scrapbook letters

Sailors have more fun

Reading some of my old letters my late mother kept in her scrapbook, I appreciate jogging memories of my initial service in the Navy forty years ago. At the time, I was stuck in limbo, waiting on orders, waiting on a medical evaluation, and bored. I had spent eighteen months training for a career as an electronics technician in San Diego, in Illinois, in Florida and again in San Diego. When I had received an opportunity to attend the Naval Academy, a medical evaluation accompanying the selection board was possibly going to prevent that. In the meantime, I was assigned to support a correctional unit on Naval Training Center San Diego, to guard and escort sailors confined and others pending transfer to the Naval Brig.

“January 13 1978

I was paid this morning and I have finally got some money in my pocket after being in the depths of poverty for the last week. I’ve been keeping a budget book to account for every penny. Setting aside a $120 to send to you to save for me, I spent most of my last paycheck on a stereo receiver and headphones. I got a great deal as the stereo store said it was a trade-in and not brand-new.

I have been chugging away at BE & E. My Learning Supervisor is better at getting the material across to me than reading the book. And I am frustrated at the computer based training – that I am taking remedial tests every time.

Next weekend I am thinking of the YMCA’s military special to Disneyland – everything including bus ride and ticket, for $14.75…. “

When I read these letters I recall that my focus was split between very difficult technical training, spending money slower than earning it, having a good time, and the things a sailor thinks about: cars, girls, staying out of trouble, and so on. And taking care of my mom.

“February 18, 1978

…it’s been a week since I was home for that short visit…. I’m expecting to finish BE and E School (Basic Electricity and Electronics) in seven working days and then ice and snow! (I was scheduled to transfer for further training at the Great Lakes NTC north of Chicago) I have been trying to spend money and save it at the same time….

I bought two books ” How to Buy Stocks” and “How to Build a Fortune Investing in Land””

“July 3 1978

Class 7825C, ET/A school Bldg 520, Great Lakes Training Center: Thunder and lightning this weekend. Thank you for the ever-increasing moral support. It helps this “screw-up” when I seem to be trying and trying over these multiple -choice tests and I miss the question because I don’t put down my first choice but over think them! Why can’t I learn! Some solace in that I got my PO3 raise today. A whole $10.

Congratulations on your new friend and you both seem to be on the same “astral plane”. And my little sister has a boyfriend! She is growing up fast. I ran into a friend who is very close to a bachelors degree having taking a lot of courses through the CLEP tests. He’s looking at Officer Candidate School and making some career-connections with several officers involved in the program. He’s shared with me several of the courses and tests to take should the Annapolis thing not get accepted. Studying electronics harder will give me a mental breakdown. I need some thing different.

I looked at that Naval Academy application. I think they want someone who is a cross between O.J. Simpson and Albert Einstein, not me!”

In the year between my initial training in San Diego, and returning back to San Diego, I had been undergoing technical training and screening for a government security clearance. Between the training, standing watches, and liberty in Chicago and Milwaukee, I was also trying to figure out if I could afford a TransAm like one in the movie Smokey and the Bandit. It was nearly eleven thousand dollars. I couldn’t. I did learn a lot about weather. Playing pool in the barracks. Guys who were playing some role-playing fantasy called Dungeons and Dragons. A summer music festival at the Navy Pier in Chicago. And working on cars. Being in the best physical shape of my life while in Pensacola, Florida. Running several miles a few times a week that started from a dare between roommates in the barracks while attending CT – school. A circuit of the base, inside the fence was about four miles. We would run it twice a night.

“Letter dated August 2 – 5, and 8, 1979

Dear Mother,

It’s the second day of August, and in one day following the most insane twenty-four hours I have yet spent at TPU (ed: Transient Personnel Unit), I think I shall be ready for the funny farm very soon. 

Let me tell you some of the the goings-on at our “Hotel California”.  Yesterday, we got a new boatload of lunies (sic) plus one who is trying to put one over on us that he’s nuts, and he is getting my goat.

Another case is my boss Chief Heller.  His retiring soon and he continues to drop in on Bldg 23 if only to holler and cuss everyone.  It is just as if he’s giving out a daily dose of castor oil. 

Still another example was last night’s supposed-to-work-flawlessly relief of the day watch. A PO1(Petty Officer First Class) who knew he had duty never showed up, and despite all my efforts couldn’t be found anywhere on-base.  No one knew who I was looking for- even though he was supposedly assigned to the same working area!  So, as a result, an overworked PO2, a good friend of mine, was forced to stay all night as well as his morning workday.

