Sunday, September 16, 2012

Back in Port

Yeah, come on all of you, big strong men,

Uncle Sam needs your help again.

He's got himself in a terrible jam

Way down yonder in Vietnam

So put down your books and pick up a gun,

We're gonna have a whole lotta fun.

The year was 1967, and the war was doing quite well, thank you very much. This was before the lottery, and who knew who would get the greetings from uncle. So, when I got the invitation to participate in that overseas conflict, I did the only thing a hippy could do, I enlisted: US Navy, six years, Advanced Electronics  Program, gonna learn a skill.

After a short summer of fun in Libby, Montana (gotta love that 90 day delayed enlistment), I was on an airplane to Chicago destined for the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Eleven weeks of boot camp followed by six weeks of Basic Electricity and Electronics (BE&E), twelve weeks of Electronics Technician ‘A’ school, five weeks of Electronics Technician ‘C’ school, and then on to Lowry Air Force Base, Denver, Colorado to attend Precision Measuring Equipment Calibration School for 26 weeks.

So, with leaves and travel, I had been in the Navy nearly two years before I reported for duty here at the Naval Operations Base, Norfolk, Virginia — home of the Atlantic Fleet. By then I was a Third Class Electronics Technician and I was assigned to the USS Vulcan, AR-5. This lady was the oldest tender in the service and her sisters, the Ajax, Hector, and Jason (AR-6 through 8 respectively) had already been put up in mothballs. I think the Vulcan’s closest living relative was the Amphion, AR-13, over in Holy Lock (NAVSUPPACT), Scotland was about it.

(And don’t you just love those old Navy group names? It was years later during my time at IBM I leaned the raw power of an acronym, but the NAVPERS did act as teething rings.)

Repair ships were built to maintain the big boys, cruisers, battle wagons. It was a world of submarine tenders, destroyer tenders, and the Vulcan. I don't know what ship took care of the carriers. Possibly they were so big they could take care of themselves.

She was an old WWII survivor with four, five inch guns. Now I never saw (heard) {felt} the big sixteeners go off on ships like the New Jersey, but boy those five inchers were something. They let us up on deck one day near Cuba to watch those babies fire. Really something. She actually had wooden decks, planking on top of the metal plate. She was a fine lady and doing well for her age. All the electronics and precision mechanical spaces were made of aluminum welded to the top of the old gal. We were Division R5, Electronics Repair (67A), Calibration Lab (67B), and the Watch and Clock Repair shop. (They fixed typewriters too.)

Now the Vulcan was pretty much welded to the dock. We sat in port day-in and day-out while ships in need of repair service would park alongside, sometimes four abreast, and we’d wine and dine them ‘till they were ship-shape again.

The day I arrived we had the Palm Beach, sister ship to the Pueblo, alongside installing deck guns and armor — getting the barn door closed after the horses had already galloped. (Those with a good education in history know the North Koreans captured the USS Pueblo, a Navy spy ship, in January, 1968. The ship was not armed and it was a serious problem for uncle.)

The Vulcan was my home away from home until that happy day in ’73 when I said goodbye to the dungarees (well, actually I kept wearing the dungarees) and headed back west. I rented a house on shore that I shared with various shipmates through the years and drove in to work each day.

I spent four years here on the coast of Virginia and had many adventures and good friendships. I’ve now returned to the scene of the crime, only I’m in the slightly more upscale Virginia Beach rather than the old abode at 8240 McCloy Rd. Many a good times at both places.

We would take the gray lady out a couple of times a year just to make sure we all knew how to do that. Many an exotic port was visited from Jamaica to Puerto Rico to Burmuda and Cuba (GTMO). We also sailed up to Nova Scotia, but my favorite port was always Fort Lauderdale. So I got my sea legs, but never was a pollywog.

When I got out of the Navy, we had two parties to celebrate. The first was public, held at a house on Willoughby Spit, and it lasted two days of party, music, fun, and frankly that’s all I can remember. It was at that party that I first met Linda. I guess I made a good impression because to this day she talks about my clogs I was wearing. Well, clogs went well with bell bottoms.

The other party was a private get together with just a few close friends: Joe and Pat, Bottman, Mark Foreman, a couple of others. We spent that night here at VA Beach. Memory is a little fuzzy on that one too. Did we ride our bikes or drive down?

Anyway, I’m back. This morning is rather windy and the surf is up. Headed down for a cup of joe and little walk on the boardwalk. It is chilly today, but I’ve got my Haines, Alaska “water resistant” jacket. F-15’s overhead, blue sky and gray ocean, smell of crab in the air, time to unwind.

Originally written Sept. 16, 2011, during a stay at Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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