Sunday, September 20, 2015

Navy Days - Hair-and-Hell-Raising Events with the Pacific Fleet

So here it is: the ENTIRE story (or many of them) of my memories in the navy, starting with a glimpse of the Naval Security Group Activity in Adak, Alaska, way out in the Aleutian Island chain, and then in the U.S. Pacific command from October 1978 to March 1981 while I was stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, onboard the USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5) and the USS Blue Ridge, flagships of the admiral of the 7th Fleet.

I caught up with many of the guys from the Okie Boat/Blue Ridge many years afterward. Sad regrets and the sounding of "Taps" for Thomas Albert Rookey, who made Chief Petty Officer status at last, and died on St. Patrick's Day, 1995. No doubt he was enjoying a beer and happy for it. Farewell, brother. Tommy, Rick, and I send our love. We'll all gather at the bar and tell tales again when it's our Final Liberty Call.


Navy Days
Mitch vs. the U.S. Military Machine

(That's me in the center: mohawk haircut because I was the self-appointed Commander of the Wog Fleet. I paid for that honor by getting my backside paddled with a stiff fire hose.)

(There’s a terrific book out there, The Sunshine Soldiers, by Peter Tauber.  He wrote it during his days in the U.S. Army Reserve boot camp facility in 1971 at Fort Bliss, Texas—a misnomer if ever there was one.  Peter’s journal can’t compare to life in the fleet—or maybe he would challenge that.  Either way, I consider him to be a reason to be a writer.  This three-part story is dedicated to him.)

            Why would a smart young man with a good background be tempted to undergo mutilation, association with criminal elements, physical alteration, and plots that smacked of espionage and intrigue?  Did destiny hurl him across two continents, to lands of smoking volcanoes, roaring windstorms and earthquakes, or the seedy squalor and dregs of humanity under a tyrant’s rule?  What could have thrown him into a lion’s den of revolution, risk and political involvement?  Would he have heeded the life-threatening warning signals that were flashing before his eyes?  Was he a helpless captive, or did he wantonly seek out these adventures?  Do you ever sit around with friends, telling stories about the strange things that happened in your lives, trying to tell the funniest and most amazing things you can remember?   Here is the tale of savage beatings on U.S. Navy ships, tattoo parlors and government officials in Hong Kong, weight rooms onboard rolling ships on the high seas, the blues and smuggled drugs, and 25 years of fast-lane living, to make it all possible.

* “Alaska and Europe aren’t even close
to each other!”
“Get me Indiana Jones!” * * *

          My decision to sign up had taken only four days, from the Monday morning interview with the recruiter, to the Thursday deadline he offered.  I deliberately avoided telling my parents anything to ensure that they wouldn’t try to talk me out of this.  I wanted adventure, excitement, and experience.  After a nightmare-funhouse romp through boot camp at Great Lakes, Wisconsin, I argued, cursed, and typed my way to completion of my training for yeoman administration school at Meridian, Mississippi.  I was anxious to find out where I would be assigned because I had been tormenting a friend, Bob Green, from supplykeeper’s school, about his future.  Bob’s new assignment was a tiny surveillance station in the Aleutian Islands, on Adak.  I looked at an atlas and found it, about 750 miles from the coast of Russia.  “You’ll be keeping polar bears off the beach,” I warned him.  “Or maybe helping lost Eskimos with their kayaks.”  I had no idea of what the place was like, and Bob looked glum.  My orders were due in the following week.  I had expressed a thought of going overseas, maybe to Holland or England on the forms we filled out when we arrived in Meridian.  Someplace exotic or exciting like Europe sounded good.  The navy thought they had just the place:  the Naval Security Group Activity, Adak, AK.  Bob roared with laughter at the frantic look on my face when I heard the news.  Adak’s year-long tour brought us no polar bears or kayaks, but we did have two earthquakes, bald eagles, 100-knot winds (over 120 mph), the midnight sun, and two active volcanoes within plain sight.  And only one woman to every five men, and they were some of the plainest, unappealing women I had seen.  And that was some of the better news about the place!
          But the station was considered isolated duty, and after a year had passed, I was due for rotation to the fleet.  I had to call Washington, D.C. and ask about my next obligation, with a little leeway being granted because I had served in a remote place.  I envisioned a tour back home aboard a quiet submarine tender that never left port in San Diego.   Everything was in order, according to the assignment sponsor:  Petty Officer Third Class Mitchell Lopate was now assigned to the American Embassy, Tehran, Iran.
          This timeframe was in August 1978.  The Shah of Iran’s policies had been under protest by his countrymen, especially from an exiled cleric in Paris known as the Ayatollah Khomeini.  The student protests at the American Embassy in Tehran were getting international news and some idiot wanted to put me right in the middle of things.  All I could see in my mind was my head on a chopping block, as some character with gleaming muscles stood ready with a curved sword.  It’s like a scene from “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where Indy shoots the guy with his pistol.  With my luck, there would be the same goon with a sword confronting me, and no Harrison Ford to help me out.

* * “Is there a bathtub available
that stays in port?”
“Get Lopate on that plane!” * * *

          I deflected my potential doom-and-fate with a request for a destroyer, and received a counter-offer of the American Embassy in Seoul, Korea.  This guy had it in his blood that I wanted embassy work, and in the most unlikely, unsafe regions possible.  I know some guys would have jumped at this offer, but I had been in Alaska for a year and wanted to see something more traditional.  (My preference for safety’s sake and stability would have been a bathtub, or maybe a kitchen sink; well, it DOES have a proximity to water…) Since I declined to accept another potential disastrous assignment in Korea, I was thereby sentenced to the fleet assignments.  The next offer was an aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, out of Yokosuka, Japan.  I tried once more to get something homeward (“How about being a pool maintenance man?” I believe I asked).  And then I heard, “How about Seventh Fleet Staff duty?”  It was still home ported in Yokosuka, Japan aboard a cruiser, the USS Oklahoma City.  I was further enticed by the mention of choice port calls, courtesy of being on an admiral’s staff, with limited sea time.  I accepted, afraid that I might be sent to Antarctica or some minuscule equatorial island if I had refused.  There are stations in those places, too, and the speck of rock known as Diego Garcia is just as isolated and forlorn as can be imagined.  And there are no women there, either.  The hounds of hell would have been right on my trail in Korea when someone assassinated the South Korean president. As things happened a few years later, the my then-current ship, the USS Blue Ridge, pulled into the harbor at Pusan, Korea,  one morning during a time of great political unrest.  It seems that everywhere we went, there was political upheaval.  I was typing in the admin office, listening to the news from ashore and remarked that with our luck, someone would probably shoot the Korean president.  That’s exactly what happened a few hours later.  I know I would have been blamed for it in some way because I didn’t go to Iran.

          A year later, the Iranian people overthrew the Shah, and the students took over the embassy and held the staff as captives for 444 days.  I would have undergone an enforced tour of duty of a jail cell, and with any luck, someone would have found that character with the sword.  But I wasn’t worried because I was going to a flagship with a top command, a chance to see the Orient, and sophisticated people and countries.  No one was going to lock me up for ransom and there were no suspicious characters calling for my head with vengeance on their lips.  At least, not yet.  How bad could things be?

* * * “You’re a Wog” * * *

          The Pentagon must have heard that I was loose in the streets of Japan because I received orders to report to the airport to fly over and meet the ship in Korea.  I was packed into a small four-seater with a scowling senior officer and a dentist.  I didn’t know if the officer was scowling at my getting VIP treatment or if I was supposed to let the dentist inspect my teeth before I arrived.  We landed in Seoul, and were driven across the countryside to the port of Inchon, where the ship was anchored in the harbor.  At last, my home-to-be was before me.  The “Okie Boat,” as we called her, was the last of the 6-inch gunboats, and during gunnery drill, those cannons went off with an ear-splitting crash that reverberated throughout the ship.  It sounded like the Trashman from Hell was banging a garbage can lid at 10,000 watts against my eardrums.
          The officer who glanced at my stiff salute waved back at me as if he was shooing a fly and my “welcome aboard” remark fell into a mumble.  I was being pushed aside by guys scrambling to get into the launch below as it pitched and rolled on the waves.  One yelled back at me, “You’d better hurry if you want any liberty!”  I had just put my feet on the ship, where was the big moment of pride and excitement that I had dreamed of, and what the hell was liberty?  I soon learned that the ship was sailing back to Japan the next morning, that liberty was time off from ship’s work, and that I had better take my chances and get the most that I could.  Finally, one of the staff yeomen came for me, and I was escorted to our berthing space.  It had the charm and quaintness of a slum tenant building.  There were definitely people living in the berthing area, but the only light to see them by was from a red bulb, and it made the shapes of bodies and bunks look gloomy dull and gray.  Rats would have turned up their noses at the ambiance.  The air was stale and smelled of sweat, dirt and machinery.  My escort showed me an available bunk that was about six inches from the floor, in a triple-tier style.  The middle bunk was about waist-high level, and the bunk above that had foot pegs to help its occupant clamber up for access.  But the bottom bunk was just a few inches off the ground, and I had to roll in sideways, as if I was crawling on my belly.  Once I was in, I had barely enough room to lean on one side and look out, my head propped on my elbow.  It was smaller than a closet.  The bunk adjacent to me had a distance of three inches space from the edge of my mattress.  It was like sharing a single bed with two people.  I didn’t have a clue as to where our shower and bathroom space was located, and so I would wake at all hours of the night, trudge through endless red-lit berthing spaces, and look for an available place.  The berthing spaces that were assigned to each division were kind of territorial and so I just couldn’t wander into someone’s area and use their facilities.

* * * “And a Slimy Wog at that” * * *
          As I met my new crewmates, I heard the obvious questions like Where are you from, What was your last duty station, What kind of work did you do, and lastly, Are you a Wog?  Was I a what?  No, not a what, they said a Wog, a fool who has never crossed the equator, and it’s the shortened term for a soon-to-be miserable “pollywog.”  Desired status was that of a Shellback, who was anyone who had crossed the equator and been found worthy by review of the Court of King Neptune.  The King and his family were some of the senior shellbacks.  The lineup included the King himself, usually someone wearing a beard and curly wig, with a wooden or cardboard trident spear, his “bride,” Queen Amphitrite, the Royal Baby (the fattest shellback), who wore a towel as a sort of loincloth, and Davy Jones.  Our Davy Jones, without his locker or maybe minus a few bricks upstairs, wore a colonial cut-away jacket and a cocked hat.  

I was assured that my looks did not qualify me to be the Beauty Queen (rating another “Who?!” in my mind)  and I was guaranteed that I would be soundly beaten with a shillelagh for my ignorance and wog mentality when we crossed the equator, courtesy of Neptune’s Royal Family.  And welcome to Seventh Fleet staff duty, you slimy wog. 
          My first night at sea was much more memorable because we ran into a fierce storm, and I spent most of my miserable evening jamming my toes into my thin mattress, trying to gain a grip as the ship tossed and pitched.  I had changed my mind and used the upper berth because there was no one sleeping inches away from me.  I eventually abandoned it for my burrow on the floor.  When I moved back to the lower bunk, I found that my next-door “neighbor” snored and made noises like a wheezing goat.  I also met a few bunkmates who looked like goats, or a moth-eaten Santa Claus.
 “Crossing the line,” known as sailing across the equator, is a sacred and time-honored tradition for fun and entertainment on some civilian and all naval vessels.  The induction is purely voluntary.  I learned that the flaunted shillelagh wasn’t the crooked shepherd staff from Ireland, but a piece of fire hose the length of a tennis racket.  They were swung in the same way, but there was the backside of a wog at the other end instead of a bouncing Wilson ball.  They were cut from the ship’s firefighting equipment, soaked in salt water to harden them, and wrapped at one end to make a handle.  The objective was to make the wog crew crawl on their knees, like a parade of circus elephants, through a specified course on the deck of the ship while the shellbacks paddled them along.  It got worse as I listened, but the experience itself made the stories seems like fairy tales.

