The submarine's bow severed the sea's steel-grey water, folding its rain-speckled surface into a white froth that flowed aft on both sides of the bow. She's carrying a bone in her teeth, I thought, with the vocabulary of an old salt, seasoned, as I was, by nearly a month spent crossing the vast Pacific Ocean, and another patrolling on station. I was the starboard lookout; my duty was to detect the slightest irregularity on the flat horizon before another ship could spot our silhouette first. We were heading southward out of the Bearing Sea, and Kamchatka was no longer in sight, but we still didn't want to be seen.
"Port lookout?" said the Officer of the Deck (OOD).
"Complete sweep of the horizon, sir. No contacts," answered Ralph, who was scanning to port.
I gave a similar report.
Before we'd headed out for our WestPac trip, Ralph and I had ordered an Oceanography correspondence course to convince the world that failing to graduate from High School didn't mean that we were ignorant. Unfortunately, many of our shipmates thought it proved exactly that: we had no time for civilian education while we were supposed to be learning every square inch of the boat for submarine qualifications.
Even so, I'd completed assignment number four, so I said, "Dinoflagellates gonna raise hell with our night-vision tonight, sir,"
I was referring to the luminescent animals that were already creating a bright glow in the disturbed foam off our bow even before the sun went down. Good vision in the dark required dilated pupils, so I thought a demonstration of conscientiousness was appropriate. Ralph nodded.
Mr. Moss must have been miffed because we knew something he didn't.
Being an officer, he had to come back with a nasty response, so he said, "You're a month behind on your submarine quals aren't you Gorence? What's the capacity of Safety Tank?" he asked, completely ignoring my obvious wisdom and deep concern for the ship's safety.
"The same capacity as the Conning-Tower, sir; in case of a collision, in which the Conn floods," I answered.
"That's what Safety Tank is for. I asked you its capacity?"
"About twenty tons, sir," I said.
"About? . . . what's about? Submerging the boat and sinking it are about the same thing," he snarled, "What's Safety's exact capacity!"
I couldn't come up with the right answer, so he told me I was to bring my hand-drawn diagrams to the wardroom an hour after watch, prepared for a quiz on the sizes of all tanks outside our pressure hull. On patrol up North, Mr. Moss had caught me reading a Western paperback in my rack, He'd taken the time to gently explain that were a non-qual to decide that he had time to read crotch-novels, said non-qual was actually announcing that he didn't deem it important to know what to do in an emergency. His shipmates might associate such thinking with a stowaway planning to murder the entire crew during the next dive. Most hard-asses I'd known before him usually shouted things like, "That's an Order," or "Now!" Not Mr. Moss. He had a way with words that made people scratch their heads. I loved to read, but not that much.
I'd been aboard long enough to learn that a good ass-chewing was actually a show of affection among submariners. On the way to Petropavlosk, Kamchatka, we'd stopped in Adak, Alaska where the National Forest consisted of three pine trees, transplanted there each spring, because their predecessors invariably died quickly in the miserable, cold, foggy and damp weather. The Armpit of The World had been my second foreign port, and the only interesting thing was that we'd had a know-it-all type ride our boat from Pearl Harbor to Adak. His big mouth managed to get him on the crew's bad side and by the time the transit was over, all the dolphin-wearing men were shunning him. It was no coincidence that he got orders back to the Skimmer Navy about an hour after we docked. No one even remembered his name. Instinctively, like a kid who'd rather be abused than ignored, I'd managed to get reamed out by somebody at least once a day, so everyone was well-aware of my name. Now, heading South, the rain was warm and gentle, and I watched the sun go down.
Nighttime lookout watches in transit were long, and usually uneventful, so I focused my binoculars on nothing and whistled La Mer in a pitch as high I could go, which I thought contrasted dolefully with the lower-pitched sounds of the ocean. Ulysses had tied his men to the mainmast in order to sail past the Sirens. I'd face forward into the wind, then swing slowly aft, making my notes drift across the water. The ship was heading directly into the sea-breeze, so my song, along with the deep humming of the diesel engines and swishing noises of water against the tank-tops, wafted fore and aft at the wind's whim. The sea alternately muffled, and then amplified all sounds but her own. Sometimes, I whistled Ebb Tide, which was more melancholy, in long shrill notes as I slowly scanned for intruders in our ocean, but La Mer always got more response from the OOD's. Several times, Moss suddenly jerked his head around to see if he could catch either Ralph or me with lips pursed. He was trying to reassure himself that someone else had heard the eerie songs. He never saw nothing but two highly-dedicated lookouts. I enjoyed knowing that my whistling had caused the OOD to doubt his own ears, and perhaps, his sanity. I squinted my eyes at the green luminescence, and let my mind embrace the sensations of my new home at sea.
I'd come from the mountains, and read about the sea, so I appreciated nature's way of fluctuating between awesome beauty and death. The mountains and the sea were like a volatile woman: peaceful tranquility in one instant, and the heart-pounding excitement of a deadly storm the next. Even submerged, in the calm under the weather, the sea was constantly searching for a weak spot in the ship's hull, waiting to crush our steel bubble, so she demanded our respect and determination to keep her at bay; in return she offered immunity from civilization, from taxes and bill collectors, judges and jails. There was no mountain top that high. This unique mental peace expanded a person's ability to think on two or three levels simultaneously: I remembered home; I was in awe of - and enraptured with - the surrounding ocean; I whistled at the same time I evaluated the OOD's reaction, and even kept watch on the horizon. Being at sea afforded me the freedom to romp and soar inside my own head. I was particularly fond of lookout-duty because solitude was a precious rarity in the Sewer-Pipe Navy. Lookout-watch offered a perfect place to be alone and to dream, only interrupted when an OOD couldn't generate enough deep thought of his own to keep himself occupied.
Motherly rocking by the rolling ship at sea made some of my shipmates ill, but I felt comfort. I had basked in the feel and smell of salt-spray on my face during peaceful balmy sun-drenched daytime hours and brilliantly-cold, star-filled nights; there were few places I'd rather have been on that evening. Ten thousand feet and ten months; I'd come a long way since I'd spent my seventeenth birthday in Golden County Jail.