In addition, I was forced to work late (a 13-hour day) which it turns out shall be my regular working hours.  It was either that or work 10 hours plus have an extra watch in TPU every three days.

August 3rd

Today was continued insanity when, in the early afternoon, one of our “mental” cases went berserk and smashed a wood-covered (barricaded) window with a chair. He demanded to go to the brig or he would do more damage! It’s a good thing I don’t sleep there- I don’t know if some night I might get my throat cut by one of these scumbags. 

Tonight I went to the PO Club with two friends, George, who works in the NTC Police/Decal Office, and June who also works there.  We all had a good time.  But what occurred later is interesting. Well, June got very drunk, I was sober and George nearly so. June had to be talked into being escorted to her barracks. George (who went with her) in her car and I followed behind in mine.  June wandered all over the road at speed and I sped up to catch her.  And out of the dark an NTC (Naval Training Center) police vehicle pulled ME over.  Luckily, he was a friend but since I was “rocketing along” at 20 or 30 MPH, he wouldn’t let me drive back to TPU. A quarter-mile walk later I was sober; June was the one all over the road – I’m sure the cop saw her.  That will be the last of my “good Samaritan” gestures.

August 5, 1979

Yesterday I finally bought the 10-speed bicycle I was [going to get you] shopping two weeks.   I’m sure you will love it, as a matter of fact I wanted to buy one for myself from the same people.  Now I have only one detail to work out and that is how to get it home.   Two possibilities are open to me, but I don’t know how much it will cost me to ship it, so if you don’t mind I am going to wait till I hand-deliver it.

 In other news I have been heartened by a lot of mail, especially yours and from Nana, but I’m going through a lot of ups and downs.  I’m almost at the end of my rope as far as this Restriction/ CC (Correctional Custody) “babysitter” job goes.  Today I got yelled at for these a@#$@#$ goofing off even as I have been trying to imitate Attila the Hun with them .

August 8th

I’m starting another entry in the ‘journal’ after putting the pen down for two days. I am just putting down thoughts as they come to mind. My mind is awfully screwed being run ragged.  I think I will drop this topic in favor of other topics to ramble on about.

Tomorrow I’ll begin packing a few things for the trip to San Francisco and I’m going to hopefully make a weekend out of it.  What is your reaction to the earthquake this week? It think it is about time for the city to fall into the sea?

It’s all a bit tedious.  I’ll hopefully be home sooner or later. “

Jerry Reed, Chicago Navy Pier; BEE barracks; Sears Tower, Chicago; New Orleans French Quarter; Gulf beach near Panama City, FL

These letters bring back some of the missing names – and the memory -recalling the faces of those Chiefs at TPU. These memories seem as fresh as having occurred yesterday. The more I recall of those months in school, in training, and time at the transient barracks, I am amused by the complaining, angst, self-righteousness, stubbornness, and shock of having to work long hours. In this particular letter, the reference to “Hotel California” my mother probably would have missed – her musical taste was stuck in the early 1960s and she never heard of the Eagles. But I was fortunate that my mother, who pursued a second career as a college English teacher around that time, and worked a full-time nursing job, never pointed out my ‘overworked’ complaints. As I look back after forty years of military and civilian jobs – on my youngest co-workers and their peers – their complaints about fairness, working conditions, and emotional safe-spaces are more their age than something “we” never did.

The U.S. Navy turns 243

The United States Navy turns 243 on October 13th.   And one of the nation’s most cherished – and still active – icons of naval  heritage, the frigate USS CONSTITUTION is a little more than 220 years old.

To mark this occasion, as well as the other services on their annual birthday,  my employer honors  veterans in our workforce.   This year,  as a result of some unexpected events, I was offered the role of the “emcee” for the after-work celebration.   Cake, some “refreshments”,  sea stories, and naval lore and trivia for employees in attendance who had not served in the Navy.

And I entertained our friends with a little monologue and trivia.

