Gut Bandits and Belly Robbers
by Bob ‘Dex’ Armstrong
Without question, we had the best cooks in the Navy and the finest chow. Did we tell the cooks how good they were? Are you kidding? Insulting cooks was the major form of recreation and crew entertainment. Thin-skinned cooks didn’t last that long. A cook had to be both a great cook and have the hide of a Sherman tank.
In the past, we had a discussion on creamed chipped beef – On toast ‘Shit on a Shingle’, ‘Puss n’ Scabs’, ‘Foreskins on a Raft’, ‘Mung’… A dear child has many names. I have to go on record… I loved the stuff. I literally ate tons of it. While my shipmates moaned and groaned, I scoffed it up.
My mom died when I was nine. I grew up eating institutional chow… Good cream chipped beef is good rib-sticking chow. Kids who grew up eating mom’s traditional breakfast, entered the Navy considering Captain Crunch, Pop Tarts, Cream of Wheat, Cheerios and other stuff like toaster waffles, as what breakfast should be.
In most instances, they would have done one helluva lot better if they had thrown away the contents and eaten the gahdam box… Probably more nutritious.
If there are any old smoke boat stewburners out there, I doff my hat to you. I never ate better chow before of after my boat service. You guys dabbled in culinary magic and performed miracles with stainless steel pots, baking sheets and old worn out equipment. We handed you insult, you gave us great chow. There has never been a more lopsided return on investment.
We always knew when you loused something up… You always covered up with either canned mystery meat or gahdam macaroni and that Navy Velveeta cheese. That Velveeta cheese was at the extreme tail end of what could be remotely understood as acceptable chow. You could vulcanize tractor trailer tires with Navy Velveeta and you would eliminate all those recap chunks on the side of American highways.
That stuff never dissolved… It had a half-life on par with ancient Egyptian statuary. I still have a five pound wad of it stuck in my lower intestinal tract.
With all the asbestos we breathed and the Velveeta we ate, when they cremate an old smoke boat sailor, they are going to have to bust our lungs up with a sledgehammer and shovel a lot of melted cheese out of those cremation contraptions.
It was great food.
I remember standing topside watch in Halifax. It was cold… Had the 4 to 8… The after battery hatch was open. For an hour before dawn, the smell of baking cinnamon buns floated topside through the hatch. By the time I raised the below decks watch and got a load of fresh baked buns topside, my tongue was hanging out like 3 feet of red blanket.
I shared them with a boat watch moored outboard and the duty watch on a Canadian can. I hollered down for more but then ol’ Rodney “Rat” Johnson came topside. He was wearing the professional vestments of his position… A dirty apron, a sweat-soaked shirt… And an inverted white hat.
“Dex… What ‘n the hell’s going on? Where are my night buns disappearing to?”
I yelled to the guys on the other ships…
“This is the guy who makes these great rolls!”
“Hey, Cookie… You want a job in the Royal Canadian Navy?”
“Hey Cookie, damn good buns!”
“Hey Cookie… What ‘n the hell you doin’ in the Navy… You could make a gahdam fortune sellin’ these things.”
Only time I saw Rat at a loss for words. He smiled and said,
“Tell the freeloading bastards I’ll send up some more and make twice as many tomorrow night.”
He didn’t have to do that. He was a big part of what serving in the boats meant to a lot of us.
The Commissaryman of the old sub force put up with a lot… I know, I pinned a lot of it on them. You could steal a couple of brownies and get chased back to the maneuvering room by a man waving a cleaver. You could have someone shake you awake in the middle of the night of your twenty-first birthday… To be greeted by forty-odd shipmates participating in a conspiracy to wish you happy birthday. The centerpiece was a birthday cake with 21 Marlboro cigarettes sticking in it and a sentimental inscription that read,
“Dex, now you can buy a legal drink”
You old boat cooks were the best. In the Great Receiving Station in the Sky, Rat Johnson will be standing in a little galley that’s tough to turn around in… He’ll be feeding us all great stuff and yelling,
“If you bastards have any complaints… Eat down the street.”
He always said that.