My hometown was near the Continental Divide, a concept that I'd had to explain to Ralph: "If I'd taken a leak back home, in Turquoise Lake," I told him, "half of it would have gone down the Western Slope, into the Colorado River and then into the Pacific Ocean; the other half would have entered the Arkansas River to be carried by the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico."
I waited until the breeze was just right, so the OOD couldn't hear our voices. Then I told Ralph, "There's an old Leadville saying: 'Flush twice, California needs the water.' Kind of makes me feel generous - and I was helping you Okies out too."
"Ohio! I'm not an Okie."
"Oklahoma - Ohio, what's the difference? They're all Flatlanders."
Lookout watch forced us to spend a lot of time thinking, and Ralph had a knack for coming up with new material. Once he had told me that a number-two lead-pencil would write a line thirty-five miles long - with average pressure - and that a buzzard's life expectancy was sixty-five years. He waited for a wind shift, so the OOD couldn't hear. I knew another one was coming.
"Sweat from Jesus and Admiral Nimitz, and Hitler and Tojo are all mixed - somewhere up there." He jabbed his elbow at the sky. I looked up, then dropped my binoculars to the end of their tethers and frowned thoughtfully at him.
"All water on the earth is recycled," he explained with a quick glance toward Mr. Moss, "Ocean water evaporates and then condenses into rain - it all comes right back here."
I thought about it for a complete sweep of the horizon, "Makes sense." I digested his words a bit more, "You know how you get tears - when you look into the wind?" Mr. Moss was busy peering dead-ahead, "Well, our tears probably mix with that water blowing outa' the limber holes and go up into the atmosphere. In a couple of weeks, a big grey cloud will drift over the Rockies and drop six feet of snow in Leadville, an' they'll be shoveling our tears off the sidewalks, and not even know it."
He bit his lower lip and squinted his eyes, and finally smiled, "Jeeeeze . . . Man, that was a good one," he grinned stupidly at me, "Sweat, tears, saltwater and a fine fart - all on the way to Leadville. How long you think before they get my message? . . . and the Arkansas River don't flow through Ohio."
"G'dam pig-farmer," my words had faded into the darkness under a million stars, and I went back to Ebb Tide and memories of home.
Women! Who needs 'em? I had thought bitterly as I stood at the cash register in Bill's Sport Shop. It was Saturday morning and I was fuming. An hour earlier, I'd been trapped in the alley behind Gabardi's Laundry by five Senior-Class girls. I'd flirted with one or two of them all year long, and they'd seemed to respond, so I'd begun to relax, thinking that I would be exempted from the harassment, called High School Initiation, which was being imposed on my fellow Freshmen. I was wrong. In fact, I was devastated to find that the gal with the sweetest smile was fated to be the most brutal of my attackers. They had thrown me to the ground and pinned me helplessly on the hard-packed snow. Two of them began to fool with my belt-buckle. I got so scared I would have broken a cardinal rule and punched a female if I could have moved anything but my mouth. I prayed for a heart attack if they went for my shorts.
"You've been pantsed by the Senior Class," they announced cheerily as I ran away, "You can come and get your britches off the roof any time you want."
Of course, I hadn't gone back to get my pants. I'd stormed straight home, put on another pair of Levis and picked up my single-shot .22 rifle. Then I'd stopped at Bill's to get ammo.
I walked angrily down Harrison Avenue, past Gabardi's and over Capital Hill. I stormed right past Leadville High and the City Dump. I was still breathing hard when I crossed Tennessee Creek on a Beaver dam. I'd walked fast, and was puffing, so the humiliation was dissipating. Nature has a way of making anger seem frivolous.
Farther down, this creek would blend into the Arkansas River just below its headwaters. However, the meadow in front of me dusted with new snow, was covered with fresh rabbit tracks, so I decided to try my luck there. I hunted seriously for an hour, and didn't see anything, so I began plunking and thinking.
I leaned my rifle against a tree, and sat on a stump overlooking the valley. The white-topped mountains glistened against a clear-blue sky of early-afternoon shirt-sleeve weather. It was right here that Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and other Mountain Men had trapped Beaver and hunted Elk. These rugged men had casually collected gold nuggets, washed from the banks of these same snow-melt streams, and traded them for salt and tobacco a hundred years ago. Once in a while, a woman came along and messed with nature. Right here on this spot, a Ute warrior, Black Cloud, had died with Chipita, . . . a young mountain flower with eyes softer than a fawn's . . . as . . . she threw her arms around his body and both cast themselves headlong over the precipice. . . . because her tribe, the enemy Arapaho, had mortally wounded him for his transgressions. Snow on spruce and pine boughs, and on the white earth, muffled the occasional sound of a bird's chirping or a squirrel's chatter.
Nature is mystical, I thought, paraphrasing something I'd read, Worms eat dead birds, so they can grow into bugs which are then eaten by other birds. It's so brutal and beautiful at the same time, that man is the only animal with a brain big enough to understand it. Except sex. I snuggled my butt down into the pine needles next to the stump and leaned against a tree trunk while I peeked around it to see a large buck emerge on the other side of the creek. It's the reproduction plan that God screwed up. That lazy buck will lose all control when the females go into rut. It languidly cropped the long grass, and became nervous only after a muffled sound somewhere downstream made it prick up its ears. I quietly watched to see if he showed any signs of the mating season yet. God ought to kick His evolution mechanisms into high gear for a little while; at least until sex becomes as understandable as planting potatoes. Cut up a potato, plant its eyes, and presto! Bucks shouldn't be mock-fighting with tree branches just to impress does. Thinking about sex shouldn't make a person's face turn red. Women pantsing people makes no sense at all. If I took off a buddy's pants, everybody'd look at me like I was crazy, an' if I took a girl's pants, I'd go to jail. The buck bounced off through the Aspens . . . but I lose my pants, and everyone laughs. I'd begun to suspect that maybe there was something in the water.
