Monthly Archives: January 2015

Newport, Fall River, and a Battleship

In January of 1966, while the Beatles were “Working It Out”, and “Day Tripping”, and Len Barrie was musically counting “1-2-3”, we left Pier 2 in Norfolk and the Tutuila steamed up the stormy Atlantic coast to Newport, Rhode Island; there to service a squadron of destroyers. Newport was, I’m sure, a welcome respite for the destroyer sailors after an extended period with NATO’s anti-submarine force in the wintry North Atlantic, and an interesting diversion for us. And while we did a lot of work in that four-week period, we had a lot of fun, as well.

Mostly surrounded by the waters of Narragansett Bay, Newport is quite cold in the winter. A foggy 10°, I discovered, can be very much more uncomfortable than a dry, crisp 0° or below on the prairies of Illinois. But we made do. A lot of shore-leave time, for me and my friends at least, was spent at, and around, a place called Kukla’s Kitchen, a small café which brought home to me the reality of the term “greasy spoon” restaurant. Cuisine notwithstanding, it was a pretty good hangout with, most importantly, friendly waitresses.

One weekend I, and a friend, took a day trip, courtesy of a Greyhound bus, to Fall River Massachusetts, whose most famous resident remains Lizzie Borden. Going there, I recalled the 19th century rhyme which memorialized her and fixed her place in the nation’s history:

          “Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother forty whacks,

          Then when all was said and done, she gave her father forty-one”


We chose Fall River as a destination because it was different, and sounded interesting, and was something to do. So on a snowy Saturday we set off from Newport on a one hour bus ride to visit what turned out to be a dreary New England industrial city on the Taunton River. In fact, the only thing of any interest in Fall River, MA was the World War II battleship USS Massachusetts, tied to a lonely pier next to the I-195 bridge. What would later become the centerpiece of a large museum called “Battleship Cove”, the ship was closed and silent in the falling snow.

Still, it was a sight to behold, looming over the dock; it’s fighting top level with the high bridge span beside which it was moored. Up until that point the largest ship I had seen — other than aircraft carriers, which are quite different — was the heavy cruiser USS Newport News, which was pretty big. But this obsolete battleship was massively larger; and impressive even in this drab and remote setting. In later years I would visit Battleship Cove and tour the Massachusetts, as well as her sister ship, the USS Alabama, in Mobile, and the still larger USS New Jersey, in Trenton, and the USS Iowa in San Pedro, CA. But this first glimpse of the ultimate of 20th century Naval surface power was unforgettable.


The Last Day of School

Despite this year’s milder temperatures, we are in the “dead of winter”, and so I hope today’s post will add a bit of springtime to the discourse. And what is more springtime than The Last Day of School.

During my tenure at C.M Bardwell Elementary School, the last day of each school year was special for several reasons. One, the day was usually over by lunchtime; which was good, because by this time we could barely stand the wait. Two, the “gym shoes”, purchased by Mom in the beginning of the previous September to be used, of course, only for gym class, were now yours to wear (and wear out) all summer long. And Three, the thing which really made this day so special was that it was the last day of school.

Until next September that is, but which — when you are 10 — is so infinitely far into the future as to have no consequence, or meaning, when the long anticipated day of freedom had actually, amazingly, arrived. The day was always a bit surreal; getting up that morning was easier, the walk to school tingled with anticipation. The colors of the flowers seemed brighter and more vivid, and the newly leaved trees fuller, and somehow greener as the warm, fresh, springtime clean air softly moved them about.

Each year’s last day was the culmination of a week of roller coaster emotions. After the brief, tantalizing, “almost there” feeling of Memorial Day weekend, restless students were pulled back, and once again enclosed by the walls, and the regimen, of grade school as the longest week of the year began. How tedious to finish that final book report, to read that final lesson, while just beyond the glass lie a world of dreams.

This final day of the school year was different from the day before the 11 or 12 days we had off for Christmas and the New Year, or the beginning of the all too brief Easter week hiatus. On those “last” days, terrific as they were, we could see well enough into the near future to anticipate the end of the break, and know it was temporary. Before long we would return to the same old routine.

But summer was long. And yes, we of course understood that someday, in the far future we would have to come back. In due time, stores — where new “school clothes”, and new gym shoes could be purchased — would begin to advertise Back-To-School sales. But that was a whole summer away, and when we did return it would be to a different grade, to a different teacher, and to a different and hopefully better year.

Also, when we returned, we would be older. Not in time so much; the age difference between the third grader in June, and the fourth-grader in September was minimal. But the emotional reality — that is to say, how you felt — was huge. With each new grade, we would literally stand a bit taller, and walk the halls with more experience and confidence.

But all of that lay ahead, and was not considered on that special day in early June when “the bells rang out the summer free”, and time ceased to exist as we donned our gym shoes and passed into a different state of being. Summer Vacation.


