by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
It's hard to remember where I met Big Jack Destefanato… I think it was in Gosport. The Brit anti-nukes were demonstrating against anything arriving under nuclear propulsion (We were diesel, but obviously it didn't matter). The powers that governed naval activity figured that the pea-brained idiots who were jumping up and down, waving signs and chanting mindless slogans, would be less agitated if we anchored out and confined our activity to the bars in an ill-defined area outside the naval yard where the limey boat sailors went for warm beer and chips.
These same 'wiser heads' figured that maturity and responsible behavior came with advancement in rate and age… Probably true, considering the antics of the non-rated boys. Anyway, their solution was to have the non-rated lads back aboard by midnight. The rated personnel could stay overnight or catch a liberty launch up to 0200 at the fleet landing. They had SPs at the landing to snap up non-rated raghats wandering in at or after Cinderella hour. Lazy shore duty sonuvabitches who liked nothing better than to nail seagoing bluejackets. They wore the same uniform we did, but never learned that a sailor's first duty was to take care of his mates.
I got a late launch… It was dark and really cold… The wind cut through your peacoat like a knife… Had to keep your hands in your peacoat pockets and turn your collar up. The idiot who penned the regulation that required sailors to keep their hands out of their pockets and their collars turned down, never were sailors out in cold weather.
I found a bar… A pub on the street right outside the gate. They had a black and white TV with a soccer game on that the Brit sailors were really involved in. I didn't understand the rules, but everyone was excited Leeds was playing Birmingham. Everyone was buying me beer and calling me 'yank'. When you are from East Tennessee and related to men who wore gray on both your mother and dad's sides of the family, being called 'yank' is kinda weird.
I bought a pack of Players 'Navy Cut' cigarettes… Worst damn things anyone ever sold to a smoker. Players made Lucky Strikes and Camels seem mild… An exotic blend of Hindu crabgrass and buffalo chips.
It was a great evening. Leeds won… Bets were paid off… Songs were sung… And I headed back with two lads stationed as instructors at the Brit sub school, HMS Dolphin.
As I got near the fleet landing, a voice calls out,
"Dex… Hold up…"
I turned and there was Big Joe.
"Hey bucko, do you know what time it is?" I looked at my watch.
"Aye, it's 2300."
"Hell no you stupid idiot, you're still on Zulu time… Didn't set your watch… Hell, it's damn near 0100. The pier's crawling with SPs… They've even got them herding drunks on the liberty boats. They'll eat your non-rated butt alive…"
"Holy jumpin' jeezus, Joe… Hell, it won't be the first time I've gotten in the gumbo…"
"Give me your peacoat… Here's mine…"
(The Navy had just started requiring petty officers to wear their crows on their peacoat sleeves.)
I put on the peacoat and became a first class engineman… Snipe for a night… He couldn't put mine on because (A) there was nothing on the sleeve and (B) it would cover the crow. There was Big Joe, standing in sub-zero weather with my peacoat turned inside out slung over his shoulder.
"Shore duty guys ain't too gahdam bright… If you keep your mouth shut and stick with me, we can make it back okay."
We made it to the landing… Everything was going fine until some second class flycatcher's mate with a white belt, leggings, an arm band, and a three foot billy bat, asks Joe,
"Aren't you a little cold sailor?"
"Whatzit to you? My mother was an Eskimo… Love cold weather… And don't say anything about my mother or I'll have to rearrange your dental work."
Joe damn near froze on the ride back. When we got below, I said,
"Joe, I owe you one… A BIG one…"
"You don't owe me a damn thing, shipmate… It comes with dolphins… Now shut the hell up. Let's head up to the messdecks and I'll let you buy a frozen fake Eskimo a cup of whatever is passing for coffee tonight."
We worked our way forward through the snoring mob racked out in the after battery.
"You little worthless torpedo striking forward room weasel… You played 'black gang' while I pumped ice cubes through my ticker for you tonight… If I catch you knocking the boys in the enginehouse, I'm gonna grab you by both ankles and make a wish."
Joe was full of it, but he had style.
Colon, Panama… Ancon Heights… Fresh pressed whites and three pay days in our pockets. We got word that EN1(SS) Destefanato was packed in the Panamanian pokey and needed $200 American to rejoin the free citizens of the planet. It took two hours and a small fortune in Balboas to get a cab to take us to three police stations and the jail. Paid $200 and $50 to make sure there was no report to Naval authorities.
It seems that Big Joe punched an undercover cop's lights out. The fellow was in the process of rounding up working girls and attempted to separate Joe and the Spanish damsel he was quite taken with.
"That girl was a proper lady…"
"No, I mean it. Someone musta made a mistake… These damn Pomerainiums just go around roundin' up women… Rotten bastards…"
"Sure Joe, anything you say… By the way Joe, tonight three worthless forward room sailors blew a big chunk of their liberty funds to bail your good for nothing butt out of the Panamanian pig pen. We are now going to pool the rest of what we've got left, buy some barbecued monkey strips, a six of cerveza, and make it back to the boat. Make that two sixers… Gives us three each… Lay off the deck force… No more riding the sorry-assed paint spreaders or next time we'll leave you in there counting cockroaches. Oh, and one more thing… Ever since you made me an honorary snipe, my I.Q. has dropped fifty points and I've been doing stupid stuff like ransoming ugly enginemen… Joe, that peacoat in England had to be the best investment you ever made."
"Did you guys really shell out $250?"
"Don't worry about it."
"Hey, I'll pay you guys back."
"Anyone ask you to pay anyone back? Forget it… No one said a damn thing about money. All they said was 'Let's go find the big idiot and spring his worthless butt.' Let's get off this 'I love you darling' bullcrap and go play sailor."
And we did. Big Joe the Eskimo… He's no longer with us. When he turned in his gear, we lost a good man. He taught us the true meaning of shipmate and what our dolphins required of us. One night, I came off liberty to find him standing a 12 to 4 watch topside.
"Eskimo man, what in the hell are you doing standing a damn topside watch?"
"That new kid Eddie… His mom came down… Didn't know the kid had the duty… Wanted to take him to dinner and have him for the weekend."
"You want me to see the duty officer and relieve you?"
"Hell no… The kid is getting his first lesson in being a shipmate."
That was Big Joe. .