I'd admired most of the women in my life up to this time. I remembered that my dad had just shaken his head, but mom had made me sweep out Sayer and Mc Kee's Drugstore for a week because I'd stolen a Comic-book when I was little. That taught me a lifelong lesson: to genuinely appreciate only what I'd earned. Sister Senna from St. Mary's Catholic School, who had busted her yardstick over my knuckles several times, had clearly been instrumental in my feat of earning almost all A's in my Freshman year. I had known most of my classmates since before kindergarten. I knew which girls in my class I could outrun, out-wrestle or outsmart, and I had been comfortable that they were all fated to become either like my mom or Sister Senna - or somewhere between. Still, judging from the shocking behavior of the Senior Class girls, something in God's plan was going very wrong. They possessed body-parts similar to my freshman classmates' as near as I could tell, but they wriggled and bounced them around in bizarre ways. And they had pantsed me! They were obviously sex-maniacs. Absolutely nuts. If the girls my age followed the same pattern, they'd grow up to be bank robbers and prostitutes instead of nuns and mothers. Juicy Fruit was popular with the Senior Class, so just in case, I'd quit chewing gum.
As time passed, the girls in my class began to behave more and more like the perverts who had scrambled my Freshman brain the previous year. That, of course, caused my Sophomore grades to drop below C-Average.
In my Junior year, I suddenly discovered women. It was the only thing that could explain my D-minus grade in Chemistry, and similar results in other subjects. How can you discover what's always been there? I asked myself. It's not like suddenly finding a gold nugget on ground you've walked a hundred times, I argued . . . or maybe that's exactly what it's like.
In the late 1870's those who worked their gold-pans in the streams, or who had water-operated sluice boxes, gradually began collecting thousands of minute specks of gold and filling their totes. Occasional gold nuggets had been picked up around Leadville for decades, but the ability to collect pouches of fine gold, and the multiplied value, was a sudden discovery. People began to arrive in droves. The gold-hysteria caused the city to grow to thirty-thousand people almost overnight. California Gulch sprouted Oro City, and miners abandoned prosperous California mines to come to Leadville. Streams below the Beaver dams that had been frequented by Kit Carson and Jim Bridger were diverted. Doc Holiday came to cure his pneumonia and participate in the insanity.
Maybe I was like Bridger, who'd wandered this land, not looking for gold, and only bothering to drop a nugget into his deerskin tote if its glint happened to catch his eye. I had been wandering among women, slightly confused but ignoring the glitter, for years. It was the readily-available water that suddenly washed out the mountain hunting grounds and fed the gold-rush delirium. It was testosterone that fed mine.
My first real knock-down-drag-out fight with rampant hormones had come about when I earned a date to a Leadville High dance with the most beautiful girl in the world. Her name was Tania. She usually had sky-blue eyes, but whenever I had stared at her, they turned to a deep translucent grey. I'd also noticed that she wriggled and bounced like the gals who'd pantsed me but, the way she did it seemed more interesting than bizarre. She was so perfectly-proportioned that guys stared at her in the movie theater, even when Betty Grable or Jane Russell was on the screen. At least I did. I had dogged Tania unsuccessfully for months.
My macho-attempt had failed: In forty-degree weather I'd rolled a pack of Lucky Strikes in my T-shirt sleeve and then dangled one from my lips like Marlon Brando. I'd ignore tears on goose bumped cheeks - and all I got in return was a pathetic squint. I had tried Cool with no luck. Clever and Witty had gotten me nowhere. Amazingly, after a particularly embarrassing last-ditch attempt at groveling, Tania suddenly and incomprehensibly said yes.
The school dance was held on a beautiful warm evening. Mt. Elbert was dusted and white-capped from the first winter's snow, and dressed below in rich Autumn reds and yellows. Romance was in the air. I gratefully accepted four spots on her dance card, and did minimal damage to her tiny feet with my new Wingtips. She was hot and cold; friendly, and then aloof. I drifted happily with the bewildering winds of love.
After the dance, on Beer Can Hill, the stresses of a long and arduous courtship finally reached the boiling point. I had never considered myself a novice, and I could talk French Kissing with the best of the guys, but when she lifted her chiffon dress and put one knee on each side of mine on the Buick's bench-seat and started kissing my ears - my pressure-relief-valve blew. It was like sneezing, with ten-billion synapses all going off at once. If the car had been moving, I'd have run it right off the road. A flash of lightening suddenly illuminated the starry darkness outside. In an instant of brightness, a gust of wind picked up thousands of snowflakes, sparkling brilliantly like diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, and mingled them with golden aspen leaves, swirling just beyond the windshield. It was as if all the Fourth of July fireworks I had ever seen were detonated in a single second of time. A moment later, thunder shook the earth beneath us. The violent blast echoed through my body and turned it into a limp dishrag. The stars were mountain-top-bright, and their blue-white light exploded inside me. I couldn't move. It never occurred to me that there might be more to this - it would have been like being in heaven and wondering stupidly what's beyond the horizon. Actually, I was vaguely aware that it would have been better if Id had the presence of mind to unzip my fly, but a shortage of cranial blood had barred that possibility. There must have been some blood going to my ears though, because they glowed in the dark.
Finally, Tania said simply, "It's time to go home." Bored, I surmised.
When the blood got back to my brain, I gathered enough strength to turn the key and press on the gas pedal.
A couple of weekends later, I really did run the car off the road with Tania. I was a little more rattled than usual, so I asked her to marry me. Her best girlfriend was with us and, as usual, had an opinion - which she shared:
"You're barely seventeen years old and have never had a real job. How you gonna support a wife?"
Since I hadn't given that much thought, I didn't have a good answer ready. Tania's beautiful grey eyes were wide open as though my question had surprised her, but the corners of her pink lips kind of pulled back in agreement with the comment.
Her helpful chum then asked Tania, "You're not pregnant, are you?"
Tania simply frowned and spoke softly, in a voice as chaste as an angel's, "Hell, no!"
I, however, had a lot to say about that: I was violently indignant at the attack on the honor of my prospective bride; I was also proud that someone had recognized my studliness, and pained that Tania had dismissed the whole idea so quickly. While I wrestled with the wording of my answer, Tania gently grasped my right hand with her left, and pulled me into a more private corner.
