I have been infatuated with the United States Navy since I was a small boy.
Wearing my Dad’s old Navy uniforms while pretending to be part of McHale’s Navy was a routine part of growing up. I think I read every book in the school’s library that was even remotely related to the Navy and still get excited every time I know an old Navy movie will be showing up on my TV. When you think about the pictures in a young boy’s mind about what sailors and naval officers look like, they are always appropriate to the combat role they are playing at the time. Even in the heat of battle, John Wayne shows up in his crisp khakis ready to deal with the enemy in short shrift.
I was not particularly athletic growing up. Like most kids, I played backyard sports (soccer, football, basketball on the hoop hanging from the garage). But as I got older, I was always a bit too slow, not as well coordinated and certainly not as big as I needed to be for organized sports. So after getting picked later and later in each successive season, I decided a life of music was my better path. It had an unexpected benefit in high school when I discovered that the busses for away games were segregated for the football team but not for the band. I made this fortunate discovery the same year I discovered girls were not filled with cooties after all.
But at seventeen, I could no longer resist the urge for the adventures I dreamed about while studying those books about the Navy. The Vietnam War was still not resolved so the thought of getting in the action before it was over certainly added to the pressure to sign up. So in April, 1972, I joined the delayed entry program and started counting down the days until I went away. I did make some efforts to get in better physical condition since my father’s stories of the trials of boot camp suddenly became part of our conversations. I will admit to having a certain amount of fear since the movies showed men being pushed to their limits by grizzled and hardened combat veterans with a particular hatred of new men.
Take all you want, eat all you take
Entering boot camp in June of 1972, I discovered that I really had not prepared well enough. It wasn’t all that harsh in the sense that I had anticipated emotionally, but the physical training was just enough to make a person sore. Like most guys I am sure, I discovered I had muscles and pains I didn’t know existed. By August of that year (it was a long summer), my body was more toned and fit than it had ever been. Miraculously, I also discovered that I could eat as much as I wanted and my waist still measured out at about 28 inches. The old sign above the galley window said, take all you want but eat all you take was the most pleasant sign I can ever remember seeing. What a wonderful thing for a young man with a really active metabolism. You could even have seconds.
I really enjoyed Boot Camp leave (especially the attention from my girlfriend and the looks from her girlfriends). That dress blue uniform fit like a glove and I was the very picture of a modern naval man. Dad and Mom took us dancing to one of their clubs and every veteran in the place looked at us with a certain look of envy. It was either that or the very low cut pink clinging dress that I had bought for her. My Mom had to pin the dress a few strategic places before they would take us but that’s another story for another day.
Through the next year of schools around the country, I discovered the Navy’s seemingly endless generosity with their food offerings. A school, Sub School, FBMSTC in Charleston and finally the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor had great galleys filled with men whose only purpose in the world was to see that the Navy was fed well. The price was exactly right (free back in those days with a meal card) and that wonderful welcoming sign still showed up no matter where you went “Take all you want, eat all you take”. Fortunately my age and metabolism still protected me and the uniforms provided held up fairly well throughout the journey.
When I finally arrived at my first submarine, it was a happy discovery to find out that all the rumors about boat food being the best were true.
Mess cooking had the added benefit of offering the first and last shot at the great meals on board. Back in those days, the meals were planned and prepared by the CS in charge and the Georgefish was blessed with a few really great cooks and bakers. In many ways it was like being on a floating restaurant that also happened to carry nuclear weapons and torpedoes.
The first time I had a Maine Lobster tail with drawn butter, I thought I was going to pass out. Steamship rounds of beef, New York Strip steaks, fresh milk (as long as it lasted anyway), endless pounds of better and cheese, sausage gravy on biscuits, grilled hotcakes by the dozen, deep fried shrimp and on and on. That smell of fresh baked bread was an intoxicant that most men will never forget. It was even better if the smell was mixed with cinnamon. When food is all you have to look forward to, every smell and taste is important.
Some guys didn’t do so well. Big John Grant could barely make it out of the escape trunk at the end of the patrol. But I was blessed with a very busy job as an A ganger and a still youthful metabolism.
Nothing good lasts forever I suppose
Things really started to change in the eighties. After years of larding up the force, someone must have discovered that as a group, we were no longer portraying the image of those sleek young sailors. I suppose you can blame it on a number of things. Liquid lunches for the crews on Friday were more common that I care to admit. And I do not ever remember seeing light beer involved with those lunches. The public in general became more health conscious as things like aerobics and fitness programs became more prevalent. The Navy’s food distribution system was still mired in generations old thinking. Truly, if you were cooped up for months at a time in a submarine, comfort food was the only thing you could look forward to.
The single worst thing that happened to the Navy was the changing back and forth to the various types of uniforms. Looking back on the pictures from that time, it is obvious that the introduction of CNT was the worst detractor of a Navy person’s appearance of any other material at any time in the Navy’s history. It was the straw that broke the fitness camel’s back.