“Lopate chased away the 
Beauty Queen”

          Another honor went to the Beauty Queen, the title that I was immediately eliminated from because of a big nose and a growth of facial hair.  Androgyny was the key here:  the Beauty Queen was the crewmember from each of the ship’s divisions who would look the best in drag.  A “Review Board” of shellbacks would critique each entry, and the winner was entitled to be the last wog in the parade.  One of the new arrivals that I met was a journalist from North Carolina named Mark Stinneford. 
He looked like he shaved once a month, he had a baby face, like the actor, Mark Harmon, and my first words to him were a cheery, “Welcome aboard!  You’re the new Beauty Queen!”  He responded by boarding a train and heading for Tokyo.  I later learned that he was visiting friends, but I thought that my greeting had been too unconventional and caused him to look for the nearest embassy for reassignment.  I imagined that he was confronting the ambassador with some wild story about some crazy guy on the ship who called him a beautiful queen.  Some of the guys in the berthing space thought that I had chased away a good prospect for the contest, and I was looked on unfavorably until Mark returned later that night.  Wogs were also christened immediately as “slimy.”  This emphasized everything that a wog could have done wrong, including just being a wog by virtue of not having crossed the line.  The logic followed that we desired our slimy status; otherwise, we would have immediately found some ship sailing for the equator before we had joined the Okie Boat, and divested ourselves of a revolting wog’s identity.  Since we had failed at this (of course, all wogs are incapable of cerebral decisions), only a good paddling would bring forth the wisdom that shellbacks carry. 
          It doesn’t take a psychology degree to find a streak of macho sadism in this idea, but the military services are ingrained with a measure of bonding and submerging one’s identity for the glory of national defense.  It’s the stuff that wars are made of.  The initiation ceremony is not for enlisted ranks, either.  The staff was composed of officers from boot ensigns to senior captains, and there was a story I read regarding an admiral, recently assigned to a southbound ship, who had never done his tour of the deck in wog-fashion.  I guarantee that the gold bars on his arm did not matter as much as the sense of teamwork that would be mandated by a ship of shellbacks.  I personally caught a few officers on the deck the next time we crossed, when I was aboard the Blue Ridge.  I was more considerate of their presence as good officers, and since I worked in the same office, I knew these men to be fair and respected leaders.  My status as a shellback gave me free reign to “protect” in a lesser way any wog that I could confiscate during the ceremony from the crew, and I enforced that privilege.  I liked some of those officers.
          The presence of slimy wogs also warranted a contest within itself, that of the Slimiest Wog.  This honor was given to the shipmate or co-worker who had disgraced himself by a lack of teamwork or social grace, above and beyond the limits of shipboard living tolerance.  If a wog was ugly, clumsy, a nerd or just a boor, he would likely be anointed as slimiest wog, and served up to the crew of shellbacks at the pre-crossing ceremony on the night before the ship crossed the line.  The worst part was when a previous winner became a shellback, because a tough, snotty kid could needle and antagonize any potential wog without retribution.  It was like the high school bully, but this time he wasn’t a tough punk, but a whiny little geek who still deserved to have his neck wrung and his ears pulled, but he was within every right to make threats and see them through. 

* “Yes, sir, Major, those are my sardines under your desk” *

          All wogs were held accountable for their actions until the day of reckoning, and an invisible, unwritten list was being prepared.  It actually took shape on the day of crossing, in the form of a folded paper known as a summons.  It would list in any order, a detailed or general description of the social, personal or professional transgressions of a wog, called charges, and all of us were ordered to carry them in our teeth for the first few minutes of the ceremony.  There was no way to carry them in our hands, because we were crawling on our knees.  I took a few minutes to look at mine while I waited for the line of wogs to exit through the hatchway onto the deck, and immediately worked on chewing a hole through it.  I didn’t want any shellback who came across that list to be able to read it.  My charges read as follows:

(1) Fraternization with an officer; Violation of Navy Regulations

(2) Failure to maintain a proper work space and cause for an officer to find his desk used as a pantry

(3) Accusing a superior officer of failure to properly navigate a vessel

(4) Willful distribution of inflammatory wog material, causing distress and disrespect for a shellback

          Some of those remarks were outrageous and others were just insensitive, but they were basically true.  I had worked with a young woman, a newly commissioned officer in Adak, as her legal secretary, and I wrote and called her after I had come aboard the Okie Boat.  I was also in love with a senior chief yeoman’s daughter, but there was no mention of that.  The second charge was because I stashed a box of foodstuffs under a desk in the War Plans office, where I worked.  It just happened to be the desk of Col. Jim Laritz, U.S. Army, and he dredged up a box load of sardines, crackers, and other perishables.  I just happened not to be in the office at the time of his discovery and didn’t think he would mind.  The third charge was due to my inexperience at sea during gunnery drills.  Our office was right next to the forward turret, and I didn’t know when we had target practice scheduled.  It’s a sailor’s obligation to read the posted Plan of the Day.  I couldn’t find the showers without a struggle, so finding the ship’s schedule was even less of a priority in my mind.  The gun went off with a crash that sounded like a box of dynamite had detonated behind me, and I reflexively tried to jump underneath the nearest desk.  I didn’t say it aloud, but I thought that the ship’s navigator was a fool to have run us aground on some island and caused such a noise. 
          Lastly, it was true that I had written some volatile articles and distributed them on the mess decks, near the coffee pots.  They were sure to be picked up and read if they were left there.  My pen name, to protect myself, was COMSEVENTHWOGFLT, pronounced “Com-7th-Wog-Fleet.”  The admiral’s military title was Commander, Seventh Fleet, abbreviated as COMSEVENTHFLT.  I just adopted his title, and crowned myself as commander of the Seventh Fleet wogs.  I plagiarized Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” into “...half the deck, half the deck, crawled the 600...” and worse, referring to the potential lemming’s march that we wogs would take.  I also tried to take the shellback’s point of view, and wrote of peculiar smelling, foul looking creatures that infested the ship, who called themselves wogs.  I also wrote of a universal wog rebellion, and the punishment that would be handed out to unrepentant shellbacks for mistreatment of wogs.  I later found that my material was being carried over to other ships, so someone obviously liked what they saw.

* * * “Tie up his hands and feet and
carry him aboard!” * * *

          My writing had some impact, some of which was unexpected and returned to haunt me in a physical way when I crawled out on the deck.  Most of the crew who found these stories was eating on the mess decks, and bits of conversation would be carried back to the berthing spaces.  The shellbacks initiated a search for the author, but I never caught on to it.  Randy Klawson, a photographer’s mate who worked with me in Public Affairs, always had a camera around his neck as part of his work, and cheerfully asked me to pose for him.  I assumed that he was wasting a free shot and obliged.  The picture turned up, with my new title, behind a glass case near the payroll office.  The case held our monthly pay amount listed by social security number, which could be deferred and accumulated until the next pay period.  Everyone in the ship would eventually make their way to this case to see his respective savings available for the next port visit.  Randy had carefully taped my picture next to this list, so that it would be in plain view of anyone who came to see their finances.  It could be said that he sort of framed me, and I had no way to get that picture back before the entire crew saw it.
          The Okie Boat was not a steady visitor to the equator.  The scheduling office would work out their list of options, the chief of staff, who served as the admiral’s right-hand man, would review our recommendations, and then the admiral would approve the course mapped out.  We spent an average of two months away from Japan, and usually no more than three weeks maximum at sea between any two ports.  The ship usually covered a range of Japanese ports around the entire island-nation, southward to Taipei, the Philippines, where we would refuel and load supplies from the base at Subic Bay, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and best of all, Australia.  The crew absolutely loved Australia because the people there were so friendly and accommodating to Americans, and the women were legendary for their lusty ways.  I have heard of senior chief petty officers, men with 20-plus years of solid naval service, who went AWOL and missed their ship, just to stay in Australia a little longer.  One senior enlisted guy’s hands and feet were tied so he could be carried on a pole, crying like a baby up the gangplank to the main deck.  He wasn’t regretting his actions—he was sobbing because he had been caught!  If we were scheduled to go to Thailand or Singapore, we stood a fair chance of crossing the equator.  If we went to Indonesia or Australia, it was guaranteed. 

* * * “We’ve got to get another victim for the Executioner” * * *

          The Fates cast their decision to send the Okie Boat to Pattaya Beach, Thailand in August 1979, and the shellback-wog war was underway.  My articles had begun to appear at this time, and Mark Stinneford had been a unanimous choice for our division Beauty Queen.  We needed our Slimiest Wog, and selected our current senior yeoman, Chief Henry Corriveau.  He looked like Hitler’s SS chief, Himmler, and he whined when he spoke.  He never took time off the ship for port calls, so he was always underfoot, and we despised him.  It was like having a scrawny little chicken pecking away at your mind as you daydreamed.  However, Chief Corriveau acted true to character and declined our nomination, and the second and third-place winners were me and a second class storekeeper from Michigan named Tom Rookey. 
Rook was naturally funny and he could drink up an ocean of beer.  He looked like a smaller, plumper version of Tom Selleck, the actor.  He knew women in many ports and would tell us tales of his escapades in their bedrooms and the bars where he met them.  He was one of those guys that every other man naturally likes. I got my nomination by virtue of my articles, but I wasn’t going to accept the award either, because it was presented by someone or something called the Royal Executioner, and I personally had met this character in the weight room.  

His name was Larry Goethe, and his costume consisted of a black hood with eye slots, tattered dungarees and a shillelagh in either hand.  Larry also had tattoos across his chest and down his shoulders, and his muscles bulged.  He looked like a psychotic nightmare.
          The idea was to have a ceremony on the fantail, the back of the ship, on the night before we crossed the line.  The Slimiest Wog from each division would appear before the company of shellbacks, including the Court of King Neptune, and present the Royal Executioner with his summons.  The crowd would hear the charges and call out the required number of strokes to the victim’s backside as they knelt on all fours before Larry.  No wonder Chief Corriveau chickened out of the decision to be our candidate!  But that left me as the obvious second place choice, and there was no way that I was going to be there, either.

* * * “Shake that mop if you see a shark” * * *

          There was a chance for the wogs to actually have their rebellion, and I wanted to get in on the action as the Wog Commander.  The main deck of the ship was declared off limits to any shellback from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m.  Any wog could roam safely, but any shellback caught by wogs ran the risk of being paddled or worse.  The wogs also had to dress in the official wog uniform of the day:  baseball cap turned inside-out and worn backwards, tee shirt, left pant's leg rolled up to the knee to show a shaved leg, and skivvies worn inside-out and backwards over our dungarees.  I had marked gold stars down the sleeves of my shirt to show off my “official” rank, stapled cardboard underneath to act as shoulder epaulets, and written COMSEVENTHWOGFLT # 1 across my chest.  I looked like a cartoon figure.  We were sailing closer to Malaysian waters and our destination, and passed some of the native fishing boats.  Their crews were treated to the sight of a screaming, gesturing madman who had climbed atop the gun turret, just below the ship’s bridge, a tall guy who looked like he had dressed with his eyes closed and used his feet for hands.  I was yelling up at the navigators, the captain and other crew, pointing to my chest and appointed title, and demanding control of the ship.
          The captain, a shellback from a long time back, ignored my requests, and two hours later, the wogs were hustled to the fantail for the preliminaries to the night’s charades, including the Beauty Queen contest.  As lovely as he looked, Mark Stinneford, our candidate and my personal selection, did not win, place or show.  The “winner” was entitled to be on the reviewing stand with the Royal Court the next morning.  I was assigned to Shark Detail.  We had to scan the horizon and hold a mop at arm’s length, and if a shellback queried, “Was that a shark fin that I saw?” we had to shake the mop vigorously and say, “Stand back, I’m a brave wog and fear no shark in the ocean.”  A fine example of the military budget at work, getting maximum value for your tax dollars.

* * “Nobody in here but us wogs!” * *

          The bosun finally piped mess call, and dinner was brought out on the mess decks.  I knew that this would be the last meal that I would eat for hours, because the ceremonies began at 6:00 the next morning, and I sincerely doubted that any shellback was going to wait to let a wog eat breakfast.  I had other plans: to save my mustache.  It would have been more likely that I should save my hide instead, but that was not likely.  I had grown a mustache on Adak, and I did not want to lose it.  I had heard about the other characters who roamed the deck looking for wogs during the initiation, like the Royal Barber.  I didn’t have to guess what his specialty would be like.  I went to the bosun’s berthing space, and offered them a chance to shave my head instead.  I hoped that the Barber would overlook me if I had already been sacrificed, and emerged with a voluntary Mohawk haircut.  The admin office team of yeomen roared when they saw me, and I had to assure the senior admin officer, Commander Bagley, that I was not attacked, and that I did give my consent to my appearance.  We already had to shave the left leg from ankle to knee as part of the “uniform.”  Poor little Russ LaParre, a kid just 18 years old, sat in his chair with tears streaming down his eyes as I shaved his leg.  He was too frightened to do it himself.  I can verify that the experience helped turn Russ into a salty, hardened shellback of the worst kind.
          After I made my appearance in the office, I went looking for Mark.  Neither one of us wanted to be brought out for the Executioner, and we had to stop in the admiral’s galley for supplies.  I knew from experience that the mess cooks did not usually lock the kitchen doors, and I used to sneak in and grab any leftovers.  Commander Bagley once found me inside, eating ice cream.  I didn’t offer him an explanation, either.  Sneaking food was a common thing with me--it was no accident that a box of food turned up under Col. Laritz’s desk.  I once had two 5-pound cans of raisins in my locker, courtesy of a friend in the admiral’s galley.  Besides, I could eat them faster than the admiral ever would.  This time, I found teriyaki steak, slices of American cheese and oranges.  We filled our hands with food, fled to the nearby Public Affairs office and turned off the cipher lock from the inside, so no one could get in.  Our timing was critical, because a call went out over the ship’s P.A. system for all shellbacks to bring their Slimiest Wog winners back aft to the fantail. 
   My absence was immediately noticed by the yeomen, and some of them pounded on the door and yelled to see if anyone inside was foolish enough to answer.  It was kind of like the farmer waiting for “No one in here but us chickens!” at the henhouse.  I heard that Tom Rookey went in my place, ala Sidney Carlton to the guillotine, and that he endured eight swats before breaking down and begging for mercy.