Navy Trivia

Important dates in history

  • OCT 13 1775   Continental Congress authorizes construction of a Naval force.
  • April 1798    creation of the Department of the Navy
  • 1797   USS Constitution launched
  • 1803 -1805   Barbary war
  • 1812 -1815   War of 1812    “Old Ironsides” defeated 3 British warships

Nautical and Naval lore

  1. Which of the following are true?
    1. The ditty bag used to be called a “ditto bag” because there were two of everything in it.
    2. The flaps on crackerjacks were designed to keep hair grease off the back of the uniform.
    3. Navy logs are named for the timber from which the paper was created.
    4. Boatswain’s Pipes originated in ancient galleys. One whistle meant “row.”
    5. “Chits” are named after Hindu slips of paper used in lieu of silver and gold.
    6. Uniform stars have “two points up”, instead of one (like you see in the flag) to symbolize the Navy’s defense of both coasts.
    7. Broadside is a large sheet of paper.
    8. “Cup of Joe” (coffee) comes from “the cup of Jonas.”
    9. A tattoo of a pig on one leg of a sailor and a rooster on the other is a charm against drowning.
    10. The term “sick bay” originated in ancient times, when hospital ships (called “immunes”) would accompany Caeser’s legions and were kept far from battle, normally in the calm waters of a bay.
    11. The only time 12 bells is sounded is at midnight on the Navy’s Birthday and on New Year’s Eve.
    12. S.O.S. stands for “Save Our Ship.”
    13. The P in P-Coat stands for Pilot.

Answers

  1. True
  2. 2. True
  3. False
  4. True
  5. True (“citthi”)
  6. False (the custom has no known origin)
  7. True
  8. False (named after Josephus Daniels – he’s the Secretary of the Navy who abolished alcohol on Navy ships in 1913.)
  9. True
  10. False (early hospital ships were called “immunes”, but the term “bay” comes from the round shape of ship sterns, resembling a bay.)
  11. False (only on New Year’s Eve)
  12. False (it doesn’t stand for anything)
  13. True (Pilot cloth or P-cloth was the fabric from which they were made.)

This was compiled from the NavyTimes Broadsides blog (Jeff Bacon), from The Goat Locker, the Naval Historical Center, GlobalSecurity.org, and Wikipedia.

Fun facts:  (USO.org)

  •  David Farragut, was the first admiral in the United States Navy.  He coined, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
  • Bravo Zulu means “well done”
  • Through World War II, sailors who did well were told “Tare Victor George,” which was code for “well done.” After the war, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed and it standardized communications. NATO created a system of B-flags for administrative communication. The last B-flag was BZ. The Allied Naval Signal Book created the phonetics for each letter and BZ became Bravo Zulu.
  • The Chief Petty Officer rank was established on 1 APRIL 1893
  • Depiction of fouled anchors,  in decoration, in the Chief Petty Officer insignia and in body art:

 If an anchor is fouled, it means the line or chain is wrapped around the shank and fluke arms. This indicates the anchor is no longer suitable for use. These retired anchors are usually displayed for decorative purposes on base or in Navy communities. The symbol is also part of the Chief Petty Officer rank insignia.  When used in body art, the fouled anchor represents a tour across the Atlantic Ocean.

Before everyone today under the age of fifty started getting tattoos,  the history of tattoos and the symbolism had a long nautical tradition. An article describes  significant tattoos, along with what each item means.

  • Swallows:Home (each denotes 5,000 miles at sea)
  • Compass/Nautical Star:Never losing one’s way (each denotes 10,000 miles at sea)
  • Trident:Special warfare
  • Rose:A significant other left at home
  • Twin screws or props on one’s backside:Propels one forward through life
  • Rope:Deckhand
  • Octopus:Navy diver
  • Dolphin:Wards off sharks
  • Sharks:Rescue swimmer
  • Polar bear:Sailed the Arctic Circle
  • Dragon:Sailed the Pacific
  • Fouled anchor:Sailed the Atlantic
  • Turtle:Crossed the equator
  • Gold dragon:Crossed the International Dateline
  • Gold turtle:Crossed the International Dateline and the Equator where they intersect
  • Emerald fouled anchor:Crossed the Prime Meridian
  • Emerald turtle:Crossed the Prime Meridian and the Equator where they intersect
  • Full-rigged ship:Sailed around Cape Horn
  • Helm:Quartermaster
  • Pin-up girls:Company at sea/port call
  • Hula girls:Sailed to or ported in Hawaii
  • Dagger through a swallow:Signifies a lost comrade
  • Pig and chicken:Superstition to keep from drowning
  • The words “HOLD FAST”:Signifies a deckhand’s tight grip on the lines

balls to four

In naval terminology, and in many other workplaces, the twenty-four hour clock is used.  The first hours of the new day are called “zero”  as in “zero-thirty” or 1230 AM,  or “zero -three hundred” for 3 AM.  Sailors have a particular term for the mid-watch, between midnight and 4 AM,  the “balls to four” watch.

Personally, I prefer the ‘balls to four’ than the ‘zero-four to eight’ watch.  Because I was often working till late into the night aboard ship,  and then getting a little rest, only to be wakened at 0315 to relieve the off-going watch by 0345.   And as you get older you appreciate sleep more – I stood most of these watches in my early Thirties.  I was just into that deep, wonderful place, seeming moments before someone roused me for my watch.

