By lex, on January 17th, 2004
I joined the Navy to see the world – only to find out that the world was two-thirds water…
My first deployment ever was onboard USS CONSTELLATION, in 1987. I joined the ship mid-cruise, in the North Arabian Sea.
The first thing that struck me as I disembarked the cargo plane that had unceremoniously dumped me and my belongings on the deck, was that the FA-18′s scattered about the flight deck were carrying live missiles. I’d never even seen them before. I will save for another day perhaps, the story of how I almost shot my squadron CO down on my first flight in the fleet, except to note that had I done so, my supply of sea stories would have long since been exhausted…
Shortly after I arrived on board, the ship had a “beer day.” Although our Navy is a dry navy, if a warship has been at sea for greater than 45 continuous days, and will not have a port visit within the next five, everyone not on watch gets two beers. It usually is held in conjunction with a flight deck picnic, and although it does help to break up the monotony, you wouldn’t boast of having several on one cruise – it would mean you hadn’t been ashore in far too long a period of time. Since I had not been at sea for the full 45 days, no beer for me.
And since I was the freshest lieutenant in the squadron, it only seemed fair that I volunteer for duty the first day in port, in Perth, Western Australia, after we rotated off the line, having been relieved by the oncoming carrier, and started the long voyage home.
Of all the ports to visit in the Western Pacific, Perth is perhaps the most treasured – it is to a sailor, very nearly a paradise. There was a great deal of energy and enthusiasm as we neared the port stop. An electricity in the air – stories of previous visits were exchanged, the sum of which seemed to be that Australian women were both beautiful and amenable, and the beer excellent and plentiful.
Every night at sea, one of the ship’s chaplains will say a prayer at 2200. Some can ramble, in that good ol’ fashioned congregational way: “Lord, we just want to thank you Lord, for being so wonderful and good to us, Lord – and for all the wonderful and beautiful things you do for us Lord. And Lord…” and so on, leaving those of raised in a more liturgical rite to wonder if they were ever going to get to the point.
Others are more gifted with brevity, but few were as brief and to the point as the chaplain who spoke to all of us on the loudspeaker the evening before we entered Perth. This particular gent was a rather dour soul at the best of times (and I regret to say, an Episcopalian) and he ended the evening with this prayer at taps: “Lord, let us pray for the married men, that they be faithful to their wives in Perth. Amen”.
Pointed and timely, to be sure, but this was followed by a low, animal groan, that could be heard throughout the ship.
My first day in port, standing duty and on the flight deck in my wash khakis, I watched somewhat wistfully as my brothers bustled ashore. There were ferry boats to take the crew ashore from the anchorage, and milling among these boats were others, both powered and sail, that blew horns and waved welcomes to the ship and shore-going sailors. Greenpeace boats there also were, with protest signs and antic gestures.
I was a bit non-plussed to observe that quite a few boats had as deck hands ladies who were dressed only as God had made them, which is to say not at all. I would later discover that they were in the employ of certain entertainment venues ashore, and these displays were only a sampler, as it were.
The duty day was thankfully uneventful, no more than a handful of the paralytic drunks brought back aboard by the shore patrol were from my squadron. And so it passed that the next day I was relieved by a sated, jaded and thoroughly disaffected brother officer, who signed the log book assuming the watch, and then crawled back in his rack for the first sleep he’d had since the night before we entered port.
Just after getting ashore, I made my way to the first phone booth I could find, and called the Hobbit, to whom I had not spoken in two months. Rather than the joyful voice on the other end, I detected a certain frostiness – after the initial greetings, she asked how I had gotten ashore.
“There are boats, it turns out. ” was my reply.
“With naked women on them?” Ahhh. Now I understood. Someone had called home with his observations on the festivities of the first day, that news had spread more rapidly than SARS among the wives club, and in the Hobbit’s mind, all boats were conflated into one. I told that in point of fact, the ferry boats were entirely separate from the ones with the naked women on them, but this did not have entirely the tranquilizing effect that I had expected and hoped for.
Perth was in fact wonderful, and the people treated us marvelously well. The theory was that the Australian population was still grateful for that long past time when all that stood between her shores and assimilation into the Japanese Empire’s Greater Southeast-Asia Co-prosperity sphere was the US Navy. Be that as it may, we were welcome by nearly all, and made to feel quite at home.
And Perth reminded me then (and still does now) of what San Diego must have felt like back in the ’50s. Golf, sailing, shopping and wandering the streets, being to varying degrees careful not to look the wrong way when crossing the streets, in order to avoid getting struck by a car driving on the “wrong” side of the road. (The variances in vigilance directly proportional to the amount of adult beverages consumed – we did not sail from Perth injury-free.)
Wonderful weather, beautiful beaches, but not so terribly crowded. It was enough like home for us to feel comfortable, and different enough to be fascinating. The beer was in fact wonderful, and I’m told that the women were in fact welcoming.
Not that I could attest to that personally.