Archive for September, 2008

THE SLAP SLAP OF SIGNAL LIGHT SHUTTERS

September 14, 2008

 

by Bob ‘Dex’ Armstrong

I saw a piece in a popular magazine awhile ago. It said that the United States Coast Guard had ceased to teach Morse Code. With all the super techno whizbang communication equipment around these days, I guess ‘dits’ and ‘dahs’ are looked upon as primitive communication.

That’s a damn pity because there is no more comforting sound than the rythmic slap of the signal light shutters. Watching a competent signalman operate a signal light, to me beats watching a concert violinist or an Olympic medal-winning ice skater.

There was something about nighttime steaming, transiting the open expanse of the world’s oceans and exchanging seemingly meaningless flashes of light that in truth, were an exchange of clear, concise messages. The signalman and the gentle click of the signal light shutter louvers…

"Sir, that’s the J. W. WEEKS, DD-701."

"Very well. Ask them if LT Al Timberlake is aboard… I went to the academy with Big Al."

"Aye sir…"

"Yessir, he’s aboard… LT CDR now."

"Very well. Tell them to relay my compliments and tell Big Al that ‘Short Stack’ passed him during the midwatch."

Little messages exchanged in darkness. Communication between members of America’s great saltwater family. Those fingers of light always made me feel that I was a part of a big organization.

Things that were so much a part of our life, have gone out of existence in the ensuing years. They tell me that torpedomen and quartermasters have joined gunners mates in the lost ratings of yesteryear.

I know nothing lasts forever and that there’s nothing worse to subsequent generations than an old bastard reliving cherished memories of the past. But with the navy looking to boost its recruiting, it might be beneficial to revisit some of the things that were so meaningful to the bluejackets who manned our ships long ago.

Tradition is a valuable asset… Not that to honor tradition, you have to set aside technological advance… Not at all. But many of the ‘sailor skills’ are being discounted. Consider this… In battle, when you lose power and your computer-generated mo-jo is lost, or your batteries run out… Or the enemy detonates some hootenanny that scrubs your database… Will there be anyone who can take a legitimate sextant observation?

What happens if the bad guys find a way to negate satellite positioning? What happens to the poor bastards bobbing around in a lifeboat with a signalman and an operating flashlight?

How can you call a man an American bluejacket who can’t tie a bowline or read flags? At some point, you stop being a bluejacket and become a technician. That’s a sad fact, but a fact, nonetheless.

The navy used to sell salt water adventure. It used to fill its recruiting offices with posters of smiling bluejackets visiting exotic ports… Ships at sea… Extolling the qualities found in elite service like submarines.

Now, you see posters promising monetary incentives, education benefits and pledges of high-level technical training. It is not an ‘All for the Navy’ navy, anymore. It’s a ‘What’s in it for me?’ navy. You can see the effect on the boatservice… Interchangeable crews… That’s like a shared bride.

Somebody needs to reinitiate the concept of ‘a lad and his boat’. I see nuclear power sailors with the names of a dozen boats embroidered on their vests. How can a lad develop love and loyalty to twelve boats? Simple answer… He can’t.

We need to figure out some way of reconnecting men with ships. We need to develop, to reestablish the relationship between sailors and their ships. We need to shitcan the term, ‘Get my ticket punched on such and such a ship.’ I find the term ‘ticket punched’ repulsive. I rode with men who truly loved the ship. She has been ours for better than 45 years and will continue to be until the day we leave the planet. It is sad that with the ‘interchangeable parts’ commands of today, a boatsailor doesn’t develop the love we were given.

But, as I said earlier, there’s nothing worse than a nostalgic old coot who’s out of step with the march of time… An old sonuvabitch whose era has come and gone.

But you can’t fault a man who loved his service… The men… His wardroom… His boat. An old bastard who can still hear the gentle slap, slap, slap of the bridge signal light shutters.

Who I Am

September 14, 2008

I am a Sailor, gone now from the sea and the ships and the Shipmates that I served with.  I miss them all.  In this blog I’ll feature writings from Sailors contemporary to my service, writing which strike a chord with me.  If you’re a Sailor maybe those writings will jog a memory or two with you also.  Come back often.

I’m also a "ham" (amateur radio licensed operator), primarily active on HF (160-10) with a preference for CW. Look for me in any contest, but especially in the November SweepStakes.