"I think you're one of the funniest and sweetest guys I've ever known," she whispered delicately, "but I'm not going to get married until after I'm twenty-one." I admired her even more for having thought about marriage so carefully. I'd always been awed by deep thinkers.
So far, so good, but when she saw how well I had been taking it, she continued, "I hope that we can always be friends," and squeezed my hand. Handshake-hard. Like clenching another guy's hand in a manly way. We stopped dating after that, if one stupendous date, one car wreck, and a proposal-rejection can be called dating. But we remained friends.
I'd gotten off watch, managed to convince Mr. Moss that I had a good grasp of the ship's Main Ballast tanks, and was well on my way to developing a drawing of the Fuel Ballast tanks and their piping systems.
Mr. Moss had repeated what several school teachers had told me: "You're smart enough, if you'd just apply yourself," but somehow he didn't sound as sincere as when he was chewing me out.
Just after that, I said, "Excuse me," when I stepped on the Chief of the Boat's shoe, and he just frowned, "Okay."
The COB always had spit-shined shoes - even at sea - and the guys had thought it was humorous when I did something clumsy to make his face red. He'd just frowned at me, and it occurred to me that I might be getting dangerously close to being ignored. For the next two days, I skipped meals, stood my watches in silence or in asking questions about the ship, and slept less than four hours at a time. I busted my butt to get my qualifications up to date, and finally, after I'd eaten, and been rocked to sleep by the diesel rock-crushers, I was back on the bridge feeling better, and whistling La Mer.
My boyhood comic book punishment had kept me pretty close to the Ten Commandments for years - until a set of questionably-unrelated coincidences occurred: at about the same time as my hormonal overload, I'd gotten my driver's license and my parents got divorced. Mom and I had moved to the city.
"Nice coupe," Roy said as I parked mom's car at the curb at Denver's Barnum Park. It was the first day of my first job, watering Barnum's lawns and plants every evening. Roy opened the driver's door for me.
"My name's Roy. I'll show you around. How come you've got stock hubs?" he asked.
"Can't afford Moons," I replied with my best big-city demeanor, "That's why I got this job, to fix up my car. Mom's gonna give it to me when I'm making enough money to pay the insurance."
Roy showed me how to walk my route, turning on the sprinklers in the right sequence so that shutting them off on the return trip resulted in exactly the correct amount of water. "Ever heard of Midnight Auto?" he asked. I couldn't think of anything to say, so I said, "No."
"Tell your mom you gotta work late tomorrow night, and I'll show you," I nodded because I couldn't look like a mama's boy, or worse, a hick.
Roy knew the lawn-watering business well, but he was absolutely the smartest guy I had ever met when it came to cars. In less than an hour of driving around, I'd popped off a set of Full-Moon hubcaps that fit my Ford exactly, and, to my surprise, they'd come off a Chevy. My dad had often mumbled things like, "six-seventy-by-fifteen tires," for my benefit, and I had even helped him change tires or put on snow chains often. However, it was always in the background of Fats Domino or whatever was holding my attention, so I had barely known the difference between a tire and a wheel.
"Guy's gonna be mad when he wakes up in the morning," I said about the Moons.
"Nah," Roy said, "Insurance will take care of him. Gotta go. See you after work?" Roy was my age, but had been around, so he supervised four of five other guys with jobs like mine.
Roy liked Fats Domino too, and played him loudly, but self-interest had focused my attention and Roy eventually taught me how to hot-wire most of the new '55 cars on the market; older models were a piece of cake. Within two months, my little '50 Ford coupe had a V-8 engine with dual carbs, a leaded-hood and re-chromed bumpers. We'd had to shop around the nighttime streets a bit to find the right accouterments, but the chicks said my rod was cool. Mom too was impressed with what I had managed to do with a dollar-twenty-five an hour from Barnum, plus money from my fictitious job at a drug store, and she was pleased with my new hobby of dismantling and reassembling cars for "friends" in our garage at all hours of the night.
With Roy's talents, and my entrpreneurial bent, we were soon selling parts to most of West Denver's hot-rodding teens. I had owned clothes so fancy that I'd had to change before I went home at night - I'd purposely forgotten to appreciate only what I'd earned. It was summer time, after Junior Year. With no school, and a long way from Hicksville-Leadville, life had seemed good; fate had been treating me well.
One Sunday we met two girls. I bet Roy five bucks that the redhead wore at least a size-fifty bra. When the girls said they wanted to go to some kind of social-function dance the following Saturday, Roy and I figured that would be a good time to settle the bet, so we proposed a double-date, "What kind of car would you like to go in?"
The '55 Merc was a gorgeous car, so Roy and I had gotten the girls a gorgeous white convertible with red leather upholstery. Although I had to pay Roy his five dollars, I was still considered the brains of the outfit; I had predicted logically that a car stolen at noon was probably going to be reported to the cops in less than an hour, but one taken from a driveway after six or seven P.M. was usually good for the night. Probably and usually, but not always.
The Judge, upon hearing my "Innocent" plea, assured me immediately that I was guilty of being both bad and stupid, and set a court-date to go over the details. Fortunately, in cellblock conversations, I'd rambled on and on that I'd once stolen a comic book, and a silver dollar from mom's jewelry box for a cap-gun, but otherwise, I'd always been honest - except the past two months, when I'd gone nuts and hot-wired a few cars - and I didn't think the situation was fair, because I had not actually taken the specific '55 Mercury with which they were charging me. Roy had hot-wired it, and he'd never been busted for joyriding before. It was my second arrest, and all I'd done was talk Roy into delivering it because I'd had to water lawns until five P.M.
A jail-mate, Blackie, who was professional crook, told me I talked too much, and that he didn't think I had what it took to be a pro. Blackie's wife was a gorgeous lady. She came to visit him in a big black Cadillac, and always wore red high-heels and a mink coat. Whether it was because he appreciated the way my eyes and mouth opened wide whenever his wife arrived, or because he didn't want me in his profession, he took me under his wing.
