Monthly Archives: November 2014

East High – The Final Year: Academics

As the final football season of my high school years came to a close, my interest in East High athletics waned. At least for a while – I would be back before the decade was over; an East High Alum and a rabid fan of both the football and basketball teams. But for now my attention shifted to getting through the school year, and to the Navy, which lay just beyond. As I settled into my last year at East, it was evident, as it had been so all along, that while I got by, I would not excel in the high school environment. Not athletically, not scholastically, and not socially.

The Freshman Clique were now of course all seniors, and had complete control of the East High student society; their portion of it at least. The rest of us just sort of did our own thing, and rode the continuum, waiting – for my part at least – for it finally to be over, and for life’s next phase to begin.

The school year progressed as expected. The academic portion was, for me, actually no struggle at all; I just didn’t work very hard at anything. Consequently I concluded with a solid, well-deserved low “C” average. I was a bit wiser now, however. I knew what to do to not fail, and that was good enough. And in art class, the one thing I would normally look forward to, I was saddled with a teacher with whom I had no rapport, and for whom I had no respect.

There were exceptions, however, such as American history, in which I got an easy “B”. As usual, I expended no real effort, but the march of time, as presented by Mr. Davis, was both interesting and compelling – kind of like an adventure/drama story, but one whose conclusion remains, tantalizingly, just beyond the last page. In later years I would wistfully regret, more than a few times, not pursuing a degree in, and a career teaching — and perhaps even writing — history. But at the time, such a notion would’ve seemed laughably far-fetched.

Given my previous experiences, both bad and good, with books, it was with extreme irony that I got through senior English to a large degree, it seemed, by reading novels. As I have previously noted, I had just recently discovered the pleasures of reading. My teacher was English Dept Head Mr. Blackwell, whom I recall as being an OK guy — despite being old. But I didn’t really get to know him very well for he had, that year, a student teacher who “assisted” in class. Actually, from my perspective, theirs was more like the relationship between a Professor and a T. A. In this case, the teacher hovered, and observed, and I’m sure advised, but Professor-like, left most of the actual student contact to his protégé.

This earnest young fellow noted my interest in reading, and encouraged me; recommending and later discussing books which were, I now think, just a bit above my level, causing me to stretch a little without even knowing it. Thus I slid through senior English doing mostly what I enjoyed, and only occasionally having to burden myself with such tedium as conjugating a verb, or diagraming a sentence.

I don’t recall this young student teachers name, but I’m quite sure that, if he didn’t burn out somewhere along the line, he went on to a career as a great teacher. At least I hope so, for in a small, but significant way, he helped me as much as anyone to advance along the academic pathway.

But the real bright spot of each school day was Mr. Amyx’s Auto Mechanics/Metal Working shop class, in a far corner of the lower floor; between the machinist’s “classroom”, and the print shop. It was to there that I migrated after my sudden and complete loss of interest in electronics — for I had heard the siren song of the internal combustion engine, and it was this classroom in which its secrets could be discovered.

It was there that I became part of a small group of “teacher’s pets” who formed the team that participated in the annual Chrysler Corporation sponsored, interschool competition in automotive troubleshooting. We didn’t win, but no matter, it was great fun and a very intense learning experience.

Those who continue to read this narrative will learn that, to no one’s surprise, the school year ended (not without some drama) and I graduated, depositing me in an eventful, if somewhat surreal period of my life, as everything in the following months was influenced to some degree by my impending departure for the U.S. Navy.

Driveway Leaves

Autumn Leaves in the Driveway

I’m posting this a bit late. It is from Nov 9th, 2014

A couple of days ago in my driveway. Sigh, It’s almost over.

Soon the frost on the pumpkin will be replaced by snow, as “the long, dark, teatime of the soul” begins again, interrupted only by the brief good cheer of Christmas (and of course the annual January trip to Vegas and L.A.)

Harry’s Whitehorse Tavern — Portsmouth, VA

While in the shipyard for overhaul at Portsmouth VA the focus of our time ashore shifted. We could, and often did, go to downtown Norfolk, of course; traveling, for the 10 cent fare (each way), via the “tunnel bus” under the Elizabeth River to the Norfolk terminus located — where else — on Granby Street.