Previous calls KG6AQI (Guam), WA0PQF (Minnesota), WB9DLL (Wisconsin), WB4GXH (Virginia), and WB0WFF (Minnesota).

In the summer time I turn the radio off and go fishing for walleyes. My QSL card design shows a view of my mental treatment center, otherwise known as Lake Vermilion, near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.

While watching a morning sunrise across the lake, I can see all the way to heaven.

My partner and best friend in all of this is K0CKB. Colleen and I are blessed with 5 grown/married children and 14 grandchildren, good health, and the time to enjoy our lives.

73, de Hans, K0HB

Radiomen

September 14, 2008


by Bob ‘Dex’ Armstrong

In the old gravel-gut boat service, your only link with the civilized world was via the radio shack. A cubby hole on Requin aft of the scope wells in the control room… It was the home of the spark shufflers.

If you were in tight with a radioman, you could get ball scores. Sewer pipe sailors lost touch with the teams they followed… A hazard common to submarine sailors and people who take a moon walk and miss the ride home. Actually, we lost touch with just about everything. In the war movies when they come across some guy who claims to be an American, they ask him questions only an American could answer. If they had picked me up and asked me anything but (A) The names of Roy’s and Gene’s horses (B) Who won World War II and (C) Blaze Starr’s bust size, I would have been one ‘up the creek’ sonuvabitch. Hell, we didn’t know Jack Kennedy was the president until we snorkeled a day later.

Only a complete idiot would make a bet with a radioman. Chances were, the radioman had the final score before you tossed your wampum on the mess table.

I remember one great night brought to us by the spark pushers in the radio shack.

We had finished whatever nonsense they sent us out to do and were making turns for home. The Old Man opened the showers… Guys were bumming razor blades and rooting around in side lockers for something that would pass for a towel. Next thing you know, the foo-foo juice came out. Now there’s a myth that all smoke boat sailors eventually bought into, sooner or later… Aqua Velva was never meant to disguise poor personal hygene. No matter how much of the stuff you poured on a dungaree shirt you had been inside of for two weeks, you were still one disgustingly foul smelling sonuvabitch. You could spray French perfume on an engineman with a fire hose and buzzards would still circle around the bastard when he went topside. But I digress…

A group of us were sitting around in the crew’s mess drinking coffee and ragging guys heading fore and aft. A radioman came in and told us we were in for one helluva good laugh. He monkeyed around with the RBO and patched it into something in the radio shack.

For those of you who never had the pleasure of riding diesel boats or other seagoing steel-hulled garbage scows, I must explain something here.

You could make phone calls from a ship at sea. Here is how it worked. The radioman would raise someone ashore called a ‘marine operator’. Then the radioman would give the marine operator the name and phone number of whoever the bluejacket aboard ship wanted to call. The marine operator would then place a collect call and when the party answered and accepted the charges, the marine operator would form a radio link with the ship and ‘Bill the Bluejacket’ could talk to his sweetie.

From sweetie to the marine operator was private and confidential… From the marine operator to Barnicle Bill, it was up for grabs… Great evening entertainment.

"Poopsie, is that you?"

"Yes ducky doo, it’s me."

"You miss me, peach blossom?"

"Oh yes… YES, darling!"

"Miss me a lot?"

"Oh, I miss you soooo much I can’t wait to hold you and…"

"Okay darling… Are you going to meet the ship?"

"No sweetheart, I parked the car in the pier head lot… Keys are under the mat."

"Why aren’t you meeting the boat, sweetheart?"

"Oh, it was supposed to be a suprise… If you must know, the kids are spending the night with the Webbers. I bought a new nightie and I figured we’d break it in tonight."

The animals would cheer,

"LET’S HEAR IT FOR MAMMA AND HER NEW NIGHTIE!!"

And so it went. Bluejackets phoning in after six months in the Med… Great entertainment.

"Darlin’ can’t wait… Just you and me and a can of Crisco!"

We heard it all… It was great… Laugh after laugh. A very memorable evening… Best and cheapest fun we ever had on Requin.

There were times… Moments that we took for granted and that passed with little notice. It’s funny how they come back late in life when you have the time to reshuffle your memories… The collected moments that constitute your life.

Radiomen linked us with the world. Another thing we just took for granted and that was so damned important looking back. Never thanked them… Should have.

Great guys, all of them.