Saturday, January 04, 2014

Blue Water Sailors - The Original Gus

In foreign ports sailors somewhat frequently use the terms “blue water/brown water” to distinguish the nature of their sea service from other sailors they see on the streets and in the joints.  Brown water sailors were those who sailed in shallow waters…rivers and just off-shore, such as Riverenes and the Coast Guard.  Blue Water sailors went out where the water was very deep, very blue, and rose up into massive waves so they, with reasonable justification, thought of themselves as the real sailors swaggering on the streets.  It was a good-humored joshing where even the Brown Water sailors tended to acknowledge the differences; the acknowledgement usually forced by a question: "have you guys ever gone out far enough to be in water above your knees?"

The original Gus, shown skylarking above, only recently popped up on my screen.  He had apparently attended a ship's reunion 2-3 years ago and in his own inimitable fashion, chose to wear a c.1968 set of whites.  However, if those whites are his originals, then he's done a fine job of keeping himself fit after all these years.  Maybe, maybe not.  In other pictures he looks a little larger as most of us are.

Gus was a bona-fide Blue Water Sailor and this picture is part of the was taken as the ship was riding out a heavy sea similar to the one shown in the video clip a couple of articles back.  He's standing just outside of the sheltered bridge area so he could feel the full force of Typhoon Wendy that was moving slowly across the Tonkin Gulf in early September.  The waves were massive and the spray stung out there where he was standing.  At some point in its life, Wendy was a Cat 5.

An interesting character, Gus was a recent UCLA graduate who raised his right hand and swore his oath of allegiance at the same time and in the same room as did I...we were the only two lads present that morning so, I suppose we were destined to be service pals, and we were.  Unfortunately for Gus, he was a political science major, a course of study that most techie types would suggest, involves no science.  His problem was that the Navy testing and classification routines strongly favored those with some math and science capabilities.  Original Gus apparently had few of those skills.  However, in most other respects he was a lively and intelligent shipmate, if a bit idiosyncratic.

The Reserves.  Reserves were not particularly well-received by the USN regulars we found aboard ship.  And after reading Manchester, Jones, and Mauldin, among others, I'm of the opinion that enlisted service people are pretty universally seen by the Regular (read: career) service management structures as no more than canon fodder and, in a sense that's exactly what they are.  Jones wrote most eloquently about that situation following his WWII service.

But, the Guses and other Reserves like them presented a new kind of challenge to Regular Navy management.  The nature of the Vietnam War and the constant threat of the Draft forced all young men age 18-26 during those years to deal with military service in some fashion.  Almost overnight the more selective services, Navy and the Air Force, had a significant rise in the quality of their recruits as tons of college-trained lads came into the Draft pool.  Not all of them wanted to be officers, which required almost twice the time on active duty.  Further, neither the Navy nor the Air Force ever had to rely on the Draft to fill their manpower needs during the Vietnam War…there was a ready supply of high quality volunteers from which to choose.  Those volunteers were recognized by the Navy management as being a pretty smart group...esp. the Reserves since they had figured out how to get done in 2-years what others were taking 4-years to do.

So, there was Gus, BA-UCLA, reporting aboard to start his 2-years of ACDU (active duty) as a Seaman.  However, since the Reserve unit had not declared him a "striker" for anything, what to do with him?  Other Reservists that had scored well on the classification tests had been designated as “strikers” for the various technical ratings aboard ships….radio, machinists, electronics, sonar, radar, fire control, etc.  Sometime during the preceding year a rather dour Reserve Commander asked me if I wanted to be a "striker" for one of the technical jobs...and me not knowing what he was talking about said, "sure, why not."  And with that brief exchange my cruise was destined to be a fairly decent experience.

