I spent my thirty days leave in L.A., staying with my mom and regaling my two friend's with stories of the greater world. I had found a Puerto Rican girl in Chicago who had taught me to french kiss. I had been to Mexico and captured by the Federalis. Wasn't I an experienced sort?
The Ti, my new aircraft carrier home, was in a drydock when I arrived in the wetness of Washington State. A large ship in drydock is a stunning sight. All that metal; you just can't grasp how men have made such a thing and why it even holds together; your two hands and that mass do not seem of the same world. And the Ti was probably the smallest of the CVA, Heavy Attack Carrier, class afloat. Her keel had been laid in '43 and she slid off the ways into the water 12 months later. Work went on every hour of every day for that year; the Japs were coming and invasion was imminent. America put her back to the wheel, and in some odd way it was maybe our last good moment.
As I say, the Ti was small for an aircraft carrier, about nine hundred feet long and displacing 27,000 tons of water. Look up one of the newer carriers and compare; the Ti was a canoe. Her career is spelled out on an official Navy web site. Do a Google search for U.S.S. Ticonderoga; you will find her.
The shipyard is a nasty place. Most of what goes on involves welding and cutting of steel and a fine black dust sifts into everything, even your chow if you don't eat fast. There wasn't a lot to do aboard, at least not for the skeleton crew. The ship was a noisy, busy place; it crawled with workmen tearing up and reconstructing. The crew was just taking up space. A few of the guys from my new division had taken an apartment in the little town of Bremerton. I got to know a couple of them and they invited me over to drink beer. The division was small, around 30 strong when fully manned, and we weren't. Atomic bombs are fairly low maintainence and pretty easy to move around. We'd get more men when the weapons came aboard.
I went ashore with the guys. We were sitting around the kitchen table at the crummy little apartment, and it was raining out, when an American Indian woman arrived with a kid of about a year and a half in tow. Her name was Lulabelle and the kid was Kimberly Clark. I was later to learn that she had taken the kid's name from a Kotex box as she liked the sound of it. I am not making any of this up; it is absolutely as sordid as it sounds.
Lulabelle wanted someone to watch the kid while she went off with the guys someplace. I was the new guy; I said sure. The kid was old enough to sit up at the table with me. I popped a beer and the kid said she wanted one. Ok, why not. My parents had let me drink beer when it was in the fridge when I was growing up; no harm in that. I had been drinking for quite some time at this point, and the kid and I each knocked back a few during the rest of the afternoon, sitting around the table, chatting. The kid wasn't much at conversation.
I don't recall what happened next. This was my first blackout. I was back aboard ship, it was the next day, and the guys were treating me a little odd. The fact that I had blacked out wasn't apparent to me. I had never even heard of such a thing. Someone finally told me what had taken place. When the guys all returned to the apartment they could hear the kid shrieking and me yelling. We were in the bath room. They rushed in and found that I had placed little Kimberly Clark in the toilet and was flushing it repeatedly. The kid was screaming and I was yelling "GO AWAY!!!"
I don't recall that they invited me back to the apartment and the kid and I never hooked up again. After that I would go over to the World;s Fair in Seattle and hang out. There was a flamenco pavillion that was super.
Even once out of the yards the life was mostly utter boredom. Below decks it was either cleaning or chipping and painting. We didn't spend much time with the weapons. As sea when you weren't on duty you could go above decks and look at the sea. It was flatter than Kansas, and little more exciting. Back below there was playing cards or laying in your bunk reading. A movie was shown once a week. For three thousand men the ship provided one room with no chairs of about forty by forty feet. I didn't go very often.
The compartment where we bunked deserves description. The entire ship is steel bulkheads, steel decks, and open ducts and pipes overhead; a plethora of things up there waiting to rip the scalp of anyone over six feet who forgot to walk hunched. People had simply been shorter in '43, and they built smaller. Our racks were wire frames on a pipe frame, each set three high with thin mattresses, and all of it hinged so that it folded up and hooked to the overhead when not in use. The bottom bunk was about six inches from the deck and the top one over five feet from the deck. The bottom bunk was easy to get in and out of, but you were liable to have the guys in the two bunks above you jumping down on you, especially when battle stations sounded and everyone had 180 seconds to get someplace special. The top bunk was so close to the pipes in the overhead that if you sat up suddenly you were surely traumatized, but nobody ever jumped, barfed or dripped on you. The middle bunk wasn't a bad compromise. I recall being in a middle bunk and having tiers of three bunks at my feet, my head, on one side, and at foot and head on that side. Eighteen guys slept in a space about six feet wide by eighteen feet long. You could reach out and touch a dozen shipmates from where you lay. The guys around you became so familiar to you that you could tell who it was when he farted in his sleep.