* * * You are what we make you eat! * * *

          The night passed slowly and painfully, because we had nothing to sleep on except pillows from our bunks and the office chairs.  Has a condemned man ever slept peacefully, knowing he would be executed the next morning?  Did the self-proclaimed #1 Wog Commander get any rest, knowing that he would be beaten the next morning?  Take the odds on “NO!” to either question.  The bosun’s pipe went off as usual just before reveille, announcing the opening of the mess decks, and then all hands were called to turn out and begin the ship’s activity of the day.  Mark and I stayed quiet until 7:30, when I heard the call for the close of breakfast.  I cautiously opened the door, and ventured into the passageway, looking for shellbacks.  I was immediately corralled by Rolf Hennig, an aerographer-weather forecaster.  “Hey Mitch,” he queried, “did you have your breakfast yet?”  I chirped back a smart answer that I did indeed, thank you, and that I would be on my way.  Rolf stared at me.  “Why isn’t your shirt dirty?”  Uh-oh, was it supposed to be before we started?  His reply came with a noose that he dropped around my neck.  He might as well have put me on the gallows, because he dragged me over to Jack Waldron, a senior yeoman, and turned over his trophy.  Jack presented me with my summons, and I was forced to crawl on my hands.  Some of us had taped our shower shoes to our knees, to save us from the bumps and pounding.  This was when I stopped to read the charges, and began to chew it apart.  Jack noticed my jaws working, and decided that I must be hungry.  I was dragged down three ladderways, still on all fours, and through a hatch to the main deck.  I immediately became the target of six Filipino shellback crewmembers, with six shillelaghs.  POW!  WHACK!!
          I moved like a compass needle, in every direction, and at once.  The shock was as bad as the pain.  A typical blow could only be struck from a fore or back-hand sweep from waist-high, but the saltwater-toughened paddle was as hard as a brick.  Jack brushed away my attackers, and led me over to some deep dish pans that were sitting on the deck, filled with brown goo.  I approached them gingerly.  It looked like dog food, and Jack ordered me to eat.  I thought, well, this must be part of the routine, and lowered my head to pretend to eat....GALUMPH!  That was the sound my head made as Jack stepped on my neck to force my face into the trough.  My guests had prepared a unique dish of chili, mustard, cayenne, Tabasco, Worcestershire and other delicacies that I never thought to try to ingest by inhaling, until that moment.  In fairness to my immediate agony, Jack let me back inside to wash my face and clean out the various clogged passages.  A fire-breathing dragon had nothing on me.  I looked in a mirror at my swollen eyes and thought, “I’m in for a very long day….”  I immediately tore off the shoulder boards, and tried to rip my shirt apart so that no one would see what I had written on my chest.

* * * “Blow bubbles, you slimy wog!” * * *

          The shellbacks had been busy pumping seawater onto the deck, and the first call went out for the wogs to emerge.  The course was laid out:  exit amidships (in the middle) to the deck, up foreward to the bow, then turn and head aft (to the back) to meet the Court.  We formed a living chain of bodies, crawling as fast as possible on the slippery wooden deck.  The Okie Boat was one of the last wooden deck ships, and it helped us slide along.  Our shellback escorts waited like crocodiles lurking to ambush the herd of zebras at the river.  Other wogs were considered property of their shellback masters, and Rick Nuzkowski and Tom Creel, two cronies from the yeoman office, were in charge of our group.  Mark had taken up a place behind me, and Tom Rookey was leading me.  We were still peppered from all directions as we crawled.  Some of us heard specific orders:  “Stop, wog!  (A shillelagh would fall across your face, like a barrier.)  Blow bubbles!!”  To do this, we had to lower our head and kneel even further, which raised our backsides for an even better target.  As the water sloshed our soaked skins, we heard “Stop, wog!  Bark like a seal,” or “Hail King Neptune, wog!”  Each reply would bring a wallop, and the shellback would comment on our sincerity.  Some of the Marine wogs were ordered to pay homage to a hero, Chesty Puller.  Naturally, navy wogs were stopped and ordered to do the same, and those foolish enough to oblige were smacked for their stupidity in honoring a Marine, instead of King Neptune. 

* * * “The pain will go away after a few hundred swats of the fire hose paddle” * * *

          The best way to avoid offering a target was to keep as close as possible.  I had to slide six feet once to keep up as Tom Rookey led us toward the bow of the ship.  When we passed that marker, our backsides had become numb with pain.  There were still shellbacks lashing out and paddling us, but the impact of their shillelagh was fading as our pain threshold increased.  We also knew that the torture would soon be over.  There were still obstacles to be reckoned with, like the Royal Barber.  This character was seated near a hatchway with a set of electric shears in his hand.  Every so often, he’d reach out a hairy tentacle of an arm and snag a helpless wog, and proceed to carve figure eight’s or other designs into their head.  This was the reason that I had shaved my head:  to avoid looking any worse than I already did, and that was bad enough.  The Royal Doctor ordered us to open our mouths, and then squirted a syringe of vile liquid down our throats.  The worst yet was when some cretin ordered us to pause beside a urinal bowl of yellow liquid and blow bubbles.  My last shred of sanity was lost as I immersed my face in.....lemonade.
          We eventually came into sight of the fantail, and my friend Mike Dodson came over to claim territorial rights to me.  He welcomed me with a hearty wallop to be sure that I knew the sound of my master’s voice, and then ordered me to carry an onion in my mouth.  He then led me over to the water coffin and I clambered inside.  The coffin was a wooden box that was filled with water just short of the brim, with just enough air space if I jammed my nose against the lid.  When I emerged, gasping like a beached seal, I was sent into the garbage chute.  The chute was a 10-foot canvas tunnel, with just enough width to allow me to tightly squeeze my way through.  It was filled with all the old leftover food that the cooks had been piling up on the fantail, during the last days before we crossed.   A lot of stale, rotting dough and pasta went in that mix, the stuff that stuck to your ribs on the inside, and on your entire body, on the outside.  Mike gleefully stepped on the chute when I came to the middle of my journey and blocked my escape.  It would have been more humane if he had run me through the water coffin after the chute, but that obviously would have contaminated the water and made it unhealthy for the next person.

* * “Time to kiss the Royal Baby’s belly” * *

  I was now entitled to kiss the Royal Baby’s belly.  He had oiled his fat stomach with grease and Noxzema, and was waiting there, wearing his towel-loincloth to emphasize his expansive paunch.  He dipped into a jar and took out a maraschino cherry, placed it in his navel, and ordered me to kiss it.  I tried...and he grabbed me by the head and ears and rubbed my face into the mess.  Queen Amphitrite, in a long gown, looked on, and I kissed “her” knee and then the foot of my esteemed redeemer, King Neptune.

  Since I had paid homage to royalty, I was entitled to be baptized, and I was led over to a huge box, filled with water.  A shellback stood inside, up to his chest.  He was probably the most comfortable person on deck in that hot equatorial sun.  Two other shellbacks stood at the top, ready to receive me.  I was told that I would be asked a question:  “What are you?” and the reply to make was, “I’m a miserable, lowly pollywog.”  They would flip me over backwards, into the water, where the third guy would help me back to my feet.  I was asked the question again once I regained my balance, and my reply should be a strong “I’m a shellback!”  Get out of here, they replied, this is no place for a shellback.  The ceremony was over.

* * * “We throw them from 60-70 feet” * * *

          I later learned stories about the ceremonies on aircraft carriers. They are unique for their vast size, usually six football fields long.  They also have elevators, huge lifts that raise and lower planes to the repair shops or flight deck.  These distances can cover more than 60 feet.  Some of the carrier shellback crews would spread a huge tarpaulin across the elevator’s flat platform, and fill it with water, making a small, shallow pool.  The wogs onboard would be led to the edge of the ceremony deck and made to peer over the side at the glistening tarp, 60 feet away.  When the ceremony was over, they were told they would be blindfolded, and bound up in some cases, and thrown over the side to fall into the pool of water.  A circus big tent never had such a great potential high dive act as this.  The day would proceed through the routine, and the wogs would be taken for their finale.  The thought of a fall like that made the most brave man break down and cry; some guys clearly wet their pants.  Over the side they’d go, one at a time, to a chorus of cheers and their own desperate screams.   Unknown to them, and for what little it mattered, the elevator had been raised just short of the deck, perhaps four feet away.  The terrified blindfolded victims-in-waiting would hear a wild cry of anguish cut short as another man fell face-first into the water.  They probably figured the guy had died of fright, and that they were next.  This reason alone justified my determination not to be assigned to the aircraft carrier Midway!
          Was it worth it?  Would I pass it by if I had to go through it again?  Would I ever write any silly letters?  I had to shave my head, to allow the hair to grow normally, and it never came back quite as full or thick.  The bar girls in Pattaya Beach were told that the sailors with a shaved left leg were gay, especially those with bald heads.  I couldn’t sit on a chair for a week without piling up pillows as padding.  I found myself in a bored state of mind one day while waiting for the Xerox machine, and I leaned against the wall.  It felt like I had backed onto a hot stove, and I sprang away from the contact.  Mark and I had to clean up right after the ceremony and take bags full of classified paper down to a furnace room and burn them, causing us to choke on the foul air.  There was always material that had to be destroyed, and burning it was faster than shredding.  The only open date we could get, to help get rid of the overflowing material, fell on Wog Day. 
          My answer to these questions came a year later, when we had changed to our new ship, the Blue Ridge.  The order came down from the scheduling office:  port visit to Pattaya Beach, Thailand.  The die was cast when a wog of the lowest order grabbed my sacred shillelagh the day before the ceremony, and threw it overboard.  I swore that vengeance would be mine and that I would hunt him down like a dog.  I had some old scores to settle with other new wog shipmates, but I remembered that I had been protected by some friends, too.  The wog who became my prey escaped from my bilious rage, but karma delivered him back to my hands in another way that proved financially and hedonistically superior.

* * * When in doubt, save the laundry * * *

          It’s only proper to pause a moment here and look at some of the other lifestyles aboard the ship.  I need this time to explain about the difference between the ship’s crew and the Seventh Fleet staff enlisted men.  Frankly, we nearly despised each other because we were on two different commands.  The crewmembers thought that “staff pukes” were lazy, indulgent and incapable of any real work.  I almost agreed, having been forced to share a berthing space with the Flag Boat Pool.  And a staff yeoman like myself...well, I never was involved in any kind of ship repair work, fire brigade, rescue party or damage control drills.  A ship always runs routine tests on electrical and mechanical systems that are to be monitored on a regular cycle.  The ship’s crew had to do upkeep their logbook of records on a weekly basis.  I never knew anyone on the staff who had to do this.  We were too busy working inhuman hours for the officers.  The ship’s crewmembers also had hard work, and they also stood watch on their rotation.  The engine room men, those Boiler Technicians, Hull Technicians and other “snipes,” often would be on the job for 24 hours straight, ensuring that the water supply and other life-support and propulsion systems were in order.  I fought my own battles for national defense with an IBM Selectric typewriter at my side.
The laundry was a few decks below and forward of my berthing space, and we had spare machines that were available for our use.  Most of the ship’s laundry was washed on a daily basis by crewmembers who were given that glorious position.  It could be said that the ship had their own boat pool gorillas for various cleanup work.  The extra washers and dryers were on a first-come basis, and the sign-up sheet was always filled.  The dryers were often broken and the best machines were usually in demand.

* “I’m telling you, it smells prehistoric by his bunk” *

We kept our laundry in mesh bags, hanging from a foot peg next to our bunk, and the bag would hang just below our pillow.  One guy who was a temporary assignee in our berthing space had an awful smell coming from nearby his bunk.  It drove us crazy because it smelled like prehistoric mildew.  We eventually tracked the origin to his dirty socks, lying suspended in his laundry bag, permeating the area like a decaying carcass.  Jurassic Park could have extracted some hideous DNA from between his toes.  And he had the nerve to get upset when we threatened him for failing to wash his feet!  It never paid to leave our own laundry bags around, because none of us smelled too respectable after a hard day in a muggy office with limited fresh air.
The captain of the Blue Ridge also performed routine shipboard operations, such as calling Abandon Ship Drill.  The idea was for every man onboard to go to his assigned post and have roll call taken, to practice the potential abandonment of the vessel under extreme circumstances.  When I heard the PA system blare out, “Abandon Ship!  Abandon Ship!”, I swung into action and would run straight for my berthing space.  It wasn’t my assigned area for roll call.  I was hurrying to get my laundry.  No, I wasn’t afraid my laundry would somehow catch fire if the ship really was ablaze, and no, I didn’t want to take my dirty laundry with me to my post.  I was hurrying to wash my clothes.  I never found anyone else waiting down at the laundry when the clarion call “Abandon Ship” blared out, and I had clean clothes all the time.

