honolulu bar and the nose-coners to another. There were occasional cross-visits, but there were also absolutely distinct and clear preferences. Unfortunately, I was forced to realize that the solid watertight-door at frame thirty-seven existed just as symbolically as it did physically. Unconsciously, I was to be a major player in helping to rectify this situation.
Everybody in the navigation business knows that the globe wobbles slightly on its axis. That's why the North Star isn't consistently north. Payroll accountants, however, never recognized such aberrations, and Navy paydays were as predictable as days of the week. But the Nuclear Navy even tottered the unshakable payroll world. Earl told me about the time he'd had more money than King Kamahamaha: they'd just come in from a ninety-day patrol, and then, had to turn around and take the Sargo's turn on patrol -- with only two days in port and no pay. When they returned to Honolulu three months later after two back-to-back patrols, they had half a year's pay waiting for them. They owned Oahu.
As a serious aside, I did not witness the deadly catastrophe on Sargo, resulting in her inability to get underway for her scheduled patrol, but with sincerest respect, the story should be told:
The Sargo was loading oxygen from the sub-base pier when an AC motor or a lighting switch sparked somewhere or maybe someone lit a cigarette - there were no witnesses - and the resulting flames shot a hundred-feet into the air from a 3000-degree oxygen-fed blast of fire in the Stern Room. For hours, fire-fighting barges and pier-side firefighters poured tons of water into the flames, but their efforts only created more steam, which mingled with the man-made fog already drifting across Pearl Harbor. Jim Smallwood, Machinest's Mate Third-class, was Sargo's below-decks watch when the incident occurred. He was a bachelor who had taken the duty for a married man wanting to spend the eve of the patrol-run at home with his family. Jim had previously gone through the boat inspecting everything in preparation for loading Oxygen and evicting loafers and sleepers alike from the Stern Room. Earl Palmer, a First Class Radioman, was one of those awakened. Smallwood, a quiet, but conscientious man, was junior to Palmer. He apologetically told Palmer that he would allow no one, not even Captain Nicholson, to stay in the area while loading. Smallwood's uncompromising dedication ensured that he would be the sole victim.
The Captain and his crew, torn between abandoning ship and saving Sargo, took unprecedented action and submerged the after end of the boat alongside the dock.
At one time, both the Skipper and the Executive officer were trapped together in the compartment just aft of the Control Room, unable to open its watertight door. A vacuum had been pulled in the boat to evacuate suffocating smoke from all spaces forward of the fire, and it sealed their door shut. They eventually managed to pry the door open just enough to equalize the pressure and swing the door open. For more than a day, the uncontrolled burn in the flooded compartment boiled the sea water above it; finally the flames died, and a huge floating crane was brought alongside to lift the ships stern from the muddy sea floor. The crew, including a man they called Sammy, ultimately entered the stern room and found steaming eight-inch I-beams welded to a hull so warped that a eight-foot section would have to be cut out and replaced. Whatever was flammable was disintegrated. Sammy's good friend, Jim Smallwood watch had already been removed; parts of his body had been found charred and torn to pieces; the torso was jammed into a six-inch space between the deck plates and the pyrotechnics locker. It was a sudden, painless death, and the Navy solemnly gathered up his remains for his family to bury. Sea-lore promises that his soul is has been reincarnated into an Albatross, soaring on ten-foot wings, far out at sea. The President didn't call for a special inquiry in those days; rumor was, he just said a prayer with wet eyes. Our Commander-in-Chief answered to God then, so boat sailors simply nodded and continued with their work. Most of us become silent when we hear the name Albatross; all of us, when we see one.
In WWII submariners surpassed even Marine Corps casualty rates - one-in-three never came back - and although peacetime casualties cannot be compared, he belongs among those who left us that heritage.
But . . . I was describing submergence in large quantities of money.
We were given a week's notice to prepare for a two-month patrol, so we received three-months' advance-pay. It was normal in the Nuke Navy to give married pukes and their wives enough money to survive prolonged separation. Bank accounts had to be padded for future rent payments and grocery bills. Nothing like the riches Earl had bragged about, but it was the most money I'd ever held in my hands at one time. Of course none of the bachelors had rent problems and few of them had bank accounts. We had a week to dispose of it, and we all succeeded.
There are very few nightclubs in Honolulu where a millionaire or a sailor with twenties hanging from every pocket is not welcome. Exorbitant two-dollar drinks were often accompanied by three-dollar tips for a mediocre-looking waitress - but mediocre was rare. Room service drinks and tips were three times as expensive in the Ala Moana Hotel and, of course, regular hangouts and dives were rewarded for the fact that they had loved us in leaner times. Taxi drivers were on a first name basis, even without chauffeur's hats. I never did get my toes manicured, but just about the time I was willing to concede fondness for this non-diesel Navy, we got orders to head for the shipyards in Vallejo for a one-year overhaul and reactor change, with a short visit to San Diego en route. The patrol had been canceled. Our pay records past, present and future were written in red ink. Because of a Presidential decree, an Act of Congress, or maybe our sniveling, the disbursing office agreed to pay us enough each month for soap, toothpaste and cigarettes until the books were square.
