Now, set condition ‘This Ain’t No Shit’ throughout the ship!!!
Over the years I’ve told a gazillion stories about the ‘Canoe Club of Old’ where the world was wild, forbidding, perilous and looming with snake oil peddlers and iniquitous dames waiting outside the gate and of the drifting fog that swallowed ships whole and how we weathered storms of unknown origin!! Well it was also a place and time where there was an endless supply of room temperature IQs and plenty of stupidity to go around!!!
On the Baglady, I was a young lad who didn’t have much direction… but several of my compadres had decided to work towards their Enlisted Surface Warfare Qualifications (ESWS)! This was back in the day before it was mandatory, and you had to be an E-4 or above to qualify!! I must admit, I didn’t have much drive to accomplish such a task, especially since I knew I was only gonna finish one tour and get out… so I thought!!!
Well this ol’ ship was beginning to show its age! She used the most sophisticated of Fifties technology and if you found Stonehenge carvings in a cave somewhere with ancient arrowheads and such… you probably saw the ol’ Baglady up there as well!! I suppose the Navy needed to make room for some new shiny toys, so that’s why they got rid of the Knox Frigates!!!
Part of ESWS quals was going down in the Engineering spaces and learning all the dials, knobs, and gauges associated with the different pieces of rusted & whistling circus calliopes deep in that underworld! I had to get in good with one of the Snipes if I wanted a tour down in the hole… the pit… the place where no one dared to go without invitation!! I knew just the guy!!!
Pat the Electrician was the fella I had in mind! He wasn’t a pit snipe per say, but he had good reason as any to enter the dwellings down below!! I was damned determined to get a few pearls of wisdom from him as well as anyone he could introduce me too in the belly of the beast!!!
There was always someone on watch down in the pit! The trick was finding the friendlier ones!! There were a few Pit Snipes I needed to be watchful of!! I knew of their antics through celebrated shipboard folklore… and lord knows I didn’t wanna run into those animals at the wrong time or place in their neighborhood!!!
After some discussion with Pat, he agreed to give me the Grande Tour, or his best guess of it in the pits while introducing me to the zoo animals down below! Before we headed in he handed me a broomstick…
“There’s 1200 pounds of steam coming outta them pipes… and it can cut you in half!”
The broom was carried in front so if there was a steam leak, the telltale sign would cut into the broom instead of me!! Hell, I just figured it might be of good measure in case them bastards tried to hog tie me into the overhead!!!
I remember a sign hanging over the hatch at the top of the ladder going down…
‘IF YOU THINK YOUR DAY IS GOING WELL, YOU AIN’T PAYING ATTENTION’
Now let me tell you something about Enginerooms back in the day if you hadn’t grown up as a pit snipe! They’re hot, noisy, dirty and often smelled of greasy bilges!! There’s fuel and flammable lube oil, steam, and plenty of electricity going around to make one helluva spark!! To a pea-sized brain of an idiot it could be a constant fire hazard!!!
The first thing of note was the noise! You had to where double earing protection in many areas as it sounded like WWIII was about to erupt!! We wore ear muffs called Mickey Mouse Ears giving the appearance of a dozen John Belushi ‘Wild Bill Kelso’ characters prancing around tapp’n gauges and turning valves!!!
There was a lot of sweat’n and grunt’n going around for all and plenty of pipes, valve stems, and steep ladderwells to fall down or break things while putting you in a mild coma! One thing was for damned sure… it was hotter than a marathon runner’s jockstrap in that place… like the waiting area at the gates of hell!!!
As we walked by a few snipes it was apparent they weren’t skipp’n and sing’n sea shanties in that hell hole! Their faces were hard and many of them could scare the bejesus outta decent people without saying a damned thing!! They didn’t appear much of a friendly bunch from first glance!!!
The deeper into the Engine Room we got, the louder the grinding and thumping of diesel and steel and the squealing of hydraulic and steam with a rattle here and there! There was odd whining and vibrating at the high end of the audio range coming from every direction!! These old steam engines sounded like a giant bloated cow gett’n ready for the slaughter!! The shit all looked ancient… like stuff outta museums!!!
