By Commander Ed Bookhardt, USN Retired
It was a dark drizzly afternoon when I arrived at the Main Gate of the sprawling Naval Operating Base, Norfolk, Virginia. The taxi driver reeking of body odor, booze and stale cigarettes, muttered cabs were not allowed on base and pulled to the curb on Hampton Boulevard a half block away. It was my first trip to Norfolk so I accepted he wasn’t blowing smoke.
I grabbed my gear and tossed a five in the front seat. Snoring expletives of sailors being lousy tippers, he squealed off to pick up a couple he had spotted as possible fares before dumping my dumb ass. I squared my hat, threw my seabag over my shoulder and struggled through the traffic to the Marine sentries at the gate. I showed my orders and told them I was reporting to the Receiving Barracks for further transportation to Cuba.
A Corporal pointed toward a cluster of gray weathered World War Two structures off in the distance that appeared as uninviting as the weather. Rather than wait on a shuttle I decided to walk so I could get some fresh air and shed my travel weariness. Plodding along the wet sidewalk, heavy mist drifting in from Chesapeake Bay began to shroud the area…
Duty transfers always make me blue. Leaving family, shipmates and the security of the known, brings a feeling of melancholy. On the other hand, anticipation of the new, the unknown spawns an addictive exhilaration…thus, screwing-up one’s mind! Seriously, such times of transition and uncertainty are very stressful and I believe affect most career sailors similarly. Anyway, it was good to have a few moments alone, in the rain to sort things out and get one’s head on straight.
The Personnel Yeoman processing my orders indicated I would probably be around for a couple of weeks as MATS [Military Air Transport Service] had a substantial backlog. With that I could expect a job assignment the following day. I was sent to one of the “X” Barracks for berthing. The next morning as the only First Class Petty Officer at muster I was given a badge and put in charge of barrack berthing assignments by the Chief Master at Arms. He gave me a couple of helpers as transient manpower was plentiful.
A day later a First Class Mineman about my age checked-in. His name was James “Johnny” Walker he was on his way to the Naval Station, Trinidad for duty. I gave him a cup of coffee and we chatted awhile. I assigned him a bunk next to mine and invited him to the EM Club after work for a few Blue Ribbons. He smiled and agreed to meet me.
We hit it off and became instant friends. Over the next few days we made the tour of Norfolk’s East Main Street, patronizing such infamous watering-holes as: The Krazy Kat, Ship Ahoy, Red Rooster, Rathskellers…the list goes on …we hit them all! We were young and draft beer was twenty-five cents!
Monday morning the CMAA walked in the shack, poured a cup of coffee and sat down at the desk. He pushed his hat back on his head and propped his feet up. He looked at me with a steely gaze and said, “How would you like to take a scenic all-expense paid train ride?” Puzzled, I looked at him, and before I could speak he shot back, “I need two mature POs to chase an AWOL in Kentucky. I knew you would volunteer as did your beer-drinking buddy, Johnny Walker. They’re cutting your orders now. We’ll issue you Shore Patrol gear and travel vouchers, etc…you will have six days to bring a moony lovesick piss-ant back to me. I will brief you and Walker in an hour. Go get your shit together…”
“Okay, here’s the scoop. You’re going to pick up one: Zachariah Longstreet. Apparently some older country folks like giving their kids Biblical first name, hopefully he’s no kin to the Civil War General. This kid is a nineteen year old Seaman Duce from Pikeville, Kentucky. That’s where he is now in the local slammer. There’s some milk-fed farm girl over there that apparently gave him a taste of poontang on Boot leave and he can’t stay out of sniffing range. He came aboard a month ago for assignment to a tin can, which was at sea…here a couple of days then he disappeared.”
Rummaging through his desk drawer, he continued, “The Sheriff over there in Pikesville, who was a Navy man during the war, called that he had him and we picked him up. The Skipper gave him two-weeks restriction but he hauled-ass the next day. He’s back in Pikeville, that’s where you boys come in. You’ll take the train to Charleston, West Virginia, then bus down to Pikeville. Fair warning, this kid is a runner so keep the cuffs on him except to let him eat or take a crap. If you wish to spoon feed him and wipe his ass then you can leave the cuffs on the whole damn trip! I want him back here to do some brig time and ship his horny hillbilly ass to sea!”
