Sunday, July 25, 2010

Two Views of the Old Navy

Right after i wrote a column about the change in the Navy from my career until now, i found a poem i had written a couple of years ago but had not finished.
i was struck by the similarity in my thought as well as a bit different approach.

i hope you enjoy them.

i was a sailor

i was a sailor
back when being a sailor
was tantamount to
being a man;
there weren't no great number
of automatic controls back then,
not one hell of a lot of video games
or graphics to read:
you turned the valves and the steam hissed;
you cleaned the boiler plates on the lower level
with the blowers blasting air in your face
for relief from the hot wet heat;
inserting the plates
and firing it up
hoping it wouldn't burn white
blow your ass
off the naval station
to kingdom come;
and the boilers would rumble
and groan and croak
and spew their smoke out the stack
and build up steam
until there weren't no smoke
and the boiler tenders
down in the bowels
knew they would be
getting underway

I was a sailor
back when we didn't know
what the hell politically correct meant:
we lined up the feed pumps
and kicked off the auxiliaries
and went on ship's power,
dropping our umbilical cords from the pier
like the doctor cuts the cord
on the newborn:
separating us from mother earth
and sending us to the bounding main;
when we turned the nozzles of steam
onto the turbines of the main engine
and watched the tree trunk sized shaft
turning slowly;
the engine room wheezed and coughed
and made you feel like you
were in a jungle of pumps
and the distilling plants gurgled with
Rube Goldberg smugness,
making you wonder if
they would really make
good water

I was a sailor
back when they meant
what they said when they said,
"if the navy wanted you to have a wife,
they would have issued you one."
Navy was a way of life,
living on board, locker in a club
just outside the main gate
with civvies,
you could go down to sailor town
drink beer and cheap whiskey
enough to make the woman look
pretty enough to pay
for the night
you could get back in time
for quarters at 0700
unless there was a fight.

I was a sailor
when the boatswainmates
swept down and triced up
and the decks were spotless
and first division stood
at the ready on the forecastle to
cast away all lines
like third division,
the anti-submarine pukes back aft
and the sleek greyhound visaged lady
got underway,
no tugs,
and no bow thrusters
like they the pansies are required to use
no sir:
we ruled the seas
stood proud in quarters standing out,
no manning the rails for show,
we did it like it was supposed to be
and the bow cut through the channel like
it owned the sea
and the trough slid up the side
only feet under the gunnel
and the stern wash was white with foam
and we were underway
rocking and rolling.
Our big guns were housed in
a metal death trap where
we stood alongside the breech
when the firing shook our brains, our guts, our souls
and we loved the thrill of it all
(as B.B. used to lament),
and the brass kicked out the aft end
and the hot case man with his asbestos gloves
smacked them out onto the rolling deck:
no automatic, manless machine of death
back then.

I was a sailor back then
when men were men
sailors were sailors
then was then.

- Bonita, California
- July 19, 2010

Old Navy; Then and Now; But Not a Clothing Store

SAN DIEGO – For the past decade, I have worked on Navy related projects in the Southwest corner.

Sometimes it is lucrative. More often, I am, as a good friend states, the hardest working man he knows who doesn’t make any money.

Occasionally, this avocation, my previous vocation, allows me to mingle with the Navy’s operators, an attractive aspect. I freely admit I loved operating in the Navy while on active duty.

I do not mean the incessant planning or the major staff level influence games. Nor do I mean contractors, the infinite generation of spreadsheets, or the voluminous quasi-legal bureaucratic documentation.

I mean, as we old Navy folk like to say, being on the deck plates.

In these too infrequent brushes with the real Navy, I find the Navy is not the one I knew. Certain aspects remain. Some traditions are still extant. But by and large, my Navy no longer exists.

A major difference is women. I am a strong proponent of women at sea. My experience in my last operating tour in the dark ages of the early 1980s has been documented as positive and successful. Those women were pioneers for what is now a gender neutral profession, at least as far as numbers go.

Recently, women became part of the crews in the submarine fleet.

My Navy was all male until that penultimate tour. It was rough and tumble, and definitely not politically correct. We cussed, we smoked, we worked hard, and we went on liberty with abandon.

When the women came aboard, a way of life vanished. This is not a bad thing, but it was definitely different.

Another difference is steam. There are still a few of the steam-powered mastodons around, but gas turbines and computer controlled propulsion systems are the norm. My Navy consisted of wheezing, huffing boilers in firerooms with heat and humidity that would make the recent Tennessee weather feel like Alaska. The unrelenting blast of noise from blowers futilely attempting to ameliorate such conditions was constant except when the ship went, as we called it, “cold iron.”

Now, navigators pinpoint their positions with global positioning systems (GPS). When I steamed, celestial navigation and piloting were as much art as science, and knowledge of currents, prevailing seas, and chart interpretation was how we got around. The bridge team was ten or so watchstanders with integrated tasks to maneuver safely.

Now one or two folks operate with push button controls. They may even be stationed in the dark technical center of the ship, more “Star Wars” than my bridges.

As an ensign, I was the “check-sight observer” in a five-inch twin gun mount, tasked to ensure we shot at the right thing. Being inside the mount while firing was a trip to Hades with 13 men crammed into a space about the size of my home office. The effort required to manually load the powder case and shell into the breeches bordered on superhuman, especially during extended firing. The report of firing a round could move the ship and turn nearby spaces into shambles. Inside, the percussion would shake you to the core, the acrid smell of the powder burned your nostrils, and the noise from the explosion felt like someone slamming their palms on your ears.

Today, gun mounts, if used at all, are unmanned.

A large number of old salts bemoan the passing of what was their way of life. There are just as many who take great pride in the new Navy’s technological advances and the once impossible accomplishments the Navy has had.

I, as usual, have mixed feelings.

The new Navy has more equality, more effective weapons delivery, and smarter sailors. The communication within the Navy, with other military units and back home is efficient, effective, and immediate. Every aspect of operation is safer. The technology is astounding.

The old Navy had more characters, greater labor intensity, more risk, and more personal decisions in any ship operation or task. Communication was accomplished by radio messages, signal flags and semaphore. The connection to home was long awaited letters and a few international phone calls in the dark of early mornings.

I am glad we have the new Navy. I also am glad I was in the old one. I should add that pretty much applies to life in general.

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