* * * “You have nice legs for a man” * * *

Shipboard life also offered an uncomfortable distraction:  each other’s company, and some of the crewmen had their fancies for each other.  There’s no getting around this part of shipboard life.  We had a sense of homophobia because it seemed that there were a lot of gays onboard.  I fell into a conversation with a guy one day while we were waiting in the chow line.  I quickly noticed that he began to come down to our berthing space to talk to me, except that he seemed to pick the later hours when I was in my rack.  One night, he told me that I had nice legs.  I tried to ignore the comment, as though I didn’t hear him.  He didn’t seem to get the hint, because he returned the next night, just as I came out of the shower, wearing a towel and nothing else.  Maybe I wasn’t getting the hint, because he came up behind me and began to squeeze my chest muscles.  I yelled and he backed off.  I had thoughts about hitting him, but he was much taller and bigger, and all I had to defend myself was my towel.  I didn’t think that I should use it for anything other than keeping myself covered--he probably would have enjoyed himself immensely if I lost it in a fight.  I got dressed and shakily reported the incident to Commander Bagley.  I know that nothing ever happened to the sailor for his actions, but he never came back to see me again.
One of my friends from the Navy Band was a keyboard player named Rick.  He admitted he was bisexual, but he was a really funny guy and a talented musician.  He was teased and harassed by some of the guys, who called him “queer” behind his back and sometimes to his face, but Rick just shrugged it off.  I never realized how much it hurt him until I saw him sitting one evening at a table on the mess decks, just above our berthing space hatch.  I stopped to see what was wrong, because he obviously had been crying.  “I’ve been trying to decide how to go ‘straight,’” he sobbed.  “Do you know how hard that is to do, when you meet 15 guys on this ship whom you’ve slept with?”  My skin crawled and my eyes bugged at his words:  “15 guys whom you’ve slept with?”  HERE ON OUR SHIP??!!
Hence:  I was drinking a can of soda one day, after taking a shower  (the shower and the soda were not related incidents).  I had on my towel (the character from the earlier episode had not yet manifested in my life) and I walked over to the trash to shoot the soda can, basketball-style.  As I did so, a flag boat pool cretin named Joel leaned over and flipped up the back of my towel, and giggled at his effort!  I turned around, ready to punch him, but he was just a kid and maybe weighed 110 pounds.  I would have broken his face with one punch, and probably been dragged before the captain of the ship for assault on a fellow crewman.  In a similar way, our junior yeoman, Russ Laparre, had gone to Commander Bagley to report that another yeoman, a black guy named Mark Jones, had been attempting to fondle him at night while we slept.  An inquiry was launched and Jones was cleared of all charges.  Russ was still upset and begged the older, bigger enlisted men to help keep watch.  There were no more reports of midnight creeping, but Jonesy was missing from the ship when we docked in the Philippines....and found 45 days later, living with a transvestite. 

* “Hello, sailor—come here often?” *

Another yeoman, Jeff, had a steady visitor, a fellow sailor who came to see him only when we were docked at the base in Japan.  We noticed that the “date” smelled heavily of cologne.  One of Jeff’s friends was the Chaplain’s yeoman, whom we could tell was obviously gay by his prancing ways.  Maybe the Chaplain thought he could save his soul.  I happened to see a sailor one day in the distant passageway, mincing from side to side as he walked.  I turned to Mark Stinneford and said, “I’ll bet you it’s so-and-so, just by the way he walks.”  It was an easy ID.  The guy was busted for possession of pills while we were in Korea, and had to spend 30 days in the brig, policed by the Marines.  We wondered if he secretly enjoyed the rough behavior:  “Don’t hit me any HARDER, PLEASE!”  When Mark and I were reviewed by the Career Counselor for possible reenlistment, we simultaneously replied, “No way man, there are faggots on this ship!”  We received a blank look for our paranoid outburst.  We wondered what happened to some of those who were mentioned, for example, the chaplain’s yeoman and Jeff.  Was it just our imagination?  No. Jeff and five other sailors were caught in the Chief Petty Officer’s bathroom (that’s the head to you landlubbers, and no pun intended) by the leading Master-at-Arms, a tough, raw Texan.  They had their zippers down and a bag of cocaine.  I hoped that the Chief M.A.A’s eyebrows climbed past his receding hairline when he saw them.

Shiver My Timbers (Navy Days, Part II)

          I also learned the basics about navy chow during my sentence aboard the Okie Boat.  I would follow a meandering line to the mess decks, and try to figure out what was edible and remotely tasteful.  At breakfast, the rule was to call out a breakfast order for eggs to the waiting cooks.  Cries would ring out for “Two scrambled,” or “Three fried!”  I settled for “Ham and cheese omelet!” for 90 days, until I ate one too many and turned green.  There was usually some hot cereal, disguised as wallpaper paste or plaster, or that old standby, Spam.  Everyone drank coffee, and some old-timers would walk with a cup in their hand so often that they had a permanently curved finger.  Most of the meals were greasy or oily, perhaps to be recycled as lubricating fluid for some unknown hydraulics.  The mess deck, also known as the chow hall, had rows of tables bolted to the floor, and our metal trays holding our food would slide up and down as the ship sailed on rough waters.
          As the months passed, we heard rumors that we would be changing to a new ship.  Our old Okie Boat would give way to a new vessel built specifically as a flagship, the Blue Ridge.  She was designated as an amphibious command platform, and had been home ported in San Diego.  We grinned at the thought of a “stateside” crew coming to Japan to meet us, because we were being issued a fresh bunch of potential wogs.
          The Blue Ridge had a feature that I couldn’t pass up:  a small weight room with a Universal gym machine.  The Okie Boat had a very small room for us, and I needed to climb down a ladder to access it.  The ship also pitched and swayed at sea, making weight-lifting a precarious sport.  The Okie Boat’s narrow width and long length made her rock from side to side, and someone could suddenly lose their balance while holding a barbell.  The Blue Ridge wallowed along, bobbing from front to back, and the Universal machine was stabilized on the floor.  The room was almost always vacant from 8-10 p.m. and I had my use of it on alternate evenings.  I often wondered if no one else used it because the air inside was so stagnant.  The ventilation was horrid, just plain stale and reeking like a locker room.  It was the worst thing I had experienced, except for the garbage chute.

* “Your older identical twin is on this ship” *

          I did have occasional crewmembers who lifted with me, but only two were regular visitors.  One was a radioman second class named Frank Gonzales.  He was a young kid who bore a remarkable resemblance to the admiral’s personal secretary, a senior chief yeoman named...Frank Gonzales.  I used to marvel at their likeness, right down to their mustaches.  It was as if Frank Senior had stepped back in time, or Frank Junior had grown up into a mature man’s body.  It could have been something out of a movie:  stranger reunites boy and dad after years of searching, or a time-travel riddle.  I used to kid them both separately about it, because the admiral’s frequent off-ship protocol requirements made it hard to time a proper meeting.  I finally found my chance one day, and hustled young Frank upstairs to the admiral’s passageway.  I stepped into the chief’s office and asked him to step out and meet my friend.  Frank Senior’s jaw dropped and Frank Junior just stared as they were introduced.  I just laughed and let them get acquainted.  If they weren’t related, they had an uncanny set of genes, along with their identical names. 
          The other character I met was Fabian.  I didn’t care to learn his last name, because it was better than meeting anyone named Elvis, and we had one of them in the Flag Boat Pool division.  Fabian was a good-looking guy, like his namesake, and we were intent upon building up our arm muscle development to get tattoos.  I know that it sounded ridiculous, that they can’t come off unless laser surgery is applied, and that bikers, convicts and other social deviants are fond of them.  My wish for a tattoo was a dedication and tribute to something that I hold very dear in my life:  my love for music.  In particular, I wanted to honor my love for the original incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band.
          I wanted the cover from the Eat a Peach album, a drawing of a truck labeled with the band’s name, carrying an oversized peach.  I wanted a tribute to something that had been frozen in time, never be repeated in the same way.  It would also remind me of my life until that time, for the first 25 years of my life, a symbol of something to let me look back on my love for music and how deeply it touches my soul.  It has been a decision that I never regretted.  But the ship’s crew would soon have other regrets, because we were sailing ever closer to a sense of destiny that lay at zero degree's latitude, on the equator. 

 * “The Three Stooges are available, sir” *

          By now, I had become an office supervisor for the operations yeomen pool.  Anything that needed typing was usually funneled through me by the various consignments of 17 or more senior officers.  Their cognizance of fleet activities ranged from carrier operations, electronic warfare, research and development, surface warfare, submarine operations, logistics and supply, or even general fleet maneuvers.  The operations office held the largest complement of staff officers; therefore, we were the busiest team.  I frequently worked weekends and always stopped in during my off-hours, just to keep ahead of the frantic pace.  I drew the largest assignments for myself because I had some college, and I could type faster and more clearly than anyone else available.
          I used to type in my sleep, actually type out the conversations that I had spinning through my dreams.  If I was sleeping in my rack and my mind started to wander onto some half-completed idea or thought, my fingers would automatically gesture as if I was keying in the dialogue.  I often had to skip meals, or sometimes found just enough time to race down the nearby ladderway to the galley, grab some peanut butter and celery stalks, or some rolls, and rush back to the office.  That was a frequent dinner meal.  The intense typing demands were too much.  I remember one day when Commander Gordon Wileen, Carrier Operations, received an action response regarding a rash of aircraft accidents, and had to draft a response for the admiral’s approval.  The call had just gone out to knock off ship’s work, which meant it was the end of the day, and that all enlisted men not on duty were entitled to go ashore.  I stared at Cdr. Wileen’s pen as it flew across the yellow ledger paper, as the pages were piling up.  I ventured a timid query, “Will I have time for dinner, sir?”  “NO!!” he boomed back. It was another peanut and celery banquet for me.

* * “I like to know what the enemy’s up to, especially those New Yorkers” * * *

          Captain Stu Langdon was busy during regular hours.  His specialty was R&D, or research and development, and his trimester schedules for fleet plans would run over 60 pages.  He might hand it to me on a Friday and say, “I’d like it on Monday, please!”  He had calm and pleasant manners, and I always kept up with his requirements because he made it so easy to like him.  Commander Tom Paulsen was at the other end of the personality spectrum.  His field was Surface Warfare, and his penmanship was awful.  He was a transplant from the Okie Boat, and we were anguished to hear that he had extended his assignment with Seventh Fleet.  He was arrogant, brusque and probably had vinegar in his veins instead of blood.  He demanded immediate answers to his projects, but he knew his area within the smallest detail.  He was involved with software before computers became popular.  I was very happy that he stayed in the other half of the operations office, away from me, and so I deliberately assigned my “unfavorable” yeomen there to suffer under him.  I had enough time with him on the Okie Boat, when he would keep the duty yeomen pool awake by staying up until the early morning hours.  I heard that he eventually went to Annapolis as an instructor, where he must have terrorized the cadets, and in a twist of fate, he later became captain of the Blue Ridge.  He must have eaten his ship’s company yeomen and personal secretaries for lunch.
          Commander Ross Underhill was another gentleman, a pilot like Stu Langdon.  He was in charge of carrier operations.  He was as relaxed as Stu, and I admired their calmness in the face of their workload.  He had a semi-annual report that involved a great amount of schedule planning, as well as the various exercises each carrier would be sharing with other fleet vessels or host nations.  He approached me one Monday night when I was hanging around the office, and asked about the duty yeoman schedule for the rest of the week.
          There were three prize stooges on call, and Commander Underhill physically winced at the news.  I knew that his project was due by the following week by Wednesday, in Pearl Harbor, the command center for the Pacific Fleet, and that he had a personal reason for bringing up the topic:  his wife and young daughter were in Japan for a visit.  I was familiar with the composition of the report, because I had probably typed it in my sleep.  I volunteered to take the assignment, provided that he dictated to me the more complex carrier plans.  It was faster than trying to read it through.  His report went into the admiral for approval and release three days ahead of deadline, and Commander Underhill spent some happy moments with his family.
          I had a lot of fun with our Amphibious Warfare Officer, Commander Joe Lang.  He was from Orlando, Florida, and sounded gravelly, like Jack Palance.  He looked a great deal like Ross Perot, and probably shared some of his views.  His hair was always cut in a real flat edge crew cut, and he smoked cigars.  Commander Lang cast a very serious eye towards some of the nations in turmoil in our area of operations.  I think he once made a straight-faced recommendation that we bomb Iran with nuclear weapons.  He read a great deal, and would offer me his magazines after he had finished them.  I was curious as to why he subscribed to the New Yorker, being such an obvious southerner. He rasped, “I like to know what the enemy is up to.”  I didn’t doubt it.
          Lieutenant Peter Leenhouts (whom I spoke with recently in Washington State; retired as a captain; and whose appearance reminds me uncannily of my navy weapons buddy Ben here in ‘Bama) was brilliant, anxious to make his reputation and rank, and annoying for his persistence.  He was interested in surface warfare, like Cdr. Paulsen, and they both became experts in almost anything they touched.  I noticed that he wore a green-and-white Navy Commendation medal, which was quite an honor. It also told me that he was a fiend for work.  He became the admin assistant to Capt. Taylor, our Chief of Staff for Operations officer, and he drove me wild with extra work.  He had his nose into everything that floated, swam, or sank.  He also coordinated a semi-annual 120-page memo that covered the entire range of Seventh Fleet operations.  It had the appeal and appearance of a master’s degree thesis, and Pete was all over the ship, scouring for information to pack into this saga.  I naturally drew the assignment to type it, along with the other truckloads of work that were created.  If I disputed anything that I was ordered to do, or questioned something, “Pistol Pete” would cock his finger at me and shoot, to make sure that I understood that a conversation was over and I was to return to work. 
          Commander J.T. Frothingham, whom I dubbed “Frothing-mouth,” was a submarine operations officer.  I was thankful that he and Cdr. Paulsen sat in the far office, along with our flunky yeomen.  He was a tall, bullet-headed balding man, with glasses and an angry “American Gothic” face.  He once accosted me with a curt demand:  “Petty officer Lopate, I want a yeoman, now!”  We had been underway from Subic Bay to Manila, in the Philippines, and the crew was entitled to take a female of their choice as a sort of date.  We called it the Hooker Cruise.  My yeomen stooges had abandoned their posts to make time on the main deck with their escorts, and Cdr. Frothing-mouth was now foaming at the mouth.

