The Brooklyn Navy yard served as our base during our shakedown period. The adjustment to being with so many new shipmates was fun.
We certainly were diverse in so many ways. Human nature and temperament helped in understanding one another. Character graded the measure of friendship we would develop. A good sense of humor was a major plus. Prejudices raise red flags and second thoughts. Being thrown together with 350 men from every conceivable background of ethnic, economic and cultural persuasion makes for a most fascinating family.
Little did I realize how important mutual dependency was for our survival. This transcended all other traits which usually dictate one’s final selection of friends. The officer-crew separation system was much more comfortable aboard our relatively small combat ship. The officers too were graded in the same way. Capability and character were the most important measures commanding respect. Arrogance and misused authority were suicidal. On occasion this happened, much to the chagrin of those violators.
More weeks of practice and the adventure of getting ashore in places we had only heard of became the first developing marks of becoming a “salty” sailor. Being a “mothball” in boot camp was part of the distant past. Going on liberty to Manhattan in uniform was pretty neat. For reasons I could never understand, getting drunk was considered the thing to do. Picking up a girl was even better. So upstairs, somewhere in Manhattan, was the dime dance hall, crowded with young sailors, including myself
Some of these salty sailors were far from full-grown, looking to get lucky with one of the pretty dime-a-dance girls. The musty climb of the old, creaky wooden stairs told of its long use. At the top of the landing was a huge crowded dance floor separated from a walk-around space by a four foot high fence surrounding the dance area. The walls were lined with many six-foot-wide framed photographs, each filled with the beautiful dance hall girls for that designated year. As I went down the line, I could see the same girls changing with age.
After running out of ten-cent tickets, we were always able to find a place to serve the enlisted men with food. A hamburger was ten cents and a coke was a nickel. If this did not give a sailor the pleasure he sought before returning to the ship, he very possibly could, and sometimes did, stop by one of those very narrow tattoo establishments for a literary quote such as “Death Before Dishonor.” For those more artistically inclined, maybe an eagle or something more nautical might be more appropriate, depending, of course, on the time left to get back to the ship. The major problem with tattooing your girlfriend’s name across your deltoid muscle is one’s possible fickle nature.
After spending a loose night on the town, filled with stories, imaginatively retold, the young sailors were now ready for a new adventure. And so it began with practice firing of all guns at sea, with increasing proficiency. The crew managed to shoot down sleeve targets dragged by small planes most fortunately spared.
Our shakedown cruise continued to areas of the world that only few of the privileged see. Some of the incidents during our sojourn to Puerto Rico were most impressive, because these were our first in a foreign environment. Kings Harbor was a bite out of the land with very deep water, bordering the hilly terrain of Puerto Rico. Large ships with deep drafts could be accommodated often right to the edge of the land.
In 1942, the way of life here was still a thing of the past. We pulled into port knowing a good number of the crew would get ashore that night. The showers were spraying at full blast for the lucky ones. I was not among them, but frankly, I had more fun just watching this whole scenario unfold before my eyes. Big brother was watching. No one cared or felt this intrusion. All they wanted was to find the action only steps away. The Bridge Gang crowded the pilothouse of the ship. We had all kinds of binoculars, long glass, and just about the best view to watch life play out its experience.
At the gang plank, smartly dressed in whites and salty squared hats, the crew, all smiles, tripped onto land leaving a trail of sweet-smelling shaving lotion in their wake. As I looked through the port hole facing San Juan, the name of this town, I could see all the voluptuous girls waving their hands over their heads in attraction to the oncoming sailors from my ship. Two and three fingers wiggled an unfamiliar signal until it was explained each finger represented a dollar. As the boys magnetically attached themselves to these lovelies, they paired off walking in various directions.
The town rose abruptly, very closely cluttered with cliff-like apartments. Common were the open slotted windows, many so large we could see all the happenings life could depict. Our main interest was to follow any shipmate everywhere we could, making hilarious commentaries on their stumbling progress. The long glass gave us very detailed images of the charming faces and bodies that we anticipated later hearing about. Big brother was watching and this time we knew the truth.