He taught me how to beat lie-detector tests: "Just force yourself to think of stealing that silver dollar when they ask you your name and age. If you establish their baseline as a lie, everything else will record similar irregularities. That's all the machine registers: irregularities from the baseline."
He had also advised me to smile whenever possible to demonstrate respect for the court. I didn't bring it up at the time, but Blackie could have used a manager. I'd have advised him to specialize. As it was, his wife picked out jewelry she liked, so he'd hit a jewelry store. If she liked a mink, he'd wait until dark and knock off that furrier. He had never robbed a bank or thought to steal money to buy her things. I'd have told him that she needed some shopping discipline - that she didn't need that specific Cadillac.
The D.A. backed down from my insistence on a lie-detector test, so the Judge looked me straight in the eyes, frowning as though he was addressing some sort of grinning idiot, and offered me a choice: Military Service - provided I could get any service to take me - or hard time for Grand Theft Auto (and ten or twelve minor offenses in three states).
Soon, having had my transportation options seriously hampered, I took the city bus downtown and made my way to the Denver Post Office in search of my first choice, the Marine Corps Recruiting Office. A helpful Navy Recruiter in the marbled foyer informed me that the Marines' only recruiting office was on the other side of town. He kindly offered me a cup of coffee, directions for catching the appropriate bus, information on transferring to other busses, and generously handed me a large stack of Navy pamphlets to read while awaiting connections.
"Should be able to make it well before dark," he assured me, "Just call me 'Boats'."
Then Boats had complimented my patriotism, and particularly my pluck in choosing to eat K-Rations in a muddy Korean foxhole, as opposed to cruising into Paris or Rome - wearing thirteen-button blues - on a Navy Destroyer. Cool-sounding thing to call a ship, I thought. I was not aware there were no saltwater ports anywhere near Paris or Rome. The recruiter tried to reassure me that his admiration for my "pluck" would not diminish if I happened to choose the United States Navy - if my mom would sign some papers for me. I immediately and enthusiastically expressed confidence that she would. I naively told Boats that she would be tickled-pink about the idea of me being discharged the day before my twenty-first birthday and that she feared jail even more than I did. The recruiter finally relented, and let me take the entrance tests. Before sunset, I had returned mom's signature to him, and had been informed that I had six days to see the judge and pack. I wasn't sure if it was brains or luck, but I felt quite clever to have avoided being lost somewhere in the dark nighttime vastness of Denver, holding a handful of Navy pamphlets and bus transfers. The Judge's pile of papers for my signature had been higher than the Recruiter's, and he was obviously so happy to get rid of me, that he smiled.
When I first saw the Great Salt Lake from the train to San Diego, I thought it was the Pacific Ocean, but an Elvis look-alike put his arm around my shoulder and corrected me. He made friendly comments about how people from small towns like Leadville needed someone to take care of them. Elvis taught me my first Navy word: the bathroom on the train was called a head. He then escorted me to a crap game going on in the head, and at his recommendation, I plunked down a five-dollar bill and picked up a ten. He seemed very upset because I couldn't see any sense in playing again. I arrived in San Diego with almost twenty-dollars.
I had volunteered to go to Submarine School from boot camp even after my Company Commander told me that having the requirements for submarine service was no big deal. In fact, the CC had called submariners pig-boat sailors; he said they lacked discipline; they thought they were hot stuff because they didn't eat standard Navy chow; they never shined their shoes, and they smelled bad. Submariners pulled liberty in small, dark, isolated ports, where a decent-sized destroyer or cruiser wouldn't even fit. I had agreed wholeheartedly because the CC had tried to kill me several times for doing much less than ignoring his advice. He'd thrown my perfectly-good body and brain into the trash-can, and then took out pieces and remolded them the way he thought they ought to have been arranged. His main purpose in life had been searching for things that I "couldn't do" and then making me do them over and over again. A recruit probably could have survived calling the CC's mother a whore, but there was a rumor that he had once killed a recruit for saying, "I can't," one too many times. The CC had kept my adrenalin level high enough that I doubted I had any hormones left. One day he marched our company to a place where Marine Corps recruits were doing callisthenics on the other side of the fence. The CC hailed a Gunnery Sargent jogging in place with his formation, and the DI had smiled back.
The Company Commander said, "Anyone who screws up from here on out, gets loaned to Gunny Jones for a week. Anybody hankerin' ta' be a gy--rene?"
Gunny had stopped his troops, and had them do pushups until most of us Navy recruits, watching from our parade-rest position, were about to pass out from exhaustion. Most of us had gotten the message. When we got back to the barracks, one guy told the CC that he was queer; he was on his way home in an hour. The rest of us competed to be the most squared-away recruit in the company. If the CC said jump, We asked, "How high, sir?" on the way up. I was promoted to Recruit Petty Officer, Third-Class, by dint of hard work and fear.
When it had finally come time to sign up for post-boot camp "A" Schools where Electrician's Mates, or Fire Control Technicians were trained, I looked around to see if the CC was watching, and then sneaked a checkmark into the Sub School box. I had been a little nervous, but I'd known there wasn't enough time left in my boot training for the CC to send me over the fence for a week with his Marine buddy. Besides, I could do a thousand jumping-jacks without sweating, and my adrenalin-hormone imbalance was beginning to fade. The CC had just rolled his eyes, amazed that this tiny bit of contrariness on my part had survived two months of his loving care. Fate, or King Neptune, or whomever God assigns to take care of stray dogs and drunken sailors, had reached out and taken charge again.
After Submarine School graduation, I had another shot at Leadville on the way to San Diego and my first ship. I took a classmate, Romeo, home with me. We arranged a stopover in Denver on the way to our West Coast assignments, and our orders allowed two days' travel-time before we had to complete the connection. Romeo was the best dancer I had ever known, because he'd learned in the Phillippines from his sisters. Apparently, Tania agreed, or maybe she was dead-serious about the friendship thing, because she wouldn't stop jitterbugging with him for long enough to sit with me.
