It’s a frigate, no name, just a number. 72nd was built shortly after WW I, (War to end Wars) and named the Patrick Henry. Then completely modernized just before WW II (the Good War), and renamed 721. Yes, the crew endlessly chips off paint and then repaints, but some parts of the old name show through.
I’m aboard accidentally; I was with a group waiting for something…..who knows what. Likely not even the planners who by now have personally forgotten, and administratively lost us forever in the tidal wave of paper engulfing them.
The ‘old man’ (Captain), because of the war, is going to be in the Navy for way over thirty years before he retires. With him, and this is unusual, are a half dozen Bos’ns; hard-bitten, tough guys and highly competent seamen, all utterly loyal to the old man.
Captain: “This counter-current isn’t ephemeral.”
“Doesn’t come and go; it is always somehow there.”
A Bos’n looks at me and mutters, “we see ’em come and see ’em go.”
I look lengthily at the chart. The counter-current is sketched artistically; numbers show its speed and direction.
Captain to Bos’n at the wheel, referring to me: “Teach this guy how to take the wheel.”
I’m an object of contempt, target of lots of curses, and sometimes sneering laughs. I just take it for the whole watch. I am awful at the wheel. End of the watch, greatly relieved, I go and have lunch at general mess dining region just off the galley, then return to the bridge.
Bos’n: “What the hell do you want?”
Risking getting beat up, I say, “Asshole! Obey the Captain’s orders. No one learns on one watch, so teach me.”
I’m awful, get cussed out, shoved in, shoved out. The Bos’ns are pissed.
The least physically powerful watch is a 12 pm to 4 am. On watch, the Bos’n won’t risk a fight.
He’s alone, so I say, “Prick! I know lots of things and know them well. You don’t know much, you ain’t got the brain. But, and I hate to admit it, what you do know, you know very well. Follow your orders, teach me everything you know.”
He says: “My God! You’re back!”
I say: “The captain is sleeping, so follow orders.”
His relief takes the wheel: “They come, and they go. But this ‘fuckface’ is really stupidly stubborn.”
The battle continues for some weeks, but I learn +-250, +- 100, +- to 20. Then suddenly I am as good as any of them, then better than all but one.
Chief Bos’n: “Captain, when do we get rid of Fuckface?”
Captain: “We just might not. Give him a few more really tough turns, see if he’s got the stuff.”
I have it out with the chief Bos’n in a corridor. He reaches to shove me, I am very quick, trip him, and he is down.
Bos’n Mac: “When I get up, I’ll beat the shit out of you!”
I say: “Sure you can, but it was worth it, and as you get up I get one more sucker punch.”
“Worth it!” exclaims First Bos’n and laughs. I give him a hand up, and we both laugh.
The old man is a great and willing teacher. I now stand a daily watch at the helm, and soon stand in for the Captain. The Bos’ns, whether the captain is or isn’t there, answer me with ‘yes sir.’ I don’t quite realize it as it develops over weeks, then months; how it has all changed. I am no longer just being taught or even tutored by the old man. We now converse as equals.
The torpedo hits near the bow with a terrific crash. In my cabin I’m slammed down, hitting the hinged-out table. My head’s bloody and I stagger about on deck mumbling “head cuts bleed too much.”
The torpedo was running near the surface. The bridge is shattered. We are taking on water but not too fast, and lots of time to launch our several whaleboats, which are better than WW II standard Navy lifeboats. Our ship will go down bow first but slowly, and I realize all three of our lifeboats will be both supplied and launched. Dizzy, I sit to wait and pass out, then wake up still dizzy. My head hurts. A guy is marking on my head – I half pass out and look around. I see only one boat.
“We have three boats. Where’s the other two?”
Chief Bos’n: “The ninety-day-wonder first and second mate college-boy officers took off, precision rowing, chanting as they went. We just decided to drift till you wake up. In this boat, it is us Bos’ns and old sailors.”
I say: “What the hell am I doing at the tiller with you apes.”
