By: Garland Davis
I was sitting on the front porch with my uncle. This was in the rural community of Western North Carolina where I grew up. I don’t remember what job he had at the time. He sharecropped or worked for other farmers. He was a decent farrier and sometimes went over to Kentucky to work at the racehorse stables shoeing horses. Sitting there on the porch as evening approached, he said,” Here it is Saturday night. I would shore like to go to town, but I’m dead broke!”
I was just a little boy and had no idea what being dead broke meant. I knew that broke meant that something was damaged or didn’t work and I knew what dead meant. I had seen dead animals when we killed the hogs every year. But I didn’t know what dead broke meant. So I asked, “What’s dead broke?”
“It means you ain’t got no money and no chance of getting any anytime soon,” He replied. “If’n a feller come down that road right there a sellin’ bonded whiskey for ten cents a bottle’ all’st I could do is holler, ‘Damn, that shore is cheap!’ I tell you boy, you can’t get any broker than that. That’s the bottom of the bucket busted.”
A few years later, I came to realize exactly what my uncle was talking about. In my early years in the Navy, I was more often “Dead Broke” than not.
At around $96 a month base pay and sea pay, a red-blooded American Seaman can reach ‘dead broke’ status with little effort. Beer at the EM Club slop chute, Beer Nuts, and Slim Jims for supper, regularly, could wreck your personal finances rather quickly. One also had to fool money away buying soap, toothpaste and deodorant and stuff like that. Essentials like cigarettes and cigars had to be carefully budgeted for. I remember many nights when it was coffee and cigarettes or a cigar on the fantail staring at the lights of San Francisco because I was dead broke.
The fellows back home, the one’s I went to school with, were flipping burgers for two bucks an hour or loading freight cars at the tobacco company and hosiery mill for pretty good pay. I’ll bet they never missed out on a six pack of Schlitz or a bottle of whiskey and a wrestling match with their high school sweetheart in the back seat of their car down by the river on Friday night because all they could find in their pockets was lint.
But, as a young sailor, I learned to innovate. A Seaman learned ‘between paydays survival skills’… It was either become creative or become a self-abusing, tee-totaling berthing space hermit. I recall few of these in Vesuvius. Once the ship was in WestPac and I became aware of the delights ashore, I became a master of creative thinking and finagling the where-with-all to finance a liberty. Especially in the newly discovered paradise known as Subic Bay.
I remember one weekend my Snipe Fireman running mate and I were shifting pocket lint back and forth when we hatched a great master plan. We scraped together more than twenty bucks, a veritable fortune to those of our lowly status. We hit up both the snipe and deck ape slush funds, the asshole Log Room Yeoman, who had gotten himself restricted, and the old fat Chief Yeoman who was sitting around waiting for someone to invent Viagra. We had enough money for three or four cheap beers each at the club and ten bucks each to buy pesos with when we crossed the bridge. We were quickly into our whites and caught a liberty boat shortly before noon on a Saturday morning. It was a short walk from the Fleet Landing to the EM Club and the start to a memorable liberty.
After a few beers at the club, we changed the twenty into Pesos at the first money changer outside the gate and were off to find female companionship and beer for the weekend. Subic City and the Barrio were out of bounds in those days, but that was a problem that could be worked around. The prices there were much lower than Olangapo. We boarded a jeepney for the Barrio where for a Peso you could hire a kid lookout to watch for the Shore Patrol and warn you if they were in town.
After arriving at a bar, we hired a lookout and then hooked up with a pair of young lovelies who had their own rooms. We struck a bargain with them for the weekend and laid in a stock of San Miguel at their place. This was all in the days before some innovative mama-san dreamed up the “bar fine” as a way to separate a sailor from his money. All we had to do was pay the girls.
In those days, in the Barrio, ten pesos would buy more San Miguel in a Sari Sari store than you could drink in a couple of days. It was noon on Saturday, we were young, had cold beer, hot women, and didn’t have to be back aboard until the last liberty boat Sunday. A little like how I imagine paradise to be.
After a weekend of San Miguel, Monkey Meat, and a lot of time in bed, we poured ourselves back across the Quarterdeck from the last liberty boat Sunday night with nothing in our pockets but lint. The ship was going to sea for a couple of weeks with a visit to Hong Kong before returning to Subic. We had plans to save our money, stand by for other people in Hong Kong and be ready for our young lovelies when we returned to Subic.
I don’t think our plans worked out so well. I remember liberty in Hong Kong and I remember being dead broke with payday over a week away on the subsequent visit to Subic. I do know we had promised our Honey-ko’s that we would see them on our return. And we did. There is no one more ingenious than a “dead broke” North American Blue Jacket trying to scrounge enough money for a liberty in Olongapo.
It was ninety-six bucks a month, sharing a non-air conditioned berthing space with one hundred fifteen other men, sagging bunks, stinking feet and clothes, worn out foul weather gear, old big gut heavy Chief Petty Officers, some real Asshole Officers, long hours and hard work and the company of your shipmates, some of the finest men that ever lived.
Oh, to be nineteen once again, twenty bucks in my pocket, and boarding a liberty boat in Subic Bay.
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A native of North Carolina, Garland Davis has lived in Hawaii since 1987. He always had a penchant for writing but did not seriously pursue it until recently. He is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University, where he majored in Business Management. Garland is a thirty-year Navy retiree and service-connected Disabled Veteran.