I recall very late one evening – on the day my restriction to the ship was lifted — riding the tunnel bus back to Portsmouth with my head hanging out the window — for reasons upon which I will not elaborate — with the tunnel wall whizzing by inches away.

But our favorite hangout that late summer and autumn was a place called “Harry’s Whitehorse Tavern”, on Portsmouth’s main avenue. I don’t know exactly what made it so popular, for it was typical of such establishments. On a corner, with both a front and a side door, it boasted a bar and some tables, a jukebox, and all the 3.2 beer or inexpensive (read cheap) wine which you would care to purchase. (In my case, not all that much, but…)

My after-the-fact confusion as to why I liked the place so much at the time is compounded by the facts that I hated 3.2 beer, the wine was dreadful, and the “aroma” in the men’s room could knock you down. But all of my friends went there, the management and the female patrons were friendly to sailors, and the jukebox had a pretty good selection – although to this day I can’t hear “Woolly Bully” or “Shotgun” (Shoot em for he runs now) without thinking of my times there.

In Trouble Again — The Metal Hold

I don’t recall precisely what I did, but while we were in the shipyard at Portsmouth I was restricted to the ship for two weeks. Like my earlier mis-step at Engineman School, this punishment was administered informally — this time by the senior chief of my division. It also included temporary banishment to the ship’s “Metal Hold” for a period which was to last until such time as they were no longer mad at me.

The Metal Hold was a grim environment located beneath the cargo openings in the main deck, and several interior decks; in other words at the bottom of the ship. It was here that all of the raw materials, metals at least, were stored prior to use in the various repair shops whose existence were the reason for the ships being.

It was here that I toiled, taking deliveries of and stowing various stocks of metal; plates and bars and pipes, primarily. When not taking deliveries, we were filling requests from the repair divisions, gathering the various materials, and sending them back out. It was tedious, sometimes difficult work, which occasionally required brute strength, and was potentially dangerous.

I remembered well my experience while working in the engine shop of the USS Amphion. On a Friday afternoon, we heard a crash from the Metal Hold two decks below and were ordered to remove the covers from our hatch trunk. Directly below was the sight of a boy who had made a simple mistake and ended up under several large, 1/2 inch thick, steel plates. That image remained with me — and still does when I think of it – so I was very careful.

At the end of two weeks, while I remained in the Metal Hold for just a bit longer, my restriction was lifted and I was free to leave the ship on liberty. At the end of the workday, and after a quick shower, that’s precisely what I did; probably making a beeline for Harry’s Whitehorse Tavern, our favorite hangout in Portsmouth.

One of the few things I remember of that evening was walking, very late at night, in the general direction of the shipyard gate, and of Tom Bustos — the first class petty officer who ran the Fuel Injector Repair Shop within our engine shop — stopping his car to offer me a ride back to the ship. I also remember being grateful; not only for the ride, but for the fact that without it I’m not sure I would’ve found the ship, which would of course have led to further difficulties.

The next morning I somehow managed to report on time for the day’s work in the Metal Hold, and gamely tried to keep up with today’s responsibilities. As the day slowly progressed, I’m sure the petty officer who ran the place sometimes looked the other way only because, although my performance that day was very much sub-par, I didn’t stop trying (another of life’s lessons, I think).

The next morning, I arrived in the Metal Hold a few minutes early. I was alone and took the opportunity to lie back on a stack of metal plates, and to close my eyes briefly while I let my breakfast settle in. My boss walked in, took one look and exclaimed “Oh no! Not again”. At that I jumped up, assured him that I was fine, and was not only ready for the day’s activities, but eagerly looking forward to them. I had a strong sense of what I had gotten away with the day before, and was grateful.

A couple of days later my penance was finally over and I returned to the engine shop. Again, I don’t precisely remember what it was that I had done, but I know I never did it again.

Drydock

After returning from a brief support role in the failed civil war in the Dominican Republic, the “Toot” was scheduled for an overhaul at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, just up the Elizabeth River and across from the “other end” of Norfolk. So one late summer morning, we got underway from Pier 2 and proceeded to the shipyard.