Bos’n Charlie. “Go easy on us Bob, we elected you Captain. The old man went down, was dying from the blast.”
I gave them my orders: “Hoist sail, run before the wind, which will be onto the land until evening. Then drop a sea anchor and drift.”
A guy stands up to protest, the Bos’n draws and aims a colt revolver, saying “SIT DOWN! Not another word or die for mutiny.”
I say: “Mac! Take the tiller, you know I can’t – too sick and no experience.”
Bos’n Mac: “Yea, we know, but you and the old man are the only ones that know these deadly waters in the Amazon current. It’s far, far eastward out to sea.”
Then I say: “Here’s our situation, either we are gripped by the Argentina current of the south Atlantic gyre, or caught by the gulf of Mexico intake for a long, long blistering hot trip of many weeks. Cold death toward the South Pole, or scorching death along the equator.”
Bos’n Charlie: “So?”
“I’ll get us to Brazil. It can be done.”
I hold my head. My God, that hurts.
“Doc is fixing you, looking for concussion-killing germs. He’s a 2nd class pharmacist mate and is going to study and be a real pharmacist aft the war.”
Dizzy, I settle down and drift in and out, mumbling, “string, fishing sinker, any watches? Compass. Stay before the wind.”
“Wake me before sunset at wind hush. Can you tack?” (zig-zag into the wind)
“Tack eastward into the day wind.”
Bos’n Mac: “I ration out water at nightfall. It lasts longer in bodies than in daytime. Our carboys (big yellow bottles) are all full, we have plenty.”
“We are crossing a brown streak. Give me a cup and halazone tablet, it will dissolve, killing germs.”
I demonstrated drinking the tinted water (with silt and vegetation juices). It’s fresh.
“Ok. Halazone in the carboys, then double the water ration.”
Counting the cupful I just got, I get an extra cup full. All hands almost shout “he deserves it.”
Then I say: “Everyone put on hats. I’m going to read words from the Bible. It’s he who taught me about water and everything else. Respect him, not so much me.”
“At critical times, we will have to row.”
The four tough Bos’ns replace weaklings at the oars. A guy with a drum plays a drum song.
Tup tup, tup, boom boom boom all together pull.
T T T boom boom. On and on across the first stretch of clear water.
T T T boom. Its Sammy and Ratface. Rest the oars, ride westward on the yellow loop.
T T T boom boom bend to the oars, rest oars, and ride on the current.
TTT boom Boom, bend to the oars, then rest oars, and ride on the current.
We made it across all three counter-currents that day, gaining many tens of miles westward.
I say: “Now, set sail and ride down-wind with the Amazon night wind behind us.”
Land. It’s just a far-off smudge on the horizon.
Bos’n Mac: “Row?”
“Absolutely not. Tack. We will need real strength in the surf.”
On this boat, very fortunately, the oar locks are positioned such that you can push the oars straight down and brace them against the oar locks. There’s an Eckman spiral counter-current below an opposite surface current. I am pleased with myself, and the old man’s months of lessons. The seamen see pure magic. Mac gives the orders after I explain.
“Hoist old glory; I know we have a flag in our stern locker. Tell them who we are. Americans. Stars and stripes unbeaten.”
With that, I’m fuzzily dizzy again. The well-experienced Bos’ns bring us through the surf, beach us, and carry me onto shore. I’m worn out and infected in my head and parts of my back. They take most of us to the local hospital.
Bos’n Mac asks: “How the hell did you throw me for a loop, and then stand there with a club, declaring ‘one more sucker punch as you get up.’ Then you bragged, ‘it’s worth it’. You know I can beat the shit out of you. I’m triple your size.”
“I waylaid you.”
Bos’n Ralph: “That don’t buy nothing. We beat the hell out of punks in most of the world’s big ports, sometimes three or four at a time. Waylaying don’t do nothing. How the hell did a twerp like you do it.”
