The Last Smokeboat Cattle Drive
by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
Author's note: This one is dedicated to LCDR.
Bruce Miller, USN, who actually wanted it written. LCDR. Miller is a submarine
officer devoid of any taste in literature, who pulled the wings off of insects
as a child. This one's for you Bruce.
There are folks still living who were involved in this adolescent bullshit so like they said in the old radio days, 'The names have been changed', not to protect the innocent, but to keep old shipmates from showing up to set my house on fire and members of our wardroom joining the witness protection program.
Riding submarines can present you with long stretches of near catatonic boredom. At such times you can actually hear hair follicle growth and spider web construction racket. Submarine duty… peacetime submarine duty, has a lot in common with mushroom farming and nose hair cultivation… punctuated with Wardroom activated acrobatic evolutions and Rin-Tin-Tin drills… Naval justified saltwater tag and stick fetching.
On Requin, we non rated animals filled these relatively inactive times with correspondence course work, pornographic literature study and plotting very complicated leg pulling stunts, (some of the gags aboard the old 481 took days to cook up or incubate).
All of the commissioners of stupidity racked in the After Battery with the Grand High Wizards living in the alley. Adrian Stuke was our resident prime minister and 'Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey' primary consultant.
We had a new cook report aboard. He was a lifer. A first class with ten pounds worth of hash marks and the attitude of one who was comfortable and relaxed in the company of Kings, Vice Admirals and personal friends of folks running around in the New Testament.
He was supposed to be God's gift to cooking stuff. How did we know? The sonuvabitch told us every ten minutes. According to him, we were the luckiest bastards in the entire Atlantic Fleet.
He was full of himself, to understate it. We later found out that he had a right to be because the ego maniac bastard could very well have been the best gahdam cook in the Navy… both coasts.
But that is beside the point and screws up the sea story.
The 481 chapter of the National Association of Submersible Alley Rats met in closed sessions to discuss what could be done to ratchet the new cooks ass down to a level where we could converse with him. After several days we came up with a multi-stage plan to 'take the starch' out of his skivvies.
The Snorkel Brick Plot
The bastard was a senior baker. He had been the numero uno 'go to' baker for Wardroom party delicacies on a heavy cruiser. Again, we knew all this because he did everything short of tattooing the information on our ass.
One night, we had been out several weeks and had run out of commercial bakery bread. (You always knew that when morning chow was French toast, the bread stores had played out, because the cooks could use stale bread to make French toast.)
So God's gift to deep-sea cookery announces that he would be baking bread that night.
We conferred with the Diving Officer and he began taking induction air for two mains through the snorkel. As Mr. Wonder Baker shoved two trays of his magical bread into the oven, we pulled the plug… dived the boat, and shut down two mains on a vacuum that would suck the crystal out of a Rolex.
We ran with the vacuum until it was time for the bread to come out of the oven.
The animals had slowly drifted into the crew's mess. Out came two trays of black as ink, charred bread. Bread won't rise in a vacuum… Poppin' Fresh Physics 101.
"Hey… they eat crap like that on surface ships?"
"Whaddaya call that kind of bread, Mr. Kitchen Magician?"
He never knew what hit him.
"Must have something to do with these gahdam submarines."
"Must have something to do with a bullshit artist who can't bake bread worth a damn."
Knife Edge Matress Cake
One night the poor sonuvabitch shoved two trays of coconut sheet cake in the oven.
Once the cook had his two trays securely in the oven, closed the oven door and adjusted his cooking control to the proper temperature, the Leading Seaman cranked up the ten pound blower and put a 14° list on the boat. We were using hoes to get that green ballast tank grass off the tanks. (We used file-sharpened hoes. When using hoes, the topside gang called themselves 'Hoers', i.e. topside whores.)
It doesn't take a whole helluvalot of imagination to picture what a 14° list will do to a sheet cake.
When the cook pulled out his trays, one side looked like a Serta Perfect Sleeper mattress and the other side looked like a Gillette Blue Blade.
"Hey Betty Crocker, how do they divide those surface craft wedge cakes? They use some kind of logarithmic equation or template?"
"Naw Jack, they serve the fat end to the Chiefs and the Wardroom and screw the crew."
"That thing have a name?"
"Yeah, it's called weird ass wedge cake."
Home on The Range Hamburgers
The old man felt we crossed the line on this one.
It was supposed to be hamburger night. The menu was posted, so we had three or four days advance notice.
'Hamburger patties, fluffy mashed potatoes, savory green beans and peach cobbler.'
(The guys at the Navy Cook School were real big on totally bullshit adjectives… savory, sumptuous, delectable, flavorful, crisp, fresh… never handmade horseshit or 'gag a maggot' stew. Don't get me wrong, the boats had the best cooks and served the best chow found in the combined U.S. Armed Forces.
If they had imitated the 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy in the late 50's, most of us would have gone right out and purchased engagement rings for boat cooks… But most of them were so damn ugly, that would have been really tough.
Where was I? Oh yes, hamburger night.
The yeoman gave us a bunch of typing paper and loaned us his tape, scissors and stapler.
We made a bunch of paper cowboy hats. Grown men… defenders of the free world… sentinels manning the ramparts of democratic society sitting around cutting out gahdam stupid paper cowboy hats.
Once we were all fitted out with our trail drive hats, we made a chuck wagon. We made ours out of the bottom part of a shoebox and stapled a piece of paper to it like the cover on a covered wagon.
We all sneaked into the crew's mess and waited as the poor unsuspecting cook tossed his patties on the grill. As he did, an I.C. Electrician started cycling the electrical breaker to the grill… just enough to get a little 'burger sizzle' but not enough to cook the damn things… like taking ground beef to a tanning parlor.
Well after the normally expected cooking time had elapsed, the cook scooped them off the grill, put'em on a platter and passed them out to the crew. What you had was a platter of damn near raw burgers. We started 'mooing'.
"They're still alive."
Then, we started singing the Rawhide theme song.
"Keep'em movin' movin' movin… keep them dogies movin'… head'em up… move'em out... RAWHIDE."
Ten or fifteen grown men put on paper cowboy hats… took a hamburger patty… put'em on the deck and pushed them along the deck singing the Rawhide song and mooing. The herd continued through the control room and through the watertight door into the forward battery.
Here 'Rowdy Yates, the Scout' split off from the herd and 'rode' to the Yeoman's shack and grabbed a stapler. The officers were eating and he sat the stapler on the edge of the wardroom table and started using it like a telegraph key. The exec asked,
"What in the hell are you doing?"
"Sir… I'm checking the cattle prices in Abilene… the herd will be through here in a moment."
And then the herd headed forward where it turned around and returned.
The Old Man thought the whole damn After Battery needed professional help.
The cook became one of the most beloved members of the crew. When he made Chief, he got transferred. We loved the old bastard and missed the hell out of him.
We never saw him after that.
For years we have done our damdest to locate him for the reunions… no luck.
Life in a 311 foot, 6 inch steel pipe wandering around in the ocean was rarely exciting. You created your fun where you could. Stupid stunts, monkey business and communal ragging was an important part of keeping a smokeboat crews from 'goin' round the bend.' You have to have been a diesel boat raghat to fully appreciate the life we lived.
You had to be young and not securely bolted to the planet.