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.

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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 ]

embrace of the sea

I am a happily married man and yet I have a mistress.  No, not that kind.  The Sea.

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

The sea used to call to me as a child.  I read stories about life at sea. I was fascinated by Jacques Cousteau’s shows exploring the sea.  As a youth, my family would frequently make the short drive to Half Moon Bay  from Belmont, California.  After body surfing and boogie-boarding in the cold ocean surf we would warm up by a bonfire on the beach.  Moved by my mother to to the Atlantic coast as a young teen,  I would swim and take a sailboat or rowboat out in the waters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts.   Though swept out to sea once by a rip current,  I responded by learning to snorkel and scuba dive.

There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and the sailor’s dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe. -Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast

I was a captive, not unwilling, during eight years assigned to Navy ships.  Then, I spurned my love-interest. I retired from the Navy.  As I  dallied with camping,  hiking, and cycling,  the sea called me back to her.   It was a recent cruise to the Caribbean that has me spellbound again.  I am not too old to don a wetsuit, or rent a boat, or take another cruise, all the while listening to Jimmy Buffett on the radio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jamaican smoke

“The most futile and disastrous day seems well spent when it is reviewed through the blue, fragrant smoke of a Havana Cigar”.
Evelyn Waugh

“Tobacco is the plant that converts thoughts into dreams”.
Victor Hugo

“If smoking cigars is not permitted in heaven, I won’t go”.
Mark Twain

NOTE:  the following may lead some to engage in foolish behavior,  potential pregnancies, fondness for dens of iniquity, and loose talk.  Forge ahead if you enjoy the company of Sailors, and  such things.

Writers, thinkers, curmudgeons, and satirists enjoyed a fine cigar.  Actors, artists, and politicians also, but it seems the powerful’s lesser vices these days involved tobacco.   Only in America, in 2017,  can we have a state, California,  that now frowns on the cigarette, pipe and cigar smoker, but promotes the consumption of marijuana.

What should an old curmudgeon, retired Chief, and blogger do?  Relax.  With a glass of Johnny Walker Black over ice,  and a  Jamaican -label Montecalvo cigar, purchased on my recent cruise in the Caribbean.    As another post-Thanksgiving day wanes,  it was an accomplished day: some writing, dogs groomed,  yard  trimmed, and exercise.  First a hike this morning and then a former pile of stones now have taken the shape I envisioned three weeks earlier.  Christmas yard ornaments are laid out.    Where a stress-filled work-day can be a disaster repaired with a good cigar, it has been a remarkably good day.

 

Takes one to know one

The last time I boarded a vessel the size of the Allure of the Seas, it was gray and I was an enlisted volunteer(ed) carrying equipment. While an aircraft carrier does not deploy lounge chairs nor launch aircraft, on this voyage, my wife and I saw divers launch into a pool several decks above the waterline. This was all part of an entertaining acrobatic and sychronized diving show.

However, the most entertaining part of this trip has been having brief conversations with passengers who are fellow veterans. You see, I wore my “Retired Navy” ballcap boarding in Florida and disembarking on our first port of call. From the first greeting in the line with a retired Bo’sun while getting registered at the embarkation terminal, to the Air Force vet my wife and I sat with at a dinner, to the Navy Vietnam Nam-era airdale, there have been a lot of quick greetings and instant recognition.

” I can recognize veterans”, one Navy wife said.  I think she actually said, she could “smell ’em a mile away”, but I knew what she meant. I think people who served have an instant kinship. One of my fellow passengers, a man and his wife about half my age went snorkeling with my buddy, me and four others at our stop in Haiti. He smiled knowingly, when I remarked how cool it was to be zooming away toward our dive spot in a RHIB. Most Navy people recognize this acronym as Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat. Yet I think he or possibly his wife, was Dutch or German.

Yeah. The folks who are frequent cruise vacationing people also seem to have that camraderie. Many start around our age. I think cruise veterans and particularly Navy veterans get the best new sea stories to swap with one another from trips like this. It does “take one to know one”.

