It wasn’t like i always wanted to go to sea. My idea of being on the water was waterskiing with buddy Henry Harding and his family or fishing with my father on Tennessee lakes. That was it for my ambition to be on any water.
In fact the Navy was my third choice in my college choices as i was about two months away from graduating from Castle Heights Military Academy. i really didn’t consider any military to be in my future, except for, of course, the draft.
My first choice for college was Centre College. John Thompson, one of the stars of our senior class was already headed there. My parents and i drove the 150 miles up to Danville to check it out. i loved it, but i really loved it because the football coach had indicated they would like to have me on the football team. i believed i might actually be able to play the sport for four more years, my dream. Unfortunately, Centre did not award athletic scholarships. The coach and my grades (i somehow — i still have no idea how — finished fourth in academics in our class and even more remarkably had scored high on the SAT’s) allowed the administration to award me a $2500 scholarship.
i knew my parents could not afford to pay the balance, and i sadly declined the invitation.
My second choice was Vanderbilt. Each year, they awarded a four-year scholarship, The TRA Grantland Rice Scholarship to a deserving and promising sports writer. i had been the sports editor of the award winning The Cavalier, the Heights newspaper under the tutelage of one of the best journalists of all time, “Coach” JB Leftwich. It was for $10,000, at the time it would cover a large chunk of tuition and expenses.
Rumor has it i finished second. Bob Thiel, who ended up being one of my closest friends even until today, won it. He deserved it because he had been a superb reporter for the Evansville, Indiana newspaper.
i had also applied for an NROTC scholarship, never thinking i would end up being accepted as i kept thinking ole Grantland’s boys would do me well (i always have been a bit too optimistic). William LeRoy Dowdy, II, the editor of The Cavalier, and a far superior academic to me, was also going for the NROTC scholarship. One afternoon in the newspaper office, he and i decided it would be tougher for us if we both listed Duke as our number one choice of schools. So i opted for Vanderbilt. i wish it had been for my desire to take advantage of their reputation as “the Harvard of the South.” But i conceded Duke to Lee because i was a fan of Vanderbilt and Tennessee football and Vanderbilt basketball.
i got it.
There are many twists and turns of my academic disaster after i matriculated but i made it through the freshman year, which meant i would be going on a third class midshipman cruise.
The travel for my orders gave me two options. i could have the NROTC unit book an airline flight out of Berry Field to Providence and further transportation to Newport, Rhode Island or i could get there on my own and receive travel pay. After checking out the cost of a Trailways bus ticket from Nashville to Newport, i decided i could pocket a significant amount of money if i chose the pay your own way and get the travel pay. Bad idea.
My parents drove me to Union Station, which then was also a Trailways Bus Station. i was in my service dress Khaki midshipman uniform, complete with my combination cover. Around noon, we said our goodbyes and i boarded the bus. It was rather full. i took the aisle seat on the right side about one-third of the way back next to an older lady with a small hat on top of her gray hair.
By then, i smoked Chesterfield Kings. Cy Fraser had introduced me to them. After baseball games in my senior year, i had smoked Winstons when several of our baseball team after games would find a place where they would sell beer to minors (under 21 at the time) and find a country road, sit on the side of the road (along with several other antics of greater legend) in our baseball uniforms where we could smoke cigarettes and drink Country Club Malt Liquor. But that autumn of my matriculation, my fraternity pledge brother and still one of my lifetime friends, Cy introduced me to Chesterfield Kings. i liked the image. i liked the macho aspect of an unfiltered cigarette, and i liked the smoke.
The little old lady was not as enthusiastic. She bewailed the sinners who would smoke cigarettes. She foretold of death shortly after the U.S. government decided, even with the money thrown at them by tobacco interests, the public should be warned.
i lit up. In fact, i was pretty much a chain smoker for the entire five hour ride to Louisville with what seemed like interminable stops. She got off. i ate a woeful Stewart sandwich with chips at the fifteen-minute rest stop, drank a coke and reboarded.
The bus ride, with a stop at every spot in the road, took over forty-three hours with a transfer in Providence for the final hour ride to Newport. The bus arrived at the station in Washington Square at 0730. It was a sunny morning and the quaint little “square” was intriguing.
It was much different than when i was later in Newport. The station was at the point of the triangle to the east. “Washington Square” is not a square at all. Back then, Eisenhower Park was in the middle, and the courthouse stood at the east end, the base of the isosceles triangle they call a “square.” The sides of the triangle held a uniform shop amongst other shops and a diner or two. It seems there were a couple of attorney offices, and if i remember correctly, there was one or two bail outfits. Near the bus station were what we would call today, dive bars. Several more sailor bars were on Thames (pronounced thāmes, not “‘tems” like the street in London), the old, old street which ran north toward the Naval Station.
The waterfront of Newport still had that air of an old and rough seaport area, not the upscale touristy aura there today.