This morning,  Tuesday, is one of those mornings!  For the briefest of moments around 3 AM,  I was in my sweet spot.  And then my wife, who is boarding a flight today at “zero six” to visit the grandchild (and his parents) stirred me.  For the briefest “Inception” (the movie) -like moments,  I was in my rack with some Sailor shining his flashlight telling me it was time to relieve the watch.  ARRRGH!

My wife is mostly a light-sleeper.  I am one not by choice nor biology.    I was on standby to drive her to the airport should our son (the one who does not work the nursing Third Shift) fail to arrive at “oh-dark-thirty” to pick Mom up for the airport drop-off.

Well,  the son did make it.  Mom’s got her mother and son time this morning. I’ve had two cups of coffee and been blogging for an hour.   What the hell?   It is going to be okay.   I will get at least seven nights of solid sleep before I pick her up coming back.

image01615

Condition Zebra

CPO_coverTwo retired Chief Petty Officers meeting over cigars one evening were only casually known to one another.  Two other veterans and two others, a high school wrestling coach and an auto mechanic were all enjoying the late afternoon absently watching a baseball game on the television.   As the cigar burned to a nub,  the two salt- and barnacle-encrusted old seafarers became fast friends.  It is the shared experience of Navy life. Deployments, wartime, and good and lousy beer five thousand miles away from home. Sharing stories of Red light districts and Shore Patrol.  Looking out for our shipmates who may have enjoyed liberty a bit much.

When did you serve?

Went to bootcamp, in San Diego, in ’77.

Oh, I went through RTC in Orlando in ’78.  I retired in ’99.   

You ?

2010.

Shellback ?  Oh yeah,  I remember those @#$# shelaylee (shillelagh)   

Went through 3 times. Wog first deployment and then Shellback for the next two crossings.

They used GREASE!  Took forever to get it out of my hair.  @#@#$@#!   

Did away with it ten years ago.  Sailors just aren’t tough anymore.

What about Chief’s initiation? They are bringing it back?  Great.

It was a great life.

Yeah. It was a great life!

Gotta be moving on.  CINCHOUSE is expecting me. 

Underway.  Shift colors.

w12-1-mail-buoy

Our other pals looked quietly confused;  all they heard was gibberish.

 

When in little Moscow

American sailors on liberty in Pusan, South Korea before 1999 used to talk about going to Texas Street. Dive bars and cheap eats.

When I visited Pusan in 1999 while aboard USS CORONADO, I remember a Russian carrier in port. Russian bar girls. To avoid uncomfortable conversations, my shipmate and I had a line popularized by Steven Segal: “I’m just a cook!” Didn’t see any Russian sailors. But I picked up a few words in Russian.

красивая девушка

I don’t know what it’s like today, but I left there thinking the bar district had become “Russia Street”.

Learned a little bit about being stationed in South Korea. I learned how to order a Starbucks in Korean. “Grande Mocha”.

IMG_5618And I know not to enter any Asian establishment with a “barber pole” out front. Was told they were “massage” parlors. Wonder if they also do haircuts?

Foreign travel sure is educational.

Haze gray memories

All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.
~John F. Kennedy , Newport dinner speech before America’s Cup Races, Sept. 1962

I have never learned to sail a wind-driven vessel, nor do I recall the difference between a sloop and a ketch. That said, it does not mean I have no familiarity with ships, storms, life aboard ship, or the special bond that seafaring men (or women) have as a crew at sea.  For eight years out of a twenty-six year Navy career, I was a member of ships company, on a Virginia-class cruiser, a Spruance -class destroyer, and a converted amphibious transport dock-turned-command ship (for the U.S. THIRD Fleet).  I have spent months at sea repetitively in the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, Mediterranean,  and Caribbean Seas.  Perhaps the readers of this blog, merchantmen and military navymen (and women) have also looked upon Naples, Italy with Mount Vesuvius as a backdrop in the early morning.  As a Petty Officer on a ship that was one of the very first Navy visitors after forty years of the Cold War,  made port in Varna, Bulgaria. On deployment to enforce blockade of Saddam Hussein’s illicit oil trade after the Gulf War, transited the Suez Canal and made circles in the Red Sea. Like the apostles of Jesus two millennia ago, I walked the streets of old Jerusalem, visited Cyprus and Crete, Turkey and Greece.  Gazed upon the ruins of ancient seafaring civilizations four thousand years old.   I’ve ridden trains on a day’s liberty time as a Pacific Fleet sailor between Yokosuka and Tokyo, Japan,  and as an Atlantic Fleet one from Marseilles to Paris, France.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.
~John Masefield

A man I have known casually for years at a place I have written about many times, Liberty Tobacco, a cigar lounge in San Diego, California, is another Old Salt.  We both have long careers in the electronics industry and worked at some of the same places in San Diego.   But tonight we learned that we have been to the same places underway on ships,  and to shore stations around the country.  Twenty-five or thirty years ago is a long time in an age where, in a social media-world, memories last minutes or perhaps hours till another attention-seeker replaces them.