Gus apparently didn't get the same deal.  When about 4 of us reported aboard late one afternoon, we were directed to the front compartment of the ship...up in the bow.  That was the standard response to all new reports for, up there was 1st Division...the deck apes...the Bosuns...later to be observed as the crappiest jobs on the ship.  Fortunately, just before settling in, a black Petty Officer, one of the first blacks I had ever seen in a working situation, rushed into the compartment and called my name along with one other guy, told us to grab our kit, and follow him.  Unfortunately for Gus, his wasn't one of the names called...and there he stayed with the deck apes for the entire 7-month cruise!

Sailor Gus.  So, before an hour had passed, Gus and I had been separated to pursue different tasks aboard ship.  We would remain in those separate assignments for the duration of our 7-month cruise of the Western Pacific.  My new digs were near the back of the ship where the ride was smoothest and the berthing space was quite a bit larger.  Technical rates were well cared-for aboard ship.

Meanwhile, Gus had to learn how to deal with living in the much smaller, much rougher riding space in the bow.  But, worse than that, he had to deal with the ship’s Bosun…a really foul tempered jerk who rarely spoke loud enough to be heard.  Gus, an ebullient, outgoing soul had problems with that jerk from the very beginning.  He told me that he had reminded his new boss that “we” are all on the same side here, what’s the problem?  Gus never elaborated beyond that but, I can imagine that the dour prick he was stuck with was just one of those consistently ugly types.

Deck Apes were responsible for the heavy lifting aboard ship…handling mooring lines, anchors, gangways, life-lines, railings, and every square-inch of the main deck from fore to aft…down to the waterline.  In addition, they manned the helm steering the ship, and handled all PA announcements from the bridge.

Gus never did any of that…for reasons I never knew.  I suspect that Gus simply presented such a foreign attitude with a cheerful countenance such as the jerk had never before seen, it simply overwhelmed the jackass.  Next thing we knew, Gus was in charge of cleaning the interior passageways…every night, all night long!  That suited Gus just fine because he never had any further reason to deal with the jerk for the rest of the cruise…no supervisor and he was free every day after catching what sleep he could.  During those days, on his own initiative, he spent time with the QMs…the ship’s navigators and let them know he was interested in working with them.

To my knowledge, Gus was never formally accepted in the QM section aboard ship, nor promoted to the Petty Officer rank he’s wearing in the picture.  We left active duty about the same time, when we returned home.  Our contract required 2 additional years of weekly drills so, he may have gotten his crow then.  I wouldn’t know, as I never attended any of those post active duty drills.  Life’s trolley pulled out of the station with me aboard shortly after discharge.  The first picture shows Gus wearing a Signalman’s crow; how that came to be, I wouldn’t know…he never worked with the Sigs while we were underway.

Gus, the Trust Fund Yuppie.  Few, but me, aboard ship knew that Gus was a member of a wealthy Southern California family.  He grew up on a Palos Verdes Peninsula estate located a few miles south of LAX and had traveled extensively with his family during his childhood.  His family home was surrounded by several acres of Eucalyptus groves with pathways carved throughout the woods, interspersed with randomly placed fire pits.  Coupled with the mild climate, the social gatherings around those fires were something special.

Gus and his siblings lived in a separate residential structure apart from the main house.  So, in retrospect, it seems that much of Gus’s odd personality was probably self determined from an environment of significant freedom all his young life.  He was one of those one-of-a-kind characters.

First order of business after a month at sea was to find a roof-top beer garden overlooking the harbor, then a good restaurant for a big steak, and a friendly flow of smooth hooch.

Three California lads doing what they already knew how to do…briefly friends of a common experience, destined to become a lawyer, an engineer, and a preacher.  Guess which was which.



Anonymous said...

Will there be a prize?
Left is the Preacher Man.
Center is the Engineer BlogMan.
Right is the LawMan.

Gus said...

That's right. The lawman really puzzled the Japanese. A Nisei himself, he spoke in a flawlessly neutral Northern California dialect and spoke not one syllable of Japanese.

The Japanese were forever trying to learn more about him and his family, asking him endless questions, to which he would grin and reply, "I'm sorry but, I don't understand a thing you're saying." And they would both laugh.