Printed by permission of the author.l
[Being the Twelfth Chapter (of
thirty-four) of The Hooligan Navy, a
biographical novel based upon my experiences aboard the CGC Alert,
the CGC Bramble, the CGC Chautauqua,
the CGC Escanaba, the CGC Storis,
and the CGC Taney in the late 1940's.
I shipped over from the wartime Navy as a Radioman Second Class, and this
chapter (the second of seven about the Taney)
covers my first (but not by any means my last) visit to Ocean Station Fox
halfway between Frisco and Honolulu.]
Sparky, who knew everything about everything, the Taney
would shut down precisely at 145 degrees west longitude and 30 degrees north
latitude, a distance of 1,091 land miles from San Francisco and approximately
the same distance from Honolulu. That, he said, was Weather Station Fox.
about to dispute his word.
About noon on
the third day out from Frisco word was passed that a lookout had spotted the Chautauqua.
She already had a head of steam up, so to speak, and it was obvious from the
shouting and waving on deck that the Taney
was more than welcome.
As the gap
narrowed between us, a signalman on the Indian cutter blinked out the following
message: “Don’t worry about a thing, we’ll take care of your woman while
you’re out here.” At least that's what I think he sent. I was standing on
the bow looking over my shoulder, and he was sending just a bit fast for me.
While we treaded water gunwale-to-gunwale and transferred two large bags
of mail, someone on the bridge of the Chautauqua
yelled, “How’s Frisco? Did you leave any women for us?” The reply from our
bridge was, “Frisco burned down the other day. You’ll have to settle for
“They’re tellin’ the truth about taking
our women,” said
Janssen, looking chagrined. “Coast Guard women, as a rule, keep about
three steady boyfriends.”
During daylight hours all the way out from Frisco the Taney had been in a constant state of discombobble. Comdr. Bull
Gorman, it seemed, liked drills. And even though most of the crew stood both day
and night watches, only those who had been on midwatches were excused from
It brought back
fond memories of a cruise I once had on a Navy tincan, only the shinola we went
through was for real.
Immediately following morning chow each day, our Skipper, standing tall
and handsome in starched white shorts and a short-sleeve shirt on the bridge
with a pair of binoculars strapped around his neck, would nod and over the PA
system there would issue a loud “Clang-clang-clanging!” This would be
followed by the Deck Chief’s announcement (It would vary very little from day
to day), “Now, hear this! All hands! Fire drill! Man your duty stations!”
One day it would be the Damage-Control Drill, another day the First-Aid Drill.
Two of the most unpopular drills were the Abandon-Ship Drill and the Boat Drill,
because these required going over the side and burning up some calories.
Between the twice-daily drills (morning and afternoon) there were clean
sweep-downs fore-and-aft, in which all enlisted personnel not on watch
participated, Captain’s Inspections (always when the men were least expecting
them), and General Quarters. It was all very exciting and invigorating, and it
did accomplish one positive result: Everyone looked forward to the four-hour
Another revolting development for me, totally unexpected and surprisingly
far-reaching in its effect upon my quality-of-life, was Janssen’s dislike of
coffee. During our first watch, which began just after we passed the Farallon
Islands, I made the mistake of delivering a steaming hot mug of the stuff to
him. I mean, how was I to know?
That first night out began for me on a distasteful note and went downhill
from there on.
Just as a
quartermaster began banging out eight bells over the PA system, signaling the
change of watches, I went to check on Janssen. He was sound asleep in his bunk,
and while I was trying to wake him, Husbands called out from his bunk, “Where
you from, Red, Arkansas?”
About to lean
over and give Janssen a shake, I glanced at the big soft-looking Saint Bernard
and saw that he was reading a Harold Robbins paperback thriller with a naked
woman on the cover. The book was lying open and face down on his chest, and
behind him, sprawled out on their bunks, were his two mangy friends, Ceccarelli
and Podscoff. Both were grinning stupidly at me.
“Oklahoma. Where you from, California?”
Caught off guard, Husbands stared at me for a time. I could almost hear
the slow, rusty wheels inside his big shaggy head turning slowly.
“Yeah, as a matter of fact I am. But how’d you guess?” Taking up
his book, he pretended to read.
“It was no guess. You look like a fruitcake, you talk like a fruitcake,
and you behave like a fruitcake. Ergo,
Husbands, you had to be a fruitcake.” After I gave Janssen a shake, I added,
“And since all fruitcakes come from California—”
Husband's face, now red as a beat, slowly rose above the book. And if
looks could kill, I would have been a dead swab.
“Look, you gonna hold that remark I made against me forever?”
“Let me tell you something, Slug.” I looked at Janssen and winked.