“What does he mean by ‘A lion on the step’”?

          Mark Stinneford’s daily assignments in public affairs were called “Inchops and Outchops.”  They referred to the entry and departure of various fleet ships into our area of command delegation for Seventh fleet maneuvers.  The public affairs office, known as PAO, would prepare an inchop or outchop press release for an official welcome or farewell.  Mark tried his best to offer a variety of snappy and stirring proposals for each ship.  They would be approved by the public affairs officer and then sent on to the chief of staff for any final editing.  The chief of staff would almost totally rewrite anything Mark had done, using phrases that made no sense to either of us.  One ship was said “to have arrived like a lion on the step.”  We never figured out metaphorically or abstractly what it meant, either.  Mark would dejectedly wander into the admin office and show me the latest purging of his attempts to write a proper press release.  I often saw the carnage before Mark did, because my obligations as duty yeoman would require my rotation as a nightly typist, and the chief of staff was always working the longest, latest hours of any staff officer.  Mark tried to improve his work by studying previous “presrels” for other ships, but nothing ever got past unscathed.  It was a real morale stopper and just as frustrating for us, because Capt. Jonathan Howe, the chief of staff, had the worst handwriting we had ever seen on the staff.  He was prolific in his writing zeal, and could have put Cdr. Paulsen to flight with his stamina. 
          Capt. Howe wanted more than anything to become an admiral, and the path to his success was tinged red with the ink of his pen and our blood, sweat and tears.  We found ourselves working 20-hour days when it came for our assignment to the duty yeoman pool.  The other staff officers lengthened their hours to meet his requirements, and he would grind on through the night, oblivious to anything but paperwork.  He was acquainted with some State Department figures, like the late vice-president, Nelson Rockefeller, and former presidential advisor Henry Kissinger.  Capt. Howe had commanded two nuclear submarines on consecutive tours, a feat that brought him away from his wife and family for more than six months straight each year.  His real coup came when Seventh Fleet came under orders from Pearl Harbor to coordinate reconnaissance, rescue and transportation to safe haven for the exodus of Vietnamese people, fleeing the communist regime in rickety, overloaded boats into the open sea. 

* * * “A 20-hour workday is normal now” * * *

          This was one of the largest-scale operations that the Seventh Fleet had undertaken.  The South China Sea was a huge area to cover.  Squadrons of P-3 planes, known as submarine hunters for their ability to track the Soviet undersea fleet, were ordered to keep a lookout for tiny fishing boats crammed with people.  Surface ships were instructed to intervene and take onboard any boat that looked as though it might capsize, or otherwise it might be life-threatening to its human cargo.  The people fleeing Cuba and Haiti had the same problem to face on the sea.  Reports were to be furnished on a 24-hour basis until the political situation had stabilized in Vietnam, to the point that the government could either limit the flow of refugees trying to escape to freedom.  Some boats never made it.  Rough seas, limited supplies and modern slave-traders took their toll on these brave souls.  The Okie Boat never found itself in a position to rescue anyone, but the Blue Ridge had a chance, and we took onboard a number of exhausted, sun-baked men, women and children. 
          It made us realize that our country has the greatest gift to offer to its citizens:  the pursuit of liberty for one’s life.  We donated clothes to help our refugees, and I am sure that some of them found their way to the United States.  Somewhere, in some unknown city of America, my favorite dungarees are keeping up the gesture of goodwill, as well as someone’s belt, in a growing family of new citizens.  Capt. Howe also received an answer to his gesture of hard work, long after the crisis had passed.  His wife told him to spend more time at home or else, and we were astonished when he began to actually leave the ship by 9:00 p.m.  It meant that we could go to bed ourselves at a normal hour.  We used to sleep in our clothes after we were notified that Capt. Howe had turned off his light during the four hours left in a night.  We had to open the admin office the next morning at 6:00, and there was no time to lose in getting precious sleep.  Captain Howe also got an official answer for his extraordinary dedication to his country--he received his promotion, and we were ecstatic that it would require him to be transferred.  No man ever vexed more deeply, caused more gray or receding hairlines to develop, or lines on tired faces, than soon-to-be Rear Admiral Howe.

* Missing Links and Other Human Remnants *

          My yeoman's staff was comprised of some half-baked sociological deviants.  I could count on losing my mind, hair and sleep over Carlton Fountain, a pint-sized black kid who acted, talked and walked like Little Richard.  His prancing ways and gestures assured him of nomination for the Beauty Queen, but I think he felt honored.  Our suspicions were confirmed when we found copies of Playgirl, the woman’s magazine featuring men, under his mattress.  Another bulls-eye was set for Mark Whitfield, an African-American kid who hailed from St. Louis.  Whitfield was a good yeoman, but I was forever grateful that he was sentenced to the War Plans office.  He looked like a cross between a brillo pad and a stocky version of the Pillsbury Doughboy with an attitude of a bobcat, with a huge puffball of hair and patches of beard.  Mark’s intellectual scope could drive us crazy.  He was convinced that the Apollo flights were rigged, and that Neil Armstrong never walked on the moon.  He was also sure that the Himalayan mountains were in Nevada.  He was going to make it a hard choice to pass for Slimiest.
          I almost gave the trophy, hands down, to Howard Schoenfeld, but he had already crossed and we sadly set aside dreams of just beating him for his sheer existence as a set of congealed atoms.  He had former air force duty, and I wish they had dropped him from a weather balloon.  Howard made me ashamed because I felt as though he was a disgrace by any kind of similarity to me, either by heritage, ethnic origin, or even species of humanity.  He was an oaf, a buffoon, and an all-together mishap of social circumstances.  He really looked like a small elephant seal with a mustache.  He always had a set of keys clipped to his belt, and he slouched forward as he walked.  He spoke like he had marbles in his mouth, or perhaps his tongue was too big.  I came back one day from the dentist with a swollen face, having undergone several injections of pain-killer.  I slumped in my chair in the office and declared in a stuffy, nasal voice, “How-ud’s pwobwem is a mouf fuh obuh Nobacane.”

* * * “He looks like an elephant seal
trying to mate” * * *

          Howard mangled our nerves into a frenzy, so he was dumped from operations and banished to the Top Secret vault, an inner sanctum devoted to the security of highly sensitive material.  Perhaps it was hoped that he would lock himself in and forget the combination.  National security never was so far from safety in Howard’s fat hands.  I later learned that there had been an inspection of all documents, and that he had decided to hide some material in his knapsack in his rack locker until things could be straightened out on the official log records.  Of course, Howard forgot to return the paperwork, and found himself being searched one day at the gangway.  It was a routine procedure, and he had not been singled out.  This was a credit and fault of the way things ran in the admin office.  They wouldn’t have known if he had carried out a printing press, nor suspected it was missing.  But Howard’s bag revealed his little secret, or a bunch of top secrets, and he was nearly shot at sunrise for treason.  He was refused reenlistment instead, and booted out of the naval service.  I had long fled the navy by the time that this took place, but I think King Neptune threw this guy off of the seas before Howard sank our ship.
          Howard also had a solitary vice, one that was frequent in places where men are forced to live for long periods of time with raised testosterone levels and no women.  You might say that both factors go hand in hand.  I am no prude to matters of masturbation, but Howard did it in plain view of everyone, in his rack.  The sight of a large elephant seal undergoing mating habits may be of interest to Jacque Cousteau’s crew, but not to us, and he infuriated the helo detachment crew.  Their bunks were in Howard’s section of the berthing space.  They waited one night until the lights had been long turned out, and then they began to moan aloud in a rising chorus that sounded like an orgy at a graveyard.  When things reached a climax of sorts, they leaned over and squirted Howard with bottles of Ivory dishwashing liquid.
          Steve Doerfler was one of the better picks of the litter.  A cocky, street-smart kid from Minnesota, Steve constantly drove me crazy with his flippant attitude towards his work assignments.  He could type, and he did work hard, but he didn’t quite understand that a working day might extend for more than eight hours.  Having a kid like Steve as one of my better choices fueled my heavy substance abuse.  It was always a problem when I came in with a hangover or other stoned condition, which was frequent.  One of the hardest things that the operations staff came to understand was that I could and would work at all hours of the day or night, under the influence of marijuana, but produce excellent work.

* * “Heah’s duh foist dollah I evuh made” * *

          Because each of us had a duty rotation to follow, anyone had the option to “buy” for a negotiated price, another yeoman’s night.  It meant a commitment to stay onboard the ship for that evening, to be available for anything or everything that suddenly had priority or an officer’s whim.  I got offers for $25 all the time.  I usually wound up doing the work anyway and since I didn’t care for some of the ports we visited, like Korea or even the Philippines, I made extra spending money.  The leading man who shelled out hundreds of dollars for extra time ashore, a fellow who gave me the first dollar he allegedly ever made, and the only yeoman on my team who nearly gave me heart failure because of his ineptitude, was a guy from New Jersey named George Madden.
           Georgie was one of the sweetest, kindest and friendliest guys I could have wanted to work with as a yeoman.  He was a former aviation crewman from the Midway, who had somehow wandered into the yeoman camp and decided that it was safer than flight decks.  He was also quite blank from engaging in boxing matches, a “smoker” to navy men.  He also indulged in pot smoking, but that did nothing compared to the impact of ringside fighting.  George looked as though he had tried to beat up his opponent’s hands by smacking them with his head instead of his gloves.  There were dark circles under his bloodshot watery eyes, and his jaw drooped under his mustache.  George had the heart, the size, the desire...but he didn’t know how to duck a punch.  The navy decided that he would live longer in an office than in the ring or near planes, and gave him a second chance.  This decision almost cut short my lifespan when I learned about George and The Memo.
          George was ordered as the duty yeoman to type up a memo for an officer, Commander Paulsen.  We would use an approved administrative format, on plain white paper.  The next day, an enraged Cdr. Paulsen showed me his memo, typed on the back of a radio transmission form.  I truly felt my heart shudder and miss a few beats as I submitted to this verbal hailstorm.   As the leading petty officer of the operations office, I was supposed to have a team of qualified yeomen working for me.  I had the Gilligan’s Island show instead.  Or perhaps all the real guys that were meant for me had been locked up in a cell in Iran or some other embassy.  Part of my decision to buy George’s duty assignments were not all for the love of money.  They were also to keep him out of the office.  He was so harmless (aside from typing) that it hurt to scold him, because he never had any official training, and there was no way that I could set time aside to properly indoctrinate him to the various styles of forms and letters.  He didn’t have the vocabulary or word recognition for the military terms, either.  But he was undaunted in his efforts, and I found that he could help best by filing paperwork for Cdr.’s Frothy-mouth and Paulsen.  He would complain that they were nasty men, and I agreed.  They could be a lot meaner if George had to type their work, too.  He showed his appreciation one day when he came up to me as I lay reading in my bunk.  Mark Stinneford was awake in the bunk below me and heard this:
          “Lopate, man, I jus’ wanna tell ya that I really appreciate whachoo you do faw me, man, you really get me movin’.  I am so glad that I work wit’ choo, but lemme tell ya, yaw a ball-bustah, man, but yuh fair, butchoo really bust my chops.  But I dig wha’choo do faw me, you really motivate me, man.  I wanna give yuh something to remember how much I undastand wha’choo do.  Heah’s duh foist dollah I evuh made, I wanchoo ta keep it, man.”
          I felt honored and embarrassed at the same time.  George extracted a worn, extremely dirty looking bill from his wallet, which I plucked gingerly.  He must have kept it buried, and I felt like giving it a proper cremation to prevent an outbreak of something epidemic.  He pumped my hand vigorously, and wandered away.  I leaned over the side of my rack and peered at Mark’s leering face.  “That was quite a ‘tribute,’ Lopate,” he snickered.  “Lopate, man,” he wheedled, “Lopate, man, you really motivate me.  You really get me moving, you know, you’re a pain in the ass, but you really get me going.  YOU’RE MY EX-LAX, man!”  I glared back at him, but Mark was entitled to get revenge just once for the physical, mental and emotional trauma I inflicted upon him, and this was that time.  He would soon pay for his remarks, but that was expected of me and the element of surprise was always working against Mark.

