We Were Young... Long Ago


by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong


One of the great things about crew reunions is the opportunity to rekindle associations with old shipmates and dredge up long forgotten memories of days when no one worried about the future because 'tomorrow' always took care of itself. It always did, and we all planned to marry beautiful girls who would never grow old and would live forever. Boat reunions have a way of torpedoing that horseshit. The wives have kept their youthful good looks, but your old shipmates have re-ballasted and look like they missed a few trips to the yard.

So what you end up with are a bunch of old coots who spend a helluva lot of time tossing down beer and saying stuff like,

"Hey, you remember that kid from New Jersey? Jeezus, can't think of his name… The little skinny kid… Electrician… The guy who drove that Mercury with more Bondo patches than original metal… Yeah, that's the one! The kid who left a present he bought for his mom in some gin mill in Hamilton and jumped out of the liberty launch to swim back and get it… Yeah, and he turned up at morning quarters soaking wet and smiling like he had good sense, holding up a water-soaked box of stupid earrings…"

"That's the idiot… Can't remember his name… We called him 'Sparky'… Good kid… Always good for a fiver 'til payday."

That's the only immortality worth a damn… Ol' smokeboat lads remembering you were a good boat sailor and a fine shipmate. Hell, we were all idiots… No sonuvabitch who could shuffle a full deck would intentionally crawl into something equivalent to eighty oil drums welded end to end just for the privilege of watching mites do acrobatic tricks in his breakfast cereal.

We never gained the level of sophistication that other folks who had far less international travel experience, gained.

Take wine, for example. Most of the stuff we got wrapped around had aluminum screw tops, was less than six months old and tasted like the byproduct of some industrial chemical process. Nobody ever had a corkscrew… If the jug had a cork, you drove the sonuvabitch down with the blunt-ended blade of an electrician's knife and watched it snorkel around in there 'til you drained the contents.

We never knew there were things running around in the world known as 'communicable diseases'… There were always a couple of duty containers of distilled spirits being passed around at every fleet landing in the wee hours. Didn't even matter what boat you were riding… Only qualifications were Dolphins and a mouth.

"Hey buddy… Have a drink!"

Bleary-eyed bastards heading back to the boats and weird, no-name booze in flat pints being killed and tossed off the pier.

How many of you reading this inane stuff ever saluted the tender quarterdeck with a flat pint of distilled spirits tucked in the rear of his blues, up under his jumper? Come on now, that couldn't be Requin-specific.

How many guys who had the duty ever shared a cup of coffee topside with a returning shipmate, that had been doctored up with something he picked up 'on the beach', that resembled paint remover or bore solvent? Anyone giving a negative reply will grow a Pinocchio nose.

One benefit the nuke navy has that we never had is the Surgeon General's Warning… In our day, stuff never came with "This shit will kill you…" on the label. Life was a crap shoot… The way you found out stuff would kill you was, you died. The smokeboat lads drank stuff the government wouldn't let 'em make today.

And another thing… Today, everyone is worried about the effects of second-hand smoke. Holy mackerel! I've seen times when we were buttoned up, making turns on the battery and the cigar and cigarette smoke was so gahdam thick, you could hardly see the needles in the shallow water gauges. The only times it cleared up was when the air got so damn dead it wouldn't support combustion and you couldn't light a match.

The Navy in its infinite wisdom, installed a circulating air system to make sure the entire crew could share and partake in the joy of floating atmospheric airborne crap. A cook could bust a blue egg on the grill and in 30 seconds, every poor bastard in every compartment got to share the unique olfactory stimulation with the rest of his shipmates.

There was so much junk floating around in the air inside of an operating diesel boat, it is a wonder our air compressors didn't spit out plywood.

At reunions, you recall all that stuff with men you shared it all with… No one else would believe it and if they did, wouldn't care. That is why writing this junk has been so much fun.

It is a shame no one with proper skills and the gift for making things socially acceptable could have recorded our history. It was a special time, but we went from World War II to the atomic era and nobody took the time to chronicle the twilight years of the combustion-powered submersibles. I guess folks could make a point out of the fact we never did anything spectacular… Never pulled any rabbits out of magic hats or pulled off the kind of stuff Tom Clancy writes about.

Was riding big ugly stuff, displacing salt water, fouling fishing nets, wearing out bar stools, scaring hell out of marine life, and playing ASW target all we were good for?

Well, we were there. Nobody came to get us… No one had to claw-hammer us out of society and force us to do what we did. We volunteered and it was rough duty… That's a fact. We made our equipment serviceable, did our job and were a proud bunch… We served with men we came to deeply respect.

It would be nice to be able to have a chronicle of those years as a tribute to the happy-go-lucky days before sedate professionalism gobbled up the life we lived. Now, the only folks we can share our times with are old barnicle butts and broken down barmaids… And guys with computers you never can share a bucket of suds with. Damn shame.

It was all so long ago. We were young… That was all there was to it… We were young.