A Dedication to Those of Us Who Served: The First Years (Cont.)

John Barton decided to show me the town just outside the gates on my second day aboard the USS Long Beach.  We were accompanied by his long time friend, “Doc” Ackerman (a hospitalman that he knew from Vietnam), and Mike Trover, a Ship’s Serviceman Seaman that I had met that day.  That first night out in the Phillippines was reminiscent of being out in a carnival during the evening.  The air was smoky and hot as I passed the main gate of Subic Bay Naval Station, filled with the sound of music emanating from clubs along Olangapo‘s main street: Magsaysay Boulevard.  Throngs of people packed the bridge and river that separated the city and the base.  Children in banca boats screamed out to people lining the sides of the bridge to throw pesos to them into a river that they would attempt to catch, over water infested with typhus and various bacillium (I remember seeing the carcass of a dead dog floating down the river on a return trip). Everyone who has been to Olangapo in those days will attest to the children and young 14 or 15 year-old girls dressed in evening wear who would line the river, begging for money.  As soon as we stepped onto the surface of Magsaysay, we were met by a hoard of men shouting, “‘Dis way to women, we got lots of women, come…come!”  Children were at our sides, begging for pesos, looking for our watches and checking our back pockets for wallets to steal.  Women dressed in tight t-shirt tops and even tighter shorts also lined the start of the boulevard, each one begging us to follow her for a “good time”.  We passed a man selling authentic “monkey meat” barbecue on a stick, women in windowed stalls to our right, slapping rulers or wood sticks on their stalls to get our attention to change our money before we entered a club.  All around us were throngs of people.  I remember in particular, a black marine with a cut on the side of his head, obviously drunk, yelling to anyone in the crowd who would listen, “I’ll fight you, I’ll fight all of you.”  I made the mistake of looking at him, catching his eye.  He stared at me, trying to adjust his vision, stopping for a moment to state, “I’ll even fight you.”  Doc shooed us into Cindy’s, for a bite to eat, whispering something to someone who promptly ran off into the street, returning moments later with Phillippine constabulary to escort the marine we had just seen back to the base.

It was at Cindy’s where I learned about how John and Doc had met in Vietnam.  John had been a Gunner’s Mate 1st Class on a riverine patrol boat along the Mekong Delta.  Doc was on a helicopter gunship known as “The Poodle”.  I found it interesting that John and Doc could laugh about what happened on the fateful night that they met.  John thought that the vietcong had either called in by telephone, or by radio that a gunboat was smuggling arms up a canal that they never named.  What both men told us was that John, who was a gunner’s mate on the PBR at the time had his boat mistakenly shot out from under him by Doc’s gunship.  John went on to say that when they demanded the gunship crew give them a lift back to Saigon, the crewchief laughed, and told them they would have to “hoof” it back to safety because there wasn’t enough room in the chopper.  John said that his crew spent a few hours on the boat, wondering what they would do when a rescue chopper came in to pick them up.  John had the option when he returned to be shipped stateside, and instead, cross-trained to Ship’s Serviceman, to work in a ship’s laundry and earn his retirement pay.  It was John and Doc, who kept me out of trouble in those next days until the ship headed back out to sea, this time with myself on it.

The Long Beach was deployed from 1976 to 1977.  During the time I was attached to the ship, I was involved in:

  1. Bar brawls in the merchant marines bar ( in Port Louis, Mauritius, I found out that a whiskey bottle will break a man’s head, rather than break when it is used as a weapon)
  2. Underway Replenishment (I remember pushing tons of frozen meat down a chute stamped “Not Fit for Air Force consumption)
  3. Cleaning toilets that exploded with Collection Holding and Transfer (CHT) sewage (I was armed with boots, rubber gloves and an ample supply of Lysol and brushes)
  4. Witnessing the very last true missile launch, the TALOS missile truly was a sight to see, feel, and hear.  The entire ship shuddered when it was launched, lost at over 300 nautical miles, the missile was still on its flight trajectory.
  5. Riding through a typhoon (I was told that when the ship listed to a certain point, the superstructure would snap off)
  6. The Ugandan conflict (I was issued a .45 and 10 rounds of ammunition.  It was the day that I found I was “expendable”)
  7. Dealing with the captain when the Combat Information Center (CIC) was not supplying information (we were moving to plane guard station, 500 yards off the stern of the USS Enterprise. My operator down in CIC kept telling me “not to sweat it”)
  8. Finding out what it was like to be out in the Indian Ocean at midnight, looking at a clear, cloudless night sky — so many stars surrounding a huge moon over a surface that was as smooth as glass
  9. Discovering what it was like to return home, after so many months, knowing that no one (absolutely no one) would be on the pier to greet me — a very empty feeling

My time on the USS Long Beach (CGN-9) was short.  I was soon transferred to my “A” school for training to become an Operations Specialist in Great Lakes, Illinois.  I not only learned how dreadfully cold it can get, when winds blow across the lakes, but I almost washed out of the program there, were it not for an astute instructor who realized that the reason I was failing all of my tests came from a lack of confidence…garbage that I had taken from my family telling over and over again that I was a failure.  He gave me very important advice that I have followed to this day.  His tact was simple, since I only had one more chance to graduate, or be washed out and become a deckhand, chipping paint for the “rest of my life”.  He said, “Just say to yourself, not now Mom, not now Dad, I don’t have time for you right now.”  That instructor was right, I was not stupid.  I had been holding myself back all that time in school.  Up to that point, I had been scoring in the 50’s and 60’s, just not “getting it”.  I took his advice on that last test, my hands shaking and trembling as I scored my answers, repeating to myself throughout the entire test, “Not now Mom, not now Dad, I don’t have time for you right now.”  The results were nothing short of amazing.  The tests that had been holding me back all that time became simple.  I scored 98% on that test, and continued to score in the high 90’s until I completed my training.  I followed the advice I was given through my entire 20 years that followed, and on into college.  To this day, I am a person who consistently scores high on my tests, completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science with a 3.5 average, and my Master of Arts in Education with a 4.0 average.  That single event in a small, no-name military school in Great Lakes, Illinois, changed the very course of my life.

More to come…

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