What better way to start a great Navy day than this?
I had a really unexpectedly awesome day today. It was funny: talking about the US Navy, at an eye appointment, of all places.
I thought I was crazy paying $100 for a test merely so I can renew my Wyoming state driver’s license, being stranded here in the wonderful state of Missouri. But the way things go with me, it actually was an oasis of amazing the way it turned out; going to a doctor’s appointment and talking about the US Navy, going back in time to better forgotten times.
At the appointment I casually mentioned I did not want to have to go to the VA being it takes forever to go from one system to another, and get an appt set up with a primary care physician, then wait on a spot to open up with an eye doctor. I’ve done this enough times to know how it goes, and to be more than annoyed with how it works. The doctor turned around and asked what branch I served in.
I said “The Navy.”
“Ah, you too huh?” He said, making me wonder if he was too, out loud. No, he wasn’t. But he had a helluva story. Turns out his Grandfather was one of the first of the Master Chief initiates. I asked him what his job in the Navy was, and he was unsure. I asked him to describe it.
He said “Well, he worked in ship’s maintenance.”
Hmm, I thought. “Was that logistics, like a Store Keeper, or actual maintenance of the ship, like a Bosunmate?”
“No he wasn’t a Bosunmate. No, that doesn’t sound familiar. You know the platform that the treaty ending WWII was signed on? He built that.”
“OHH you’re kidding me! He was a Hull Technician or a Carpenter’s Mate!”
“YES! He was a Hull Tech!”
“WOW. That’s back in the hardcore Navy days. So he was a “snipe” or Engineer onboard ship. Wow.”
“Well, he was also; I think you guys call it – plankowner? Where you build the ship?”
“Yes, that’s right! I am one myself. What a grudging awful job that is. What ship?”
“He helped build and commission the USS Missouri.”
“Whoa – waita minute. Seriously – he was an HTCM who was also a Mighty Mo Plankowner?”
“That’s like climbing the Pyramids of Giza. That’s so amazing I don’t even have the words for it. You’ve made my day.”
That’s such an amazing piece of history contained in his Grandfather, passed away a few years ago now, like mine. It’s such a sad treasure to lose; the stories he must have had, the things he saw had to be amazing!
Even the mere years I was in I have such appreciation and understanding of what his Grandfather’s steps aboard ship were like; to know what his job entailed to a degree, to know how the “Bug-Juice” (Kool-aid) was so strong folks used it to shine brass.
The 1940’s clear through the 1990’s was a more hardcore Navy, when “main space counselings” “shillelaghs” and “tacking on a crow” were all common-place practices; heck, getting a daily butt-whooping was pretty standard. Let me explain these words.
In the Navy, back before the onset of “political correctness”, if you got out of line or screwed up, you could expect swift retribution. This is where “main space counselings” became the code word used to describe such actions. You could expect to be taken down in the main space, aka “the hole”, and given a small beating or “counseling session” which usually fixed the problem and all was well again. I know my older friends who gave out a few of these, very quietly, in fact. And the receivers take their lickings like a man, and everyone moves on. It use to be the norm in Engineering in the Navy to address personal issues this way.
And shillelaghs – that’s another word long gone. When fire hose got worn out the guys use to cut them into pieces, soak them in salt water until they hardened, then they stored them until the ship crossed the Equator. Then the “Shellbacks” who had already crossed used them to spank “Wogs” (Pollywogs) in a large initiation process. It’s a sea-going tradition handed down from the days when making a rough trip across the ocean and surviving was a cause for celebration in itself, although now it’s been so watered down that it isn’t anything more than a big cook-out on the weather decks, and a cold dunking in sea-dye.
“Tacking on the Crow” was when a person made the first jump from E-3 to E-4; this is where they become Petty Officers and are “frocked” or allowed to wear the rate badge with chevrons and the eagle or “crow” above it on their left arm. The person puts on their new crow and walks around the ship getting his left arm punched all day long, ensuring that crow stays on. Meaning: it was considered good luck to punch or “tack on the crow” helping the sore wearer avoid “Captain’s Mast”, which is a rather horrific Navy tradition that can cause a person to lose their crow.
In 2001 I was in the Navy and I was really lucky to be able to experience this “old-school” jump back in time for myself. I was down in Pascagoula, MS helping build my ship, and I got a chance to accompany a bunch of my buddies in Engineering on a trip out to Mobile, AL to see the old battleship USS Alabama. We were able to get onboard for free, being we were Navy, although I would gladly have paid just for the privilege of walking her decks; the memories were thick as smoke. If those decks, ladder wells, and bulkheads could speak, what would they tell us? Broadway, the mess decks, and the gunnery space; what did they know that we didn’t? It was amazing walking onto a piece of history like that; strolling across the worn wooden decks on this massive gorgeous ship. What ghosts and stories she must have!
As we walked around the “broadway” or main deck of the ship I listened to my comrades talk excitedly about the “old-school” Navy – where hazing, “main space counseling” and “fag-guards” were a way of life. Back in the olden days, there were hanging cots with canvas that separated the guys sleeping on each side from the other. “Fag-guards” was the slang-term used to describe it.
The guys also explained another “old-school” practice; smoking down in the main spaces, which some folks still try anyway just to get away with it.
“You just got to know where to smoke what”, my buddy said, while also telling me about the “good ole days” when folks use to run the bi-annual mile and a half physical fitness test while smoking half a pack of cigarettes.
These guys were literally my tour guides; the world is a different place onboard a ship with hilarious folks who are old-school engineers in the Navy, who can color in all the lines. We got to see all the old fire gear, and when we got down into the main-spaces everyone got all giddy explaining everything down there in the hole, like how the old boilers worked, in amazing detail.
I learned a lot, and gained a new respect for these guys, and also the Navy and the fleet.
When we went back up to the weather decks, we stood around a while checking out the 16-inch guns, and I tried to imagine what this ship had been like back in her olden days. How incredible it had to have been to have been an Engineer, standing watch down in the “hole “and running around in 100+ degree heat, or a Gunner’s Mate, loading 2,000 pound shells and 100lbs of gunpowder to basically launch a projectile the size of a Volkswagen up to 24 miles ? Wow. I had so much awe and admiration for the tough folks this place had seen. And that we were a part of this same Navy was something I have pride in to this day.
On our way back across to the shipyard in Pascagoula MS we stopped at a Hooter’s for some chicken wings and a few beers.