“You made a mistake smarting off to me the way you did. You didn’t know me
from Adam, but like every a--hole I’ve ever met from the State of California
you just had to show out.”
“Yeah, sh-t. Think about it. And from now on stay off my case.”
Podscoff had turned on his side and eyeing me.
“You’re one tough cookie, huh, Red?” he snickered, rolling over and
looking at Ceccarelli. “Do you suppose this old salt layers his hamburgers
with gunpowder or something, Chet?”
“Either that or maybe he layers his gunpowder with hamburger!” came
“I’ll be seeing you three f-rts around,” I said, turning toward the
open hatch. “Maybe we’ll have a work detail or two together.”
“Oh, so, now he threatens!” cackled Podscoff, romping on his bunk.
“We are to be afraid of His Eminence!”
“If you’ve got any sense, you will,” said Janssen, sitting up in
his bunk. “But then that would be asking too much.”
After the dead air of the quarters, it felt really great topside; and for
a brief time I stood facing the salty breeze coming down the port side from the
bow. When Janssen finally popped through the hatchway, I was leaning against a
lifeline thinking about the three jerks down in the quarters.
The ship was
clipping along beautifully, and Captain Gorman, thank God for small favors, was
finally settled in his quarters just below the bridge. I had spotted him
entering it shirtless and hatless a moment before, doubtlessly on his way to his
bunk. He might be planning something for the wee hours of the morning, but it
was a safe bet he was calling it a day.
It was dark as pitch topside, with not a star showing, and the ship was
rolling gently from side to side. I stared at the lively wake we were leaving,
my mind wandering back to the little scene in the quarters. It was now clear to
me that I was going to be forced to have it out with those three. As long as we
were on the ship, however, I would not be able to lay a hand on them. Their
little mind games and practical joking would no doubt continue, especially when
no officer was around.
Janssen showed up, announcing himself by clearing his throat. He was
eating a sandwich.
“It’s about that time,” I said. “You up for this?”
“No way. I could have used about eight more hours of sleep.”
He took the lead, talking over his shoulder about what I could expect on
the watch. We were checked out with NMC, Twelfth District Base Radio, and, more
than likely we would have nothing at all to do for the entire four hours. That
sounded all right to me, but he seemed to be dreading it. To myself, I said,
"This is going to be a piece of cake compared to what I went through on the
the radio shack, after climbing all that way, he stopped and said, “Why
don’t you go down to the messdeck and get us some sandwiches and whatever else
Cookie might’ve put out?”
idea," I said, leaning against a bulkhead and faking exhaustion. Paying
absolutely no mind to me, he disappeared into the shack.
What the heck?
I was enjoying the fresh air, and the exercise was good for me. I tripped down
to the messdeck and lined up behind a mob of swabs. Quartermasters and Motor
Macks were joggling each other for the cold cuts, all laid out neatly on
regulation Coast Guard metal trays on the serving counter. After waiting my
turn, I dived in and began piling bologna, cheese, onions, pickles and ham
slices on thick slices of bread, ending up with two Dagwood sandwiches. From
some of the more squeamish this brought good-natured grunts and groans.
quartermaster said to me, “You takin’ that up to Janssen? Be sure not to
forget the coffee.”
“Hey, don’t you worry about that!”
I wondered at
the snickering that had followed that question but dismissed it in my
anticipation of a feast up in the shack.
Cookie had thoughtfully left some paper sacks on the counter, along with
plastic spoons, forks, and knives. I stuffed my creations into one of the larger
sacks and headed for the coffee urn. Could I handle two mugs and that heavy sack
up the those ladders? I remembered that Janssen hadn’t been drinking coffee
with his sandwich a few minutes before; so I did not dare show up but, I
reasoned, maybe that was because he didn’t want to tote it all the way to the
It turned out to be something of a juggling act, but I managed two large
mugs of coffee and the paper sack of sandwiches up those three flights without a
mishap. And when I set all of this down beside my watch buddy, he turned and
glared at me, shoving the sack back.
Red. I can’t stand the stuff. I can’t even stand to smell that crap. Smells
like skunk piss.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No way. Come on, let’s get into this thing.”
That he also did not smoke, drink, chew, dip, or gamble meant little or
nothing to me; but the news that he couldn’t tolerate the presence of coffee
was a blow that left me dazed and sick at my stomach. It meant not only complete
abstinence for me four hours running, twice every twenty-four hours, but also no
breaks for either of us during our watch! There would be no excuse at all to get
out of that stuffy shack for some fresh air occasionally.