We were to be in San Diego for forty-eight hours before heading north, and on the day we arrived, I had to work on our navigation charts for a couple of hours (Earl having been determined to be senior). The latest Notice to Mariners had arrived with several navigation-aid changes in the San Francisco Bay area, so I didn't get ashore until several hours after the rest of the crew. I walked up Broadway and headed for the first bar where I could hear the jukebox blaring competition with thunderous voices and I found the Swordfish crew. I spotted Earl and a couple of buddies at a table about half way between the front door, which opened from Broadway, and a back door leading to a side street. Classy joint! Inside plumbing and a waitress.
Everyone was already way ahead of me. There was apparently enough money for beer, and obviously no one was saving for toothpaste. Brownie was at one end of the bar, representing the nose-coners; and a giant Nuclear-Electrician-type, called Beef, was taking up a large portion of the middle for the nukes. I had just sat down, and ordered my first beer. Time to relax and light up a smoke. I opened my Zippo . . . TINK . . . put the flame to my Lucky Strike, inhaled and closed it: CHUNK. Then, from somewhere else, BONK . . . FISHHHHH. . . CLANK . . . TINKLE. I turned my head and saw a beer bottle disintegrate over Beef's head. Beef stood up from his barstool, dribbling pink foam - a shade darker than what Brownie produced - and began a slow-motion stalk after a little guy whose head was about level with Beef's dolphin-buckled belt. I was the only one who had the reflexes left to do anything, so I jumped between Beef and the tiny surface-craft skimmer, who by then had grabbed another brown bottle from the bar and was backing away from Beef. I looked up at Beef, and saw that there was a stream of blood trickling from the top of his head and running down his face. It dripped with beer off his chin as he slowly advanced on the little skimmer. Both hands hung straight down at his sides, having assumed his gorilla stance, and his eyes stared about thirty yards past his target. I pushed the midget firmly and took his bottle with my right hand, "Get out," I motioned toward the back door, and he was more than cooperative. "Chicken." some drunk hollered.
My left hand was on Beef's belly button. That, plus the fact that a part of his brain almost recognized me, seemed to confuse him enough to make him stop and grunt. By then a couple of shipmates were there to help me steer him back to his stool. I turned away as they propped his huge body back on the stool with his face toward the bar and arranged his elbows. He was too big for his bloody chin to reach the bar top, so it just dangled from the front of a hunched-over hulk. Someone put a bar rag under the drip and ordered him another Bud, just as three Shore Patrol came in through the Broadway door.
I was on the way back to my table, so I was the only person in the middle of the room. They zeroed in on me, and spun me around, "Alright, what's going on?"
"Nothing," I said nonchalantly kicking a piece of brown glass under the table. Their shoes crunched on the floor as they surrounded me, "No problems here."
"Got a riot-call on radio," the nasty one said accusingly.
I saw him looking at Beef's blood on my white jumper sleeve, "Just had a little nosebleed; it's all better now."
"Lemme see your ID." Said Fatso. Not nasty, just stupid. They were all skimmers. Tin-can sailors.
"What for? I haven't even had a beer yet." Destroyer sailors, definitely.
"You gonna' break it out . . . or you want me to get it for you?" Nasty was getting really nasty.
I mumbled a little something to that effect as I pulled my wallet out. Must have mumbled a little too loud. "Smart arse, huh?" He started putting a handcuff on my right wrist, but I yanked it away.
"What the f-k you doin'? Why you putting cuffs on me." My voice might have been a little on the loud side.
"Drunk in a public place." The four-eyed one said, "We're gonna' take you for a little ride."
"Gadammit, I haven't even had a drink! I'm not drunk." I tried to pull away, but they didn't like that, so they all three grabbed me, put the cuffs on and lifted me off the floor.
Earl came toward them, but Nasty waved a nightstick at him and said, "You wanna' go in the wagon too?"
A shipmate grabbed Earl and said, since I wasn't drunk, they'd likely let me go in about ten minutes. Nearly everyone heard that and agreed, so people went back more important things like Euclidean geometry, empty beer bottles or the location of San Diego wimmin who might be impressed with a Navy uniform.
The Shore Patrol didn't hear it though, because I was screaming, "I'm not drunk. I paid for that gadamm beer. Gimme my beer, I'm not drunk," and I tried to kick the nasty one where it would do the most good, but I missed. I tried to appeal to four-eyes, assuming that he was the lone rational thinker, but his glasses had been accidentally bent above one eye and below the other, so he was almost as irate as Nasty. They dragged me kicking and screaming out the Broadway door and locked me into the back of the SP van.