Fortunately, and for reasons unknown, in a place with less than three thousand citizens, Leadville had more beautiful women per square foot than any other location on the planet, and there happened to be an extremely desirable blonde, named Ashley, in the group. She'd never met a sailor before, and looked curious, so I decided to teach Tania a lesson. We practiced marathon-necking for about thirty hours and it's entirely possible that I missed something, but Tania never batted an eye. I tried to make the best of things, and nearly had Ashley on the mat a couple of times, but time evaporated and suddenly we had to catch our plane. Romeo went to the Menhaden and I went to Razorback, where most of my serious hormone-management training would take place.
The ship had been steaming at fifteen knots on the surface, for three days, rigged for dive. Safety Tank was flooded with twenty-three-and-a-quarter tons of seawater and would only be blown dry if a collision or another emergency caused the Conning Tower to be flooded. The Conn, the highest point on the submarine, was most likely to be damaged in submerged operations. Negative Tank was flooded to give the ship seven-and-a-half tons of immediate negative-buoyancy whenever the other ballast tanks were vented-off for flooding during the dive. All trim tanks had been filled during the last dive to the point where the ship's weight was equally-distributed fore and aft. On patrol, nothing had been taken aboard or offloaded, and nothing during transit on the surface had been moved from one location to another without mathematical adjustments to the fifty-four tons of water in the trim tanks. The trim dive would test the math.
The OOD said, "Clear the bridge," and sounded the diving alarm, "Oo Gaaa, Oo Gaaa," followed immediately by the word, passed on the 1MC announcing system, "Dive, Dive."
In the Maneuvering Room, Electricians on watch shifted propulsion from the main engines to the main batteries. Men in the engine rooms shut down their engines, and closed engine air intake and exhaust valves. The Chief of the Watch, in the Control Room, closed the Main Induction valve, blocking out all air from the earth's atmosphere, except the torrent of wind screaming through the upper conning tower hatch to satisfy the last dying gasps of the main engines. Simultaneously, I tucked my binoculars into my shirt, to prevent them ricocheting between my teeth and the rungs of the two ladders I had to clear on the way to my diving station. I grabbed the rails above the upper-conning-tower hatch, and dropped down ten feet into conn, "Starboard lookout down," I shouted as I spun around to my right, grabbed the lower-conning tower hatch handball, and dropped down another ten feet to the Control Room.
The port lookout was immediately behind me, "Port lookout down."
The OOD, who took two seconds to ensure that no one was left topside, heard the hissing of Bow-Buoyancy Tank's whale-blow as air gushed from the tank to make room for thirty-two tons of seawater, and then the noisy gurgling of air rapidly escaping the Main Ballast tanks. Three-hundred and sixty tons of seawater forced all the air, which had been keeping the ship afloat, from the buoyancy tanks through their vent valves.
The Quartermaster (QM) squeezed his body against the upper-hatch cowling, dodging the OOD's boots. The OOD dropped loudly onto the conn deck plates, holding with both hands onto small wooden handles on the steel lanyard attached above the hatch dogging-wheel, "Bridge clear, last man down," He shouted, as the lanyard pulled the hatch shut.
The QM reached over his head and dogged it down with the speed-handle on the wheel. "Three men down," he confirmed.
After he had closed the Main Induction valve hydraulically from his station, the Chief of the Watch (COW) had waited until he heard the second dive command and then pulled the levers opening the vents for the main ballast tanks. He glanced at the hull-opening indicators, and shouted, "Main induction shut. Green board," just as the OOD hit the Control Room deck on the opposite side of the main-gyro chart table.
"Main Induction shut and locked," shouted the duty cook squinting into the red-lighted darkness of the Control Room through the After Battery watertight door.
Fifteen seconds after the command to clear the bridge, I had pressed the switch to rig out the bow-planes, and was sitting at the stern-planes.
The OOD acknowledged the COW's report, and said, "Full dive, both planes," to Ralph and me.
Shouting up into the darkness of the Conning tower, he said, "Submerging to six-zero feet. Pressure in the boat."
"Very well, Mr. Moss," came the Captain's voice from above, "I have the Conn."
Razorback was at fifty-eight feet, periscope depth, forty-nine seconds after the diving alarm had sounded. Mr. Moss pumped a thousand pounds of seawater from forward trim tank to sea, and the ship was in trim. Her weight in the water was nearly zero; she had reached a point almost exactly between a bubble and a rock. On the surface, she displaced more than two thousand tons, so when that amount of water was allowed inside her buoyancy tanks, she was capable of moving smoothly up or down at the slightest speed with the aileron-effects of her planes.
Honolulu and Adak hadn't impressed me, so I was naturally alert whenever the old salts talked about liberty in foreign ports. The Chief of the Watch was arguing with an older chief, "You're too goddam skinny to appreciate oriental women." My ears perked.
"Shit, I was charting Japanese bars when you were still in diapers chasing coon-dogs," came the quick reply. "There's this gal in the White Hat Club named Kieko . . ."
"Ain't got nothin' to do with your longevity. Point is, your skinny ass ain't wide enough to stretch it tight. Might as well be doin' Snorkel Pat back in Frisco." Interrupted the COW.
I had been doing a very good job of holding the ship at my ordered half-degree down-bubble until then, but the conversation required more concentration than I was capable of, and I wasn't paying attention; Ralph was having trouble holding depth with the bow planes because of me.
"What's he talking about . . . stretching?" I whispered to him.
"Put some dive on your gadam planes, you've got a two-degree down-bubble," he snarled. After I had made the adjustment, he said, "You know, their slanted thing-a-ma-bob . . . There you go, she's coming up."
I guess I had a blank stare on my face, because he clarified, "The vaj-na, Hillbilly; you know, slanted, like their eyes. Stretches tight the more they spread their knees."
The Skipper hollered down from the Conn, "Scope's under. Get me up!"
I'd managed to let the ship get down to sixty-five feet, so the diving officer growled, "Watch your depth. Five-eight feet!"
"Hey Cherry-boy," the Auxilaryman on the trim manifold asked as soon as we regained our ordered depth, "Never been to Japan before?" Trying to whisper something confidential to a friend on the bow planes on a submarine was exactly like being nonchalant about flatulence in church.