I set the two mugs outside the hatchway, wondering how he managed to
survive in the messdeck. That place reeked of strong coffee twenty-four hours a
day. What he needed was a private stateroom, where he could be served
No, he needed a
Since the weathermen had not collected information that day, there was no
real business for Janssen and me on that first watch out to Ocean Station Fox;
so Janssen insisted on showing me how to tune up the big Collins transmitter,
which was a brand that I had not seen before. Still shook up over his taboo on
coffee, I sat sullenly by and pretended to doze off. If the stolid, slow-talking
Janssen noticed my inattention, he gave no sign of it. All of the operating
frequencies had been typed on a sheet of paper and placed under glass next to
each of the two positions, a particularly helpful thing, I thought; and after
Janssen had finally stopped talking and demonstrating, I spent an hour checking
these out on the Hallicrafters receivers.
Perhaps two hours into the watch, with head phones strapped on but turned
away from his ears, my watch mate settled into a magazine he had brought with
him from the quarters. He had given me a split-phone watch to monitor; and,
wearing my phones like a collar, I moved about the shack poking into things. The
ship had stopped rolling and the long, slow hours of a night at sea were upon
“Are you nervous or something?” he asked. “If you think this is
bad, you’re really in for it.”
“Bad?” I laughed. “If I
died and went to Heaven right now, it could not be much of an improvement! This
is what I consider great duty!” Then, unable to hold it back, "Of course,
in a radio operator's Heaven there will be coffee."
“Yeah, I know," he said, nodding and looking tragic. “It’s the
shits. But, do you know, I think I prefer this to a day watch. At least at
eleven o’clock at night you don’t have much traffic through the shack. And
the Chief sure as hell aint going to come nosing around.”
He had not heard (or taken seriously) a word I had said.
I was about to make another stab at explaining how I felt about being at
sea on a good ship, but it occurred to me that this fellow would not understand.
He wouldn’t even try. To him all of this was a bore, a terrible routine,
something that he had done so many times he couldn’t remember it ever being
exciting. He was undoubtedly a nice guy, a straight-shooter, a good man to have
as a friend; but he had become jaded with the Coast Guard and weather patrols.
Static crackled and spewed from three directions. To me it was like
listening to an old and dear friend whispering to me, a reassurance of the
continuity of things, a promise that just over the horizon great and mighty
things were happening.
For a time I tried to imagine what it would be like sitting on a patch of
ocean for twenty days, with absolutely no intention of going anyplace. Just
sitting. No one would be looking for us and we would be looking for no one. But,
what with the drills and Captain's inspections, none of us was likely to die of
During my snooping about the shack, I discovered a small panel of
speaker- and mike-receptacles inside a cabinet. They bore the labels A, B, and C.
“What are these? Is it possible they go to speakers somewhere?” I
wanted to know. “Are we hooked up to the PA system?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Just curious. Is there a way to pipe music and stuff to the crew?”
After stalling for five minutes, he pointed to a row of jacks over one of
the positions. Somehow, I had overlooked these. And, curiously, they had the
same labels as the speakers. “Just make damned sure you never plug something
into Gorman’s speaker by mistake.”
“Which one is his?”
“Come on, you know.”
“Okay, it’s A. But, also,
stay away from the others. Unless the Chief says so, do not, I repeat, do not
“Wouldn’t the crew appreciate a little Stateside news and music once
we settle in at Weather Station Fox?”
“They might, but you’d get your butt in a sling if you engineered
“I was just curious,” I said with a grin.
After the Chautauqua
disappeared over the eastern horizon, I stayed topside, gazing at the vast blue
void above (The overcast had finally disappeared) and the endless green water
between us and the horizon. Only a small flock of gooney birds, some of which
had joined us the day before, remained to keep us company. The surface of the
ocean was, at midday, glassy smooth; and the sun beat down upon us without
mercy, sending all that were not assigned to deck details below to the messdeck
or the recroom.
Sparky had issued a new watch schedule, which coupled none other than
Husbands and me. Janssen had given the Chief a glowing report of my behavior
while on watch he had decided to put me in charge of the midwatches. I could
have kissed him. Husbands had been on a previous weather patrol but had had very
little actual operating experience. And, of course, since he was only a green
third class radioman straight out of dit-dah school he was not expected to
transmit classified weather messages in code.
I did not jump
up and down at the news of the watch change, but Janssen looked at me and said,
"Let the good times roll." It was the closest he had ever come in my
presence to a sense of humor. "Now, you can stink up the shack with that
The idea of
having to spend four hours at a sitting with Husbands was made tolerable by the
fact that I would be in charge. Besides, of the three knotheads he was the least
obnoxious. Janssen would be with Podscoff, and Sparky himself would break in
absence was working a real hardship for the old Chief.