The Shore Patrol had an agreement with the local police, so there was a handy stainless steel drunk tank somewhere down on the seaward end of Market Street. They threw me in with three reprobates. A civilian and a disheveled sailor, both looked like they were dead. The third guy was puking all over himself and the steel floor. I was stone cold sober, but it didn't help my case when I slipped and fell. I screamed for my one constitutionally-guaranteed phone call. I screamed for a drunk test. I screamed for the American Ambassador. I screamed from sheer anger. After a while, the puker told me that if I just shut-up, they'd keep me for four hours and let me go. That made me scream louder.
Eventually I got tired and fell asleep in the only place I'd ever been that smelled worse than a diesel boat. I woke up a couple of hours before sunrise, all alone.
After a while, a brig guard came by and I asked when they were going to let me go. "First run is at zero-eight-hundred. Gotta take you to the ship and get someone to sign for you."
Just over an hour to wait; what the hell, I thought, I've already been here for six hours. "Where'd the others go?" I motioned toward the empty cell.
"Let them out hours ago, " he said.
"Then why can't you let me go?" I asked logically.
"Report says you're a bad one. Drunk and disorderly, destruction of civilian property, resisting arrest. You gotta' have a signature of somebody on the ship who'll be responsible for you."
I didn't have any screams left, so I waited.
We got back to the ship about nine-thirty, and they signed-over responsibility of me to a snotty-nosed seaman apprentice topside watch with about two weeks in the Navy.
"Yeah, he was about to be promoted to Second Class," little sonobitch played it to the hilt. "We'll handle it from here." He grabbed his portable 1MC mike, talked to himself with a show of importance, and then told the Shore Patrol, "The master-at-arms is waiting for him below."
Then he turned to me, "Lay below, Gorence." A hotdam seaman apprentice . . . Well, like I said, I didn't have any screams left. I don't remember his name, but I'll bet dollars to donuts that kid ended up as the skipper of a sub, or CEO of a big company. Faced with a problem. he handled it beyond the call . . . . Kind of reminded me of Harly.
I shook my head and went down to the crew's berthing area to wash up. I had a gadamm civilian stranger's last meal, mixed with Beef's blood, spread all over my whites. I spotted Beef, and I glared at his prone body. He was in his bunk, snoring like a f'n baby ape.
Earl came by, when I was smelling better, and said, "Ready to go over?"
"Na," I answered, "I'm sorta' f'n tired of San Diego."
"OK," he said, but he sacrificed an hour of his liberty-time to fill me in on what had happened after I'd left the party. Seems the midget had found his tin-can buddies and brought a dozen of them back to the bar. The first nose-coner who got punched was immediately avenged by one of the nukes, and then the frame-37 barrier was blown into oblivion while the Swordfish sailors, from fore and aft, swabbed decks with the surface navy.
I spent most of the day topside, with a cup of coffee, enjoying peaceful sunshine and watching nose-coners and nukes return arm-in-arm - some with shiners, many staggering - all smiling.
After that, it wasn't unusual to see a poopy-suiter learning from a QM how to navigate with LORAN-C or a mixed group of nose-coners and nukes discussing the salacious details of excited little electrons eluding flirtatious giant protons. Brownie and Beef, between them, could cover a whole square yard of bar-top with little pink bubbles after a bad night, or if they woke up when the ship was getting underway, their hangovers were sweated-out over the torpedoes and nuclear reactions under their care. Incapacity was a mortal sin never to be condoned. Mutual respect floated in the re-circulated air from stem to stern. Except for me. They laughed with great insensitively at my contribution. It's O.K. - I know that heroic sacrifices aren't made for glory, but for a higher purpose.
All boat sailors have experienced "losing the bubble." This bubble, like a builder's level, is an indicator showing the up- or down-angle of the submerged ship. A ten-degree up-angle is a lazy slow ascent to the surface, but no one snoozes when the bubble passes thirty-degrees down because that's the quickest route to crush-depth. I have no memories of insanity ever being a cause, or of exceptional bravery saving the day. The fact that I am relating these stories proves that I was lucky enough to be with men who remained calm enough to apply considerable expertise. They were not heroic; just shipmates. Shipmates are the people I have spent the rest of my life measuring others against. Nuts are the ones I see on the evening news.
Or maybe going to jail for a gadamm unappreciative nuke, just because he was a shipmate, is nuts. Of course, the brain-dead nuke would have done the same for me.
So, maybe, like I said in the beginning, "They could never understand." But trust me on this: steel will float in salt-water. If you can believe that . . .
*** Thanks to Jim Christley, Mike Hacking, Stan Mize, and Sammy who pointed out my Sargo errors. ***