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Once Upon a Time, By Bob ‘Dex’ Armstrong

Once Upon a Time, By Bob ‘Dex’ Armstrong

One of the benefits of growing old is the gift of time…  Time to look back and revisit your collective ‘Life Experiences.’

For old smokeboat sailors, that means time to shuffle through memories of pissing against the wind in faded soft dungarees, frayed raghats and zinc chromate-spattered broghans.  You can close your eyes and be transported back to a time when men wore acid-eaten uniforms, breathed air worse than the primate house at a poorly managed zoo, whittled mold and rot off food of advanced age being reclaimed by the gods of putrification, and surgically carving off the stuff and eating it.  You survived and built up an immunity that could handle leprosy, lockjaw and cobra bites.  We survived.  Submarine duty was rough.

 Many of us ‘hotsacked’.  For those of you who missed that life experience, hotsacking was sharing sleeping arrangements (to put it in easily understood terms).  A system that required lads at the entry level of the undersea service profession, to crawl onto a sweat-soaked flashpad just vacated by another bottom-feeding shipmate.  Lads of today’s modern technically advanced undersea service would find it damn near impossible to imagine a day when lads who hadn’t showered in weeks, climbed a tier of racks sharing sock aroma on par with three-day old roadkill, with his bunkmates…  A time when raghats communally shared blankets that looked like hobo camp hand-me-downs.

 It was a time when the common denominator of the naval supply system was the cockroach, with the longevity of Jack LaLanne.  Cockroaches that could deflect claw-hammered blows and could reach rodeo entry size.

 In the late 50′s, the submarines built in the twilight years of World War II were rapidly approaching an advanced age comotose state.  The navy quit making many of the replacement parts for these seagoing antiques, so we cannibalized the boats in line heading to the scrapyard.  It was like harvesting organs from a dead Rockette to keep the chorus line going.  After decommissioning, the old boats would have electricians and machinists crawling all over them with shopping lists and wrenches.

 Memory is a wonderful God-given gift.  There were sunrises and sunsets, rolling seas, visits to exotic places, and ladies with loose panty elastic and no AIDS.  There were consumable combustibles on par with the liquids that propel hardware to outer space.

It was a time when the world’s population loved the American submariner.  Boatsailors in port meant good times, hell-raising and calling in the night shift at the local brewery.  It was a time when the United States Navy had no recruitment problems, paid no incentive money and had to kiss no butts to entice grown men into accepting their manly obligation to their nation.  Men signed up for undersea service, motivated by patriotic obligation, a sense of history and adventure, and to follow the gallant submariners who rode the boats against the Japanese empire.  We wanted to wear the distinctive insignia universally recognized as the symbol of the most successful and demanding submarine service on earth.

We were proud.  We had a right to be.  We were accepted as the downline fraternity brothers of the courageous men who put Hirohito’s monkey band all over the floor of the Pacific.  We rode their boats, ate at their mess tables, slept in their bunks and plugged the ever-increasing leaks in the hulls they left us.  We patted the same barmaid butts they had patted when they were far younger and half as wide.  We carved our boats names and hull numbers on gin mill tables in places that would give Methodist ministers cardiac arrest.

 We danced with the devil’s mistress and all her naughty daughters.  We were young, testosterone-driven American bluejackets and let’s face it…  Every girl in every port establishment around the globe both recognized and appreciated the meaning of a pair of Dolphins over a jumper pocket.  Many of these ladies were willing to share smiles and body warmth with the members of America’s undersea service.

 It was a time when the snapping of American colors in the ports of the world stood for liberation from tyranny and the American sailor in his distinctive uniform and happy-go-lucky manner, stood for John Wayne principles and a universally recognized sense of decency, high ideals and uncompromised values.

 It was in every sense of the term, ‘A great time to be an American sailor’.

 There were few prohibitions.  They were looked upon as simply unecessary.  It was a time when ‘family values’ were taught at family dinner tables, at schools, the nation’s playing fields, scout troops, Sunday school or other institutions of worship.  We were a good people and we knew it.