The COW on the vent manifold and the Interior Communications Electrician both shook their head somberly. I wasn't really a bad planesman, and I wasn't that naive, but the conversation was all about this thing I'd never actually seen, so I managed to get chewed out several more times by the Diving Officer for not paying attention to my bubble.
"Prepare to surface, three engines," finally came the command over the 1MC.
"All ahead full," said the OOD.
Wait, Wait, I was thinking, we ain't done yet. Suddenly I was back on lookout watch not remembering how I'd gotten there. I shook my head and got back to earth, Turns for port! I'll be in Japan for my eighteenth birthday . . . seems like yesterday I was on Beer Can Hill.
It had been a dozen years after WW II, and my only memories of wartime were being taught how to ski by the men of the Tenth Mountain Division, who were training there, and throwing up from overeating green ice cream. Peppermint ice cream - all a person could eat - had been free to kids in Leadville on VJ-Day. I vaguely remembered posters saying, "Let's Sink This Yellow S.O.B." below Tojo's picture, but SOB's, being male by definition, weren't on my mind. The crew members who'd sailed these Nipponese waters before had never so much as mentioned the existence of a male Japanese population. They spoke endlessly though, of uniquely magnificent females, all of whom could turn a guy every which way but loose.
Slanted eyes, and vaj-nas, I thought, Only people who are prejudiced judge people on differences in appearance, I'd been taught that, but still . . . Our wake trailed out aft like a straight line cut in the ocean, and the waters turned deep blue as we entered the Kuroshio current and the bone was a contrastingly brilliant white.
On my first day in Japan, not being in a liberty section, I was priming bare spots on the bridge near the upper Conning-Tower hatch. Submarines normally used local yard birds from the base shipyard to scrape, prime, and paint the ship when it returned from a long patrol, so there were several of them aboard. I was up to date on my quals but the Chief of the Boat thought I might as well do some voluntary painting so I would remember not to get behind again. Glancing enviously at some shipmates getting into a taxi on the pier, I absently kicked a gallon can of zinc-chromate primer and it dumped down the hatch onto an old Japanese man who had been working on the ladder below. He was covered from head to toe in green paint, and bowing as though he was apologizing to me for his carelessness.
Just moments ago, I had been wondering. Could the old guy have been a Zero Pilot or a Japanese sub-sailor during the War? And, more philosophically, Was he ashamed or angry about what his government had done to his country? I tried wiping the paint from his eyes, but he backed away, bowing. I attempted to wipe green paint from the cabling in the Conning Tower bilges, but the guy went to his knees in front of me and wouldn't let me clean up my own mess. He had a glistening gold front tooth, just like the picture in the poster, as he smiled and bowed his head. Had he hated Americans then, as much as he apparently feared us now? I felt like a reluctant slave-owner. I had a knot in my gut because my slave was half my size and twice my age, and he kept grinning at me because I'd poured paint in his eyes.
I felt funny about the incident, so later that day after I got my Emergency Lighting drawing signed off, I mentioned it up in the Crew's Mess - where any problem could be presented, if not solved, by whoever happened to be there drinking diesel-scented coffee. Every submarine has a guy who reads the dictionary at sea instead of Louis L'Amore paperbacks, so "inscrutable" was inevitably defined. That didn't impress me too much, because I already knew that I didn't understand my reaction to the Japanese guy's reaction. Then some twidget said that the Japanese were the most polite people on earth; therefore, I should never confuse courtesy with inferiority. I was aware, by that time, that a twidget was an ordinary person who had been repeatedly hit on the head with Class "A" School books until he saw tiny little birds revolving around in his skull. Those who first made the mental leap to orbiting electrons were made Electronics or Sonar or Fire Control Technicians and sent to submarines. Twidgets said specific things like, "Ahh . . . Ha," or, "Eureka," when they fixed broken equipment; they had astrological opinions about everything else. Not everything in the Crew's Mess made sense, but I knew that wisdom sometimes lurked there, so I listened to it all.
A Torpedoman, who knew what "sailing the Horn" meant, said that any sailor who gives a shit, about shit like that, ain't worth a shit. Finally, an After Engine Room snipe, who'd sailed all seven seas, advised me that softening up the local gals with oriental politeness could buy almost as much affection as money. I thought that the notion was either as simplistic as its source or a trap, but it had served to bring a useless discussion around to females. The conversation evolved to Japanese females, and finally, to Japanese female anatomy.
Now that we were at the pier, the subject having been brought up again in the Crew's Mess, previous discussions of oriental body parts were revived and became ever more detailed. Nevertheless, unlike the watchstanders in the Control Room at sea, these guys were obviously sincere, and in possession of real knowledge, judging by the great detail with which they described the inconceivable. I decided to put on a poker face for the time being - I'd find out for myself soon enough. By the time I'd hit the rack to rest for tomorrow's liberty, I was feeling more assured about Japan, having completely forgotten that males existed - and particularly the one I'd painted. It was never clear to me whether I had learned profound life-lessons in the Crew's Mess, or had just witnessed mountainous problems being hammered into insignificant molehills.
At long last, I made it ashore to the Starlight Bar in Yokosuka. A dozen girls, possibly because of my anticipation, completely erased any memory I had of Leadville's finest. One gal, aloof in her floor-length Kimono, was named Sacheko. I suddenly understood magnificent. She exuded the promise of long thighs and firm bosoms - which the other girls openly displayed - but her Kimono hid the enchanting mysteries from all eyes but mine. I was in love. She made my ears burn. I could have written poetry, but couldn't think of anything to rhyme with vaj-na. One shipmate commented that I looked as horny as a two-peckered owl, which helped the others recognize my state, and they backed off compassionately. They even loaned me money and guarded my privacy in a booth where I impressed Sacheko with my Colorado-cowboy background.
"Hell yeah, I'd rode horses . . . killed me a bear when I was three."
We smooched passionately - as if I had been a millionaire and there were no tomorrow - because I was a non-qual. I had not yet earned the right to wear Silver Dolphins on my chest, so I had to be back at the ship at midnight.