There wasn't much we didn't share. The common joke was that a shipmate was a guy who had the liberty when you didn't, so he went ashore and got two blowjobs, and he came back and gave you one. While I never knew of a situation where sailors did become lovers, the exaggeration was not too far off. I came to love friends aboard the Ti in a way that I had never imagined. There was a knowledge gained of the men around me that went quite far to dispell my feelings of separateness. I grew to belong to a community that was like the familiy I had not known. I became whole in their company. It beggars my imagination to think how much further this bond must go when the life and death of combat is involved. Hardship is both the grit that sands us clean and the glue that then binds us unshakably. It is no wonder we are such devils when put to the wall. And all this fervor in kids only months gone from their extended childhood.
Time at sea. That was the ship's mission. Shakedown cruises. Flight training. Six days a week working and four hour watches to stand around the clock. When the air crews came aboard with their planes we practically doubled in size. The air crews were only a part of our complement some of the time. The mess decks would start serving 20 hours a day, because we did flight ops around the clock.
Flight ops were interesting. The island is the tall part of a carrier that stands up above the flight deck to one side midships. It was open to the crew. I would spend hours up there watching the jets launch on the steam catapaults, and then watching them come back in. The place where we could stand was the O7 level; above the flight deck enough to have a good view. The noise was shattering. We never wore ear protection. It wasn't required. There was the loud sound of a jet on the catapaults winding up for launch, and then there was the sound beyond hearing when the afterburner cut in at launch. It seemed like pure glory. Your bones would vibrate inside you.
Retrieval was even better. The plane would come in from aft lining itself up with the moving flight deck. We watched the airman with the flags at the stern; he would move his arms up and down to indicate to the pilot what his realtive position was, and if it wasn't good at the last moment he would wave the plane off to go around and try it again. A plane had to come in just over the end of the deck, going as slow as it could without stalling, and then drop to the deck in a matter of a few feet and hook one of the steel cables strung across decks with its tailhook. Stretching out into an arc the hooked-cable brought the plane to a quick stop. It was unhooked and taxied forward and the next plane in line was already coming in right behind it. The pilots were pretty phenomenal.
The propeller driven fighters were almost comical. Coming in going just a little faster than the ship they would cut their engines over the cables and just drop like a rock onto the deck. It looked so easy. I think they could land without a cable.
Our home port was San Diego. We tied up there and everything slowed down. Weekend liberty was pretty common. I went up to L.A. and spent some time with my mom, and I brought my '52 Hudson Hornet back with me. Soon I had half a dozen underage compatriots that would go to Tiajuana with me every chance we had. The town was a wide open as you have heard. Bars and whorehouses were the thing, usually combined. Outside of those, which I liked, I also spent quite a bit of time at the Jai Alai games. The Fronton was the arena where the game was played. I would sit with my buddy, Phoebe, Peter Bell White, and drink gin and tonic and bet on the games. We both liked the action; it is a very fast and hard sport, much like a dance.
The Navy seemed to stretch on endlessly. The military thrives on a deadening routine. Even training for 'action' was dull. General Quarters would sound at any time. The loud speakers clammored with a steady low, throbbing 'bong, bong, bong, bong....all hands man your battle stations.' The number of seconds left until the water-tight doors would be sealed was announced, counting down, daring you not to make it to your station. If it were after lights out there wouldn't be enough time to dress properly and sailors would be running and leaping carrying their clothes. It simply did not matter what you were doing, or where, you had 180 seconds to get someplace, and then the hatches began to shut. To lessen the confusion, and number of injuries, one side of the ship was to designated for travel forward and the other side for travel aft. Even the ladders were so designated. Heaven help you if you tried to go the wrong way. It only took a couple of times and you had your route down from most any place you might be.
We would drill with the weapons as if preparing to attack. They would be lifted from their cradles on the deck and then run down the length of the magazine by chain fall. Lowered into bomb trucks with hard rubber wheels and long steering handles they would be pushed by four or five guys to the hanger deck elevator and up we would go. Our loading runs were timed; we got faster.
Speed was the essential score. All of us had toes crushed by the hard wheels. The toes hurt and turned black. Why go to sick bay? What would they do? Nothing. You walked on them and kept them limber and they healed fine.; a month later and no more limp. The problem was the size of the elevators. Some of the weapons just fit; they hadn't existed when the ship was built. Sailors had been smaller, too. Legs and toes were a begging to be caught up in the mix. Once I left my arm too long against the end of a weapon as I watched the wheels and gave signals to the guy steering, guiding him along, and suddenly my arm was stuck; my elbow against the steel end of the elevator and the heel of my hand on the end of the weapon. I yelled to the guy to brake; it was a lever on the end of the steering yoke that only need by released. He let go. Nothing changed; my arm was truly there and not coming loose. The idea was that as soon as your elbow touched you were on the elevator just enough and you stepped aside. But the ship had begun to roll. The weapons and their trucks always moved with a roll. Not a lot, an inch or two. I felt the pressure build in my forearm and then watched as the bones began to bow upward. I was somewhere between fascinated and horrified, wanting to walk away and captive to the event. I knew my arm would shatter if the roll continued; it hurt like hell. There is that point in a roll where you feel it slow and then stop, and the little wait as everything settles, about to go the other way. I felt that point and watched my bent arm straighten. We slowly rolled back and my arm dropped loose. It was sore for weeks.
