By: Wyatt H Knott [2006-06-29]

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.

Forty Knots No Smoke [2006-06-29 11:07:09] König Prüße, GfbAEV
The ordnance training that I got was at Indian Head, Maryland mostly. It's a Navy joint. There's a circuit that they do: Indian Head, Elgin AFB, Huntsville, and back to Indian Head. The guys are multi-service, Army EOD, Jarsheads, and Seals. So anyway, one old Navy Seal guy who was also demolition instructor toured with us for a while. He was funny! His nickname was "Twin Screws" and I asked why that, and got told to ask him. When I asked Hans why he was called "Twin Screws" he turned around and dropped his pants! On his butt-cheeks was tattooed two big ship's propellors, and across the top it said, "Forty Knots, No Smoke" which he said is what a destroyer running hot does. One of my favorite Navy things is getting the insides of the cuffs on your blues embroidered so you can flip the cuffs up when you're on shore leave.
OK, before anybody else does it... [2006-06-29 19:24:44] König Prüße, GfbAEV
In the navy
Yes, you can sail the seven seas
In the navy
Yes, you can put your mind at ease
In the navy
Come on now, people, make a stand
In the navy, in the navy
Can't you see we need a hand
In the navy
Come on, protect the motherland
In the navy
Come on and join your fellow man
In the navy
Come on people, and make a stand
In the navy, in the navy, in the navy
Well... [2006-06-30 00:31:23] Hatless Jack
That IS pretty tough. On this piece's own merits I give it three Will Rogers and one Clayton Moore. For the whole series I give two-thirds of a Robert Mitchum (I'm fairly certain that works out to right around three kilo-Jean Claude Van Dammes, metric).
Acceptance Speech for 2/3 Mitchum Award [2006-06-30 01:48:27] Wyatt
I'd like to thank my mom, for continuing to be the selfish bitch that made me what I am today. Couldn't have done it without you, thanks ma!
My [2006-06-30 01:56:25] Wyatt
Company Commander in boot had liberty cuffs on his dress blues, dragons that he'd had sewn on in Subic Bay. We all thought it was the coolest thing and swore to get us some once we got salty. But I never ran across a place that did them in any of the ports I called in, and anyway, by the time I was taking liberty, they didn't make us go ashore in uniform anymore. In fact, they normally prohibited us from wearing uniforms when off the ship in a foreign country. They would also typically prohibit the use of public transportation, consumption of the water or produce, fucking the local whores and traveling in groups of less than four.
Subic Bay [2006-06-30 03:17:29] Hatless Jack
I used to go swimming in Subic Bay as a child. Actually, I swam near the Grande Island Recreational Area / Gunnery Target, but it's the same thing, really. And yes, from embroidery to woodcarving, Filipino hand-craftsmen are the finest in the world: you would not believe the quality of the swag my family smuggled out of that country. It's really a shame our forces got booted out of it. But then Mount Pinatubo blew up, and we were all, "Best of luck with that, Suckers." so it all worked out in the end.

Come to think of it, I'm fairly certain Subic Bay was the base with the monkey problem. You Navy boys might be tough as stale hardtack, but it takes a fully armed squad of Marines or a Negrito man-child armed with a piece of bamboo to deal with a troop of monkeys.
Dodge Trucks Are Ram Tuff! [2006-06-30 05:45:12] König Prüße, GfbAEV
Oh, the monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga,
Oh, the monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga,
Oh, the monkeys have no tails,
They were bitten off by whales,
Oh, the monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga.

