Tough, Part III: Work Hardened
Or "Pick that cotton, tote that bail, boy."
The tough lessons I learned as a kid from the Jervis boys were nothing next to the tough that was required to survive a hitch in the Navy. Now, you Jarine types out there are going to be derisive of my calling the Navy a tough gig, but the tough required in the service I did was not the homicidal righteous tough of the battlefield, it was the relentless strain of hardship, abuse, and severe labor.
To begin with, there's boot camp. Boot camp in any service is necessarily tough, their job is to break you down so that they can build you back up in their image. The differences come in what they build you back up into, but in the beginning of any service's training regimen there is only pain, the kind of torture than can be inflicted on the human body by itself through over-vigorous physical exercise. But the tough part of the Navy is not boot camp. The tough part comes later, in the Fleet.
The thing they don't tell you in the recruiting office is that steel floating in salt water is a corrosion nightmare and it requires a tremendous amount of maintenance. The Navy expects its sailor to perform that maintenance. If you happen to be dumb enough to be in the Deck Department, which is responsible for hull preservation, then what happens is that you spend a lot of time of your time aboard engaged in chipping and painting. If you were even dumber and you accepted a berth on a ship that had been overseas for thirty years and which had only recently come back to the US for an extended yard maintenance period, and that yard period was almost over and there was still way too much work to be done, then what might happen is that you might find yourself in a man lift with a pneumatic needle gun or a twelve inch rotary grinder. And the tough part is that it would be four o'clock in the morning and you'd have been awake for 22 hours.
That night in the man lift, I was Petty Officer in charge of a work detail, a crew of a half-dozen guys, trying to get the wing wall of our well deck ready for the shipyard painters to come in and spray the next day. The ship's Bosun had told me to work the duty team into my crew as they came off watch -- to keep the whole duty section working through the night, grinding and chipping away the year of built-up paint and scale.
It was an impossible task. The well deck is essentially a floating dry-dock built into the back of the ship. It has a massive hydraulic gate to close off the stern and it can be ballasted up and down deploy boats and amphibious landing craft. It was huge -- 300 feet long, over 100 feet wide, and from the bottom of the well to the bottom of the flight deck overhead was easily 60 feet. The wing wall we were working ran the length of the well deck, 40 feet high. It was in terrible condition, having been exposed to sea water repeatedly with only the slapped on paint job of the crew to stave off the rust. Removing all that loose paint and rust meant getting covered in a sharp flaky, gritty mess. The work required respirators and eye protection and hearing protection and lots of holding heavy steel tools at arms length over your head for long periods of time. It was not something you wanted to be doing at four o'clock on the morning when you've just worked a full day and stood two watches.
These sort of working conditions were common. Working through the night and into the next day on no sleep was business as usual on a duty day. There were always spaces to paint, sweep, wipe down, scrub or otherwise tend to. And then there was the ongoing maintenance cycle required for all of our equipment. On nights when I wasn't working, I would stagger to my rack, shoulders sore, back aching, and crash into a dreamless sleep from which nothing could wake me - literally: one night I slept through a violent gang fight in my berthing compartment. A group of black sailors had come back aboard from liberty at about 1 a.m., drunk and rambunctious. They turned on all the lights and started blasting rap and dancing, waking up some of the duty section who had just come off watch. Words were exchanged, including racial epithets. Suddenly there were 60 guys involved in a cramped brawl between the bunks. Eventually the Master-At-Arms showed up with his guys, and with the liberal use of nightsticks, they broke up the fight and brought charges against everyone involved, which meant pretty much everyone in the division.
All except for me, who was sound asleep through the whole thing. I heard the story second-hand, the next day. Nobody could believe I had slept through a riot. Someone accused me of hiding, afraid to fight, but he was quickly disabused of the notion -- anyone who knew me knew that if I'd been there, I would not have hesitated to get involved. In fact, this train of though led the Senior Chief to yell at me -- he figured I must not have been there in the first place and didn't I know that junior Petty Officers berth with the Seamen for this very reason, to maintain order and control and he should charge me with dereliction of duty.