When most of the money I could borrow was gone, Sacheko decided that we should go to the Navy Exchange and get her a bar of Ivory Soap and then take a cab to her place. We walked, holding hands, for nearly as long as we had ridden in the cab. Her Kimono's silk swished beside me and her wooden shoes clicked on the cobblestones. We strolled up narrow streets and down dark alleys, across long wooden bridges and small boards over sewer-filled binjo ditches. I had time to think briefly of my old Company Commander. Destroyers never came into isolated ports like Yokosuka. Eat your heart out, I mumbled. We walked through other peoples' back yards and their houses until we finally came to her room. It was about the size of the Crew's Mess, with paper and bamboo sliding-doors on all four sides. There were spotless straw floor-mats and a tatami. A dim light glowed on a small dresser. I put down the shoes I'd been carrying, and was finally alone with Sacheko. I was surprised that paradise was so small.
She daintily untied her Obi, and removed several layers of Kimono, folding each item neatly and placing it in a pile. Half dressed, she poured me a drink from the bottle of Grant's we'd bought with the Ivory soap, and before I could finish it, she had signaled with her tiny fingers that it was time. I'd been chanting, check out the vaj-na, check out the vaj-na, but when I looked into her deep almond eyes, I forgot to. Once her splendidly-naked body was in drool-inducing Technicolor, unlike my wildest black-and-white imaginings, I forgot my name. She pulled me gently down onto the tatami. All the fireworks I had ever seen were detonated in a single second of time . . .
When we had been rolling together on the straw mat and wrapping ourselves in each other's arms for about fifteen seconds, she said, very slowly, "What time - you have - be back? It - is - yevan tuttie." Fifteen seconds is much, much, longer than it sounds.
Sacheko called through a sliding door for someone to help us find a taxicab while I struggled with my thirteen-buttons, and tried to get my socks on in the next fifteen seconds. I made it back to the ship about fourteen seconds before midnight, all buttons buttoned.
The boat went to sea the next day, and visited several other ports where I was fortunate enough to appreciate that even a blind pigboat sailor sometimes finds an acorn. Female affection in Hong Kong was a little more expensive than Japan. Subic Bay was a little cheaper. Nowhere was it free. Booze was about the same cost everywhere. My only bad investment was a forty-dollar, does-everything camera in Okinawa with three lenses, with which I took two-and-a-half rolls of film, and then sold for ten bucks. I was learning to slow down a little and smell the roses, but I'd left my heart in Yokosuka.
Our submarine got back to Yoko about two months later. On the way to the Starlight, I spotted a gal, in a short tight dress, with the kind of calf muscles that grab a guy's eyeballs and makes him run into things. She'd stopped most of the sailors in Skivvie Alley dead in their tracks - but not me. She walked right past the Starlight's door, and I slowed down. Nevertheless, I stuck to my mission, turned left, refocused for darkness, and walked on in.
Another submarine had just come in from Northern patrol, which explained why our Welcome Razorback sign was gone, and why the other ship's younger guys were throwing five-dollar Scrip Notes around like Monopoly money. I had carefully calculated that I had only two-weeks' pay, minus what I owed for shenanigans in Subic Bay, but I still managed to underestimate the competition. Sacheko was sitting with an older guy from the other boat, so I ambled over to her table and said, "Howdy, I'm back." She didn't seem to recognize her cowboy. The guy frowned, and her face was blank.
I thought that she had recovered nicely and was extremely polite when she introduced me, but when she told him my name was Arthur, I had a real problem maintaining my poker face. The old petty officer frowned again, so I figured I'd better get a beer to plan my next move and patch up my damaged heart. I went to the end of the bar nearest the door and ordered a beer. Before it had arrived, they had walked right past me and out the door - arm in arm, together.
Two and a half beers later, I was still revising battle plans when the gal with the calves came cautiously into the Starlight. She had been blinded by the bright sunlight outside, so I jumped like a rabbit to her aid. It wasn't that I needed consolation, or that my hormones were in back in gale-force mode; it was just the gentlemanly thing to do, since I happened to be closest to the door.
Except for the over-packed sweater, she could have been called petite. An older woman, about twenty-two or twenty-three, she wanted to be called Mickey. We hit it off right away, and I allowed myself to be consoled. She repeated my name, "Lawn," several times sweetly, and our relationship developed smoothly. I bought her several bars of Ivory in the next two days even though she never asked for it and I had no idea why it was considered so valuable. She wasn't my first love, but I recognized that she appreciated me far more than Sacheko had, because she let me keep enough of my paycheck for Lucky Strikes and toothpaste. She had marvelous legs, and great chest muscles too. When she wore anything more low-cut than a turtleneck, she could make a sailor dribble beer on his neckerchief and give his dog tags away. I had no problem with that though, because no one ever wore them on the boats anyway. Submariners weren't likely to need battlefield identification.
The ship ran through a typhoon on the way back to the States - which was another great adventure - and I had finally finished my qualifications, and earned my Dolphins. I wore them on my next trip to Leadville where they seemed to impress Ashley, who was still blonde and beautiful. Ashley asked me what my Dolphins symbolized, but I only had a week's leave, and a one-track mind, so I never got around to fully explaining their significance. I had a great time, while trying every devious trick and offering every promise I could think of, but by the end of my leave I could feel my virginity growing back.
She wrote to me for about six months after I returned to my submarine, but since I was back in the Western Pacific, my outgoing mail wasn't too regular. I had written passionately and sincerely enough, but apparently, frequently would have been better. After I'd been in three or four ports in a row with no mail, I complained through the mail. A month later, I wrote and told her I'd bought us a set of Noritake China, and was really trying really hard to be faithful. Her answers took a while, and she finally sent me a "Dear John, I married a guy in the Air Force," letter. It ended as I'd expected: "I hope we can still be friends." At least she hadn't said I was funny.
I never did discover how Ashley managed to find a fly-boy in Leadville, but the next time I went home, Tania was married, Ashley was gone, and my mom was extremely proud of court receipts showing I'd paid back all the auto insurance companies, and my pending award of a Navy Good Conduct medal - which she reluctantly believed had more to do with not getting caught than behaving well.
She was ecstatic about the Wheat Pattern on her Noritake.