By Garland Davis
My Seabag. There was a time when everything I owned had to fit in my seabag.
Seabags were nasty rascals? Fully packed, one of the suckers weighed more than the poor devil hauling it. The damn things weighed a ton and some idiot with an off-center sense of humor sewed a carry handle on it to help you haul it. Hell, you could bolt a handle on a Greyhound bus but it wouldn’t make the damn thing portable. The Army, Marines, and Air Force got footlockers and WE got a big ole’ canvas bag.
After you warped your spine jackassing the goofy, unwieldy thing through a bus or train station, sat on it waiting for connecting transportation and made folks mad because it was too damn big to fit in any overhead rack on any bus, train, and airplane ever made, the contents looked like hell. All your gear appeared to have come from bums who slept on park benches.
Traveling with a seabag was something left over from the “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum” sailing ship days. Sailors used to sleep in hammocks, so you stowed your issue in a big canvas bag and lashed your hammock to it, hoisted it on your shoulder and, in effect, moved your entire home from ship to ship.
I wouldn’t say you traveled light because with ONE strap it was a one shoulder load that could torque your skeletal frame and bust your ankles. Chiropractors salivated at the sight of a sailor trying to hump a seabag. It was like hauling a dead Green Bay Packer’s linebacker.
They wasted a lot of time in boot camp telling you how to pack one of the suckers. There was an officially sanctioned method of organization that you managed to forget after ten minutes on the other side of the gate at Great Lakes, San Diego or Orlando’s boot camp.
You got rid of a lot of the ‘issue’ gear when you reported into Ship or Submarine. Did you EVER know a tin-can or boat sailor who had a raincoat? A flat hat? One of those nut-hugger knit swimsuits? How about those ‘roll-your-own’ neckerchiefs? The ones girls in a good Naval tailor shop would cut down & sew it into a ‘greasy snake’ for two bucks?
Within six months, EVERY fleet sailor was down to ONE set of dress blues, port & starboard, undress blues, and whites, a couple of white hats, boots, shoes, a watch cap, assorted skivvies, a pea coat, and three sets of bleached-out dungarees. The rest of your original issue was either in the pea coat locker, lucky bag or had been reduced to wipe-down rags in the paint locker. Underway ships were NOT ships that allowed a vast accumulation of private gear. Hobos who lived in discarded refrigerator crates could amass greater loads of pack-rat crap than fleet sailors. The confines of a canvas-back rack, side locker, and a couple of bunk bags did NOT allow one to live a Donald Trump existence.
Space and the going pay scale combined to make us envy the lifestyle of mud-hut Ethiopians. We were global equivalents of nomadic Mongols without ponies to haul our stuff. And after the rigid routine of boot camp, we learned the skill of random compression, known by mothers worldwide as ‘cramming’. It is amazing what you can jam into a space no larger than a breadbox if you pull a watch cap over a boot and push it with your foot. Of course, it looks kinda weird when you pull it out, but they NEVER hold fashion shows at sea and wrinkles added character to a ‘salty’ appearance.
There was a four-hundred-mile gap between the images on recruiting posters and the ACTUAL appearance of sailors at sea. It was NOT without justifiable reason that we were called the tin-can Navy. We operated on the premise that if ‘Cleanliness was next to Godliness’ we must be next to the other end of that spectrum… We looked like our clothing had been pressed with a waffle iron and packed by a bulldozer. But what in the hell did they expect from a bunch of swabs that lived in the crew’s hole of a Fletcher Class tin-can? After a while you got used to it, you got used to everything you owned picking up and retaining that distinctive aroma, you got used to old ladies on busses taking a couple of wrinkled nose sniffs of your pea coat, then getting up and finding another seat.
Do they still issue seabags? Can you still make five bucks sitting up half the night drawing a ship’s picture on the side of one of the damn things with black and white marking pens that drives the old Chief Master-at-Arms into a ‘rig for heart attack’ frenzy? Make their faces red… The veins on their neck bulge out… And yell, ‘What in God’s name is that all over your seabag???’
‘Artwork, Chief… It’s like the work of Michelangelo… MY ship… GREAT, huh?”
“Looks like some damn comic book…”, says the man with cobras tattooed on his arms… A skull with a dagger through one eye and a ribbon reading ‘DEATH BEFORE SHORE DUTY’ on his shoulder… Crossed anchors with ‘Subic Bay-1945’ on the other shoulder… An eagle on his chest and a full blown Chinese dragon peeking out between the cheeks of his ass…
If ANYONE was an authority on stuff that looked like a comic book, it HAD to be that MAA…
Sometimes, I look at all the crap stacked in my garage and home, close my eyes, smile, remembering and yearning for a time when EVERYTHING I owned could be crammed into a canvas bag.
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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.