Saturday, February 13, 2010

Southwest Corner Waterfront and the Old Navy

SAN DIEGO – A Southwest corner vestige of the past is going to eventually succumb to the beat of progress.

Pacific Tugboat Service leases its pier from San Diego city. The contract with the city stipulates Pacific Tug replace the current pier with a state of the art concrete pier.

This makes good sense for the city and Pacific Tug.

However, the current economic situation, including a 40 percent drop in revenue for United States tugboat companies last year, requires delaying the pier renovation for some time.

When I first walked down Pacific Tug’s current pier, memories were evoked.

The pier is one of the last creosote wood piers on the San Diego waterfront. Shipyards, marinas, cruise lines, the Navy, and even the San Diego Maritime Museum which boasts of a World War II submarine; and two tall ships, Star of India, and the replica H.M.S. Rose have replaced the wood with modern concrete piers and quays.

When I walk down that old pier, I can feel the soft, aged timbers beneath my feet. I experienced the same feeling on many piers in many places for a significant portion of my life.

The brackish bay water laps against the seawall, flotsam floats or wafts below the surface. Seagulls ply overhead in search of meals within the sea trash.

Two landing craft, LCM8s bought from the Navy, await conversion to cargo vessels while nested off one side, more nostalgia for this old amphibious sailor.

My first years in the Navy with settings such as these did not occur in the Southwest corner but in Newport, RI, caddy cornered from here. In the summer of 1963, the destroyer U.S.S. Lloyd Thomas (DD 764) was my midshipman home for eight weeks at sea.

Back then, sailors were a different cut of cloth. They lived a rough life. They were rough themselves. The Thomas had numerous sailors who would have never been accepted into today’s Navy. Some were there because a judge gave them the choice of joining the Navy or going to jail.

Being a sailor was a way of life. A frequently heard admonition was “If the Navy wanted you to have a wife, you would have been issued one with your seabag.” Most sailors lived on board, primarily because their pay wouldn’t cover rent.

Many had been up and down the promotion ladder several times. A second class petty officer retiring after 20 years was common.

A sailor’s clothes, personal items, and toiletries were stuffed into a three by four foot locker below their racks, i.e. beds with aluminum frames with canvas stretched across. The racks were usually three high. Pea coats were stored in communal standing lockers.

Whatever else they owned, usually a few “civvies,” were in a locker club just outside the nearest gate exiting the base. They always left and returned to the ship in their service dress blues or whites.

They worked hard and they played hard. The Uniformed Code of Military Justice was in existence, but life on board was also protected by the sailors own code. It was considered bad form to have anyone in your division to face the commanding officer in Captain’s Mast.

Punishment for offenses, real or imagined, could result in the leading petty officer “losing” one’s liberty card for as much as two weeks. Severe violations could result in a trip to an isolated part of the ship, such as the boatswain’s locker, for a beating.

They stood 24-hour duty every third day in their home port and every other day (port and starboard) in other ports. When extra labor was required, division officers and chief petty officers set about to find “warm bodies” to take on the task, duty or not.

Polite folks, except for the wardroom – officers were dubbed gentlemen when commissioned, thusly falling into the category of “nice folks” – would have been taken aback by a sailor’s life. My early Navy days were closer to Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad’s life at sea than today’s Navy. Sailors now own cars, homes, go to and fro in working uniforms, and have duty once every six to ten days.

It is good the Navy has changed in many ways. But walking down that creosote pier under the Coronado Bay Bridge allows me to fondly recall an earlier Navy I loved.

1 comment:

  1. I came in a few years after you, and the more rigid class structure of society was reflected in the Navy. There were certainly some 'good' things about that - and it would be a fun drill to explore what they were. But the graying of the lines between officers and enlisted, and the lives they lead has lead to a more professional and better Navy. Thanks for the memories.