Category Archives: F: In The Navy: Boston to Bangkok

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.

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

 

A Weekend in Boston: The Beacon Chambers Hotel

The accommodations upon which we settled for our night in Boston was the typical choice for a couple of sailors in a strange city and on an extremely limited budget. The Beacon Chambers was inexpensive and adequate. What this meant in practical terms was that it was very cheap, but not a complete hovel. Another feature, not surprising in retrospect, was that it proved to be somewhat dangerous.

After checking in, we went back out for the evening, returning and settling in at about 11 PM (it had been a long day). We quickly became aware of an ongoing argument between two “guests” in the room across the hall. Rather than an argument, or confrontation, it was really more of a continuing series of bellowed beratements, occasionally answered by groveling supplication.

Before turning in, I made the trip down the hall to the communal washroom, and on my way back I knocked on the door across the hall – which was standing open by about 6 inches. As I did so I called out “hey, you think you could keep it down?”. The first thing I heard in response was the groveling voice pleading “no, please don’t”. At the same time I saw, through the gap in the door, a portion of a rather large man turning toward the door. The motion exposed his arm to view, and in his hand I saw what was more than a rather large knife.

I immediately did the logical thing, spinning and scurrying into our room; slamming and locking the door. Very shortly thereafter, there was a gentle tap on the door, and an altogether reasonable sounding voice asking if we would “come out and talk it over”. As we refused the request, we noticed for the first time the cracks in the door panels, and how extremely thin the door itself seemed to be.

After a few more taps, the unwanted visitor went back to his room, from which we heard growls and grumbles. Meanwhile we searched our room for weapons, the most intimidating of which was the small glass ash tray on the nightstand. After several more taps at our door – at about 15 minute intervals — and more requests to come out into the hall, our neighbor must’ve finally turned in for the night. Something we managed not to do, spending balance of the night awaiting the next knock.

Shortly after dawn broke, we gathered our belongings and timidly ventured into the hallway, ready to make a run for it. But there was no need, as everyone else in the hotel was apparently sleeping in. Free at last of the Boston Chambers Hotel, we found a nice, and somewhat distant, spot for breakfast before resuming our sightseeing until it was time to ride the Greyhound back to Newport.

 

A Weekend in Boston

During the USS Tutuila’s month in Newport, a shipmate and I decided to see Boston; its historic sites, and any other entertainments which we might encounter. So, with liberty passes in hand, we again rode the Greyhound north, this time bound for the red brick city of Boston.

Despite the cold weather, and a couple of traumatic events, we did see the sights and manage to have a pretty good time. We saw the old North Church, and the statue of Paul Revere in the small park across the way. We boarded and toured “Old Ironsides”, in the midst of the then still active Boston Navy Yard. While in the Charlestown section we visited the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill, climbing to the top of what is actually Breed’s Hill and then to the top of its monument to the fierce revolutionary war battle which was fought there (“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”). In the tall spire’s narrow observation space we enjoyed a spectacular, if quite frigid, view of Boston and the Charles River.

At some point on Saturday afternoon, as we wandered lost through the meandering ex-cow paths which are the streets of central Boston, we found ourselves in an area referred to as the “Combat Zone”. Based on reputation alone this was not a part of town we would’ve chosen to visit, but being world-weary 19-year-old sailors we pressed on, undaunted by the sordid surroundings. It was just then, however that the first major event of the day took place, as the boiler in the basement of a nearby hotel quite dramatically exploded.

I don’t believe anyone was really injured, and after the initial shock it was quite exciting as police and fire units converged from all directions, taking charge, keeping back crowds of gawkers – including us – and somehow dealing with a number of dazed hotel guests and staff who seemed to be just wandering about. We stayed, and rubber-necked some more, and were entertained by the action until it dawned on us that we needed to get about finding a place to stay for the night. The choice we made led to the second event of the day (or night actually).

After a brief search we decided to spend our night in a modest (meaning cheap) lodging called “The Beacon Chambers”. I had heard of Beacon Street, and of course of Beacon Hill in Boston and assumed that this meant we were in an okay part of town; an assumption which proved to be almost, if not entirely, not true.

To Be Continued.

 

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”

                                                                                       Anonymous

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 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.