WEATHER STATION FOX

By Wesley E. Hall 

©2001 All Rights Reserved

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.]

  *****

According to 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.

Nobody was 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 Vallejo!”

        “They’re tellin’ the truth about taking  care  of  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 these.

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 watches.

        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.”

        “Sh-t.”

        “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 the reply. 

        “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 Alert.

Just outside 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?”

"Excellent 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.

A grinning 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 radio shack.

        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.

“No coffee, 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 individually.

No, he needed a caretaker.

*  *  *

        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 us.

        “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 boredom.    

        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?”

        “Never mind.”

        “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 bother them.”

        “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 it.”

        “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 skunk piss.

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 Ceccarelli.

Mears’ 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 needed.”

        “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 ocean?”

        “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, Red?”

        “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.

Finally, the 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?

We received 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 earth.”

        “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 comforts.”

        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.”

         

***

The 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 & Noble. 

           

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