(Image) The last time I was off the coast of Haiti (USS PETERSON)

Scoundrels, Sailors, and even a spy

Only in America would circumstances bring a first generation Polish-American Jew and a Scot-Irish Protestant together, fall in love and marry.   My parents met in New York City; I was born in San Jose, California. What little I knew of my father’s family, particularly my grandfather’s story,  began with his fondness for fisherman style caps, and a Russian phrase I later learned was a soldier’s response to orders given.   Only from clues from my aunt and searching the internet, was I able to tie a few of them together.

Since my Polish grandfather and his betrothed came to the United States through Canada in the early 1920s,  I can only imagine he learned the Russian if conscripted by the Bolshevik Army after the Revolution. They occupied part of Poland in those days.  He obviously escaped and made it to New York City becoming a U.S. citizen and finding work as a shipfitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.    I am particularly grateful, as I might have been Italian-American and an Army veteran, as my mother was previously very smitten with an Italian-American soldier,  given several pages of photographs and a few old letters I found after her death.   Then how would I have ever obtained the wife I have and become a retired crusty Senior Chief?   Like my eldest son today,  I am not great at marching nor am I particularly suited to running miles in combat boots.

My mother’s ancestors in Northern Ireland were mainly merchants and businessmen in the flax or finished linen industry.  In Scotland, some were town leaders (burgesses), maintained order, were metal workers, or were in the ministry.  However, in almost every generation going back to the early Sixteenth Century an ancestor served in the military, was involved in combat or insurrection, or had some colorful story that was almost lost to history.  One fought the British Army in a late-Eighteenth Century uprising in Ireland.   Some forebears served in the British Army,  some died in Colonial America, and some went to Australia.   While the British Empire exiled folks there centuries ago, it probably was due to military service or to seek one’s fortune.  And some others went to sea.  There is a story of  James Blaw,  a ship’s surgeon,  who was shipwrecked in the South Pacific and subsequently rescued, whom I identified from accounts digitized and made available online.

While my mother’s family line spent three hundred years in Ireland, they came from  Culross and Dunfermline, Scotland.    It was only due to the second son emigrating to Ulster in the 1600s  (and changing the spelling of his surname)  since it was his elder brother who inherited property.    But James Blow, as Scottish printer’s apprentice and then in Belfast, partner, who was to make the greater mark in family history.   It was his firm that printed one of the very first English Bibles in Ireland.

But our family is not without its scoundrels – or spies.  While descendents of the Ulster Blow  family pursued careers in the military, or life at sea, or emigrated to other lands of the British Empire,  a Scottish curmudgeon,  the printer’s elder brother,  John Blaw, was a courier and spy for Bonnie Prince Charlie, who at that time was exiled in France.

After that attempt to mount a return of the Jacobites failed, it seems Blaw, who never was the businessman his brother was, ended his days as a mean drunk.  After a bar fight -he was in his sixties at the time – he was imprisoned and tried for murder of another pub patron.   He apparently was also a horrible provider for his family.   After his conviction and execution,  his widow sold much of the family possessions.   And his granddaughter and her husband – a descendent of the trial prosecutor – sold the family estate.

Another ancestor of my mother,  sent out to live with a relative, settled in the early Nineteenth Century South, eventually founding banks and railroads.  Even after the Civil War and ReConstruction,  he died a millionaire.   However, his Scotch-Irish relations from Ulster swooped in and “appropriated” investments.  News clippings detailed scandal, the deceased’s questionable marriage, and a missing will.  In hindsight some of my forebears were indeed scoundrels.   But others served honorably. There is one commemorated on a wall in the Belfast City Hall,  to those who died in combat.  Flanders, Belgium during World War I.

Other family branches came to America.  Two from different families served with distinction during the Second World War.  One’s service was shrouded in secrecy- probably in Army Intelligence – he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  Another relation, serving in the Merchant Marine, was awarded for gallantry during a fierce battle of Malta.   I never met him in person, but he wrote me a recommendation to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.  He is commemorated at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York.

My father was never in uniform, but he was a defense contract engineer on integral projects for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Department of Defense.  He helped design the C-5A Galaxy aircraft in the 1960s and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.   I may have found it easier to enter the Navy field that subsequently has given me a lifelong career due to a long family history of service.