* “Lopate! What are you doing in there?!” *

          I also kept in touch with the gang from Public Affairs, especially Mark Stinneford.  We had some real fun both in and out of the office.  At any given moment, I would suddenly get up and walk away from my desk.  I just needed to get away from the pressure for a few minutes.  This kind of evasive maneuver was called “skating,” and I was an Olympic caliber performer.  I often headed for the upper decks of the ship, known as “flag country,” because it was where the officer’s staterooms were located, and they were all working in their offices.  I had the privacy and space to roam at will.  I occasionally encountered Mark on my skating tours, doing the same thing.  We would often bump into each other at the intersections of the passageways, and he would recoil from the encounter of meeting another person.  He would get flustered and apologize, realizing that he had been caught away from his desk.  Then he would then notice who that person was, and his eyes would narrow.  “LOPATE!!” he’d exclaim.  “What are you doing here?” 
          Mark had an accusing way of saying my name that sounded like he had just uncovered the man behind everything from the stock market crash to JFK’s assassination, with probable cause for Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance.  Just the question I wanted to ask him in return.  Just skating, like you, I’d reply, and he’d grin sheepishly.  I saw him one time from a far distance heading my way, in the forward spaces near the flag barber shop.  There was a soda machine there, but I didn’t think that he was out strolling for a Coke.  There was a large unlit fan room across from the machine, framed by a mesh grillwork.  I opened the grillwork and closed the frame behind me.  I could see out into the passageway, hidden inside by the darkness.  Mark came rambling around the corner, and I hissed a greeting at him.  He froze, trying to locate the sound of the noise.  Then he noticed the grillwork, and carefully approached.  His eyes bulged when he found his answer, and on cue, he incredulously asked the obvious question.  LOPATE!?!  What are you doing in THERE??
          He was also one of the smartest guys I worked with, and he was very proud of his writing skills.  He had jumped in rank very early, and his looks made him appear to be fresh-faced and apple-cheeked, which contrasted with his pay grade status.  He eventually became a petty officer first class, an accomplishment that usually took some guys as long as eight years if they were lucky.  Mark did it in less than four, and I know that the first class dining room stared in disbelief when Mark walked in.  It was like finding an eleven-year old genius at college.

* “The combination works with oatmeal” *

          I took great delight in teasing him, because he was the only person I knew on the ship who could keep up with me on my schemes and antics.  Once, I scurried back to the public affairs office before normal hours had started one morning.  As I suspected, the door was open and the public affairs officer was hard at work in the inner room.  I wanted to get a look at the cipher lock combination, because I knew that it had been changed after I had been reassigned from public affairs to operations.  A quick glance gave me the four-digit code that I wanted, and I rushed back to the galley to find Mark quietly eating his breakfast.  I took up a seat across from him and smiled.  He immediately sensed danger.  “LOPATE!  What are you up to?” 
          Who, me?  I just wanted Mark to verify that I suspected that the cipher combination was the old sequence that we originally used.  This was a lie, because I had just seen and memorized the new numbers.  Mark grinned smugly as I rattled off the old combination pattern.  I assured him that I wasn’t going to access the office for anything, but that I just wanted to feel as though I was part of the team.  It’s OK to confide in me, I said.  He rolled his eyes.  I knew that the combination wasn’t changed, I said, and repeated the old sequence to show him that I remembered it.  He grinned back even harder, and continued to calmly eat his cereal.  I kept up my pleading and insistence that I be included in his trust.  It made him glow with satisfaction knowing that my efforts were fruitless.  At last, the p.a. system blared out, “Secure the mess decks,” our notice that breakfast was over and ship’s work would begin in five minutes.  Mark had just taken his last bite.  I leaned over and barked out the correct numbers, just as the spoon disappeared into his mouth.  His eyes bulged in surprise, as though he had almost jammed the food past his tonsils.  I fled laughing up the ladderway to the operations office.

* Damn Yankees and other acts of deceit *

          Mark also managed to get involved, to his horror, with some of my appropriations and avoidance schemes.  There’s a scene in the Broadway play and movie, Damn Yankees, when the femme fatale sings, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets!”  The words could be changed to “Whatever Lopate wants...” because that’s how I worked.  I never liked doing clean-up detail, or anything else that was better suited for anyone of lesser intelligence.  I began this trend in boot camp.  When we had to do a weekly barracks cleaning, I’d get an intense look on my face and scowl.  I’d get a distant bead on some imaginary target, usually in the vicinity of the exit sign, and start out to examine the cause of my dismay.  If anyone saw me, they’d have to say to themselves, “Whatever it was that he saw, he’s deadly serious about fixing it right now!  We’d better not bother him or ask him what it is.”  I’d reach the door and go through it...up a flight of stairs and hide on the landing.  In Adak, I was told to paint a ladderway.  I thought this was ridiculous, to waste the time of a good yeoman on such mundane tasks.  The station had untrained scores of bodies for this purpose.  I just poured the paint down the stairs and smoothed it out on wherever it landed.  I painted the stairway...and the stairs and plastic skid pads and everything else.  If it wasn’t painted before, it was now.  I also avoided hatch crew and galley duty.  It was the obligation of each department to offer up as a sacrifice, one person for either kitchen duty, for a period of three months, or weekly, to unload the supply ship.  I had done two weeks in the galley in boot camp, and that was enough service for me for my entire tour.  I was nominated for hatch crew duty, but each time I was scheduled, bad weather canceled the job.  I only did it once.

* * * “They’ve all got hangovers anyway” * * *

          I took the same approach to the fleet.  For example, I used to avoid field day in Public Affairs as much as possible.  This was our enlisted responsibility to clean the office space, including washing the floor, laying down a coat of wax and possibly buffing it to a shine.  I didn’t care for it and would grumble out loud each time.  We worked with a Photographer’s Chief named Jerry Antone, a bulbous man with a shiny, balding scalp.  “Fathead” would sit in the inner office, doing mundane work, and count down the days between our last cleaning.  “Lopee,” he’d say, “when are you guys planning the next field day?”  I felt like answering, “When you either grow hair again or lose 50 pounds,” but that wouldn’t have changed his mind.  The ship itself gave me options.  It became nearly impossible to control the buffer during rough seas, but we were forced to at least sweep and mop.  The wax smell would linger for days.
          Chief Antone also had the annoying habit of writing down a list of things on a large yellow legal pad for Mark and I to do during the day.  The list might include things like field day, or making sure that the garbage was thrown out.  I hated this constant henpecking, and decided to cure him of his editorializing.  I buzzed into the office one night, and drew up my own list of things to do on his pad, as though he had written it for us.  It read as follows:

          (1) Wait for a dark night
          (2) Sneak out to the fantail
          (3) Drop a rope over the side
          (4) Quietly slide down the rope into the water
          (5) Let the ship sail away
          (6) Practice my backstroke
          (7) Practice my crawl
          (8) Practice my dead man’s float
          (9) Sink into the water
          (10) Glub...glub...glub....

          The next morning, Mark and I were working at our desk when a voice roared out from around the corner, “YOU ASSHOLE!!”  I had told Mark of my plot and we grinned at each other.  I hesitantly peaked into the back office.  “Uh, did you call one of us, Chief?” I innocently asked.  He shook his head and stared at his hands.  We found no more notes or lists on our desks.
          The Blue Ridge gave me some ideas, and so did Chief Antone’s departure.  I would not be defeated, and simply made the buffing machine vanish.  This was no easy feat, because a ship is a floating dormitory, and someone has the keys.  The trick to this was finding the place where no one thought to look, and the Flag Logistics office held part of the answer.  This was the home of our good friend, beer-loving, woman-chasing Tom Rookey.  I wanted access to the Flag Logistics Officer’s desk to get the key to the helicopter detachment’s office.  The helo det office was in between the Logistics Office and PAO.  The flag logistics office only had three personnel:  the staff officer, a chief petty officer, and Tom.  They all drank to excess, and there was nothing worse than trying to fumble on the keypad of a cipher lock, aided by a massive hangover.  They had to keep it simple, I explained to Mark.  He watched on as I keyed in the easiest sequence I could guess at:  1-2-3-4.  The buzzer gave me the recognition beep, and the door opened.  Mark rolled his eyes again, but he was on another remora’s ride with the Great White Shark of the Seventh Fleet.

* * * You lost a buffer? * * *

          The “helo det” was in charge of Blackbeard One, the helicopter that ferried the admiral to and from the ship.  The squadron would come onboard during extended cruises to ensure that the craft was properly maintained, but when we were back home in Yokosuka, they left for the base in Atsugi.  Their office would be left unmanned during this time and I planned to take advantage of their absence.  The next obstacle was to get a buffing machine to hide.  This would be done with the assistance of the unwitting souls in the Flag Boat pool.
          The boat pool were the staff’s enlisted flunkies, the throw-away seamen who had escaped life on the bosun’s crews by virtue of some miracle.  The only incentive the boat pool had was to keep themselves out of the brig, get their paycheck cashed twice a month, and keep their assigned areas cleaned.  They were responsible for certain passageways on the ship, including those of the flag spaces.  These spaces were to be cleaned, waxed and buffed on a regular schedule.  They were also the admiral’s temporary chauffeur to and from the ship to his home on base.  I wouldn’t have let them handle a bicycle with training wheels.  They were always being reprimanded for their appearance, their attitude, their language, just for being themselves.  I thought of them as lumps, dumps, chumps and Gumps.  Many of them had come from lower-class housing apartments in cities, and their belligerence was simply a way of handling themselves on the street.  Seaman Apprentice Rodney Stiggers came from such a place.  He was a rude, buck-toothed feisty black teenager with a short fuse and no social manners, or any kind of consideration for anyone else.  But he was smart, and if someone had taken him aside and really worked on polishing him up, he could make great strides.  I would rather someone had polished him with a steamroller or let him stride off the deck of a ship at sea.   Eric White was a mouse in a man’s uniform, a boy who had probably never been away from his room at home until now.  He tried to grovel for attention when he saw Mark and I talking, and we had to chase him away by threatening to turn him into hamburger meat, to suppress our overwhelming pity for his mannerisms.  Seaman Elvis Patterson was big, slow to move but aware of everything.  He just acted as though he had no motivation, and looked as though all he could do was eat and sleep.
          The boat pool was assigned to Ensign Thomas Cage, a version of an African-American Baby Huey.  Ens. Cage was just a big boy who was built like he had forgot to stop growing, with a sweet, naive face and a mind to match.  He spoke in a high-pitched giggle, and when he got excited, his voice got higher.  I used to wonder how he had been accepted to Officer’s Candidate School.  He had a college degree in Geography, and I doubt if he could find a state of awareness for his renegades.  Their insensitivity to their surroundings was the key to my avoiding future field day assignments in Public Affairs. 
          I waited until the word had been passed one day to give the office a good cleaning.  We were sharing a buffing machine with the boat pool, and Stiggers was using it to shine up the passageway.  The helo det office was empty, and we were expected to be docked at home for two months.  Stiggers simply turned his back for a few minutes, and I crept out with the retrieved key and stashed the buffer inside the helo det’s office.  No one would think to open it, because the squadron would not be onboard.  No one suspected that I had access to the logistics office combination or the key.  Mark and I hid inside the public affairs office, and heard Ens. Cage questioning a bewildered Stiggers.  Ens. Cage’s voice rose two octaves from his normal soprano as he tried to understand what had happened.  “You mean to say, YOU LOST DA BUFFA??” he squealed.  Stiggers had no idea for a reply, except to mumble back a rambling, “Well, I wuz workin’ on duh flaw wit’ da buffer and I left it dere, and den it wuz gone, and Lopate wuz ‘posed tuh use da buffer, and I doan know!”  We held ourselves back from exploding with laughter over their plight.

