Hard Tack and Wooden Buckets

People nowadays find it difficult to believe that I was ever in the US Navy.

LEFT is ME, in the Navy. Down girls! RIGHT is ME, after one too many cheeseburgers.

Yes, decades ago I painted a ship, and then chipped the paint off the ship and repainted it. That’s what you do in the Navy when you’re in long enough. They like to repaint their ships every couple of weeks or so to keep them looking spiffy.

I hadn’t thought of my Navy years until I started watching this PBS mini-series called “Carrier,” which is about aircraft carriers and stuff, but mostly just aircraft carriers, and mostly just one called the USS Nimitz. While watching this series, I noticed that a lot of things have changed since I was in, but some things are the same.

Young sailors still whine and complain, and get way too drunk when they get a bit of shore leave. They do a pretty good job for the most part, but occasionally blow it over something stupid like drugs or alcohol, which gets them restricted, fined, busted down in rank and, if the offense is bad enough, tossed in the brig and/or kicked out of the Navy.

Two things have changed drastically though, and that would be two things they apparently now have on ships that they didn’t have in my day, both of which I’d think would be nothing but major distractions.

Those two things are women and the Internet.

USS FANNING, Hunter's Point

The USS Fanning, a Knox-class Frigate I called home for a handful of years, moored at Hunter’s Point Shipyard in San Francisco, 1979; this ship is positively ancient by today’s standards / Photo by DW Rhodes

I got out in 1982, and I can’t imagine being at sea with either of those. First of all, the women:

Boys like girls, mostly. Some of them like other boys, but that’s a whole different ballgame. Girls like boys too, mostly, and I just can’t see them all cramped up together in shipboard spaces for months on end. It’s bad enough when guys and girls work together in a standard office environment. We have to have law firms that do sexual harassment seminars and there are always little dramas that take place.

Now imagine that aboard a big, floating tub of steel and testosterone which everyone is trapped on for weeks or, sometimes, even months. I just can’t imagine it because, in my day, if a young woman were to come aboard the ship, we wouldn’t get anything done – especially if we’d been at sea for a long time.

If we were told to go polish that brass, chip the paint off that bulkhead, and scrub that toilet, we’d get it all mixed up and scrub the brass while chipping toilets and polishing bulkheads.

We’d be useless.

Fleetweek 2012

A modern-day Guided Missile Cruiser moored on San Francisco’s Embarcadero during Fleet Week 2012 / Photo by DW Rhodes

I know how much I sound like an old-fogey chauvinistic pig here, but I’m really not. I’m all for women on ships, but I just think the Navy went about it all wrong. They have separate sleeping and showering facilities, so why not just separate ships?

They could have let women do sea duty, but just put them all on “girl ships.” Can you imagine an aircraft carrier crewed entirely by women, from the toilet scrubbing, brass polishing seagirls all the way up to the Naval Aviators and the Captain? If they got lost, they’d never be afraid to pull into some foreign port and ask for directions.

TRUE STORY: Sometime around mid-1979 my pal Bryan had a stunningly gorgeous girlfriend named Robin, a slender brunette with a really pretty face and long hair down to her ass butt. He brought her aboard the ship one day for a visit, and I gave them a tour.

About twenty minutes into it, Robin was showing signs of discomfort and turning her face more and more towards Bryan, as she held onto him tightly and seemed to want to shrink down and climb into his pocket.

I asked her if she was okay. She asked, “Why are all these guys staring at me?” I wanted to tell her that it was because they were all a bunch of horny young bastards and she looked like a tall Mila Kunis, but Mila Kunis hadn’t been born yet.

The real, shorter, modern day Mila Kunis / Photo Wikipedia CC

The other thing we didn’t have in my day is the Internet. I’m watching this series, and young sailors — men and women — sheesh! — check their email and, get this, make PHONE CALLS HOME from the middle of the ocean!

Back in my day, and I realize I’m saying that a lot here, we didn’t have shipboard phones and we definitely didn’t have email.

Okay, we had these “red phones” that were for some kind of secret communication that the Captain and his high-falutin’ cohorts would use to talk about secret business like where the ship is going to next and who it should shoot when it gets there.

