The Value of Bullshit
by Bob ‘Dex’ Armstrong
There were nights laying alongside with the old girl putting a strain on her lines, keeping her properly aligned in the nest, that it was damn good to be nineteen and alive. Looking back and sifting through the mental pictures that combine to form the ‘connect the dots’ that have become your life… They were some of the best days.
I became a ‘night person’ riding the boats. After 1600, the married guys slowly melted away… They had a place to go… People to see and things to do. But there were some of us who had no place to go or money to do it with… The boat was home… We were the raggedy-ass ‘stay aboards’… The kids who turned up for evening chow and some tired-ass movie.
When we got tired of the movie or found out it was one we had seen a half-dozen times on a run the year before, we’d crawl topside.
We had guys who knew guys on other boats and would go visiting. They were known as the ‘gahdam grasshoppers’.
“Hey Dex, you gonna go grasshoppering tonight? Or, you wanna get a Hearts game up?”
“Screw Hearts… I’m not up for losin’ another fist-load of wampum tonight. Think I’ll go up topside and if nobody has his ass planted on the after capstan, just sit and listen to the water slap up against the tanks.”
“Sure why not? Grab your foul weather jacket and a cup of coffee… If you want something to sit on, there’s an empty MEK can up forward next to the trunk in the beartrap.”
Sharing time with a shipmate was not wasted time… Sharing dreams of what you wanted in the future… Knowing that a guy was helping to put his kid sister through nursing school or sending money to an eighty-year old granny to put a new roof on her falling down house, made it a lot easier to tolerate his stupid opinions, his idiotic devotion to a loser team and his loyalty to the Ford Motor Company. It is very easy to overlook a lot of dumb stuff a guy says when you know his mom is fighting a losing battle with a terminal condition. Knowing what is inside men’s hearts is what makes sub sailors a tight crew. Anyone who tells you otherwise, never rode smokeboats.
So you sat there, listening to the waves created by stuff passing up and down the Elisabeth river slosh up and down your tanks… Watched the shadows made by your screwguards on the gently rising and falling water between you and the next boat in the nest. You drank bottom of the pot coffee and flipped Marlboro butts into the darkness… Inventoried the stars and engaged in what was affectionately known to old-time boatsailors as ‘bullshitting’.
Civilians call it the art of ‘gentle conversation.’ The words ‘gentle’ or ‘genteel’ never fit the verbal exchange of submariners, so it was just called bullshitting.
Bullshitting in it’s purest form has a thread that allows you to jump from subject to subject… Apply totally stupid logic to solve exceptionally complex problems… Evaluate prominent people far more successful than yourself and discuss the probable merits of having sex with beautiful women who, on a clear day, wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot boathook.
“Dex, whad’dya think of that Sputnik?”
“Think about Sputnik. Could care less… It’s a harmless little space toy. Can’t see why everybody figures it’s a big deal. Have no interest in space. To me, it’s a big empty void with nothing going on in it, like the inside of a basketball.”
“You think the gahdam Russians really want to blow us all up?”
“Who cares? Whatever you and I think doesn’t matter a whole helluva lot. If they try, they’re going to get one big surprise, ’cause they are going to get a butt-load of that stuff those boomer boats are hauling around and chunks of Russians and pieces of Russian-made crap is gonna be landing all over Kansas for three days.”
“You really think that?”
“How ’bout Kroot-chef?”
“What about Kroot-chef?”
“You think he’s a crazy man?”
“Hell, all Russians gotta be nuts… You gotta be crazy as a North Georgia hoot owl to live in that gahdam dump.”
“Dex, when you were a kid, were you scared of the atomic bomb?”
“Didn’t have time to be scared of the atom bomb… I was afraid that Dracula was gonna find me.”
“How old were you when you had your first sexual experience?”
“Yeah… We had a little girl in the neighborhood who set up a medical clinic in her old man’s tool shed. She got buck nekkit and let me examine her… I mean she hung her panties and pinafore on a lawn mower handle and Doctor Dex did a complete diagnosis. I couldn’t understand why her chest wasn’t getting lumpy and how in the hell a baby was gonna get out her belly button. My medical career came to ‘All Stop’ when her Mom caught us… My medical career lasted about thirty minutes and raised more questions than it answered.”
“I had somethin’ like that”
“Yeah… What happened?”
“I had an ugly cousin named Alice… She let me lift her dress and pull down her drawers.”
“You learn anything?”
“Yeah… It was a lot of fun.”
“How’d you end up riding the boats?”
“Wanted to get out of Utah.”
“Hell, there’s a lotta ways to get outta Utah without riding a gahdam submarine.”
“I just joined the Navy and ended up at New London… The rest kinda took care of itself.”
“You want another cup of coffee?”
“Sure, why not.”
“How ’bout one of you worthless bastards drawing two cups for two worthless idiots topside?”
“Sure thing… How do you take it?”
“Black and bitter… Make it two black and bitters.”
That is what bullshitting was. Aimless, go nowhere conversation between men who had no life beyond the tanktops. Lads whose closest friends slept in the same bunks on rotation. Kids in the sunrise of life, indivisibly forever linked by common experience that no one who never did it will ever understand.
Bullshitting was the natural mastic that bonded us in the cohesive team we were… It was the sticky side of the Submarine Force flypaper.
“Think I’ll head below, knock the lid out of a can of peaches then hit the rack.”
“There’s a couple of cans of peaches in the waterway outboard Stuke’s rack… The sonuvabitch has a fully stocked grocery store in that outboard waterway. That’s an E-3 secret so don’t let the below decks watch or anything above a second class catch you going in there… And also keep your mitts off the five boxes of Grape Nuts… They’re mine.”
“Do you guys always hold out on the crew?”
“It’s not holding out… It’s E-3 survival knowledge. When you get qualified, we’ll tell you where we stash the peanut butter. The COB found four boxes of Saltine crackers in the OBA locker and found out we had six frozen pizzas in a box marked ‘liver’ in the reefer. He was actually pissed… The idiot eats liver. We thought nobody actually ate liver on purpose.”
“Well, like I said… I’m heading below.”
“So go… Jeezus, you can’t get lost… Just follow the salvage air plates until you get to a big hole with light at the bottom of it.”
And so, you sat there. The air got chilly and every now and then the topside watch would wander aft… Check his lines and mumble some gripe about having the damn eight to twelve.
“Yeah, it’s a helluva way to make a living… And think we could be freckle inspectors in a WAVE barracks. If I ever catch the sonuvabitch that invented these diesel boats, I’m gonna cut out his heart and eat it.”
“Naw… He’s probably some officer who can smell a boatsailor a mile away.”
“Dick, anyone tell you, you are as nuts as me?”
“No, I’d kill myself.”
“You seen Stuke?”
“Yeah, he went over about an hour ago… Had some good-looking honey waiting for him up in the pierhead parking lot… He was looking for you… When he didn’t find you, he hauled.”
“Gotta go scribble in the topside log.”
On a clear night you could count the stars up in that empty space and wonder if that Sputnik contraption was really up there running around.
You knew that somewhere, some place, Admiral Arliegh Burke had the helm. He knew and understood his bluejackets. With Admiral Burke standing the conn everything was going to be O.K…. I never had seen God so I didn’t know that he actually existed… But, I had seen Admiral Burke once, and that was all I needed… He was a man who was the ultimate leader and we all knew instinctively that he was the kind of sailor who fully understood the value of E-3 bullshit with coffee.