“Red, I thought it would be a good idea if you’d take the midwatches,”
he said. “That way you’ll miss most of the weather stuff at night, and
Janssen or I will always be around during the noon watch to help out if we’re
“We've got the friggin’ midwatch from now on?” groaned Husbands.
Sparky whirled on him with, “It does! Till I say otherwise!”
As far as I was concerned, Husbands and I had gotten the best of the
three watch schedules. The twelve-to-four watches would mean very little
monotonous sending of coded word groups and practically no involvement in the
Skipper’s drills. Coming off the midwatch, we would be allowed to sleep until
lunch; then, after the midday watch we would have free time, for the most part,
until our next watch.
During the awkward pause following the Chief’s outburst at Husbands, I asked a question that had been bugging me ever since I had signed aboard. “Would somebody explain to me why the weather information has to be sent in digital code groups? Why can’t we just send it plain language?” My reasoning was that sending it plain language was quite easy, compared to coded groups, every character of which had to be exactly right or the decoding would be screwed up. It was such an obvious question I was caught completely off-guard at the Chief’s reaction:
“That’s just about the stupidest dumb question I ever heard! You from
the sticks or someplace?”
“It’s not stupid,” said Husbands. “Red’s got a point. Why’n
hell do we have to bother with five-number code groups, like it was something
the Russians might want to get their hands on? Who in the hell cares who gets
this stuff and finds out what the weather is like out in this sh-thole of an
“Husbands, go check out a scraper and a wirebrush! Anybody as stupid as
you are needs fresh air and exercise! I want you to get back to that job on the
smokestack. And I don’t want to hear anything more about this! Got it?”
Then, turning to me and speaking almost civilly, he said, “All I’ve ever
been told is that the purpose of our assignment out here is to gather weather
information for the U. S. Weather Bureau and send it with a priority
classification to the U. S. Coast Guard Base Radio Station in San Francisco. Why
it has to be in numbers and not
just plain coded letter-groups I don’t have the slightest notion. But, of
course, as you know, it is against regulations to send classified information in
plain language, peace or war. If you don’t know that, maybe we need to have a
long talk. Even oral transmissions have to be in message form, fully approved by
the Communications Officer.”
Janssen broke in with, “I was under the impression the only Coast Guard
experience Red’s had has been on the Alert?
I’ll lay you odds no coded messages ever went out of that rowboat. Am I right,
“Well, yeah, but the way you put it sounds almost like a criticism,”
I said with a laugh. “You really want to know what it’s like handling the
radio on the Alert? First off, I
didn’t stand a watch. From day one, even while there were two of us, I had to
be in the shack all the time when the ship was at sea. When I needed coffee or
food, someone from the bridge gang or the cook himself delivered it to me. On
rare occasions, when we weren’t expecting anything at all, I would pipe
whatever frequency I was monitoring into the pilothouse and hit the sack. Then
when a call came in, whoever was handy would pick up the mike. All of it was
plain language, of course.”
“Yeah, sure!” scoffed Sparky, scratching his head. Janssen, too, was
grinning. “Plain language?”
“We knew everybody up and down the Coast; so when we’d get a call, it
would generally be addressed to one of us personally. The sparks that handled
harbor frequencies at NMC would begin with something like, Hey, Red, you awake?”
“Goddamn!” laughed Sparky. “For a breech of regulations like that
on the Taney you’d get twenty years
in the brig! Did you ever have to send any CW, Red?”
“Just once, all the time I was aboard.”
This brought a laugh from everyone in the shack.
“Sounds like some hooligan outfit to me,” groaned Sparky. He slapped
me on the shoulder. “You go keep an eye on Husbands."
During the second half of the patrol almost everybody aboard ship had a
countdown calendar near his bunk, religiously marking off the days. For
recreation we had a choice of pool and ping-pong, if we were willing to wait in
line. Swimming was never brought up in my presence, and my one visit to the
ship's library was my last. The dog-eared old action-packed thrillers I had read
back when they were new, and the one or two mainstream novels in the collection
that I would have enjoyed reading had been cannibalized.
twentieth day dawned. It was a Wednesday and the crew, after having shown no
sign of life for at least a week, was abuzz with excitement. If our relief
showed up on time, we might possibly make it into San Fran Bay by the following
Saturday early enough for liberty. And to brighten things even more, word had
been passed that the Pay Officer would be waiting for us at Government Island.
