Winter – 1965, at sea…
We were not at Okinawa for long, it had actually been our 2nd destination when we’d left Hawaii, but there was another typhoon to the Northeast, which is the way we needed to travel to get to Japan. So we hung out in Okinawa for a while while it passed, and then headed for Japan. We did hit the tail end of the storm but it wasn’t too bad. But the Marines didn’t like it much, since they got dressed down and had to do extra duty if they showed weakness, weakness like getting seasick and puking over the side. I was sure happy I had not joined the Marines.
Which brings up a sad fact. I was a reservist, and when I went to boot camp it was for only 2 weeks. My boot camp was on the naval base in San Diego, close by there is a large Marine boot camp (I can’t remember what they called the camp). During those two weeks I was in SD, I can remember hearing of 3 suicides by Marine recruits, plus a number of recruits that attempted or actually did go AWOL to get out of the corps. Think what that does to a family, to have their child kill himself or get thrown into prison because the corps is so rough on them that they crack. I’m not even sure that 1.5 suicides per week is/was that unusual. Our group leaders use to say it was normal…the Marines don’t talk about it, so I don’t know for sure. Still, pretty sad. It is still happening.
That trip to Japan was notable. The weather had cleared so we had crystal clear blue skies but huge swells of 20-30 feet caused by the departed typhoon. The seas were so high on this trip that the navigator was ordered to plot a zigzag course to minimize the rocking. Since shifting cargo below decks had hurt several Marines and everyone is uncomfortable when battling heavy seas, even the officers, this practice wouldn’t be unusual. Swells were large enough that many were sick and often below decks, the ship would heel over so far that I’d have to walk on locker doors or walls to stay upright. Our ship was large enough that if our course was into the seas, the zig, we would hit swells with our bow instead of them hitting us broadside so there wasn’t much rocking side to side, but rather up and down along the spine of the ship (bow to stern). Not so bad. During the zag, we would be in the troughs between waves so we’d rock like crazy. Staying out of the troughs was really what we all hoped the navigator would do all the time, but we had a schedule to keep. We had picked up another 60-70 Marines in Okinawa and were transporting them to Japan so we were even more crowded and when running through rough seas, everyone is on edge and many are sick, especially the new Marines aboard. Their sickness, exposed, caused many sailors to become sick again. I wasn’t one of those but I was uncomfortable, it’s hard to work during heavy seas. Relief came when a course change turned the ship enough to head our bow into the oncoming seas. With the side to side rocking minimized, everyone brightened up. The seas were bad enough that the captain once came on the PA and made a joke that the sign of a good navigator was how long he could keep the ship in the troughs. NOT FUNNY! There were several scheduled general quarters drills that we simply didn’t do because of the rough seas.
Since your mind is so thoroughly focused on staying upright in heavy seas, I didn’t even notice a growing pain on the inside of my leg until one afternoon I was running up a ladder to get to the bridge and felt a sudden, intense & sharp pain. It caused me to turn around and hobble back down to my quarters and drop my pants. There on the inside of my leg was a huge boil! How it could have grown to be so large, and so painful, so quickly, was a mystery to me. I thought back to that morning’s shower and couldn’t remember even seeing it then. But I often just stood there in the shower and slept for a half hour so…perhaps I missed it. I didn’t want to let the medical staff aboard the ship touch it so I lanced it myself with my pocketknife. After squeezing out about a tablespoon of pus, I squirted antiseptic cream into the small hole I’d made so the skin over the now vacated boil acted as a cover. Then I had to clean up all the bloody, pus tainted tissue I’d used without anyone noticing. I had heard that lancing boils was what medico’s did to hurt sailors for fun and a laugh and I wanted none of that.
During the few months I’d been aboard ship, I’d become a competent double deck pinochle player, there were several of us that would run down to our quarters whenever we were off duty and play for several hours. We also played a 5 card rummy game for money but since gambling was banned, we only played on paydays. Anyway, our group always had these guys hanging around watching us play and trying to get in with the group enough that they might be allowed to play. If you’ve ever studied humans, you probably know that can kind of tell when someone is going to be a bad player, they seem to lack certain qualities essential to established players when judging someone as a partner in double deck pinochle. Luck at getting good cards is one thing; balls is another, a player without a killer instinct will seldom bid, so won’t win many tricks and will lose the game; a sense of what other players have been dealt, or what cards they will bid on; intuition about where the other cards in suit might have been dealt; etc.
