Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Scrape

Have you ever been in a harrowing situation completely unsure of why you’re there, and only after you toughed it out did you discover it was for a different reason than the one you were given before you took the leap? I remember one such incident with humor now, but when it was happening I was scared beyond anything I had felt up to that time in my young life. And while I was a bit scuffed up afterward, it ultimately helped make me the plucky person I am today.

I joined the Navy when still 18, my 19th birthday occurred while I was in boot camp, so as you can imagine, I was quite naïve. My Mother sent me a box full of brownies and various cookies which I had to go to the Company Commander’s office to retrieve. BMC Watts, I’ll never forget him – our company mascot was a bulldog and that’s just what his face looked like, his big droopy jowls and squinty eyes giving him a laid back appearance. That is until he opened his mouth and started barking orders like the drill sergeant he was. So, as I innocently knocked on his door I was unprepared for the razzing he gave me.

“So you want your cookies that mommy made for you Hazelton? Too bad me and the other Commanders already ate your little treat, you’re in boot camp now Rick (short for recruit) you only eat if we say you eat.”

Now I was green but I knew what it was to be busted, I had endured my own fair share of people lording over me just because they could, but what he didn’t know was that I could maintain a stone face that it was hard to see through, and this is exactly what I did saying, “Well I guess there’s no need for me to stand here any longer, request permission to return to barracks sir.”

This caught him off guard; I imagine he had prepared himself for some whining but I would give him no such satisfaction, so he quickly recovered and said, “I guess you don’t want this then.” and he held a small opened cardboard box in his hands for me to see. Thinking the test was over I began walking towards him to get it, boy was that a mistake.

“Just where do you think you’re going Rick? Did I give you permission to enter this room? (I had been standing in the doorway this whole time) “If you want this you have to prove you want it, how about some push ups?”

My deprived young body was craving homemade sweets so I dropped saying “How many Sir?” to which he replied (while half reclined on a couch), “Just start doing them, I’ll let you know when you’ve earned your package.”

After about twenty he grudgingly told me to stop and gruffly threw the box at me as I stood. “Don’t get used to that stuff, go share it with your crew.” And that was my first inclination that martial bullshit, er I mean discipline wasn’t really for me.

Anyways, fast-forward several months and I was at my ship, the USS Briscoe, a destroyer with a crew of about 300 on board. I had already started getting my sea legs when on the way over I had a brief stay on a Marine transport until my ship was close enough to reach with a helicopter. While on the transport, the USS Ponce, I had liberty and enjoyed some time in Haifa, Israel, experiencing some local flavors, mainly ouzo. When I woke up hung over, and felt that rocking motion of being on water, I felt the gorge rapidly rising. But I had learned at a young age that if I really set my mind to something I could make it so. I remember lying in that bunk for a good hour with my eyes closed, fighting the nausea that kept coming in waves, just like the Mediterranean, and telling myself ‘if you give in now you will always have issues, but if you can stomach this you will never be seasick’. Well I never did get sick then or any time after that, regardless how rough the sea was, a small victory but a win nonetheless.

So I had only been on the ship maybe one day and they told me to report to the forecastle for my duty assignment. As I walk out onto the front deck of the ship, I see the chief of my department, his second and another seaman, so I’m not thinking anything of it. The second in command, a tall thin guy with a very pointy nose named John McGlone aka Spike, did the talking. He had a gravelly voice with the slightest hint of a southern accent, a very personable guy, but right then he was all business.

“Seaman Hazelton” he said in a very stern voice, “We are, as you can see, underway in the Mediterranean Sea which is made of salt water. We are on a vessel made of steel. Do you know what happens when salt water meets steel Seaman Hazelton? Rust! This is something we cannot have, so a big part of our job is maintaining the ship which includes regular scraping and painting of all surfaces that show exposed metal, any questions?”

At that point I had none, it all seemed pretty straightforward to me. “Now Seaman Hazelton, have you ever heard of a boatswain’s chair?” I indicated I had not which prompted him to bend down and pick up a small plank of wood, barely wide enough to hold my skinny ass, which I had ignored up till then. It was very much like a makeshift swing with two ropes knotted through the wood on either end. “This is a boatswain’s chair and we are going to use it to lower you over the side so you can scrape the anchor.”

Excuse me? Had I just heard what I thought I heard? It’s a friggin’ anchor for Christ sake, why would you possibly want to scrape something like that? It was half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and from my vantage point on the deck about 40 feet above the water, it looked like it had a lot of exposed metal. Now I was good at keeping my mouth shut and going with the flow but I finally said, “Are you sure, it will take me hours to scrape that. What am I supposed to use?” Spike gave me a sardonic smile and handed me a small wire brush, “Here you go, now try to clean the metal the best you can."

I have to admit, when I first got there I was mesmerized by the beauty of the Mediterranean and loved the smell of salty breezes, but then, on that deck, my mind was gripped by horror. I wasn’t the best swimmer and first going over the edge and then dangling there under that anchor was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. The water was literally as smooth as glass and there was almost no wind. The ship had been fully stopped for this procedure and I just kept picturing myself falling out of the chair, or worse yet that anchor suddenly busting free and taking me to meet Davy Jones personally. I tried my best to scrape but when I pushed against the anchor to actually remove some rust the chair would go swinging out into the air. Oh, it almost makes me sick just thinking about it.

After about ten minutes which seemed like 10 years, I noticed that the breeze had picked up and when I looked at the waterline I could see movement so I yelled up to the guys on deck. “Hey are we supposed to be moving?”

“We’re not, don’t worry about it.” came the disembodied response.

“Yeah well you better look again.”

“Holy shit we are moving, hurry pull him up!” and suddenly my little swing started rising up to the deck very quickly. Two sets of hands roughly grabbed my arms and yanked me over the edge of the deck scraping my torso and legs. Spike stood there with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth (glad they were so concerned for my safety) and started laughing. When he looked at me there was more respect in his eyes and when he spoke his voice was much less stern than it had been. “They weren’t supposed to move again until we gave them the word you were back up, that is extremely dangerous, are you OK?”

I said “Yeah, a little scraped up but I’ll be alright. I didn’t clean the metal very well so I don’t think the paint will stick when we…” I had stopped for Spike and the other two were laughing openly.

“Listen” said Spike, “It was just a test, we were seeing if you would do what we told you and how well you handle pressure, we have to know if we can count on you in case something goes down. You have to understand we could be attacked at any time or have some kind of disaster and the ship start sinking, we had to know what you’re about.”

Realizing I had just been hazed I said, “Well, how did I do?”

Spike said with a smile “Outstanding Hazelton, you’re alright.” And just like that I was one of the guys. He told me later that some people flat out refused to go over the side; some freaked out and had to be pulled up early. Very few it seemed handled it with the grace I had exhibited, if they only knew, I had to change my undies after that one.

If nothing else, that experience taught me I can do anything, even if I get chafed along the way and I’ve always been grateful that I wasn’t in the engine department, for their hazing ritual involved a grease gun and a certain orifice, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination – talk about traumatic predicaments.

4 comments:

Lynn Proctor said...

and this is what us mothers worry about---glad you made it!

richard said...

well, from one old salt to another;
well done! 59-63, Pacific.

rch said...

Hey Lynn, me too!

Well richard I'll buy ya a beer c[]

drink up!

Paul Andrew Russell said...

I enjoyed reading this, Bob. :-)