 We plowed the world’s oceans guarding her sea lanes and making her secure for the traffic of international commerce.  But at eighteen, let’s face it…  We never thought much about the noble aspect of what we were doing.  Crews looked forward to the next liberty port, the next run, home port visits, what the boat was having for evening chow, the evening movie after chow, or which barmaids were working at Bell’s that evening.  We were young, invincible and had our whole lives ahead of us.  Without being aware of it, we were learning leadership, acceptance of responsibility and teamwork in the finest classroom in the world…  A United States submarine.

 It was a simpler time.  Lack of complexity left us with clear-cut objectives and the ‘bad guys’ were clearly defined.  We knew who they were, where they were and that we had the means, will and ability to send them all off to hell in a fiery package deal.  We were the ‘good guys’ and literally wore ‘white hats’.

 What we lacked in crew comfort, technological advancements and publicity, we made up for in continuity, stability and love of our boats and squadrons.  We were a band of brothers and have remained so for over half a century.

 Since we were not riding what the present day submariner would call ‘true submersibles’, we got sunrises and sunsets at sea…  The sting of wind-blown saltwater on our faces…  The roll and pitch of heavy weather swells and the screech of seabirds.  I can’t imagine sea duty devoid of contact with these wonders.  To me, they are a very real part of being a true mariner.

 I’m glad I served in an era of signal lights…  Flag messaging…  Navigation calculation…  Marines manning the gates…  Locker clubs…  Working girls…  Hitchiking in uniform…  Quartermasters, torpedomen and gunner’s mates…  Sea store smokes…  Hotsacking…  Hydraulic oil-laced coffee…  Lousy mid rats…  Jackassing fish from the skids to the tubes…  One and two way trash dumping…  Plywood dog shacks…  Messy piers…  A time when the Chief of the Boat could turn up at morning quarters wearing a Mexican sombrero and Jeezus sandals…  When every E-3 in the sub force knew what paint scrapers, chipping hammers and wire brushes were for…  When JGs with a pencil were the most dangerous things in the navy…  When the navy mobile canteen truck was called the ‘roach coach’ and sold geedunk and pogey bait…  When the breakfast of champions was a pitcher of Blue Ribbon, four Slim Jims, a pack of Beer Nuts, a hard-boiled egg, and a game of Eight Ball.

 It was a time when, if you saw a boatsailor with more than four ship’s patches on his foul weather jacket, he was at least fifty years old and a lifer.  A time when skippers wore hydraulic oil-stained steaming hats and carried a wad of binocular wipes in their shirt pockets.  In those days, old barnicle-encrusted chiefs had more body fat than a Hell’s Angel, smoked big, fat, lousy smelling cigars or ‘chawed plug’, and came with a sewer digger’s vocabulary.

 It was a time where heterosexuals got married to members of the opposite sex or patronized ‘working girls’, and non-heterosexuals went Air Force…  Or Peace Corps.

 It was a good time…  For some of us, the best time we would ever have.  There was a certain satisfaction to be found in serving one’s country without the nation you so dearly loved having to promise you enlistment bonuses, big whopping education benefits, feather bed shore duty, or an ‘A’ school with a sauna and color TV.  It was a time when if you told a cook you didn’t eat Spam or creamed chipped beef, everybody laughed and you went away hungry…  And if you cussed a messcook, you could find toenail clippings in your salad.

 Our generation visited cemetaries where legends of World War II undersea service were issued their grass blankets, after receiving their pine peacoats and orders to some old hull number moored at the big silver pier in the sky.  We were family…  Our common heritage made us brothers.

 There came a point where we drew a line through our names on the Watch, Quarter and Station Bill, told our shipmates we would see them in hell, shook hands with the COB, paid back the slush fund, told the skipper ‘goodbye,’ and picked up a disbursing chit and your DD-214.  We went up on Hampton Boulevard, bought a couple of rounds at Bells, kissed the barmaids, gave Thelma a hug, then went out to spend the rest of our lives wishing we could hear, “Single up all lines…” just one more time.



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