"But Senior, I was there. I slept through it. Really. I was tired."
He was baffled, but that is what the physically demanding life of a Navy crewman will do to a guy. To deal with the demands, we developed all kinds of coping mechanisms, most notably that sailors can fall asleep in ten seconds or less, in office chairs, sitting on capstans, or sitting on the deck. At lunch time, the floor of the berthing compartment was covered with sleeping sailors (we weren't allowed to be in our racks in uniform, and no one wanted to waste time getting undressed and then dressed again -- we only had 30 minutes for lunch).
Crew learned quickly how to dodge work, and when I was put in charge of the well deck I knew keeping the team on task would be difficult, but I'd no idea just how hard it would actually turn out to be. Guys would leave early to go get ready for watch, or never show up after their watch, and by 4 a.m. I was down to three or four bodies, with 100 feet of wall left to go. I'd been running a grinder myself and it took me a while to notice that the few remaining guys, aside from the one fellow in the basket with me, had knocked off working and were sitting around on the man lift base, drinking sodas and talking. One of them was sort of dancing and waving his hands and it took me a second to figure out that he was rapping. I lowered the grinder and yelled down to them to get back to work. That's when the kid who'd been rapping walked over to the man lift controls and flipped control over from remote, me, to ground operator, him. I could no longer drive the basket in which I was riding, twenty feet off the ground.
The rapper started to swing and elevate the basket. He intended to leave the arm as nearly vertical as possible, and well away from the wing wall catwalk. I looked around desperately. Fortunately, the man lift moved slowly. I knew I had one chance before the boom became too steep. It was only eight inches wide or so at the top but it was flat (the lower segments were wider) and anyway it was wider than a balance beam so what the fuck, right? I grabbed the rail of the basket and jumped over with both feet onto the top of the boom -- right onto the >>NO STEP<< sticker.
The boom was still moving. My feet skidded sideways and then I was running down the boom in light leaps. I remember being amazing at my own stupid daring and surprised at my untypical grace. I was sure I was going to trip with every step and the floor was still a dozen feet below me. I remember looking down at the gawping faces of the idle work crew. One of them was shouting and pointing. The would-be mutineer was still standing at the control, staring stupidly at me as I leapt from the boom to the boxy top of the machine and from there down to the deck. I remember that my boondockers hit with the wooden deck with a hollow slamming sound that made my calves ache. The metallic slamming sound that the kid's head made when I shoved his face into the control panel was entirely more satisfying.
"Don't ..." I banged his head against the man lift, "... you ..." bang, "... EVER ..." bang, "... do ..." bang, "... some stupid ..." bang, "... shit ..." bang, "... like that ..." bang, "... again!" BANG.
The rest of the crew was back at work by the time I'd finished with the kid who tried to strand me. After his beating, I hung him from a rope, gave him a needle gun, and made him climb under the catwalk to work the support beams. I took a smoke break and nursed my sore knuckles for a bit, then went back to work. By 7 a.m., when the Bosun showed up, we had just finished our assigned section of wall.
"Fuckin' G_____." The Bosun was pleased. "I knew could count on you to get that shit done." He looked me up and down. I was filthy. I had my hands, knuckles crusty with dried blood, behind my back.
"Those boys give you any trouble?"
"No way, sir. No trouble at all. Some grumbling, but you know how it is: sailors aren't happy unless they've got something to complain about."
That was the work life in my Navy. I never got charged for the assault on that one, nor for any of the other "disciplinary" beatings I administered. I did end up standing in front of the captain a few times and one of those times was for getting into a fight. But they didn't charge me with assault, they charged me incitement to riot. OK, it was on the mess decks in the middle of chow and a few hundred sailors were cheering witnesses but that's not a riot and I certainly didn't incite them to it. That's not the point. The point is that, by far, the vast majority of my time was spent not on fighting but working. Hard, manual labor that would kill a coolie. I endured it, and came out the other side stronger for it, and that's part of why I know I'm tougher than you.