But, in “Carrier,” sailors are calling home and talking to their girlfriends and boyfriends from a freakin’ public phone in a passageway on board the ship. We had this special room called the “radio shack,” only it didn’t have any smarmy salesmen wearing white shirts with cheesy ties who’d try to sell you a satellite TV system or cell phone when you only came in to get a pack of batteries.

We didn’t know who was in this radio shack because it was all secretive and hush-hush, and it had a big combination lock on the door.

We’d occasionally see some dweeby looking “radioman” (do they call them “radioperson” nowadays?) going into the radio shack, and if we were walking by at that moment, he’d hunch over and punch in the super-secret code so that we couldn’t see what it was. This was because if a non-dweeb ever entered the radio shack they’d have to kill him, presumably by stabbing him to death with ball-point pens.

My point about dweeb radiomen and the radio shack is that it was the extent of communication with the outside world at the time. No phone calls from passageways and no email from a computer terminal. If you got any kind of message from the outside world in electronic form, it was a big friggin’ deal.

You’d be polishing or scrubbing something and a very pale, ghostly looking radioman, thin as a rail and grinning slightly, would approach you with a missive in hand that was printed on – get this – paper!

You’d tremble as you signed for it and then you’d open it carefully because it either meant your wife or girlfriend just had a baby or your grandfather had died. Some people had that happen all at once.

But the point is, there was none of this nonsense about making phone calls to loved ones or girlfriends while you were three thousand miles out at sea. We’d occasionally get mail from a helicopter that came over from the aircraft carrier and dropped a whole bunch of canvas bags on the deck. They’d get taken below and sorted out, then later we’d get the letters (on paper!) from our girlfriends and mothers, none of which were newer than three weeks old.

We stopped in the port town of Mombasa on the African Coast one time, so that the ship could top off and get an oil change and local natives could sell overpriced wooden giraffes to the sailors. I went to go find a “telephone exchange” because I wanted to call my mom, who lived in northern California. I think this was in 1979.

There was a telephone exchange in downtown Mombasa, so I walked in and approached the clerk. When I told her I wanted to call the states she had me fill out a little form giving my mom’s number, and then fork over forty bucks and have a seat. There was this bank of about twenty phones all along the wall and each had a number on it.

It took about ten minutes to get through and when they did, the clerk called my name and told me to pick up phone number four. I did so, and there was mom’s voice on the other end, a world away, yet so close I could tell she had a few tears.

She was glad to hear from me since I’d been out of touch for about two months. There’s a scene in the fifth episode of “Carrier” where a young sailor gets aggravated because his girlfriend doesn’t answer the email he’d sent her six days earlier. “You should be emailing me every day!” he says, IN THE PHONE CALL HE PLACES TO HER SO THAT HE CAN CHEW HER OUT FOR NOT ANSWERING EMAIL.

OMG, really?

The Internet onboard Navy ships must be a horrible distraction, just like the women.

They must control access to it somehow, because I know that if I’m sitting here all intent on writing a blog post, working on my book, and then tweaking my resume, that all it takes is for one Tweeter to post a link to “Cooking with Carmen Electra!” and I’m GONE for the next hour, learning how to make California Omelets while wearing a bikini.

Despite the changes that the US Navy hath wrought, “Carrier” is a fascinating series. It’s not very political, it just shows life on board a floating steel city, the sole purpose of which is to launch airplanes that fly away and bomb the crap out of things. Some of the sailors understand what they’re doing out there, but many don’t. Most of them are actually pretty clueless.

I can say that because I was one of them.

It shows how hard they all work yet I can’t help but think that they’re all a bit spoiled now that they have girls and the Internet. We worked hard and we didn’t have girls and the Internet, but I guess a sailor from Admiral Hornblower’s day would say that I was spoiled too, what with my engines and helicopters and health and warm food and showers.

He’d probably grumble about all of that through his rotten teeth while biting into a piece of hardtack and pissing in a wooden bucket.

It’s amazing how much things change yet remain the same, isn’t it?

NOTE: The series ‘Carrier’ by PBS came out in 2008, so that’s right around when I first wrote this piece. I’d imagine young sailors now have their girlfriends visit them out at sea through holographic projections.

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