* * “Turn off that television set already!” * *

          The boat pool also played a role in one of my greatest triumphs of man over machine.  Our berthing space had a television set in the middle of the room, mounted up high on the wall.  The crew was allowed to watch TV throughout the night, until someone finally shut it off.  I had to hang a curtain over the front of my rack, because it faced the doorway of the head, or bathroom, and the constant opening and shutting of the light would fall on my face.  I had less success with the television set.  The boat pool would watch anything and everything that was projected onto the screen, and often blared the volume.  There were nights when I really was exhausted from a day of typing and running the gauntlet of officers, and had to try to sleep behind a wall of noise from the crowd watching television.  One night, I struck back, and the feature was Monday Night Football.  It was close to midnight, and I really was feeling ragged.  The boat pool insisted on watching the game, which featured the Rams against New Orleans.  I crawled out of bed in the darkness, and followed the television cable wire out of sight around the corner, near another set of bunks.  No one had seen me, nor did they suspect that I was busy unscrewing the wire from the cable jack.  The television blared away, and the boat pool cheered for their team.  The announcer described the action on the field as the defense chased the quarterback out of formation, and he spotted an open receiver downfield.   The quarterback scrambled...he eluded one tackle...there was a long pass to the end zone, and the receiver was stretching to reach it, and the defender was leaping to bat it away.....suddenly, there was no picture, and a steady hiss of sound came from the screen.  I had finally disconnected the set.  The boat pool stood up and cursed at the demonic television, accusing the Executive Officer, the second in command and a most disliked man, of engineering the loss of the reception.  I flew around the corner and leaped back into my bunk, and pulled the covers over my head.

* * * What’s Yours is Mine * * *

          I was as mercenary when I had to appropriate things.  One day, I saw a sailor mopping down a passageway with wax, and remembered I had been ordered to clean and mop the operations office.  The bucket lay strategically next to an adjoining corner passage.  The sailor never noticed the hand that stealthily reached around and whisked the pail out of sight.  I also found ways to get in the early chow line for lunch, bypassing the meandering legions of hungry shipmates.  We would be kept waiting by the galley Master-at-Arms division, who would wave through only 10 lucky men at a time, until the mess deck had more room.  I would never have found time to wait in line, eat and then rush back to the office within an hour.  I simply convinced the M.A’s that we had a priority need to have me go in ahead of everyone else.  This allowed me to get in line by 11:00, get my lunch by 11:15, finish eating by 11:30, and leave me 30 minutes to catnap in my rack.  I could sleep like a rock for 25 minutes, and wake up refreshed and ready for more work.  I also found a way to store my gear and belongings by commandeering a spare closet space in the upper passageways of the ship.  I found that it had been used to keep spare award forms and supplies, and the previous yeoman assigned to that job gave me the combination.  I had clothes, paintings, boxes of belongings and other goods stashed away in a matter of weeks. 

* * “I’m not the Ghost of Christmas Past either” * *

          Antics like this only fueled my zeal for wog initiation.  If these guys were going to drive me crazy, I was going to stimulate the only source of their potential intelligence, even if it wasn’t in their head.  Shock therapy could work for depression, but I was going to be on the distribution end, not receiving it, and these guys depressed me.  Maybe the contact of nerve endings amplified by a well-placed shillelagh would help my plight at sharing a workspace and berthing compartment with these Neanderthals.  So I sharpened my sword for a few pet wogs, including my moronic yeomen. 
          My last prize, and no mere runner-up, was another African-American kid, a radioman named Jim Hardy.  He had the audacity, the unmitigated nerve to challenge the immortality of shellback heaven by grabbing my shillelagh and throwing it over the side, the day before we crossed.  Hardy’s violation of my sacred shellback’s presence and unholy treatment of my shillelagh made me swear that I would skin him alive.  The other wogs were just as defiant as someone whom I remembered had placed a row of stars on his tee shirt, someone who had found his head shaved into a Mohawk.  Doerfler smirked at the thought of my paddling him, and Whitfield was as blunt as ever:  “Ho!  You ain’t gonna beat my ass!!”  No, Mark, I had plans to embroider the likeness of the Washington Monument on your backside.  I did remember how much pain I had endured, and I did not want to forget my lesson.  I knew that some of the Okie Boat wogs had suffered lacerations.  I also valued the presence of fear and the unknown.
          The new wogs found that there would not be much sleep that night, and I personally helped to lasso some up and bind and tie them.  They had something to eat the next morning.  I was told that it was spiced up a bit, but not the fare from hell that I had endured.  And then it was time for the Big Show.  I did find a spare shillelagh at the last minute, and I lost my voice from yelling.  I also saved some people from a possible beating or worse.  I did spot Steve Doerfler and nudged him a few times to make his eyebrows shake, and found Whitfield, and placed him into the pillories.  He stood there with his head and hands in the locked frames, yoked like an ox, and I lectured him on his manners.  “Wouldn’t go through, eh?”  (Smack!)  “Talk back to a shellback, huh?”  (Pow!)  “A tough guy, right?”  (Whap!).  I probably should have given him some instruction on global geography and the NASA Apollo flight history, but I didn’t want to let things get out of hand.  I also stopped the line to pay my regards to the storekeeper who had taken Tom Rookey’s place in Logistics.  I had asked him for a favor, explaining that Tom had been generous in such times.  “I’m not Rooookey,” he replied.  Well, I wasn’t the ghost of Christmas Past, either. 
          I had one bewildering moment when I came across Major Ben Williams, a marine pilot from the operations office.  “Gentle Ben” was another nice guy, a hard worker who knew that I corrected some of his spelling and grammatical errors without being asked.  This was Wog Day, though, and he was about to enter the chute.  Being a U.S. Marine aviator must have given him other ideas, because he virtually flew on his hands and knees through the chute, right past my upraised foot as I prepared to trap him.  He just zipped right past me.  When the day had ended, I had not found Mr. Hardy, and later that week, I saw him again in the operations office.  This time, I congratulated him on his good fortune to have avoided me, and welcomed him as a brother shellback.  I didn’t realize it, but we had unfinished business to settle a year later, to the tune of a quarter-pound of Philippine marijuana and $425.

Smuggler’s Blues (Navy Days Part III)

          Time was running out on my tour by New Year’s Day, 1981 and I was amazed that my obligation to the navy had passed so fast.  The Grateful Dead said it best:  What a long strange trip it’s been.  We received orders for a short port visit to Subic Bay (in the Philippines) and Hong Kong, and what was destined to be my final voyage at sea.  There would be time for pleasure and fun, but this time was set aside for business.  I had to find a lady in Hong Kong named Rose who looked more like a schoolteacher, a little woman barely five feet tall, to look at her skill with a tattooing needle.
          When she began, it felt like a big, angry bumblebee had begun to jackhammer at my arm.  She moved very slowly but deliberately, which only prolonged the annoying sting of the drill.  I quickly drank two beers, allowing the alcohol to help numb the pain.  Rose neatly closed in the final loops and lines, and then switched to a multi-headed needle to add in the color.  I began to adjust to the burning feeling as the buzzing drill cut into my flesh.  The wash of colors began to take form, and the truck and peach were finally completed.  I looked carefully at the writing:  ALLMAN BROTHERS.  I looked again, and said the words slower.  ALL MAN BROTHERS.  It made me realize that there was a deeper message, that we are part of the family of brothers and sisters to each other in the world, and that we are here to care and look out for our earth, and each other.
          I paid Rose $20 for her effort.  I wanted another beer, because my arm was starting to swell and it was slightly bloody.  I found a pub two doors away named The Ox-Tail Inn, and dropped in for a look at the bar.  A gentleman standing next to me struck up a conversation.  He was a diplomat at the British consulate, and quite familiar with the city.  He would be delighted if I would be his guest at his home for dinner the next evening as a token reminder of my last day in Hong Kong.  My guest had married a very nice Chinese lady, and the meal was excellent, a splendid fare of fine foods and drinks.  Our glasses were constantly filled to capacity, and I later learned that we both passed out after brandies.  We both awoke later on, and he was kind enough to see that I was taken back to the ship.  I concentrated very hard on walking a straight line up the gangway and staggering off to collapse in my rack. 

* * * “This is a floating prison” * * *

          The captain of the Blue Ridge did not take lightly to the idea that his crew or anyone onboard the ship had plans to frequent the tattoo parlors.  The Great Wizard of Oz had spoken, even if he was dressed like a navy captain, and everyone quivered with fear.  Well, almost everyone.  There were over 100 guys, myself included, who went out and came back with a tattoo.  This put us at risk for more than any health matters, because now we had violated a direct command of the lord and liege of the ship, our captain.  This was no small matter, as he was master of our fate.  The navy differs from the other branches of service, in that they assign you to a certain place for a specified amount of time, and there are rarely any transfers. 
          Life on a ship is also different than a land-based hitch, because the ship gets up and takes you with it on a cruise.  The land base, fort or station can’t do that, and you have the ability to leave it during the day or night.  There’s no way to walk off a ship that is at sea.  It’s a floating prison.  The worst punishment that can be handed down is to have a sentence of restriction to the ship, especially during home port visits.  The ship is tied up to the dock and crewmembers come and go, but the guilty person must stay onboard, unable to leave.  They must report to the Master-at-Arms office three times a day, to ensure that they are complying with the punishment.  I had this sentence passed on me twice, and the greatest thing I felt was the touch of the soles of my feet on solid ground.  So, the act of getting a tattoo only compounded the fact that we had violated a direct order of a superior officer.  This was grounds to bring us up on charges of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the UCMJ.  Serious wrongdoings could lead to a court-martial and a Dishonorable Discharge, a prison sentence, and a large fine.  Minor infractions were brought under the jurisdiction of a Captain’s Mast, which meant that the Commanding Officer of a particular duty station was judge, jury and executioner rolled into one. 

* * * “He said his bunk moved on him when he tried to climb in” * * *

          Two charges that went together often were Missing Ship’s Movement and Unlawful Absence.  The U.A. charge was often levied against anyone who was not on their assigned post or place of work at a properly given time.  A ship’s movement charge was often handed down when some unfortunate sailor overslept the final day of liberty and could not get a ride out to the ship.  This happened often when we were in ports where drinking and smoking the native concoctions made for ultra-hangovers.  I can vouch for some blinding moments in Thailand when I didn’t know I had fallen twice off a bar stool after drinking the local beer and smoking some Thai marijuana.  I also know of a senior yeoman who dropped like a sawed tree after combining smoking and drinking.  We had a sniveling crewmate who received quite a hazing from his co-workers after he drank some sweet potato wine in Japan.  They pounced on him for being a loathsome fool when he was seen sleeping on the floor beside his bunk.  He received a verbal onslaught for “missing rack’s movement.” 

* * “You derelicts…in the back row…
can you hear me?” * * *

          So the Commanding Officer had given a directive, and we risked his wrath.  We thought it was barbaric, against navy traditions and ridiculous.  Sailors had been getting tattoos for thousands of years, considering the Phoenician and Egyptian seafarers.  It would be the last visit to Hong Kong for many of us, and the tattoo artists were noted for exotic work.  Some of the older veterans had been tattooed for years, going back to their first enlistment.  And I was determined to get my Allman Brothers tribute, or bust.
          Some of the less fortunate victims were strip-searched right in front of the gangplank on the ship.  My berthing space shipmates were witness to mine, because we had a communal shower area.  That’s a horror story in itself, but not for here.  One guy I knew with a fresh tattoo was a ship’s company yeoman from the Okie Boat days, a kid named Ed.  He was a weight-lifter too, but his black-rimmed glasses gave him a Clark Kent look.  He didn’t have an ‘S’ underneath his shirt, but he was muscular and as tattooed as Larry, the Executioner. I asked him, how did they find a new tattoo amongst the mosaic of color that he already had?  He just shrugged and looked confused.  I wasn’t confused about the pain that pulsed through my arm, because it felt as though someone had pounded my muscle with a blunt object.  The physical pain would soon be amplified by the verdict that was waiting for us when we faced the captain to answer for our actions.
          When the Executive Officer, known as the XO, read the Master-at-Arms report about the Tattoo Incident and the subsequent volume of violations, he went through the roof.  We were herded into a large room, row after row of men.  It looked like a parade ground, and the XO needed a microphone to address us.  His voice boomed out in rage, but the acoustics were awful, and his words faded into echoes.  We heard something like, “YOU DERELICTS!!...... (derelicts...derelicts...derelicts...) IN THIS ROOM!!! ( IN THE BACK ROW!!!! (row.....row.....row.....) DID YOU HEAR ME????!!!!! (”  We did hear the Commanding Officer’s penalty for our crime:  half a month’s pay and restriction to the ship for seven days.  The restriction would take us through our stop in Subic Bay, a very popular place for social sports, alcohol and cannabis consumption, and other riotous behaviors.  Mark once told me in a shaky voice, of his revelation that two yeomen had taken on a Subic hooker in a ménage a trois.  He shuddered as he tried to blank out the picture in his mind.  “Aw, it was nothing,” I needled him.  “Those guys must have looked like a couple of oil derricks going up and down on each end.”  Mark’s nerves couldn’t stand the image, and he ran for safety from my comments.
          Some of the other guys who had been busted were experiencing a unique kind of pain, a feeling of loss that came from the heart.  These guys were the senior men who had been awarded Good Conduct Medals, known as GCM’s, or the subsequent star pin, every four years for maintaining a perfect record of behavior.  This really meant that they hadn’t been caught in gambling halls, or arrested for beating up a prostitute or for drunken and disorderly behavior, or for wild and laviscious behavior, at least in a formal sense.  They very well might have been guilty of these things, but if there had been no formal charges filed, it never came to any legal ending.  I had another chapter to add to my legal records.  I already had one Captain’s Mast on file for possession of a controlled substance, hashish.