Sure enough, about nine o’clock that morning the Escanaba
was spotted on the eastern horizon, looking like an Aussie frigate heading
for a celebration of some kind. Flapping happily in the slight breeze she was
stirring up was a line of pennants and signal flags that stretched all the way
from the point of the bow to the top of the mast amidships; and, as she drew
near, the crew of the Taney began to
pour it on heavy. Did they think they were headed for a friggin' party?
from them three fat canvas bags of mail, from which I hoped to get enough
reading matter to keep me busy for three days.
On the way in work details were suspended and drills were a thing of the
past. I fell into the habit of spending a great deal of time on the bow with
Janssen and a quartermaster by the name of Harry Doscher. Except for the two
Indian cutters, we hadn’t seen a single ship the entire time we had been out,
though it was possible some may have passed during the night. Except for gooney
birds, the only life forms I had seen were the regular flights of passenger
planes to and from Honolulu. And when one of the big birds would zoom low, to
salute the ship, Husbands would invariably say, “Just think, Red, if we were
on that thing, we’d be in Frisco tonight.” Even when they were headed
westward, he would say Frisco. And
after a time, when I had learned to overlook his fogginess, I would invariably
reply, “Who wants to be in Frisco?”
Early that Saturday morning, right on schedule, there appeared in the
fog- and mist-shrouded distance the Farallon Islands; and these were shortly
followed by the jagged outline of the northern California coast. By the time the
Golden Gate was in sight, looking like a giant golden crown across the harbor
entrance, the entire off-duty crew was running around topside acting like little
undisciplined little boys. For once, the Skipper was not present on the bridge
to squelch the tomfoolery.
Perhaps he was sulking in his cabin, dreading to go home.
Husbands, bouncing with excitement, trailed along behind me to the
starboard side of the ship to watch the landing at Government Island. The
boatswain’s mates and their deckhands scurried about, screaming at each other
and doing their best to appear important, just in case someone on the beach
might be watching them.
Leaning over the lifeline and gazing in the general direction of the
Personnel Office, which seemed to be moving slowly toward us, I said, “You
know, Hoss, the sailor is just about the most fortunate of human being on this
“The hell he is. Being a sailor sucks.”
“Think about it,” I said, dodging a monkey’s fist that sailed
within inches of my head. “Going to sea makes a man’s appetite for just
about everything on land keener and keeps him excited and alive to the creature
Husbands shook his big shaggy head. “I can’t wait to git out of this
friggin’ outfit. Give me Fresno and mother's food.”
“The ancient philosophers were right,” I continued, poking him in the
short ribs. “Man suffers from moral, spiritual, and physical bankruptcy.”
“Maybe,” said Husbands, trying not to listen. “I wonder when
liberty’s gonna happen? Man, I can’t wait to get some cold Lucky Lager!”
“When we get too much of a thing, we quite naturally turn away from it.
Nothing, not a single thing on God’s green earth, is good when it’s repeated
or experienced over and over again. Isn’t that right? The steak-eater finally
has his fill of steak, preferring chicken or some other meat eventually to a New
York strip cooked medium rare. Ice-cream, consumed daily, becomes just so much
mush in the mouth. And females—once you’ve had your fill of them—are a
real pain in the butt.”
“Stow it, Red!” shouted Husbands. “There’s no way on God’s
green Earth I’ll ever get my fill of women!”
“But you will, if you’re unlucky enough to fraternize with them on a
daily basis. The young, tender female, reputedly God’s greatest blessing to
Mankind, loses one by one her charms and attractiveness after you have known her
for awhile and becomes, finally, just another skirt.”
“Sh-t! I’m payin' no attention to you, Red. You dit-happy or somethin'?
I'm out of here!”
“Hang on, old buddy!” I pleaded, good naturedly, catching the big,
soft arm of my shipmate. “What I’m getting at is that the sailor, by the
very nature of his calling and pursuits, is blessed above all other of God’s
creatures. Whether instinctively or wisely (Who is to say?), he follows a
calling that makes it possible for him to love women and other things
perpetually and without any let-up at all. And if he doesn’t know it to begin
with, he learns one of the great truths of human existence, a truth that saves
him from physical, spiritual, and moral bankruptcy. You see, his time at sea in
the company of other men absolves him of these shortcomings, renews and even
sharpens his appreciation of God’s great gifts. The steak is even tastier than
before, wine and beer brighten his outlook on life quicker, and even a mediocre,
washed-out, stringy-haired, narrow-butted little female is, for him, a miracle
of delight and beauty—at least for a few days or perhaps even a week. By then
it is time for him to return to sea.”
“Nobody is listenin' to you."
“Abstinence makes the heart and the palate and, god bless America, the
penis grow fonder.”
Hooligan Navy is due to come out late this spring or sometime during the summer
(2001) as a paperback, and the price should be somewhere around $23.00 at Barnes
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