Salty Dungarees and Soft White Hats
By: Garland Davis
There were incidents, all them milestones that you didn’t see until many years and a hell of a lot of salt water under the keel. We were men who sailed as crewmembers in the haze gray steel of Fletcher and Forrest Sherman class destroyers and old sway-backed cruisers out on the Pacific Rim in the Far East Fleet.
By the time you finished your first WestPac, you had worn out or lost your boot camp boon dockers, your white hats were soft, supple, and no longer boot camp stiff, you guessed your pea coat was in the pea coat locker, you hadn’t seen it in a year or two. You knew from experience the sound your lighter made when you dropped it on a whorehouse floor… You had no fuckin’ idea what had become of your raincoat. And you owned some salty, faded Seafarer dungarees.
You now had a nickname. Someone had hung one on you. “Cookie”, “Stew”, “Big Snipe”, “Little Snipe”, “Asswipe”, “Dip Stick”, “Dick Smith, “Sparks” and many others. You knew you had arrived and had passed some unseen test. You knew your shipmates had accepted you when one of them labeled you with a nickname.
Before you sewed a Third Class Crow on your left arm, you had completed one or two tours of mess cooking, scrubbed burned shit off a million pots and pans until your skin looked like prunes. Dumped tons of leftover shit over the fantail or lugged it to the dumpsters a half mile down the pier. You had stood a few hundred helm and lookout watches. If you were in the “hole”, you had stood hundreds of hours of hot, miserable lower level, messenger and burner watches. You had assisted more than a few drunks down ladders to their berthing and, on occasion, been assisted down yourself. By this time, you had consumed enough oil flavored mid watch coffee to lift the fuckin’ ship off a dry dock’s keel blocks. The ass of your liberty uniforms had polished bar stools in Yokosuka, Sasebo, Olongapo, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
It became impossible to hold on to a paperback book. You could fall asleep reading a skin book at chapter eight and wake up to find the book missing only to have it turn up two weeks later in the after crew’s head tucked in a wire way. You really didn’t want to touch it again.
You came to realize that there was a hell of a lot about ships and the Navy that were not explained to you by your Company Commander in Boot Camp.
You learned that when a Chief started a tale with: “Back when I was a Seaman…” You were going to get a half hour of bullshit about the days when Noah was searching for pairs of animals to pack in an old four-stack destroyer including the Seaman who went on to become a Chief Petty Officer.
You had actually seen men who were selected for their intelligence the elite of the electronics, radar, radioman, and sonar schools, use their teeth to open beer bottles and spit the cap onto a barroom floor. You and your shipmates had dined on San Miguel beer, Mojo, Monkey Meat, and cockroaches.
And things happened as the time passed. You thought nothing of getting up at midnight to spend four hours tending a boiler or staring at the horizon searching for a light or a periscope feather of water. It became normal to sweep everything down twice a day. You learned to sleep anywhere.
In the meantime, your white hats softened. Your dungarees faded until they were almost white. New ones, you dragged on a line behind the ship to hurry the effect. Your blue jacket was paint spattered and the cuffs were frayed. You had lost an uncountable number of white trousers to the water and mud of Olongapo. You had learned to sew buttons on your dungaree shirts and your pea coat. And you hadn’t seen that watch cap since packing your seabag to leave boot camp.
You had hung around the Quarterdeck brow a number of times waiting for a departing shipmate to arrive topside hauling all his earthly goods in a canvas bag, just so you could tell him good-bye, shake his hand and tell him to stay away from the Bar Hogs in Nasty City and act as you would. You never knew how much he meant to you at the time and the number of sea stories you would tell about him and his crazy antics in years to come. Sometimes you wonder where he is now. Maybe you’ll get your grandson to use his computer skills to try to locate him.
And that hot coffee with a taste of fuel oil was not half bad, as a matter of fact, it was pretty damned good.
You have arrived. You are now a blood brother in a tribe of idiots, shipmates, with whom you would be forever linked.
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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.