Monthly Archives: March 2015

En Route to Viet Nam – The Panama Canal

The USS Tutuila departed Norfolk, Virginia for the last time and steamed the now familiar route to the Caribbean, and when we got there we sailed right on through. We crossed the Caribbean Sea — North to South – and arrived at Limon Bay, the “eastern” terminus of the Panama Canal. We were scheduled to spend two days waiting for our reserved time to transverse the waterway to the Pacific Ocean. This meant liberty in the Panamanian city of Colon, which we later discovered was not a place we really wanted to visit. And fortunately we did not.

Shortly after we arrived and dropped anchor amidst the many commercial freighters awaiting their turn, a slot opened up for us. So that afternoon we weighted anchor and began our journey through the canal to the Pacific end which, owing to the orientation of the continent joining Isthmus, and the angle of the canal itself, lay some 50 miles to the South and East of where we now were. Getting underway, we entered a narrow passage which took us to the Gatun Locks, where the ship was raised about 85 feet to the level of the inland waterway.

Moving through the Panama Canal’s famous locks was a tedious and time-consuming, but also very interesting, process. Repair Division personnel had no part to play in the actual movement of the ship so we were all free to watch as the ship carefully positioned itself into the lock and tied up. When the water level was properly adjusted, and the great doors opened, docking lines were untied and we were pulled forward by two very large locomotives and debauched into Gatun Lake. Crossing this jungle bound lake would take us about halfway across the isthmus.

As we waited for the water — and with it of course the ship — to rise (or to lower on the Pacific side) Panamanians, mostly children and adolescents, would come up to the walls of the lock, just a couple of feet from the port side of the ship. They came to sell trinkets and souvenirs to the otherwise idle sailors. I bought, for fifty cents I think, a brightly colored satin doily, with fringe on the ends, and embroidered canal scenes, which I sent home to my mother.

As we left the locks behind and steamed into Gatun Lake it was almost dark, and when Lights-Out and Taps were later sounded, they marked an end to our last day on the eastern side of the continent. When Reveille was sounded the next morning, we were up and off to the mess decks for breakfast. It was then that I got my to my first look at a “steaming jungle”. As the sun rose above the mountainous rain forests surrounding the lake, steam quite literally rose from within the bright green canopy.

As the lower part of the lake narrowed to become the Rio Chagres we came increasingly closer to the primeval shoreline. As we stared in wonder, I recalled being told of the quantity and variety of animal life within that dense jungle; most of which we didn’t actually see, but which we knew was there, and not so very far away. Among these were about a billion insects, crocodiles and other reptiles, including frightening panoply of serpents. Also monkeys large and small, as well as a variety of large cats and other mammals, many of whom the cats routinely ate. This was all a bit disconcerting, but fascinating when discussed from the safety of the ship.

After a long crossing of Gatun Lake and passage down the Rio Chagres we bent south at the town of Gamboa and entered a series of cuts (the small canals famously carved through the jungle in the 1900’s) which took us to the Miraflores Lake and Locks, and eventually under the Bridge Of The Americas — the Pan-American Highway — and soon at the Port of Balboa, the docks of Panama City, for our delayed two days of liberty. After the brief, and dubious entertainments of Panama City, we departed for the next leg of our journey; to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

 

Final Weekend in Norfolk – A Rock and Roll Show

On the last weekend before the Tutuila’s final departure from Pier 2 and Norfolk, I attended a “Rock and Roll Show” at the Norfolk Municipal Auditorium. The show featured, among several others, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Bobby Fuller Four, and Billy Joe Royall. All in all, it was quite a lineup, and very entertaining for several reasons.

The auditorium was an old-style theater with a broad stage whose front edge rose about 3 feet above theater floor, with its front edge about 10 feet back from the first row of seats. The seating area then sloped sharply upward to the entrances along the back wall, and was defined by two side aisles, at the walls, and a wide center aisle.

The attendance was exceptional. The capacity crowd consisted mostly of teenage girls, each with an Instamatic Camera and an adequate supply of Flash Cubes. Perhaps thoughts of Elvis, or Beatles performances were in the minds of the local management because just before the show began we were warned quite sternly that everyone must stay in their seat, and that no one would be allowed to congregate in the center aisle or at the edge of the stage. This rule, we were told, would be rigidly enforced.

The show began, and as one erstwhile teen idol after another performed on stage, the girls were getting restless. Finally one brave girl, camera in hand, charged down the center aisle, screeched to a halt at the edge of the stage and snapped a picture. She immediately turned and bolted up the aisle and back to her seat. There was nothing at that point for security to do; the deed was done, order was restored, and all was again well.

But the precedent had been set. Shortly after, another girl charged the stage, snapped a picture and quickly returned to her seat. And then another. And then another. After a while, pictures weren’t enough. The girls — now sometimes passing each other on their way to and from the stage — were writing notes of endearment, which they balled up and tossed to the foot of whomever was their favorite.

By this time the headliners, Paul Revere and the Raiders, were performing, and as notes would roll up to their feet, Paul Revere or lead singer Mark Lindsey would, between songs, pick up one or two and read them aloud; each causing a squeal of delight from someone in the otherwise anonymous crowd.