The Boiler Room – Redux

My rotation working as a, sort of, mess cook ended and I returned to the daily routine of working in the engine shop where December passed without incident. A short leave allowed me to return home for Christmas of ‘65. I was a seasoned traveler now; I flew both ways. Upon returning to the “Toot” I found that, due to a temporary personnel shortage in Engineering, several of the junior personnel from the Repair Divisions, including me, were assigned to stand watches, on duty days, in the ship’s boiler room.

Located in the very bottom, center of the ship, a four-hour In-Port watch in the boiler room was simple, and actually quite boring – especially when alone on late-night or early morning watches. The primary responsibility involved little more than paying attention to conditions and, when necessary, turning the appropriate valve to either add or remove water to maintain a more or less precise level in the boiler’s feed-water tank; a task which amazingly was beyond the capabilities of one of my fellow temporary watch standers.

One night he allowed the water level to be too low, for too long, and finally “corrected” his error by removing yet more water. The resulting action of the burners on the lower part of the boiler – without the heat-absorbing effect of water turning into steam — ultimately caused serious damage. This event, and its aftermath, made me very glad that, boredom notwithstanding, I paid attention on my watches.

An Overnight Bus Ride

I left the Tutuila mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving Eve of 1965, bound for the Greyhound Bus station in Norfolk, and ultimately Pittsburgh, PA. I would be spending Thanksgiving with our old family friends, the Forkins.

The bus ride was an evening and overnight event, with a change of busses in Washington, DC. Arrival in Pittsburgh was scheduled to be sometime around 8:00 am Thanksgiving Day. The layover in DC was long enough, and boring enough, that I left the station for a late night walk in our capitol city, in which I had never been. As I walked along a dark quiet avenue, I turned a corner and was suddenly confronted with a spectacular view of the brightly lit Capitol building and dome. A most famous and compelling sight; and I was awestruck. Also, homesickness being a minor, but constant nag, I was sad that I was not sharing the experience with my family and/or friends.

I didn’t wander much further, as the midnight hour was approaching and the departure time for my bus to Pittsburg was drawing near. But I vowed to return and explore the capital city at length at a later time; something I did prior to my sojourn in Vietnam, and several times after; for the historical aspect of the city is, or should be, magical to any American.

Unlike Philadelphia, which I maintain is an absolute must visit for every American. But having visited the many, very important, historical sites which that city holds, one is relieved of the need to ever go there again.

And so, on to Pittsburgh. Too young to fully grasp the experience at the time, I am reminded in more recent years of that midnight-to-dawn bus ride when I hear the bridge lyric from the Paul Simon song  “Ace in the Hole”:

Mess Cooking

Serving aboard the USS Tutuila in the fall of 1965, I was assigned to temporary duty as a “Mess Cook”. This was something every enlisted man below Petty Officer rank faced as a matter of course. Mess cooks were the grunt labor needed to assist the cooks in every menial, miserable task associated with preparing and serving three meals every day to an entire ship’s crew. Equally important was the task of cleaning up after three meals a day—an activity in which the lordly cooks took no part. The assignment was for a standard duration of three months. One of the worst positions, I had determined, was Scullery Duty, one step below the dishwashers and requiring the cleaning of all pots and pans. The plum job, of which no one seemed to know before the fact, and thus could not be hoped for, was working for the “Jack of the Dust”.

This was the traditional name for the most senior cook, and assistant to the Chief Petty Officer who was in charge. The Jack of the Dust planned menus, ordered and kept track of stores, and indicated what food stuffs were to be taken from stores by the mess cooks for each meal. In fact, he ran the place; and working for him was a cushy job — really just a glorified warehouse clerk with regular hours. Somehow this was the job to which I was assigned. No getting up at 4:30 am and working well past the dinner hour for me, at least not until the weekend before Thanksgiving of 1965.

I was told early on Friday that another fellow and I would be assigned to the Scullery for the weekend. I don’t know the exact reason, but there was a personnel shortage for those two days and we were needed. Needless to say, I was furious. I still marvel at the audacity of arguing, vehemently, with a First Class Petty Officer, AND a Chief, about how unfair it was, and so on. Luckily for me, the Jack of the Dust liked me and the Chief was a mild sort. Not so mild however that my arguments had any effect. I was stuck with two days in the Scullery.

I think I learned a valuable life lesson that weekend, and in the week that followed. I resigned myself to my fate, and made sure I was awakened at 4:30 am on Saturday morning, and that I showed up in the galley on time. As the day progressed, and breakfast, lunch, and dinner pots and pans came to me, I stoically bent to the task and did my work. I did the same the next day and the ordeal was over. The other guy didn’t argue about the assignment, but showed up late both days and noticeably slacked off at every opportunity.

The next day my boss told me he had gotten good reports about me and that I had done a good job. On Tuesday I was given the task of painting one of the smaller stores compartments, a soft job, and was told that when the job was completed on Wednesday afternoon I could leave the ship with a four-day pass for the Thanksgiving weekend; something absolutely unheard of for a Mess Cook.