I'm in the process of proofreading my soon (and long awaited by me) release of “1954-1956 Letters Home: A World Ago” and I once more was carried back in time to my long-ago days in the U.S. Navy.
Looking backward through time is like peering through a Vasaline’d lens. The sharp edges blur, the harsh colors soften. I look now at my military service with far more fondness than I felt when I was actually experiencing it. Time, indeed, changes all things. Usually for the better, but not always
Much of the romance seems to have gone out of the Navy. Glorious names for marvelous ships—Enterprise, Valley Forge, Intrepid, Ticonderoga—names which echoed the traditions, power, romance and adventure of the sea and our American heritage have been replaced with the drab, colorless names of politicians: U.S.S. Ronald Reagan? U.S.S. George Herbert Walker Bush? Come on, those aren’t names for warships, they’re phone book listings! And ships, regardless of their names, have always been referred to as “she.” I find it hard to imagine the crew of the Reagan or the Bush referring to their ships as “she.”
The navy has always had a language of its own, and I’d assume much of it remains the same as when I was in. Rumors are “scuttlebutt”, the truth is “the straight skinny” (like a lot of navy terminology, double entendre is a strong factor); garbage cans are “shitcans”, westerns…movies or books…are “shitkickers.” While ocean liners may have stairways, military vessels have only “ladders”, which they very much resemble. “Upstairs” is “Topside,” “downstairs” is “below decks”, and there are no “floors”, only “decks.” The front of the ship is the “bow” and the back of the ship the “fantail.” You don’t go to the front or to the back, you go “forward”or “aft.” Left is “port”, right is “starboard.” Doorways are “hatches”, bathrooms are “heads”. Dining areas are “mess decks” and those who serve three-month stretches of time working in the kitchens and dispensing food are “mess cooks.”
Life aboard ship is (or was) ruled by the bosun’s whistle. Every activity had it’s own set of notes, always followed by an announcement over the loudspeakers. The clanging of bells alert the crew to General Quarters.
Some shipboard traditions are quite impressive. On a carrier or on a Naval base ashore, everything and everyone stops and stands at attention during the raising and lowering of the flag at sunrise and sunset. To see a vast hanger deck on a carrier bustling with activity suddenly snap to attention and turn toward the ship’s stern as the flag is lowered at sunset is quite a sight. Coming aboard or leaving the ship at any time requires halting at the top of the ramp, turning to toward the stern, and saluting. You also must ask the Officer of the Deck for permission to either come aboard or leave.
Unlike commercial ships, which must have lifeboats for every passenger, warships do not have the luxury of the space required for them. The Ti carried three or four large motorized “liberty boats” and a covered “captain’s boat”to ferry the crew from ship to shore, and which could double as lifeboats if there were time enough in an emergency to get them from their storage on the hangar deck into the water. But otherwise, the several thousand members of the crew would have to depend on life vests and inflatable rafts for survival.
Naval ships were cities of men. That one day men and women would serve together on any Naval vessel, let alone a warship, was all but incomprehensible.
I am fully aware of the softening effect time has on memory, and I remember clearly how I hated the Navy with every fiber of my being while I was in it. So why is it, I wonder, that I would give anything to relive those days?
Well, with the book's release from Untreed Reads, I'll be able to at least be there in memory. And I hope you might join me.