The Nuclear Weapons Department was a technical division. The one thing that got you there was high scores on your tests. They didn't call it I.Q., but that's what it was about. Obviously, any group chosen in this manner is going to have some oddballs. The strangest was one of the officers. He was alleged to be a genius. I never could tell. When he spoke I couldn't understand him. His speech was garbled. He didn't seem to be mean and the other officers kept him away from the crew most of the time. I recall once he showed up at a formal dress parade with the worn-through backs of his trouser cuffs hanging down so they hooked under his shoes, just in front of the heels like stirrups. It was a mystery how he came to be there. One time, during General Quarters, he rushed up a ladder with noticing that the hatch had been battened down. Back down the ladder he came, unconscious.
He truly was the exception. Most of the guys were simply very smart and easy to get along with. Advancement in the division was more than expected; it was a black mark against the officers when a sailor didn't advance regularly. Manuals were studied, tests were taken, and when enough time had elapsed an E3, Seaman, would move up to E4, Petty Officer Third Class. With a touch of ambition E5 was attainable in a 4 year hitch. With each move up pay increased. Privileges were acquired. Responsibility and status were gained.
I never moved up. Call it hard-headed, but I refused to do it. The pull was immense in that in port in the Far East only E4 and above were granted overnight liberty. E3's had to be back aboard by midnight, every night. I hated that. But I was locked into a consuming combat with these men who thought that by dint of decree and law they held sway over me. Oh, they did. I granted them that. I was in a uniform I did not care to wear, floating in a steel box I wished to leave, being ordered about by idiots, sent to senseless tasks, but I never granted them more than what they could take by force. Hard-headed wasn't in it.
There was no Captain's Mast, a minor sort of Court Martial for minor offenders, for me. Just a string of reprimands and word's to the wise. Cancelled liberty. Extra watches. Extra duty. I wasn't about to go so far as to end up in the brig. It was with absolute horror that I would watch the sailors from the brig march down the mess deck under Marine escort. Each prisoner would come stiffly to attention in line, reach down and take a spoon, and bellow: "SIR! ONE SPOON, SIR!" They would move through the mess line that way, receiving, sitting, eating, rising, all by command, like machines, hoarsely shouting their replies. The lesson was not lost on me.
The furthest my thoughts of escape went were to sit on deck and watch the surf breaking on the beach along the coast of Viet Nam and long to be over there. A war did not yet exist. The war wouldn't exist until the last few weeks that I was aboard ship. I was flown off for discharge from the Gulf of Tonkin in September of '64. The war brushed barely brushed me, just enough to earn me my G.I. Bill for college. The only fire I suffered was friendly.
A Westpac tour in '63 and the same in '64 were my taste of seeing the world. I loved it. Dusty little Olongapo, the Navy's town-sized brothel in the Phillipines was like a vision. We would dock for anywhere up to a couple of weeks, and I would get ashore maybe 8 times. Liberty would start at 1600 and by midnight when I came back aboard I would be falling down drunk. Reveille was at 0600 and still drunk I would be up and working. I carried a bucket to throw up in and used it until about noon. Up to that point I would swear I was never doing that again, but if I had the liberty that day I would be at the gangway at 1600 and headed ashore. Eighteen is an extraordinarily resilient age.
My duties had become pretty well fixed. Not welcome in the magazine due to my attitude I was assigned to cleaning the head that the department was responsible for. We would start a cruise with 14 commodes, 2 urinals, and 2 sinks, all stainless steel. The number of each would decrease as the cruise went on. Small explosive devices purchased ashore would blast a commode right off the bulkhead. I didn't mind the drunks who detonated in 'my' head to end their liberty rampage; the fewer toilets there were the less I had to clean. At sea it was not a trying job. Lots of steel wool and scouring powder and touch-up painting, and then the weekly inspection to stand. In port was another matter. I wasn't the only one coming aboard barfing and bleeding. In the mornings the head would be a shambles of vomit and gore. Floor drains would plug and I would find myself ankle deep in stench with baby ducks swimming by. I would dump the ducks over the side and hope they did okay, and then I would scoop and clean and scrub and use my bucket. What made it completely bearable was the fact that this was my domain; mine alone. I owned it. I was the only person assigned to it. I was completely responsible for it. No one messed with me. My punishment became my haven, and for eighteen months it was the core of my world.