Encouraged, one brave girl took it a step further. Like others before her, she charged the stage, but didn’t stop. A few feet short of the stage she launched herself and performed an admirable belly flop, sliding and stopping at the feet of Paul Revere himself. This time the line had clearly been crossed, bringing quick action from the security people in the stage wings. But before they could arrive at mid-stage, the girl had leapt to her feet and wrapped her arms tightly around Paul Revere. Now, as the security people arrived to drag her away, the most wonderful thing happened. Paul also wrapped his arms around her and would not let go, thus thwarting the best efforts of the brutes.

This went on for a couple of minutes before Paul Revere, seemingly reluctantly, allowed the security people to escort her to the side of the stage. To those of us in the audience she was a hero, and I’m hoping, and suspecting, that whatever consequences she paid for her actions were minimal compared with her experience. Whatever the cost, I’m sure it was worth it.

Later in the show we got a contrary lesson on the arrogance of some performers. Gary Lewis, son of the more famous Jerry Lewis, was performing when again a girl charged the stage and threw a note so well aimed that it touched his shoe before stopping. Rather than acknowledging, or reading the note, or simply just ignoring it, he glanced down and, with his toe, kicked the note away. I don’t know, but I can imagine, how this girl must’ve felt. As for me, I never again liked, or listened to, his music. Hearing it will forever remind me of that moment.

But all in all, it was a terrific afternoon. And a nice final experience in a city which, in truth, I didn’t really like all that much. But my feelings toward Norfolk no longer mattered, as early the following Tuesday morning we cast off from Pier Two for the last time; the beginning of a four-leg journey which would take us to the other side of the world.

 

A Visit to Washington DC

Shortly before leaving Norfolk for the last time, I took the opportunity to pay a weekend visit to Washington DC — as I had promised myself I would when passing through the capitol on the eve of last Thanksgiving. In those days, on the rare occasions that I would travel away from Norfolk for a day, or a weekend, a Greyhound bus would take me; as it did on this weekend in early 1966. Remembering well the lessons learned during my recent night in Boston, the first thing I did upon arrival was to carefully select a safe, comfortable, yet still inexpensive, room for the night. Though the place I chose was adequate for my needs, it was perhaps the smallest, and certainly the oddest hotel room I have ever seen.

Tucked into a corner of two oddly angled hallways — in an even more oddly shaped building — I suspect that my lodging for the night had originally been designed as a closet or small storage room. I chose to think of it as cozy, and as I have said, being both clean and secure it appeared to be, and in fact was, perfectly satisfactory.

After checking in and dropping off my bag, I toured the city a bit: getting a sense of the place before changing and taking in the local nightlife. I visited a local discotheque, and attempted to mingle with the crowd. As it turned out, strangers were not really all that welcome. At least not in that place, and not me. The evening wasn’t a total loss, however. I had a couple of drinks, chatted with a few people, and enjoyed the music and the dancing (or at least watching others do so). All of this fun notwithstanding, I decided to call it a night relatively early and returned to my room where, after sampling the local programming on the TV which was bracketed to the wall above my door, I turned in; and slept quite well, thank you.

On Sunday morning I woke, dressed in slacks, a pale yellow shirt (a color called “maize” by the salesman at the below-the-locker-club men’s clothing store in Norfolk), and a nice tie. We did such things in those days when going somewhere important; and I thought a visit to the nation’s Capital, the White House (at least the street out front on Pennsylvania Avenue), the Lincoln Memorial, and such, were important enough to warrant a little dressing up.

Among the sites I visited was the Washington Monument, where I decided to forgo the elevator (and the very long line) in favor of the 897 steps to the top. About halfway up – just as I was beginning to regret my choice — I met an interesting couple of fellows. One tall, and the other short, and both quite thin, they were also both very avant-garde. The term “hippie” might’ve applied, had it been in the lexicon at the time. But they were friendly, and interested in the nation’s history and its monuments, and since we were all sharing the ordeal, we decided to walk the remaining steps together. Also, there was something about them made me think of Simon and Garfunkel, which I though was pretty cool.

After making it, finally, to the top, we enjoyed the spectacular view in all directions before wisely riding the elevator back to ground level. After that I spent the next couple of hours with my new friends, walking around the city and visiting other tourist attractions, before stopping at a food stand, where I bought them each a hot dog and a Coke. I suspect that if I hadn’t done so, I would’ve had to eat alone in front of them; but I liked them and so I was happy to treat.

We chatted, and I learned a bit about a facet of modern youth culture of which I was not really aware at the time. I could tell by their dress and their attitude toward things that they occupied a world which was largely outside of my experience. In retrospect, I know this was certainly true. I had not yet visited Greenwich Village, or the North Beach District of San Francisco, or The Haight, and any experience which might be called avant guard – other than seeing Maynard G. Krebbs on TV — was not to be found in Aurora, or in Pittsburgh, or Norfolk, Virginia for that matter.