Other midshipmen, who were much smarter than me and had taken the air travel option were bussed from the Providence airport to the Trailways Station. The Navy haze gray buses were waiting for us. i debarked from the bus and went to the baggage hold to retrieve my seabag, which had all of my 3/c midshipman sailor gear in it, working whites and the classic dungarees with the blue chambray shirt — to this day, i am amazed some yahoo thought we should get rid of them and the bell bottom uniforms so our sailors could look like bus drivers and plumbers — and the dixie cup with a navy blue band around the brim — ditto on the Navy ditching them for ball caps, piss cutters, and combination covers.
Regardless, mine were not in any of the cargo holds. The buses were waiting as i frantically queried the bus personnel. As the Navy petty officers were telling me we had to leave because my ship, the Lloyd Thomas would be one of the first to get underway in less than two hours, the bus folks were admitting my seabag was not transferred in Providence as it should have been, that they had located it and it should, hopefully, be delivered to the ship before the Thomas got underway.
Wondering just what the hell i was going to do if it didn’t make it but a bit placated by the assurance of the bus station manager, i took my bus seat for the fifteen minute ride to the destroyer piers on the Naval Base.
As we filed off the bus, the chief directed me to Pier 2. My ship was on the north side about three-quarters o f the way down the pier. i had passed by Pier 1 and marveled at the USS Yosemite (AD 19). The flag ship was adorned with all sorts of flags and pennants with an immaculate and large brow to the pier. She was the flagship for Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet and was an impressive sight. She was the first Navy ship i saw for real. Little did i realize i would be her executive officer on my last operational tour twenty years later.
As i walked down Pier 2, i noticed small black particles in the air and settling on my combination cover and my blouse. i tried to brush some of them off, but they not only clung to the fabric, they were making holes. Back in those days, steam ships would “blow tubes” while pier side. This is roughly the equivalent having a chimney sweep clean your chimney. Blowing tubes was shooting forced air through the boiler tubes up the stack, blowing off the acidic residue, those black specks i encountered. If the residue was left on the stacks they could eat into the tube, and destroy the 600 pound boilers, most likely with a disastrous explosion. By the time i was commissioned, doing this pier side was forbidden and usually done on the mid or morning watch. By the time i was CHENG on the Hollister, you could get in real trouble and face fines, if you were caught with any smoke coming from your stacks. But then, there were no such restrictions. That cover and that blouse had little holes in them when i turned them into the unit upon my return.
i walked across the Lloyd Thomas’ brow, stopped, faced aft, saluted the ensign hoisted on the fantail, and asked the OOD on the quarterdeck for permission to come aboard, just as my Navy instructor had taught me to do. About a half-dozen of us were checking on board. The petty officer immediately escorted to the wardroom where the other midshipmen awaited us with the executive officer. There were eighteen third class and three first class midshipmen. The XO welcomed us aboard quickly. When i inquired about my seabag, one of the petty officer escorts informed me it was not delivered.
We were sent to the 01 deck forward of the bridge where Mount 52, the second forward 5″ 34 twin gun mount used to be, now it it had a hedgehog mount, an anti-submarine weapon on each side, but was more of a ceremonial deck than anything else. We fell into a three-rank formation facing the port side as the ship got underway.
In spite of stinking to high heaven and the restrictions of being at parade rest in the ranks, i had an initial feeling of exhilaration as the USS Lloyd Thomas cleared the pier, backed into a turn in Narragansett Bay and headed south by southwest out the channel past Fort Adams, Jackie Kennedy’s family Auchincloss estate and the summer mansions of ten mile drive.
About ten minutes after getting underway, the midshipmen in formation had their attention distracted. Some were already getting a little pale from the rolling of the destroyer through the channel. A chief had gone down to the chief’s mess and retrieved a “barf bag,” a paper sack hung on rails through the ship’s passageways when getting underway, hopefully being used by some poor seasick dog to keep from puking on the bulkheads and decks. The chief poured some milk into the bag. He then took vanilla wafers, crumbled them up, and added them to the milk before shaking his mixture into a chunky mess.
He emerged from the port side hatch just aft of the midshipmen’s formation and under the port bridge wing where no one on the bridge could see him. He then spoke loudly to ensure all of the midshipmen could hear him, “Damn, every time we go to sea, i have to get sick. Looks like it’s gonna happen again.” He then paused, retched, shook, and pretended to blow lunch into the seasick bag.
The midshipmen were staring at him in disbelief. When he was sure they were watching, he explained as if to himself, “And there’s only one way to cure it.”
With that pronouncement, the chief proceeded to put the bag to his mouth and gulp down the milk and vanilla wafer concoction, making sure a great deal of the contents dribbled down his khaki uniform and onto the steel deck.
That was the final blow. Out of the twenty-one midshipmen, there was one first class, and two third class midshipmen including me, left in the formation. The other eighteen were at the safety rails, retching their innards away into the sea.
i’m sure the sea detail on the bridge was wondering about the wimps they had just taken on board.
It was not an auspicious beginning of my time at sea. It was about to get worse.