Getting adjusted to life aboard ships is almost the same as adjusting to married life. You are living in intimate contact with, in my case, 56 other guys in a compartment about the size of a nice condo’s living room. Bunks, or ‘racks’ as they are known – for obvious reasons, are stacked in tiers three high. The lowest one is for lower-rated men (seamen and Third Class POs). The top ones are for higher rated men (senior Third Class and Second Classes). The choice middle ones are for senior Second Classes and First Class POs. They are set approximately 24 to 27 inches apart. There are no curtains but you do have a small fluorescent light right above your head that will buzz like crazy each time it is turned on.
The upper racks have to contend with piping of all sizes and types. Fuel oil, water (both potable and sea), ventilation ducting, fan housings, and electrical trunking. It isn’t unusual for someone to be tucked in right next to a fan which whines and rattles on a continuous basis. The lower racks have what is called a ‘tricing rod’. This is a hinged piece of pipe that, when you raise the rack during the day, you pull down to keep the rack from falling down flat. Thus, you hear the phrase “All hands heave out and trice up” when the Bosun calls Reveille over the 1MC (shipwide loudspeaker system).
Each individual rack has a one-inch thick piece of cotton batting that acts as a mattress. It is enclosed in what is euphemistically called a ‘fart sack’. Each week, this linen bag is stripped off your mattress and thrown into a huge laundry bag about fifteen feet long and maybe 18 inches across. A new one is issued at that time. The rack itself is split hoprizontally. You have a hinged hasp in the middle that you can put a lock on. Unlock the hasp, lift up the top tray, and you have compartments to put your entire seabag’s worth of uniforms in to. This, along with a very small wall locker, is where you keep EVERYTHING you own. There is, surprisingly, very little theft. Peer pressure being the main reason for this. After all, who would want to spend the next year or two with someone who was branded a thief? Things can get really ugly very fast.
The bathrooms, known universally as ‘heads’, have maybe six or eight stalls and the same number of urinals. Against the opposite bulkhead (wall) are sinks with stainless steel mirrors (glass mirrors can shatter if the ship takes hits). The water in both the commodes and the urinals runs 24/7 with sea water. This running water can be heard throughout the berthing compartment all the time.
The deck is highly polished tile. The way it is kept highly polished is with the sweat of low-rated men and huge buffers. For those people sleeping off the midwatch in a lower rack, it isn’t unusual to be jarred awake by the crash of an out-of-control buffer wielded by a skinny runt of a guy who would have trouble holding up a broom much less a whirling, 24-inch, buffing machine.
But, this is all the good stuff you get used to almost immediately. Within a week, I hardly heard all the various noises around me. I slept very well, considering I like a softer bed than a half-inch of cotton over stainless steel. I also rated one of the coveted middle racks. My big problem was that there was an overhead speaker directly over my rack. The morning began with the piercing whistle of a Bosun’s pipe (which preceded EVERY announcement over the 1MC). This usually stimulated my heart enough to begin cursing while trying to regain lost sleep.
At 0800 every morning there came the testing of the ship’s alarms and bells. First the Whoop-Whoop of the Collision alarm, followed by the DONG – DONG – DONG – of the General Quarters alarm. Everyone who has seen any wartime naval movie (except British movies) has heard this alarm. When you listen to it every day you tend to begin hyperventilating at the first instant. Even to this day I still feel my pulse quicken at the sound of this alarm. Any Navy man will tell you the same thing.
Our watches were set up along the same lines as shoreside watches, but we did not have any time off between a series of watches. They were run like this?
And the cycle repeats. The ‘short shift’ at the 1600 to 2000 of only a two-hour period was to allow all hands on watch to get a good evening meal.
Along with our watchstanding duties there was also ship’s work to be done. When you got off watch at 1200 you were expected to work at various places designated by which division you were in. My division, Forward Operations – Collection, was supposed to attend to the ‘After Deckhouse – 02 level’. This was the large blocky structure on the aft end of the ship that rose from the main deck (00 deck) through the 01 level to the 02 level. We had to continually start at one end, chip all the paint down to bare metal, apply red lead paint, then grey paint, white trim on railings, or non-skid (sand added to black paint) for the decks. Once we reached the forward end of the ADH we started all over again. Fighting the never-ending war against corrosion and idle hands was crucial to the Navy way.
I had a bunch of California surfers in my watch section. They were forever finding humorous and creative ways to ‘cork off’ (which means exactly what you think it means – goof off) I would find them below decks ‘looking for something’ or in the gedunk (snack bar) ‘just got here to buy a soda’ or sitting quietly in a head somewhere reading a book. Keeping them rounded up and working was a job unto itself. We would get brief respites from this manual labor whenever the Moonbounce guys fired up their equipment so they could shoot messages back to Hawaii through a huge (25 foot) dish on top of the ADH. Satellites hadn’t been invented yet so we just used the natural satellite we already had up there – the Moon – to bounce our signals around.
Notice also that the watch schedule leaves very little time for the luxury of sleep. The best time you had for sleep was either the first part of the evening before the midwatch or the last part of the afternoon after chow relief and before your eve watch. Otherwise, sleep was a lost cause. As I mentioned, when 0800 rolled around, the compartment lights went on and didn’t dim until 2200. People walked past your rack all day long, they banged into it with buffers, they woke you up to ask if you were off the midwatch, and you didn’t get much sleep at all. I can attest that you eventually get used to that also.
Next: More life aboard the “Ox”