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.
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