We kept out Shore Patrol gear in our suitcases so we wouldn’t be in an official capacity on the train. After boarding and casing the cars for female passengers, we settled in one of the less crowded coaches. I enjoyed the rhythmic click of the rails and drifted to thoughts of family, looking out the window at the rolling Virginia countryside and picking train lint off my melton-cloth Blues. Johnny, meanwhile working a crossword puzzle found in a crumpled newspaper asked, “What’s a six letter word for an Ethiopian antelope?” Turning from the window I sarcastically quipped, “Johnny Boy, I don’t know dick about Ethiopia…”
Before I could finish, he shot back, “Damn, you’re good Eddie, that’s it…DikDik!” Standing, I grinned, “Well damn…I only said one dick, but if that helped, aren’t I the smart one! Now that I’ve dazzled you with my intelligence lets go to the Club Car for a brew!” Brushing my Blues off it dawned on me…DUH! Speaking of intelligences, what the shit are we doing in these damn lint grabbing sacks when we have our gabardine tailor-mades? JOHNNY, WE ARE THE F%&KIN’ SHORE PATROL…whose going to write our ass up? He laughed and pushed me toward the exit.
Next morning before leaving the Chicago Limited in Charleston we donned our tailor-mades, white belts, leggings, armbands and nightsticks. I was feeling good and walking tall! Those Pullman berths can really rock a guy to sleep. We caused quite a stir around the depot and bus station, or at least I though we did. Sailors were a rarity in that part of the country; particularly decked out SPs. We got a lot of lookers and basked in the brief notoriety. I even developed a John Wayne swagger! Ah me, every sailor needs a little attention now and then. After boarding the bus my elation quickly vanished as we stopped at every frigging cow-pasture, crossroad and gas station on Route 119 before finally reaching our destination late in the day.
Pikeville, Kentucky was a typical small town; one major thoroughfare lined with trees and brick-front stores. Across from the bus stop was the Sheriff’s Office easily identified by two black and white 1950 Fords with stars on the doors, whip antennas, bubble-gum lights and chrome sirens parked on the curb. Checking our uniforms as we crossed the street, I wondered what the Sheriff would be like. TV and movies stereotyped country sheriffs as fat sloppy hayseeds. We were about to find out…
Sheriff Floyd Cummings was a nice looking man in his late thirties. He was clean-shaven with light brown thinning hair, chiseled features and a sharply creased khaki uniform. A tan Stetson hung over a pistol belt on the hat-rack near his desk. When we stepped into the neat reception area he sprang to his feet. With a broad pleasant grin and an outstretched hand he came toward us; “Well I’ll be diddly-damned if you fellas aren’t a sight for these old Kentucky boy’s eyes! Hell, I haven’t seen a real sailor since I was mustered out in 46! I was a Gunners Mate on the Cruiser Detroit during the war. Damn! I miss it! Wish I had stayed in, but I guess you hear all the vets say that when looking back on their youth.”
He paused for a moment, “Now stand there and let me look at you. Damn, you boys are sharp!” We smiled and introduced ourselves. He pointed to a couple of oak chairs and without asking poured a couple of mugs of black coffee and handed them to us. He sat on the corner of his desk, reached over and took a swig from a stained mug, paused then his mood turned…
“I got young Zack back there in a holding-cell. I knew he was over-the-hill again as soon as I saw him driving his daddy’s truck down by Ford’s Branch. That’s his home. It’s about five miles from here. When he couldn’t produce leave papers I canned him. His daddy and I are friends. He understands my actions, just couldn’t turn his son in. Hell, I was instrumental in Zack going into the Navy. I had to get him out of town before things got nasty. He was a football star in high school. All the young fillies were after him, especially the County Commissioner’s daughter, Sara Lynn.”
Standing, he moved to the window, “The Commissioner gave him an ultimatum; leave her alone or he would kill him. If he’d gotten her in the family way I’m sure as hell he would have done just that. But, between us she’s the culprit, leading him on and constantly mooning over him. She was sashaying around here this morning. She is the prettiest damn thing in these hills…except, of course for my wife.” Chuckling, he went on, “Speaking of my wife, we are inviting you to have supper and stay over with us tonight. There’s no hotel here, only a couple of Mom & Pop motels at the other end of town.”