Submarine design was also not geared for the new fitness trend. While some of the boomers could carry a limited amount of fitness equipment, the average fast boat was designed for fastness not fitness and little room existed for luxuries. I can’t remember when the new PRT standards evolved but suddenly deciding that sub sailors should be able to run a mile and a half for any reasons seemed as ludicrous as anything ever planned by people who were not submariners. Seriously? Where do we ever get the chance to run a mile and a half on a normal basis? Push up, sit ups, and that God awful torture called stretching were all just added to make the torture worse. Shouldn’t it have been enough that I could see my toes under normal circumstances?
I am not overweight, I am undertall
It got worse. Even if you survived the semi-annual barf fest, you still had to make it past the PRT Gestapo holding the tape measure standing next to the scale. I generally liked and respected most of the Navy Corpsman that served on boats as independent duty guys. They had a particularly rough job since any number of things could happen they needed to be prepared for. But I noticed a subtle change in a few when they discovered the hidden power of being the PRT goon. Suddenly, all the old hurts came out about their role being picked on in the past. Some discovered an inner darkness that they only suspected was there.
I had spent four years on one of the best submarines ever built (USS San Francisco) and at the end wanted to have one tour on a Trident. Captain Previty made some phone calls and I had orders to the USS Ohio. I have to tell you that I was pretty excited since it would be a nice cap to my boat career. One very old boomer, one projects boat and a hot running fast attack. Now I would be going to serve on the largest submarine in the fleet. For a kid that grew up dreaming about big things in the Navy, this was the biggest.
Debbie and I headed home to western Pennsylvania first for a three week Christmas leave. We had been in Hawaii for some time and the family welcomed us with parties and food and more parties. We dined and we drank and then we dined some more. It was bitterly cold so covering up with lots of clothes after living in Hawaii for three years seemed like a natural thing to do. Underneath those clothes was a thirty year old man whose metabolism was no longer as active as it had once been. A sedentary lifestyle as a fast boat chief of the watch hadn’t helped either. New Years was exciting as we headed to Bangor and my first step on board a T-hull boat.
Who’s your daddy?
The boat was already in port when I arrived and the first few days were a blur of turnovers and meeting the crew I would work with. Getting Debbie settled into a temporary house was stressful since patrol was only a few weeks away. Plus, the boat was huge and I went from being a part of a great crew to being an unknown newcomer. Even being a freshly minted new First Class didn’t seem to hold much sway in a crew that had too many first class petty officers. The first day we got underway, the Senior Chief told me to report to the Corpsman’s shack. When I got there, the evil bastard was standing there next to his scale holding his measuring tape.
I do not remember his name. I do not even remember his face. All I remember is that he delighted in telling me that I was completely out of standards and an official notation would be made on my permanent record. Any further advancements (Chief) or even being allowed to remain in the Navy would be entirely dependent on my ability to regain standards. He also let me know that I would be seeing him weekly until this matter was resolved.
I was crushed. I had already noted that the friendly little sign in the galley welcoming all to the bounty of the Navy was not there. Instead, I could almost see a sign that said “Are you sure you want to eat that, Mac?” The next few weeks were a blur with learning a new type of boat and taking over my jobs for the division. But I quickly discovered that if I ate little to nothing, I could make my belt grow. Week over week on that miserable patrol, I pushed myself more and more. There is an actual gym on board Tridents in the Missile Compartment and I found myself there more often than in my rack. Gone were the days of unlimited sticky buns and endless platters of sliders. Pizza Night was nothing more than a tormenting smell that could only be vanquished by venting sanitary’s. Silas Hines famous double chocolate chocolate cake was a dream that I tried not to have. Butter and syrup were like poison elements that attacked my opportunities to ever wear khaki. They could not win!
Forty pounds later, the patrol from hell finally ended
Most of the clothes I had hung on me. When we pulled into the EHW, the families were waiting for us under the covered pier. Debbie told me afterwards that when I walked up to her, she didn’t recognize me and was still looking at the brow for my arrival. To be honest, when we finally did make it home, she … well, this is a family blog so I will leave it up to your imagination.
The Corpsman transferred during off crew to be replaced by a pretty good guy. I spent the rest of my career alternately praising or cursing the PRT guys (and later girls). The whole Navy is changing so fast and I don’t recognize some of it today. It’s hard to believe we actually won World War 2 and the Cold War with our bad behaviors and habits. Smoking, drinking and eating to our hearts content would get anyone of us in trouble in this day and age. You will notice I have not added anything about port calls either.
Today’s sailors face a lot more challenges than we ever did. In the long run, eating healthier and being in better shape will probably help some of them to have a longer life. I am eternally grateful that while mine may not be as long, I had a life worth remembering (as well as some I am glad I have forgotten).
So what is the measure of a man? I would like to think its the sum total of what they have done and not just the way they appear. Today at lunch, I will be with my Brothers of the Phin at our March USSVI meeting. I would be willing to bet than none present would be able to run the 1.5 miles anymore and if a tape measure suddenly appeared, you could except that at least one or two of the old boys would find their inner Kanye if you know what I mean. Yet by any measure, every one of them raised their hand when it was needed most and to hear them talk, would do so again. That is the finest measurement I can imagine.
In memory of Silas Hines, one of the best cooks I ever knew. Fire up the grill Silas, I’ll see you soon.