One of them, the tall one, wore a small, flat, and abstractly shaped piece of polished wood on a chain around his neck. I would have thought it kind of looked like a Nike “Swoosh” — had I known then what that would someday be. So I asked him what it was.

“A symbol”, he replied.

“Of what?”, I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Just a symbol for all of the things that need symbols, but don’t have one”.

How can you disagree with that?

We parted company after a bit, and shortly thereafter I met three lovely Midwestern girls of my age, with whom I shared a taxi/tour which took us to Arlington National Cemetery. I enjoyed seeing and experiencing this very much, but would not have thought to visit, but for my new, new friends. The driver was great. He not only showed us the famous sites, but lesser known features, as well – many of which we wouldn’t of have even known (i.e. The main mast from the battleship USS Maine) — and explained their significance. He also timed the tour, and positioned us in precisely the right spot to get the best view of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Very impressive.

The taxi ride back to DC deposited me at the bus station, where I bid the girls farewell and went inside to wait for my bus back to Norfolk.

East High – The Final Year: The Girl in the Office

As for teenage romance in my senior year at East High, the best opportunity for something special presented itself in September of 1963. An opportunity which I — being at the time a complete idiot and fool — totally wasted.

In the autumn of that year there was a girl who started working in the office (that is to say the front end or customer service part) of Aurora Cleaners, where I still toiled part-time, sorting and making up hangers, cleaning up after hours, and performing other such chores.

This new employee was my age, a senior at West High, and pretty, intelligent, sweet, and generally, as I saw her, a dream come true. After a short period of time — in which I took advantage of every excuse, real or imagined, to “go up front” and possibly talk with this girl – I mustered my courage and asked her out for a date; and she accepted.

We went to the Sandwich Fair, which I have always liked for its autumnal theme. We strolled about doing Sandwich Fair things. We looked at animals, both familiar and strange. I tried to win a bear (I did not). We drank hot spiced cider, and rode the Tilt-O-Whirl, and all in all had a rather nice time.. Because the air was a bit nippy, we wore light jackets, and she wore a scarf; which she absentmindedly left in my car at the end of the evening.

Soon after, on a day when my recent date was not working, the ladies of the front office – all friends of my mother and my aunts – surrounded me and were questioning me closely about my date. When I mentioned the scarf, a wave of satisfaction rippled through the group. They began to chatter excitingly, saying that this was a tactic. That she wanted to see me again, and this was her way to ensure that I would call. The ladies were pleased. It was at just this point however, when my being an idiot assumed control.

Rather than taking advantage of these invaluable allies, I instead somehow resented the involvement and vowed to myself that they weren’t going to orchestrate me into some workplace romance, just for their own entertainment. The next day, I brought the scarf in and gave it to one of the ladies, asking her to please return it for me. And that was that!

I say again, for it certainly bears repeating, I sometimes was, and hope I not too often am, a complete fool.

 

At School With The Army: The LARC-V Amphibian

At the completion of our mission to Newport, RI, the Tutuila retraced its route down the stormy Atlantic seaboard to Norfolk Naval Station and our familiar spot on Pier 2. There, in addition to daily ship’s work, we prepared for our voyage to the Far East.

Just prior to departing for, as John Prine put it, “the conflict overseas”, I and a couple of others were temporarily assigned to the U.S. Army. We were transported to Ft Eustis, Virginia, a few miles up the James River. There to attend a training course on the engines, transmissions, and propulsion systems, of a large, lumbering, and altogether curious vehicle commonly called a “Lark Five”. Officially designated as LARC-V* Amphibian, these vehicles were then in limited use in the northern coastal regions of South Vietnam.

Operating principally at the far northern city of Da Nang, these vehicles – with a boat-like bottom hull, and both large balloon tires AND a propeller — could drive down a beach, enter the water, shift gears and motor out to a cargo ship anchored offshore. The LARC-V had a large central cargo well onto which materials could then be loaded via the ship’s crane. The vehicle would then return to the shore and drive right up the beach to it’s off-load point. This was proving to be quite useful at a place with no real harbor, lots of beach, and quickly growing military facility. Like Da Nang.

The school was an interesting diversion, and I learned a lot about the Cummins Diesel engine, and the various mechanisms which it drove, but in practical terms I spent the entirety of my visit to Vietnam in the central and southern parts of the country, and never once laid eyes on a LARCV Amphibian vehicle. So much for forward planning.

Ft Eustis was, and is, home of the Army Transportation Corps, and with it the training facilities for the maintenance of everything from jeeps and trucks to helicopters and light aircraft. At the time I was there virtually all of the Army personnel then in training at Ft Eustis were slated for Vietnam. There were exceptions however. One night at the Enlisted Men’s Club we met a soldier, one of several hundred in his training unit, who was celebrating the fact that he was the only one of his unit to have instead received orders to Germany. I don’t believe I have ever seen someone enjoy an evening at a military EM Club quite so much.

Our training went well and after a couple of weeks with the Army, full of newly acquired, and ultimately useless, knowledge we were returned to the Tutuila for our own journey to Vietnam.

     *Lighter, Amphibious Resupply, Cargo, 5 ton