A Tale of the Sea and Me (For Sam) – part 7

i finished this as Maureen and i are belatedly winging to Boston for a weekend in Newport, Rhode Island and with friends and family in Boston and Vermont, a tale unto itself. The last section of this post has been written about before, notably in my book Steel Decks and Glass Ceilings. But it is an essential part of my tale of the sea and me. i could not omit it here.

And now i was an engineering midshipman. I would remain that way until we pulled back into Newport over a month later.

We did make a liberty port in Bermuda. i don’t recall very much about that first time there. i knew i loved the place and hoped to return (to my surprise, i did return on two other ships later, much later). i also remember the command had forbade enlisted and midshipmen from riding on motor bikes, and that it was a long and expensive cab ride from our pier into downtown Hamilton. i met a very pretty black-haired British young woman. i don’t recall how it happened but i had dinner with her and her parents in a beautiful white house on a hill overlooking the island.

Engineering was a new deal. The operations and weapons department had three section watches and so did the midshipmen. But engineering was on four sections, which meant they didn’t have to dog the 1600-1800 watch to rotate the personnel through the different watches. For six weeks, i and the other midshipmen remained in three sections with no dogwatch.

So, for six weeks, i arose around 0320 and relieved the watch at 0345, first in main control and then in the after fireroom. The morning watch was the shortest watch in order for the off-going watch standers to eat in the morning mess. After chow, i went to quarters (0750) and began my workday at 0800. We had the long noon mess beginning at 1130 and running to 1300. i often skipped the meal and got in a good nap, going back to my assigned engine room or fireroom.

The workday concluded at 1600. Since i had the next watch, i was let loose at 1515. But i had to be back on watch at 1545. Since there was no dogging the 16-20 watch, i was there until 1945.

A sane person would have immediately hit his rack. But i was not a sane midshipman. i would not catch more sleep because the crew’s movie was held in the DASH hangar at 2000. We did get about 15 minutes for chow. i would sit or lay on my side with my head propped up by one of my arms to watch the old movie, usually an oater, getting out between 2130 and 2145 and hit the rack at taps, 2200.

The next groundhog day would begin again around 0320…for six weeks. The watches in main control were not bad, almost fun. i stood mostly by the big board with dials and arrows under the huge blowers blowing air, if not cool air, directly on me and the other watch standers. Toward the end, i learned a lot and even took the two big wheels for the two propellers to respond to the lee helm orders from the bridge to alter speed. Oh, it was hot, real hot, probably whacking at 100 degrees. And it was humid…no, not “Humid.” Steamy would be more accurate. Steam plants in those days had many leaks, and it was suffocatingly steamy and hot in the engine rooms.

The same could be said for the firerooms, only worse. Our watches were stood on the boiler flats on the lower level by the fittings that fired the boilers. It was tough work. Even worse, every hour, the messenger of the watch, moi, would have to crawl up on top of the water tanks, and slide on the crawl space to measure the amount of water at the cap allowing access to the the tank.

It was good training they said. For what i wondered.

* * *

Somewhere throughout this ordeal, i became friends with a BTFN, that’s Boiler Tender Fireman. He was about 6-2 with red hair. He had been promoted to first class petty officer three times, only to be busted all the way back to FN twice, his current status. He had been in almost 16 years.

One evening after the movie was over, the fireman and i walked across the torpedo deck. On a FRAM II destroyer, this was the 01 level space with Mark 32 torpedo tubes on the port and starboard sides. It was between the hangar deck aft and the forward smokestack. He and i talked a bit. Apparently, i had gained his favor.

He said, Let’s go down to the mess decks. I want to share something with you.”

Again, the brilliance of this midshipman struck and i said yes. We proceeded below to the empty mess decks. The fireman walked by the mess line and grabbed two slices of white bread. Then, he walked up to the soda dispensing machine, grabbed two paper cups, and added ice and coke, leaving about two fingers of space at the top. He handed one to me and took the other. i followed him up to the midship passageway on the main deck. He broke material condition YOKE by opening a hatch, ushering me out, then closing and battening down the hatch behind him. He nodded and motioned for me to join him as he sat down on the deck against the bulkhead. i sat opposite him with my back on the safety lines above the gunnel.

He motioned for me to hand him my plastic cup. He placed the two cups on the deck, pulled out the bread slices, placing one over each cup. He reached into his dungaree pocket and pulled out a medium size bottle of Aqua Velva, the blue aftershave lotion. With some ceremony, he opened the bottle and poured about two fingers of it on the bread. The liquid filtered through the bread filling the cups with ice and coke.

He explained the bread filtered most of the ingredients but the alcohol would go through. He then made a toast. i tapped his cup with mine. As he was downing his delight, i moved the cup toward my mouth. But when his head was raised downing his concoction, i tossed the contents over my right shoulder into the briny deep. i acted as if i had actually downed it, wiping my sleeve across my mouth.

He didn’t catch me. We remained good friends for the rest of the cruise. But i did manage to avoid him after the movies after that night.

* * *

The after-movie moments provided me the opportunity to experience something that has been with me for the rest of my life, sixty years.

The movie that night starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in “The Quiet Man.” i had not seen it before and was blown away. i lingered in the hangar deck until the IT gang broke down the camera and left.

i walked across the torpedo deck but stopped just aft of the port torpedo tubes. i turned and looked out toward the horizon. The sea had flecks of small white caps. There was a million stars in the sky. The full moon was glowing white. It cast a path of moonlight across the sea surface from the horizon straight to me. The declining bow waves splashed past me with swooshes. The sound of the boilers from the forward stack passed over my head. Except for the bow waves, it was silent to me. i still do not know what it was. i used to think i imagined it, but it has happened since.

It felt like the moon and the sea had risen up, entered me, and grabbed my heart(?). i was moved. i stood silently for several more minutes before realizing i needed to go below to be in my rack for taps. i made it and lay there for some period of time, thinking about what had happened but having no answer.

It had no impact on my plans to get my degree, serve my three years and get out to be either a civil engineer or preferably a sports writer. Yet, even today, i look at the sea and think of that moment by the port life rails of the USS Lloyd Thomas (DD 764).

Perhaps it had claimed me for a career at sea.

i’ll never know.

3 thoughts on “A Tale of the Sea and Me (For Sam) – part 7

  1. I served on the Lloyd Thomas from Nov 67 thru Feb 71, my first and only ship. I really enjoy posts.

  2. I served on the Lloyd Thomas from Nov 67 thru Feb 71, my first and only ship. I really enjoy your posts.

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