Steaming up-river was very different from an ocean voyage, and it was fun to hang around on the main deck, watching the Virginia riverbank slip by while listening to Sonny and Cher sing “I Got You Babe” on someone’s transistor radio.

Arriving at the shipyard, we were nudged into a drydock large enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier. The ship was carefully positioned, water was pumped out, and the ship settled onto a large number of enormous wooden blocks; whereupon the refit period began.

And there we stayed for the remainder of the summer and into the autumn of 1965 as the crew assisted shipyard workers, and vice versa, to repair, refurbish, and upgrade the ship’s machinery, equipment, and the ship itself. What we did not know, at the time, was that much of the upgrade was in preparation for a trans-pacific voyage to, and service in, the Republic of Vietnam, which was experiencing a bit of turmoil at the time.

 

The Allen Family

Of my friends at CM Bardwell Elementary School, my very best friend was Clifford Allen, son of the proprietor of a small grocery store on Marion Avenue near Fourth Street. The Allen family resided on Marion Ave, as well; on the other side of Fourth Street, a couple of houses from the corner.

The Allen house had the typical backyard of the day, a modest expanse of grass, and a garage whose entrance faced the block dividing gravel alleyway. A curiosity, the Allen house had two backdoors; one, on the right (as seen from the back yard), providing entrance to the kitchen, and another leading up and into the adjacent dining room. Each backdoor had a small concrete stoop, and between them was what I thought at the time to be the best feature of the house — a large sandbox.

Not a box in the accepted sense, this perhaps 4 foot X 10 foot sand filled enclosure was bounded by the rear foundation of the house, the aforementioned two stoops, and a low barrier along the narrow concrete walk which joined them. In the center of the foundation there was a tap, ostensibly for the backyard hose, but was also our water source for the pools and canals and rivers which we sometimes sculpted into the sand.

On any given day this sandy space might be transformed into hills and valleys where troops of green plastic soldiers would fight fierce battles. On another day toy steam shovels and dump trucks might assist in landscaping and in the construction of houses and other buildings — occasionally on a river, or sometimes at lakeside — as we transformed the area into one venue or another.

Often Clifford’s older brother, Gary would play with us in the sandbox, and sometimes in the yard at various games; that is until he aged a bit and heard the siren song of other pastimes. But whether with Gary, or with some other neighborhood kids, or just my friend Clifford, I loved that sandbox.

This was all enhanced by my friend’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Allen (Claude and Alice), who were wonderful to me, and treated me as if I were family. And at Allen’s Market, we were always welcome when we came in for a candy bar, or the occasional Fudgesicle.

Bus Rides Back to the Naval Base

Not unlike the previously mentioned Sunday night train rides to Great Lakes, the bus ride at the end of a long night in downtown Norfolk, VA was an ordeal, as well. Shorter yes, but actually worse.

The focal point of an evenings activities in Norfolk — a city which loves the Navy, but often distains the sailor — was Granby Street, and it was there, in a one-block “turnaround”, that the bus from the naval base became the bus to the naval base. As the bus turned onto Granby Street it stopped to pick up passengers and, if space was available, stopped again, one block later, to take on more before turning to begin its trundling journey back to Gate 2.

It was at these two stops that, at peak times — that is to say around the time the bars closed — it seemed that every sailor on every ship in Norfolk would gather to wait for the bus. During this “rush hour” there were usually two buses running together to accommodate the volume. This still didn’t assure a seat, or even of getting on a bus at all.

The secret to getting an actual seat on the bus turned out to be quite simple, however. I would just walk a block to the stop just prior to Granby Street. There I would board a virtually empty bus and choose the seat I wanted. Once seated, I braced myself for the ride; but at least I was off my feet, and next a window at that.

Once the bus got rolling there was, as was proven, always additional space to be found. This was dramatically demonstrated one night when, halfway to the base, a young sailor standing within the crush of the bus’s center aisle, suddenly groaned, opened his mouth, and tipped his head forward. There was, instantly, a relatively large clearing in front of the sailor. Someone, as a courtesy to the bus company maintenance crew, I suppose, removed the sailor’s white-hat and placed it on the floor, into which the boy’s liquid entertainment of the evening was neatly deposited. Yuck.