* * * “Lopate! Why are you stabbing a jar
of peanut butter?!” * * *

          I had come back to New Jersey on leave in April 1980, and had arranged for a friend to smuggle me back a quarter ounce of hash.  I just wanted to have something special to keep my head in the clouds as I swam through the daily channel of paperwork that the operations office generated.  As I said, there was unbelievable stress from the responsibility of doing my own workload, as well as keeping my yeomen chargelings from destroying typing assignments.  The staff officers knew they had their assignments and expected superior work from subordinates as part of a staff assignment.  It didn’t matter if the yeomen assigned were professional hazards--I would inevitably bail out the assignment because I was the best typist in the pool, and valued my life.  No one in Washington wanted to hear my screams when each new arrival came bearing credentials from a Steven King novel.  So when a package arrived from New Jersey, I found nothing inside except a jar of peanut butter.  I stared at it, perplexed.  I had paid the guy, and I knew that he would have come through with something for me.  I had a sudden idea, and found a knife.  Mark Stinneford later told me that he wondered why I was hacking away at a jar of peanut butter, as though I had never seen the stuff.  I soon found my contraband treasure, a chunk of Nepalese red.  I never had the chance to enjoy it. 
          I made the fateful habit in those days of not wearing my glasses, and without them, I really couldn’t see people too well.  I used to say it was because I didn’t want to see or know from my shipboard surroundings, because it was easier to live in a haze.  This was my second-biggest mistake, not to see where I was or to whom I was talking.  I made the first mistake when I mentioned my prize to a friend whom I had just noticed in the passageway....and it turned out to be someone who looked like him instead.  The Master-at-Arms force had me whisked away within moments, and I was charged with a very serious violation of the UCMJ.  Drug possession was akin to murder, because my body and mind belonged to the government.  There would surely be 30 days in the brig, a huge fine and loss of rank. 
          I admitted to anything and everything, even to offering to turn in other shipmates for possession.  I even gave them an advanced copy of the ship’s schedule, and the operations chief of staff went ballistic when he learned that they had it.  I had to think within micro-seconds to give him a possible answer that exonerated me from blame, saying that I had left it on my desk and that someone might have copied it.  I finally wrote the Executive Officer, the number two man in command of the ship, a letter explaining the severe pressure that I was under, that I was drinking excessively as well, and that I was going clean, cold turkey from any further drug involvement.  I was still scheduled for a visit to the Captain and a sure execution the next day, but I gambled on my superior typing skills, track record and operations office workload requirement to be my insurance. 

* “Did you say ‘shave’ or ‘save’ my mustache?” *

          I deliberately did not shave my precious mustache, either.  No one assigned to the brig is allowed to wear facial hair, and I would have lost it.  I was brought in front of a judicial reviewing committee, a situation that I had witnessed many times as a legal yeoman in Adak.  I looked back at the Captain with my eyes wide in fright, but I was secretly sure that my hunches would be correct.  He saw a thoroughly humbled, terrified sailor before him, a man with a strong work ethic and a well-written confession and plea for leniency.  I was given a reduction in pay-grade, back to a seaman, restriction to the ship for 30 days, and loss of half a month’s pay.  I received no brig time.   I was still smoking up a tornado and still taking horrendous risks, in spite of the respite from a sure death sentence.  I could make a pipe out of an ordinary ball-point pen, scotch tape and a penny, in about two minutes.  I lit up in office spaces, berthing compartments, on the side launching decks of the ship, even in spare staterooms that were designated for visiting admirals.  I knew I had an addictive personality, and I regretted every minute of my twisted actions.

 * “Oh, no, it’s a set-up! I’ve been framed!” * *

          In a way, it was a relief to be busted, because I was no longer the operations yeoman coordinator.  That task fell to Herb Sweezy, a round-faced Florida guy who had recently transferred.  Herb hailed from a town called Apopka, and had been in the Mediterranean on a carrier, like Mark.  He loved his poker games, and I had taped a hand of four aces over our desk.  He was a good yeoman, but much more relaxed about things.  He and I had a great time working together, and had some fine time ashore in ports like Singapore, where we stayed up all night, returning to the ship with one hour before reveille.  He also despised the turkeys assigned to the yeoman pool, especially How-ud’s fat face, and disliked the arrogance of some officers.  I still drew the biggest typing assignments, but I didn’t have to answer to the officers for the responsibility of who was doing their work.        
          I found myself a year later sitting in the office with Herb.  There were less than 30 days left before I would be leaving for my final release date.  I had come in to retrieve a suitcase that I kept behind a spare desk in the office.  I didn’t want to use up the space in the gear locker, and I had brought this suitcase with me when I flew back from my ill-fated visit home last April.  I had tossed it behind the desk, and it sat there for months.  It was now quite dusty, and I brushed off the cobwebs.  Something moved inside as I shook it, and I stopped cleaning.  I looked at Herb with a frown.  I hadn’t forgotten anything, and I hadn’t used this suitcase for a year.  He stared back with mild interest.  I unzipped the case and came up with a large, fat woolen sock.  It looked like someone had rolled up extra socks and stuffed them inside this one large one.  This is a surprise, I thought.  “Maybe it’s your stash,” Herb joked.  I glared back with a sour look and said, Thanks for nothing, Herb.  I was not proud of my compulsions, even if they were life-threatening.  I reached into the sock, to pull out its contents, and felt a plastic bag, filled with something that crushed under my searching fingers, something like....
          Oh, no.  OH, NO!!  I hadn’t done it, it wasn’t mine, I didn’t know anything about it, I was being framed, it was the Master-At-Arms fault, they were out to bust me one more time, I was innocent, I was going to throw up.  My blood ran cold and a cold sweat broke out over my body.  They were finally going to get me in jail, just weeks before I was to be released from active duty.  It was a cruel, vicious act of revenge by the navy.  I swallowed all these thoughts back down into my stomach, past my knotted throat, grabbed the sock and its contraband and fled out the door to a nearby hatchway that opened onto a side launching deck near some motorboats.  I was still pulsating with adrenaline and my nerves were on edge.  I gingerly opened the sock and brought out a ham-sized Zip-lock bag of dark green marijuana, and a handful of yellow pills.  I didn’t care if it had been gold dust, I didn’t put it there and now I was supposed to dispose of it.  I had room to hide it underneath my pant's leg and wedge it into the top of the Wellington boots that I wore.  It sounds naive and downright stupid to have considered carrying it with me, in light of my previous experience, but this time, I wanted to think about what this meant, and find out who was responsible.  I was sure that if I turned it into the Master-at-Arms office, I’d be busted for having it on me in the first place.  No, I hadn’t done this, and someone was responsible for nearly snuffing out my freed status a second time.

* * * “Gimme that saxophone, boy” * * *

          I had been good friends, smoking buddy and pal to many of the guys in the Navy Band.  I carried their gear for them when they left the ship, hung around their base practice room, and been an all-around morale booster.  My intimate comradeship gave me access to combination to the spare instrument room that they had on an upper passageway.  I hid the sock and its contents in an adjacent doorway to an office frame, and set off for our berthing space to find two of my allies, Tommy Moulton, a sax player, and Dale Yaeger, a drummer.  They were playing poker with a few others.  I politely but firmly insisted that Tommy leave the game to help me with something, and nudged Dale.  We opened up the gear room and examined the loot again.  Tommy unscrewed his saxophone bell and stuffed the bag inside.  I removed a small portion for myself and told him, “I don’t care what you do with it.  I don’t care where you go with it.  Just bring me back the results.”  Two days later, the instruments and our little secret were unloaded in the air force base at Atsugi, Japan, and the band was flown off to a gig.  I sat back and waited for the real owner to make his presence known.
          On the day we docked back in Yokosuka, my old friend Jim Hardy stopped me.  His mannerisms and tone were a little scattered.  He fairly yelled into my face, “HEY MAN DID YOU FIND ANYTHING IN THAT SUITCASE??!!”  I told him that I didn’t find anything--I hadn’t touched that suitcase since I had come back a year ago.  (I wanted to say, ‘Why?  Should I have looked?’)  I kept a straight look in my eyes.  If I could make a captain think I was scared, then this kid would be easy to fool.  He began to shake and stutter, “Are you sure, are you sure?”  I had to keep myself from laughing.  So he had been the one!  The office was unmanned except for the duty radioman during the midnight shift, a job that he had, and he and his friends had probably used a hooker from Subic Bay to smuggle the stuff onboard, and then used my suitcase to keep it hidden.  If it was found before they retrieved it, I would receive the blame and the punishment to follow.  Men were searched as we returned to the ship, but not women, and a local girl was probably paid to keep her mouth shut and do the dirty work. 
          A few days later, Hardy and two friends wearing sunglasses came up to my table in the chow hall.  Was I sure that I hadn’t moved that suitcase?  I was sorry, I said.  I didn’t touch it.  I was seething with anger, but I wanted to play this out to the end.  I was going to be transferred to the shore base in a matter of days, the ship would be sailing away for the scheduled exercise, and it would all be history.  Meanwhile, Tommy had gotten his horn and paid a visit to the army base at Camp Zama.  Tommy brought me back $425 for my troubles, and kept a small amount for himself, too.  I didn’t approve of selling drugs, but I just wanted a fair end to this matter and I had paid enough in fines for my two Captain’s masts.  The money burned a hole in my pocket, and I bought racks of clothes, a wide-angle lens for my camera, and audio gear.  I also had my steady stash to keep my head afloat.

* * * “Thanks for letting me party hearty,” Or
 “You go your way and I’ll go mine” * * *

          At last, the day came when I had to bid farewell to the Blue Ridge.  I shook hands with Herb at 8:30 that morning and set off to indulge myself in a quick smoke.  He shook his head and smiled, and went back to work.  I missed the hectic pace of the staff, and simply ignored my duty assignments on the shore base.  I had given too much effort to the Seventh Fleet staff, and I was burned out and needed a rest.  Mark Stinneford was also due for his separation at the same time, and we spent our final days talking about the things we had done, or that I had done, that had outraged him for my audacity.  I kidded him about stashing marijuana under his mattress, and he shook in spasms of fear until he realized that I was bluffing.  Mark was always threatening to return bodily harm to me for my actions, but since I was so much bigger and stronger from working out than he was, he immediately would recant and offer apologies that he was just kidding.  I felt another deep loss when his bus pulled out to take him to the airport to fly him back to the states.
          But before I left, there was one more thing to do.  I wrote a letter to the USS Blue Ridge, addressed to Mr. James Hardy, radioman.  The ship had gone back out to sea for two weeks, and I would be stateside when it returned.  My letter would arrive when the ship was underway off the coast of Korea.  It simply saidThanks for letting me party hearty, Hardy!”

* * “You mean I can go home now? * * *

And so it came to be, that a four-year tour of duty through the freezing cold of the Great Lakes Recruit Training Command, the steaming snake-infested heat of Mississippi, the ruggedness of the Bering Sea island chain known as the Aleutians, dens of sin and social vice in backwater villages and big cities of the western Pacific, aboard two fine flagships of the U.S. Navy, drew to a close for a hardened veteran, a man who had been pursued by those who sought to bear him the most outrageous fortune.  But I emerged, beaten but unbroken, bruised, but with my colors still flying, and ended a way of life that is actively not recommended or condoned by the Drug Enforcement Agency or other federal offices, to give this valiant testimony to life as a sailor.