What else stands out for me, the memories that 3 years in the service of my country leaves behind? There was the time I got away, and they couldn't prove that I had done it apurspose.
The ship was docked in my favorite port in Japan, Sasebo. I had stopped at the Enlisted Mens' Club before heading into town and was having a beer when I heard someone mention a typhoon warning, liberty about to be cancelled, all the ships to leave port. Rushing from the club I hailed a cab and sailed through the main gates of the station before they were locked down to outgoing traffic. There was a restaurant in town that I liked. The mamasan was named Tomi and though neither of us could speak the other's language we had formed a friendship. When I got there I indicated that I wanted to go upstairs, to a private room; she showed me up. This was neither a bar nor a brothel, just a quiet place I liked to eat. As I consumed a meal I sat back from the window and watched the street as the Shore Patrol swept through town gathering up sailors and sending them back to the base. I had a couple of bottles of beer and then slept and it was dark when I awoke. Downstairs I said goodbye to Tomi and went back to the base; it was as I had hoped and planned: the Ti had sailed hours ago.
Three hundred of us had managed this feat and we were all put into an empty barracks while they decided what to do with us. It was a sadness that we weren't to be granted any further liberty - I had rather hoped to get back into town. For a few days we sat in the sun and lazed; as I recall no Typhoon ever showed up. Buses came and took us to an Air Force Base a few hours away. We had even better quarters there and the food was outstanding. Having been in our dress white liberty uniforms for several days now we took to showering fully clothed, well, not the shoes, and scrubbing down our whites as we stood in them. A bit of a walk after a shower and you would look downright presentable. A few days of this and we were bussed to an airport and put on giant planes that loaded from the rear by ramp. Landing on Okinawa we were immediately bussed to a lovely beach where we lolled for hours more. Finally, landing craft hit the beach and loaded us up and took us out to the Ti, at anchor in the bay.
Our welcome aboard was rather a heroes return. Every hand who could get topside was there to watch us come up the ladder. We were much envied. The officers angrily questioned me as to my whereabouts in Sasebo; they were furious that one of there own had not responded to the emergency and come skittering back to sail with his brothers. I was the only one in our division who had been left behind; the Captain had put a black mark by the Division's name for what I had done. I strictly maintained a story that was absolutely true, with the exception of knowing anything about the recall. After a few days they left me be. There was no proof of my malfeasance.
In the end, after 27 months aboard the Ti I was allowed to leave for good. My discharge was based on my 21st birtday since I had joined at 17; the call it a 'kiddie cruise' and offer it to minors only. Then I found a loophole of sort that would get me out 2 months early. I applied for admission to Pasadena City College and was granted an early out to attend school. But in August, as I awaited my orders, the entire Tonkin Gulf incident occurred. We began launching strikes on North Vietnam; we were at war. Talk abounded of everyone being extended; this was usual in times of emergency. I wilted. I would never be allowed to leave.
One of the aircrew had backed into a propellor and been cut in half. His body was said to be stored in the ice cream locker. The rumor was that the half of him that had a head had lived for hours in terrible agony. And then I was told to go topside with the outgoing mail. The flight deck was an inferno. I wasn't on the 07 watching I was right down there in the midst of it. Huge noises would sweep down the deck with fiery blasts and shove me along. I was guided to the plane I was to put the mail sack in; it was a 2 engine propeller job. As I approached it from the front another blast from a jet at the catapaults thrust me towards the spinning blades. Fighting my way against the hot wind and infernal noise I got around the end of the wing and edged backwards toward the open hatch, struggling with every step. My hip touched the edge and I swung the heavy sack up and into the plane and fell in with it. Something soft gave beneath me and opening my eyes I saw that I was lying across a black body bag. No! It was the sailor who had been chopped in half! Maybe by this very plane. I turned and fled across the deck to get below.
Two weeks later I was aboard that plane myself and leaving. It was my first time in an airplane. We were launching in the dark in a driving rain. The plane wound up its engines to an unbearable pitch and began to roll down the deck. When we got to the end of the flight deck the plane simply fell off. It was 70 feet to the water and I would have sworn we fell further than that, but at some point the wings caught hold and we began to slowly life in front of the ship and move away. Clark Air Force Base in the Phillipines was our destination. From there I took a civilian plane to San Francisco to be discharged at Treasure Island in early September; it was 1964. The flght across the Pacific was memorable for having a Samoan sitting next to me. It was the last bit of hell the Navy threw my way; those people really should be required to buy 2 tickets.