Oh, the carabao have no hair in Mindanao,
Oh, the carabao have no hair in Mindanao,
Oh, the carabao have no hair,
Holy smoke! But they are bare,
Oh, the carabao have no hair in Mindanao.
The cook... [2006-06-30 07:22:03] Sean
Were the cooks in the navies all big sissies? Or were they kinda cool like the cook in Catch 22? How were they regarded?
Onassis Freighters [2006-06-30 08:09:06] König Prüße, GfbAEV
One of the biggest and best pig-outs that I ever had was on an Onassis freighter that had docked in just across from Portland, Oregon over at the shipyards. The cook cooked-up everything: roast beef, ham, turkey...etc.. because they were getting to port and would re-supply. But too, because they were docking for a while, all of the merchant seamen bailed. It still sort of amazes me that fairly big ships sail up the river to Portland. One time, there was a ship coming in, and one pimp drove a van full of hot hookers down to the dock. The hoors were on the dock, and the sailors were hanging over the rail hooting and hollering. One guy fell overboard!
That's Mess Specialist to you, pal [2006-06-30 10:40:50] Wyatt
Like any rate, the MS crew had it's share of both wimps & toughs. There's plenty of tough work in the galley, but most of it is done by the cranks - non-rates on loan from every department to the galley for a short term (usually 3 months or so.) Cranks do all the nasty work; grease traps, scullery work and of course all manner of cleaning. Everybody cranks at some point, I cranked almost everywhere I went; at boot camp during work week, at nuc school while I was on restriction, & twice on Constitution. By the time I made it to a steel hull, I was senior enough that I didn't have to crank. I have tons of great crank stories. Ask me about Seaman Laidlow, or the walk through fry-o-lator, or the Dragon. Now that you mention it, I bet there's a whole 'nother installment worth ...
Port pests [2006-06-30 10:49:50] Wyatt
I have always found a wrist-rocket loaded with 3/8" nuts to be highly effective against all sorts of pests. I've never tried it on monkeys, but rats and seagulls are always lively targets. A wrist-rocket is quiet, too, which is useful for keeping those annoying bird-lovers from complaining. When the Hel-Cat comes in from the Race, there's always a squadron of gulls in attendance, fighting for the scraps that the mate throws over the side while he's filleting the day's catch. The gulls inevitably land on our dock, perching on every piling, radar arch and awning. They get into fights over the best seats and shit all over everything, so it's tremendously satisfying to knock them sideways with a well-aimed round.
Mess Specialist [2006-06-30 11:53:52] Sean
Was he always nicknamed "Cookie"?
Alka-Seltzer [2006-06-30 13:08:11] König Prüße, GfbAEV
I like the lines, the big ropes. There's a sort of funnel-collar that's supposed to keep the rats from running up the lines, but they manage anyway. One barge had a big length of fat line laid back and forth over the rib-beams in the inside hull, and it was like taking a nap in a hammock! It's fun to get the seagulls to eat Alka-Seltzer! I just read that Bono and Sting are coming out with a bunch of pirate music.
Alka-seltzer [2006-06-30 15:51:01] Wyatt
I've tried that trick, but never witnessed the legendary gullsplosion. I have tied bread to a 1 oz. sinker and cast that bad boy out into the flock with my drag set low ... inevitably, one will pick it up and run with it as it tries to swallow the bread. Let him take the line out about 100 feet, then grab the reel and whale back on the rod like you're setting the hook in a big fish. You'll snatch the greedy bastard right out of the air, and if he's actually managed to swallow the bait, you might break his neck in the process. Absolutely hysterical, guaranteed fun for an entire afternoon.

Perhaps by this point, the more genteel readers are beginning to think I'm something of a sadist. In general, I'm an animal lover. But you've gotta understand - seagulls are no better than flying rats. They're bullies, they're slobs, they're vandals. Hatred is probably too strong a characterization of my feelings towards gulls, intolerance is much closer.

And no, I've never heard of an MS called 'cookie'. Try that on the ship and you're liable to get punched in the mouth, or worse ... after all, these guys handle your food. It pays to be respectful.
~ride captain ride~ [2006-07-01 03:39:16] perfktMperfktshn
first of all ty for ur military service...and secondly all this talk about nothing butt men on a boat...the thought of seaman ....makes me have to go mastur...errr a load of laundry.
YMCA [2006-07-01 11:59:28] Wyatt
Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the constant allegations, sailors are incredibly homophobic. I never witnessed, or even heard rumors of, any kind of homosexual relationships while I was on the ship except for a single incident, to which the Captain's response is instructive:

One night on midwatch when we were pierside at Little Creek, the rover was doing an unusually sat job and was actually checking machinery spaces for fires & flooding. In one of the AC fan rooms, he was startled to discover two enginemen engaged in a bit of friendly sodomy. The rover immediately ran topside and reported to the OOD. The OOD woke the Captain. The Captain called NCIS, and within half an hour there were two investigators and a half-dozen Master-At-Arms piling out of a white van on the pier. They had the two fanroom frolickers off the ship before the end the next watch took over at 3:45AM. I was the relief for the Petty Officer of the Watch, so I heard the story pretty much first hand. Apparently, the Captain told the OOD to "get them the hell off my ship before the crew finds out." The Captain knew full well that if the crew had found out what the two joy boys had been up to, he'd be convening more than one court. It wouldn't have taken long for somebody to work up the nerve ... disposing of bodies is easy on a ship, just wrap them in chain and dump them over the side some dark night.

That's not to say that there aren't any fags in the Navy (I did meet one Chief I was sure was a swish) but they kept a low profile because they knew their behavior would not be tolerated.
Hornblower [2006-07-01 13:00:37] König Prüße, GfbAEV
I always did wonder about Horatio Hornblower.
tougher than who [2006-07-03 05:20:47] posthumous
sure you're tougher than I, but don't mess with King of Prussia! what he lacks in tough he makes up for in crazy!
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