Strapping on his pistol belt, “The bus to Charleston doesn’t come through again ‘til morning and Zack isn’t going anywhere. So, we will not accept no as an answer. Bye-the-bye, I sent his uniform home to his Mama to wash and press “inside out,” a sailor never forgets that! I’ve got them in the storage locker. We’ll clean him up in the morning. I’ve tried to talk to that boy about shaping-up and facing his responsibilities, but you know what love and a little tail can do to a teenager. Hell for that matter, [laughing] what it can do to an old man! You two can go on back to his cell and check on him. I’ll give you custody in the morning. I got an appointment; I’ll be back and pick you boys up in an hour.”
In the dimly lit cell, Zachariah Longstreet dejectedly moped about like Frankenstein in one of those old black and white movies. He was broad-shouldered, rawboned about six foot three…one big overgrown kid. His long arms hanging out the sleeves of his ill-fitting prison uniform, dangled like he didn’t know what to do with them. He was handsome in the face with boyish freckles splashed across his nose and cheekbones. His blond hair and light complexion gave him a Nordic appearance. I could easily see why he was a hit with the teeny-boppers.
He looked at us with a sheepish grin and simple said, “Hi!” I told him who we were and that we would take him back to Norfolk the next morning. I asked if he was all right and had he been treated fairly? He nodded yes then turned away, sat down on his bunk and buried his face in his hands. He began to whimper how he loved Sara Lynn, but none of their families understood; he began to sob as we turned and walked away…
Talk about hospitality! The Sheriff and his wife were warm caring genteel hosts. They were childless, but had two spoiled Golden Retrievers. We sat on the back porch sipped Old Granddad and answered questions about the Navy and ourselves. As the sun was settling behind the tree-lined hills he filled us in on his wartime experiences on the Cruiser Detroit. This was followed by a pot-roast supper, chocolate cake in the parlor and a fluffy feather bed.
We awoke to the smell of coffee perking, then sent on our way after being stuffed with thick-slabs of Smithfield ham, eggs, home-made biscuits and blackberry jam!
The early morning sun reflecting off the building blinded me as the Sheriff pulled into his parking space. After a moment…there in the shadows of the overhang we saw her! The Sheriff whispered, “There she is, Miss Sara Lynn Stanton an eighteen year old going on thirty. She’s already turned her daddy’s hair white. I knew she would be here this morning.”
Sitting on the bench in front of the jail was a vision of unbelievable loveliness, a truly ravishing beauty! She had long raven hair that cascaded over her milk-white neck and shoulders…a tall girl, about five-nine with shapely legs that went on forever.
She wore a short sun-back frock that clung in all the right places. The rounded neckline showed cleavage that was exaggerated by the low angle of the sun shining on the mounds of her breasts…breasts that rose and fell with her gentle breathing.
I turned and looked at Johnny who stammered, “Holy shit, I see why the kid went over the friggin’ hill…she is drop-dead gorgeous…be still my fluttering heart!” The Sheriff introduced us. Up close, her magnetism was overwhelming. She smiled reluctantly as she gently shook our outstretched hands…tears welled up in her emerald green eyes. “You taking Zack, aren’t you?” I nodded…
I rattled the bars with my nightstick, “Okay, Longstreet the hour has come to saddle-up for Norfolk. Your unauthorized love tryst is over! You are going to face your obligations as a man and sailor. Get showered, shaved and put on your uniform… we are going bye-bye on the bus to Charleston. The rules are simple; you are going to act like a gentleman. You will speak to no one. You will not disgrace Petty Officer Walker, our beloved Navy, or me anymore than you already have! If you do, we are going to beat you about the head and shoulders with these f%&king sticks! Understand? Your girlfriend is outside. When we leave you may kiss her goodbye that’s it! Now get chopping!
The return trip was uneventful. The kid was a big pussycat and began to reflect on the error of his ways. We didn’t cuffs him until we reached the Main Gate. The CMAA was pleased to have his wayward screw-up back in the flock. Longstreet got brig time and orders to Panama. To which, the CMAA vowed to personally escort him from the brig to the aircraft.
Johnny and I made a couple more trips to East Main Street before getting our flights out. We both made the Chief’s promotion list in ’56 and stayed in touch for a while, but I never saw him again… I dropped Sheriff Cummings and his wife a thank you note after I got settled in Gitmo. They were the true “salt of the earth,” a generation that made America great! I trust that I and those that follow measure up…
And then there is Sara Lynn; fleeting glimpses of her sometime appear in wistful late night dreams…