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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Douglas Whaley, Deckhand

U.S.S. Rockbridge

Sailor Doug
After I left Navy boot camp (see "The Boot Camp Fiasco" (April 21, 2010) and before I was transferred to Bermuda (see "My Year in Bermuda," February 9, 2010), I spent much of a year of my life as a lowly deckhand on the U.S.S. Rockbridge, a troop carrier. The ship's mission was to transport army or marine (typically the latter) troops to a combat site, and then run them ashore in little boats (called "Papa" boats), with a drop-down front ramp—just like ones used at the D-Day landing. I joined the ship at Newport News, Virginia (near Norfolk), in October of 1961. I'd turned 18 while in boot camp, and, quite the innocent, I had no idea what was in store for me.

Assessing my talents, the powers that be immediately made me a deckhand, assigning me to the forecastle (pronounced "folk-sell"), which is the open deck on the front part of the ship; the anchor is stored there when it's not being hauled up or down. Indeed, as one of my duties I was part of the "anchor detail," handling the iron monster every time we entered or left port and had to put the ungainly thing over the side or pull it back up again (i.e.,"anchor's aweigh," a phrase that technically means what it sounds like: the anchor is no longer resting on the bottom, but has its full weight ("weigh") on the chain). Mostly my duties were the sort of things you'd expect a seaman to do: swabbing the deck, chipping and painting (my ability to paint a very straight line proved useful), standing watch, etc. Standing watch one cold late December night in Boston, at the very tip of the forecastle, I figured out why sailors wear bell bottom trousers: it's so that the freezing wind can get to every part of the legs.

After spending the end of 1961 transporting army troops up and down the eastern seaboard, the Rockbridge joined a fleet of ships heading for a six-month cruise in the Mediterranean early in 1962. There we would get much practice running boats into the beaches of the islands in that lovely Sea. We visited many Italian cities: Naples, Le Spezia, Genoa, and Taranto, as well as Patras and Athens, Greece, and Barcelona Spain (and practiced landing soldiers on the islands of Sardinia, Corsica and Crete). For this cruise the troops were "aquatic" marines, and they were old hands at the whole procedure. While they handled sea life better than army troops (less likely to be seasick), they maintained a quasi-friendly warfare with the sailors. Here's the sort of thing that would happen: I'd have just finished washing the forecastle deck and it would be sparkling, but then the grunts would erupt from below en masse and clean their rifles, creating ugly streaks of oil all over. They'd smile at the mess as they went below for chow. To this day I have an irrational reaction to the word "marine," gallant fighters that we all know them to be.

In the Mediterranean our home port was Naples, and it's a beautiful city (as is the famous Bay of Naples, the Isle of Capri immediately south of the city, and the fascinating ruins of Pompeii right next door). At one point I took a weekend of leave and treated myself to a tour of Rome. Moving along with a guided group through the Vatican, I found myself suddenly standing in front of Michelangelo's "Pieta" the statue of Mary and her dead son, Being only 18, and untrained in art, I didn't know it was famous (nor who Michelangelo was), but I remember thinking, "You know, that isn't half bad!"

Remembering those six months now, I wish I could go back and do it the right way. But, sigh, I was just a kid, fresh from high school, newly escaped from his parents, pretending I was an adult. Mostly when we hit port we did what sailors always do: we got drunk and had sex (and/or bad tattoos). My first sexual experience was with a prostitute in La Spezia, but I was so drunk I remember little of the adventure except getting sick in her chamber pot, which SHE DID NOT LIKE. There was a day in Athens when a group of us, newly liberated from the ship, were walking through the city, and the sun burst through the clouds and lit up the Acropolis high above us to the left. It looked just like a postcard. "God damn!" one of us said. "That's fucking beautiful!" We all nodded, awestruck. "Let's get drunk," someone else said, which we immediately did. That was my only experience of the Acropolis. 

There were adventures along the way: climbing into the crow's nest (yes, the Rockbridge really had a crow's nest, one of the last ones in the U.S. Navy) only to find that the man I'd relieved had already relieved himself by crapping in the narrow space; watching another sailor who'd been painting a funnel fall to his death when he reached out to correct a mistake just as he was being lowered to the ground, surviving a storm that had the ship pitching almost completely horizontal over and over again, nearly being court martialed over a missing pair of binoculars, etc. But let me finish this post by telling you about the Bosun.

When the whistle blew for the anchor detail to assemble on the forward deck, the operation was under the control of Chief Warrant Officer J. H. Eastman, always simply called "The Bosun." He was one of those old hands who knows more about seamanship than any twelve officers on board put together, and was the person the Captain turned to in time of trouble with the ship. The Bosun was quite a character. One night in some port we had to raise anchor in the dark during a downpour complete with massive wind, lightning and thunder—it was just like a bad movie. We were all waiting on the forecastle for the Bosun, when he theatrically sprang out of the hatch, spread his arms wide, looked up at the turbulent skies, and with the rain streaming down his face, yelled to the heavens, "HOWL, YOU SONS OF BITCHES!!!" We all looked at him in wonder. "That's Shakespeare," he explained with a sheepish smile.

When we were in the Mediterranean his extensive knowledge and talents were put to a real test one beautiful day in port when our anchor somehow became wrapped around the anchor of the Monrovia, our sister ship. This tangle was dangerous. If either ship pulled on its anchor the laws of physics dictated that the ships would collide. What to do? Both captains simply turned control over their vessels to the Bosun and told him to handle it. Fortunately the water was very clear, so the fouled anchors could be easily seen, permitting the Bosun to maneuver the ships around so that the anchors became less entwined. Finally it was his plan to have the ships each reverse while slowly pulling their respective anchors up. It was his hope that the anchors would come apart before the ships smacked together. All of us on the anchor detail were naturally worried about this, since if things didn't go well we were standing at the point where the ships would meet head first. I was phone man for the anchor detail, meaning that I wore large clunky headphones and relayed the Bosun's commands to the two bridges. When the ships began reversing, the Bosun suddenly ordered everyone off the forecastle but himself. "Give me the phones, Whaley," he ordered. "I'll wear 'em myself." I frowned and shook my head. This was before the days of wireless, and the phone operator was necessarily plugged into an outlet on the bulkhead with a short cord. There was no way that the Bosun could run from one railing to the other and talk on the phones at the same time. "You’re going to need to be mobile," I advised him. He looked at me. "You sure?" he asked. I nodded. He shrugged. "Okay." Then he started shouting instructions as he maneuvered things beautifully, and the anchors parted at the last moment it was possible to do so and avoid trouble. The ending was anticlimactic, but it could have been very bad for both of us. Many years later someone casually asked me if I'd ever done anything brave. I flashed back to this moment, but I'm not sure if it qualifies. There's a good chance it just reflected the innocent stupidity of youth, the one time in life when we all think we're immortal.

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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