The main road at the base of the heavily populated hill was filled with all sorts of drinking and dancing entertainment. The “Black Cat” and a host of other names we would soon hear about, were well exposed with huge open slotted windows. With our binoculars we could easily follow our shipmates along the road with a girlfriend in arm right to the doors of these establishments. They would disappear into the building and soon reappear in front of the huge window. It was like living in a fish bowl.
We fell on the deck with laughter, watching the clumsy social foreplay of our most serious and recent “mothballs.” The inexperienced attempts at romance with girls who spoke little English but understood body marketing convulsed our evening of vicarious pleasure, with inward mandatory pauses thinking “there but for the grace of God could go I!”
As the first rays of morning light illuminated this beautiful land, our disheveled shipmates ambled back to salute the quarterdeck and check for “muster.” The stories of black eyes, torn uniforms and smeared lipstick only scratched the surface of behavioral evidence. Soon, screaming rage shattered the air as a finger-flailing sex symbol shouted for revenge. The accused was soon rounded up to defend his violent action. In his defense he stated that while he sleepily lay in bed his accuser was carefully going through the act of “rolling” her unsuspecting romeo. He responded in military fashion, retrieved his total bank account and retreated to the safety of our ship! The incident was not too uncommon and justice soon prevailed. Such were the pitfalls of delight and devious dealings.
As we approach Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands for the first time, I think even the most unsophisticated of any aboard appreciated the wonder of this magical tropical paradise. This time I managed to get ashore on liberty. The natives, handsomely dark skinned, were dressed in styles that mirrored the turn of the century, with colorful cloths lengthened to the ankles above bare feet. The stores and dwellings were made of wood with the open slotted windows. The roofs were made of corrugated tin. Dirt floors were standard and soon the caste system of rich and poor came into sharp focus. As we climbed a winding roadway past single homes, it became quite evident that only riches could afford the change in the construction of the dwellings, as well as the materials used in their construction.
Soon, puffing with the effort required for this steep climb, we were awestruck by an enormous structure of magnificent design. This was the famous “Bluebeard’s Castle”. It could have been located in any part of the civilized world and regarded as the posh place to frequent for the rich. With this in mind, my buddies and I walked onto the enormous marble terrace, ringed by an ornate, cast stone fence, housing countless tables filled with people dressed in formal elegance. It was high on the hill overlooking the magnificent bay where my ship peacefully lay at anchor.
Rum & Cokes were the choice selection. This is the very home of rum. This is the center of wealth resulting from the expansive sale of rum. The wealthy, both black and white, happily shared the associated fruits of the island’s famous commodity. The challenge to see how I would respond to a state of inebriation was not only personal, but at this location no one outside my circle of friends would know if I made a fool of myself under the influence.
Now we began to drink. We talked and reminisced as the sun set into darkness. After many Rum & Cokes, I felt that nothing was happening and that perhaps my drinks were primarily Coke. It was also getting close to the time to walk down that long winding dirt road to the landing where our whale boat was scheduled to pick us up. I pressed my hands on the chair to get up.
I lost all sense of feeling just below my knees. I tried to communicate this to my buddies but the words were stuck on my tongue. I could not enunciate. This whole mess became very funny and I started to giggle. Then it got everyone else laughing. We paid our bill and headed for a stairwell at the edge of the marble patio. I could barely manage to stand up but quickly began to manipulate my legs as if by rote. Holding onto the banister I began to realize that I was babbling with a smile. I could barely pronounce words. I was not acting with any kind of violence. In fact, just the opposite. This I did remember: that when drunk, I act pleasantly. Walking down to get to our liberty boat was totally uneventful. Beyond those steps to the road is a complete blank.
The next day I was told with great hilarity of how I became disoriented in the walk. How very polite I became, using long-haired words totally outmoded by our more updated nautical terminology. Then the best part was climbing up the “Jacob’s Ladder” to board the ship; a show never to be forgotten. I missed out on all the fun because I couldn’t remember a “f*n’ thing!!