We shared memories of the school buildings for our respective Navy trades being across from one another on the shore of Lake Michigan.  We were assigned to electronics schools ( perhaps five years apart) at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago.  And we both have been through the fire-fighting trainer in Norfolk, Virginia. This is a large complex of buildings built to resemble shipboard compartments where fuel-oil fires are set ablaze.  Into the heat,  dense smoke, and real danger, crews are trained to combat them,  and to become familiar with all the tools and roles needed to fight and preserve a ship.  At sea, there is only your shipmates to keep your vessel afloat.

Other memories of putting to sea on your first ship get dusted off and refreshed while talking.   The times standing watch on the ship’s Quarterdeck in the middle of the night alongside the pier in Italy, you can chuckle about the garbage barge alongside – with something moving (not human) in the shadows.  Or noting wharf rats the size of cats rooting around a dumpster in the dark at the head of the pier. And realizing what “rat guards” on your mooring lines are designed to block.

Memories of winter rain in Panama that will soak you to the skin in minutes.  One of the wettest places on Earth,  the year-round rain recharges the waters in the Canal Zone powering the locks on each end of the Isthmus.  Swapping stories of liberty visits in ports ten time zones away from home that are extended to a month when a casualty occurs.   For one it was the ship’s screw (the propeller, in civilian-speak).  Without a shipyard and drydock, this enormous thing had to be replaced underwater by specially-trained teams.  For the other,  when a gas-turbine engine has to be flown from the USA and replaced in the Netherlands Antilles.  Due to a prior transit in a freshwater river in the Northeast USA, killing the built-up marine growth – and then immediate transit to the Caribbean resulted in the cooling inlets for that turbine being choked by dead organisms and engine destroyed by overheating.

The sea speaks a language polite people never repeat. It is a colossal scavenger slang and has no respect.
~Carl Sandburg

While some of my friends have experienced sea-sickness on a harbor ferry in San Diego bay, and worn the medical patches when first putting to sea on cruise ships and small frigates,  these aids may become unneeded when accustomed to life at sea for months at a time.   With merchantmen and Navymen, the camaraderie of sharing shipboard stories,  having weathered hurricanes and strong gales in the mid-Atlantic and off the western coast of Mexico transiting from the Panama Canal, the memories seem only days old instead of a quarter-century.   My shipmates and I have marveled at the  different colors of ocean water, the patterns of currents, bright sunshine and placid seas turn gray-black and stormy within hours.  I’ve been concerned for brightly color birds alighting on our ship as we leave port and then been still there twenty miles to sea.  Crossing the Equator and the International Date Line,  as a Navyman I have been both Pollywog and seasoned Shellback during the traditional ceremonies of the “Shellback Initiation”.

And some of the other ‘initiations’ like standing a first watch on the bridge – learning to always check your binoculars handed to you,  especially at night.  Some salty Bosun’ mate (Boatswains mate) may have first smeared a little shoe polish in the eyecups.   Or being especially vigilant while  manning instruments and reporting conditions during underway replenishment.  Any sailor will acknowledge the gait at sea is unique, an adaptation to simply performing your duties while the ship rolls in heavy seas.   Huge waves breaking over the bow of your ship become commonplace.  Watching a smaller vessel in your group seeming to disappear in the trough of the waves and then pop up as the waves crash by.  While performing maintenance on deck, looking out and seeing a small sailboat, manned by an individual sailor, pass alongside hundreds of miles from shore.

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever. Jacques Yves Cousteau (brainyquote.com)

For the many who are serving or have served honorably in uniform, we have a bond that few understand.  For those who have spent several months, several years, or a working life,  at sea, we have another strong bond that years and decades later we recall clearly.   Perhaps it is indeed the stirring of the salt in our blood,  the sea spray on our skin,  and the experience of working together in times of routine,  in danger and in emergencies when we all realize just how we are and will always be, Sailors.

[quotes, except where noted, via writebyte.net ]