“OK, shit for brains. Here’s how. At the corner in the passageway, squares of plastic same color as the floor. Two layers of plastic with grease between. More slippery than any ice. Grabbed his arm by the sleeve, pushed with my feet. Down he went, not on his fat ass, but on his back.”
I turn to Mac: “Expected you to come up roaring like a bull and had another patch ready, but full of bull you’re a smart bull, surviving a bullfight.”
Bos’n Mac: “The old man soon knew. He laughed at me.”
Bos’n Charlie: “We been through two big wars and a few little ones with the old man. It’s him who had us work over wise-ass guys so he can see ‘em go. You are the second in 23 years who lasted.”
As we approach shore, we talk about the other two lifeboats.
Bos’n Charlie: “It was a tragic way for the old man to die. We saw the college boy ninety-day-wonder naval officers (trained in 3 months), and our first and second mates go in the lifeboats. Yeah, they dumped on the old man and you too. We figure they’re caught in the Argentine current, headed toward the Antarctic. It’s a terrible way to die.”
I wake up later in a hospital bed.
Bos’n Mac: “You were out like a turned-off light. The USA counsel was here. We told him about the other two boats. Tragic, we are in a war. Only one PBY (amphibious aircraft) will look for them. It’s because we have a war to fight, and it’s better to save ships. Our planes scare the kraut submarines.”
The other two boats are never seen or even heard of again. It is a terrible way to go. Especially for the last one, who will survive several months before his hopeless death. It is possible they might reach Saint Paul’s rock and climb it to survive by eating sea birds.
Some millions of Germans, Austrians, and Galicians live in Brazil’s Santa Catharine Province. They started settling there before the American 1776 revolution. Roosevelt has just started to exterminate them by having them shipped into the Amazon’s malaria-infested jungle.
There are more than a few in the hospital and many visitors. My German is as good as any of theirs. And better than most. They take me for one of theirs, which I wasn’t, and never will be. Their ideas are frozen into the 1938 notion that they can’t lose this war. It’s ‘impossible,’ they brag, and again they are dead wrongly for a second time, again ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.’ ‘We can’t lose’ is a plausible 1938 to 1940 contention, but look at Hitler. A good soldier, a so-so artist, risen to his level of incompetence, and look at his trail of wreckage. I just say: Anyone can lose a war. At least consider the possibility. The discussion ends. Tis impossible.
Bos’n Mac: “You’re talking with them. You are a fucking Heinie.”
“And you, Bos’n Mac, are a fucking stupid Irish Mic.”
Bos’n Charlie: “He talks French too.”
Bos’n Ralph: “Fucking Heinie, his Ma was a Kelly of the stupid Irish Mics. Talks French, a slimy Frog.”
“So what we got?” sneers Bos’n Charlie at Mac, “the worst of the worst – an Irish Mic, also at the same time a slimy Frog Heinie.”
I say: “Eisenhower is a Heinie, so was world war one general Black Jack Pershing, and oh my, dig into Shirley Temple’s ancestry. Got problems….got problems with that.”
Bos’n Mac. “I didn’t know about general Pershing.”
Bos’n Ralph: “If a cat has kittens in an old oven in the yard, they are still not biscuits.”
Charlie: “ Bob, it’s Mac who got us to elect you as captain.”
Bos’n Mac. “Through the years, only two have survived old man’s ‘get em’ on the way. ‘They came,’ the old man said, ‘let’s see ‘em go.’ You’re the second one. The first is a three or four-star admiral now. You will do the same and better.”
I say: “The old man also spoke French and German, and some Spanish. When I get out of here, I am going into Captain Eddy’s radio training program and, from there, into the GCA, the ground-controlled approach program invented by Alvarez. (He was later the discoverer of the asteroid impact on Yucatan that exterminated the dinosaurs and was also involved in taking fuzes and bomb-grade uranium from the German submarine surrendering at Portsmouth, NH, to the Manhattan Project.”)
Bos’n Mac: “It would be best if we all stayed together with you on a new frigate.”
I say: “The bureaucrats don’t and won’t see it – I don’t have the right background.”
And I was right.