I knew that being a twidget, I was about as welcome as a fart in a phone booth down in these parts! Pat introduced me to a fella who looked like he’d just experienced a retroactive abortion!! He had a face like a bag of greasy spanners, chewing Copenhagen and spitting into a soda can… maybe into someone else’s soda can… who knows!!!
“Swing, this is such-n-such… this is Swing! He’s work’n on his ESWS!”
… He looked me over once or twice…
“So what do you want to know?”
“Well, I suppose I want to know what it takes to move the ship through the water!”
… I must have came across sounding like a smartass though it wasn’t intentional!
“You got a Power Drive, Reduction Gears, and a shaft that turns a propeller… Suck’n Two, spinn’n One… going that-a-way… any more questions?”
I suppose that was short, sweet & to the point, but not exactly was I had in mind! Then a First Class came around the corner and I had a little sigh of relief as things were getting tense!!!
“Aah, it’s you guys! I had to make sure you weren’t Chief or the Cheng! They like to wander down here and catch some dumb ass doing something they ain't supposed to be doing. It’s part of their job description I suppose!”
Pat introduces me to the First Class and explains what I’m down there for…
“I’ve been told that Chief Such-n-Such is on the ESWS board and has a fascination with things of no relevance… You ain’t passing that board unless they want you too!”
“I’m sure I’ll do okay as long as I study!”
“Listen kid… I’ve been around the world three times, been to several of those Goat Fucks in the Chief’s Mess and rode the shaft at least twice, not by design… I know what I’m talking about!”
Yeah, this twidget wasn’t getting nowhere down in Snipe Country and probably needed to build a little rapport before kneeling at the Gates of Hell…
“Yeah, well this info doesn’t come for free! No one gets out of here alive, especially a fresh air fag like you… this is home of the long shafts and you’re about to get shafted!”
Next thing I know, ‘Strong like Bear & Smart like Tractor’ comes outta nowhere with cutoff green coveralls grabbing ahold of my collar!
“You’d ever drink Bilge Wine?”
“Wha-wha-What’s Bilge Wine?”
“It’s like moonshine that didn’t get run through the radiator enough!”
“Doesn’t sound too good to me!”
… About this time I was shaking in my boots!
“Oh come on now… which would you rather do, drink a quart of our infamous Jonestown Bilge-Wine laced with snipe sweat or eat the contents out of a duplex strainer… your choice?”
… That’s when he put me in a headlock while one of his henchmen grabbed me by the feet!
“Dude… You smell like a bucket of horse shit!”
… And that’s when the duct tape came out, and I knew I was gonna end up ten feet in the overhead or hang’n upside down in the nastiest part of the bilge!
Then one of the Chiefs came around the corner…
“Knock off the bullshit and get back to work! This ain’t no place for lollygagging!”
… Saved by the Gauddamned Bell!
“I like you… You remind me of myself when I was young and stupid! If you really want to learn about Engineering Spaces, a couple of midwatches in the hole will take the bloom off your dewy rose in the morn!”
From that point I was look’n for the nearest door or hatch outta the place! I was sweat’n harder than a pedophile at Chuck E Cheese!! Besides, I would’ve done anything to get away from the inane, vapid, nuttiness inflicted by some of those low-wattage Troglodytes from down under the deck plates and in the pits!!! Some of those sons-a-bitches had real personality disorders…!!!
But really… The guys in the hole were funny, irreverent, caustic, and once you got in good with them dirty bastards, you made a friend for life! They made weirdness piled on improbability poured over the incomprehensible seem as ordinary as breakfast!! And that’s just how they rolled!!!
That was my first encounter with the Pit Snipe in his hollowed layer… and I never did get my ESWS onboard that ship! It took me two more tours before I took it seriously!! She was an old ship the Baglady was… Old, Stunk, and falling apart at the seams!! One of the Engineers told me it only had three leaks down there… Air, oil, & water… But they loved every minute of it!!!
But that was looong ago… so many ships and so many Westpacs in this here Canoe Club! It was like an Ice Cream Cone… ‘Enjoy it before it melts’ so they say!!!
And to those old school snipes I met so many years ago? It’s said that Snipes are the first aboard and last ashore when liberty goes down… their job, truly is never done!!!