Well, there had been this kid who had been hovering around our group for weeks, trying to get into the game. He insisted he knew how to play, would be a good partner, and would bid his ass off. Those of us in our little click had been brushing the kid off for weeks, in my case because I didn’t feel he would be a good player, but he finally wore us down and one day when we’d all sat down to play, one of the guys was called up to the bridge, and none of our other regular players were around. We let him sit at the table to play, gathered up the cards already dealt and reshuffled. The kid’s partner warned him to be sharp if he ever wanted to play again. The hands were dealt. There are people, others that wanted to join our click or liked watching the games, standing behind the kid. I can see the kid eyes, full of fear, as he picked up his cards and arranged them in order by suit. We played the type of double deck pinochle where you play the cards you’re dealt, no passing cards to or from your partner, which is a variant of the game. Anyway, we start bidding, and it’s the kid’s turn last. He says ‘PASS’ which means he thinks he isn’t holding a good hand, and it’s the first round of bidding, and you can’t come back and bid later. The people behind him first look shocked and then start laughing, “He’s got a double run, fer Christ’s sake”, one of the guys yells, pointing at the kid’s hand. A double run is rare and when played right usually wins the game, for sure wins the hand, but not if you don’t bid on it. The three of us, stunned at this revelation about someone who had been telling us for months that he knew how to play, who had been pestering us to let him play for the same length of time, glanced at each other, then at him, then back at each other, and without words or a signal, tossed all our cards into the air at the same moment, got up from the table and left the bunk room. Leaving the kid to clean up and to listen to the howls of laughter from the gallery. The kid never asked to play again.
A couple nights later, the seas have calmed down some and there is a movie scheduled for that night. Clouds have rolled in over us and the moon has taken the night off. The screen is hoisted up between the cranes at dusk and the movie was to be a war drama, you can count on most of the movies being war dramas during a war. Looking over the side, we can see that strange bio-luminescence in our wake. A strange light blue coloring of the ships wake that streams out from the ship, pushed forward with the wake that stays visible behind us in the churned water. And then the skies and sea turned even darker when the ships lights were turned off for the movie…but still the blue glow in the ocean, now visible for miles behind us. Finally, the movie started and I reluctantly pulled myself away from that wonderment and wandered up the deck to the popcorn house and got myself a coke and popcorn. While I stood there thinking about where to sit, a series of heavy swells came by and since I had my sea legs, my legs rocked with the ship while the rest of my body stayed perfectly stable. I turned to walk to the rail, over the metal deck that had a layer of cooking oil on it. Yes, slippery cooking oil. The ship rocked harder this time, I lost my footing, hit the deck on my ass, and started sliding toward the gap in the ships side railing that if I hit, I would be lost at sea. I had my popcorn in my right hand, and my coke in my left hand…but there wasn’t anything to grab onto if I’d dumped those items anyway, so, I just held onto them. Seemed balanced to me. While I’m sliding the 30-40 feet towards the gap, picking up speed, the ship continues to slowly heel over and I’m traveling faster and faster. My legs are splayed out in front of me, and I see a chock! YES! I’m elated as I aim my left foot toward the empty chock and shift my body weight in order to get my leg into the chock. The ship continues to heel over farther and farther, threatening to drop me over the side, 25 feet down to the ocean, in the dark, in the middle of the Pacific. I’d never be found, even if someone noticed my fall. Finally, after what seemed like an hour of rocketing towards the ocean, but was probably less then 2 seconds, I jam my left foot, and then my leg follows, into the chock. My right leg is dangling over the side of the ship. My body carries on to the right and half my body is hanging over the edge. I quickly bend my left leg at the knee and grip as hard as I’m able with my leg. I spill half my popcorn and most of my coke. Damn. There goes most of my $0.10. No one notices my slide towards death. No one comes to help me up. Kids, you almost didn’t have a father. I look down at the ocean as it swiftly recedes from me as the ship rocks back. I drop my popcorn and coke into the sea. Suddenly, I wasn’t hungry, and I sure as hell didn’t want to watch a war movie. Being that close to certain death was enough for me that night. At the peak of the ships rock back to the starboard side, I grab the railing and pull myself up, my left leg aching, scrapes and bruises on my right, struggling to keep my balance on the slippery deck. Time for some quiet reflection in a quiet place.