A Dry Navy

By lex, Sun – March 21, 2004

On July 1st, 1914, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels published General Order No. 99, to wit:

“The use or introduction for drinking purposes of alcoholic liquors on board any naval vessel, or within any navy yard or station, is strictly prohibited, and commanding officers will be held directly responsible for the enforcement of this order.”

The law would go into effect on the 1st of July, 1914. In doing so, Secretary Daniels finally put an official quietus on the Navy’s history with alcohol, a history that went back to the grog rations and wine messes of the revolutionary Navy.

I’m pretty sure he also guaranteed that the evening of 30 June, 1914, saw more than its share of intoxicated naval officers in the fleet, desperately trying to drink their way to the bottom of the mess investment before heaving the remainders into an indifferent and ungrateful sea.

“Medicinal” alcohol was still preserved, and over the years the definition of medicinal, as well as a rather informal process for selecting who had control over that definition, evolved. And as Humpty Dumpty told Alice, control over the meaning of words makes all the difference:

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all’

So I guess it’s fair to say that by the time I had first sailed the sea in ships, carrying the president’s commission in my breast pocket there were of the assembled several hundred officers aboard the USS CONSTELLATION, perhaps a few who had sufficient mastery of the mother tongue to declare that their own private stores of alcohol were for medicinal purposes. This would have been again, a rather informal process, from a strict “Uniform Code of Military Justice / Naval Regulations” standpoint.

That’s what I heard, anyway. No personal knowledge. Senator.

And because this mastery over words and their meanings would not receive the universal approbation of the many and various stern authority figures aboard that great flagship (all of whom had, unbelievably, once been young), there were probably measures to ensure operational security. First, I expect that there was to be no drinking unless the next day was a no-fly day. It simply wouldn’t do to degrade one’s performance in such a difficult and dangerous environment by bathing the synapses in depressants. Also, something as simple as a blown tire on landing could result in a pilot being asked to part with some bodily fluids for the investigation, if any damage had been done. Difficult questions would be asked of him if he was found to have alcohol traces in his system. There would be frowns, and professional ramifications.

Second, it is very likely that gin and vodka were the poisons of choice, since they are odorless. Sailors have a nose for beer, and a ship is in many ways a very small village. Which might have led to many strange personal requests for the Carrier Onboard Delivery, or COD transport crews: “Get you anything from the beach?” they might ask.

“How about some tonic water, and some limes?” might come the answer.

“Got it.”

Third, there were probably many and sundry smuggling schemes – golf bags were no doubt a favorite technique, some might use the mails (risky!) and others perhaps flew their stores aboard inside their airplanes at the beginning of deployment. Personal bags from ashore were probably not used, by and large, since those were subject to search. It is even possible that one fellow I heard about had a hollowed out pair of stereo speakers that could have come back aboard from port visits somewhat heavier than they had gone ashore.

Finally, it is almost certain that alcohol containers were to be promptly disposed of when they had been fully relieved of their contents – it would be one thing to get busted for having booze on the ship, another thing entirely to get busted for having empties.

I heard a story one day concerning three fellows of my acquaintance. It is a sea story of course, so there is no absolute way to vouch for its accuracy. The whole thing could be a work of fiction, a product of fevered imaginations and too much time at sea. No way to know.

I’ll relate this story as though it had actually happened, with all the previous caveats in place. So:

The three were roomates, and one dark and peaceful night It fell to one of them to commit the remains of an empty vessel to the deep. The dead soldier was placed in the hollows of a parachute bag, and the designated gent made his way through the darkened, less traveled and somewhat unfamiliar passageways leading outboard to the port side of the ship. High, high above the wave tops, having first glanced nervously about to ensure that he would not be caught in the act, he held the empty bottle over the deck edge, and somewhat reluctantly let it drop. He calculated it would take some three to four seconds until he heard the reassuring splash below. He was (to say the least) somewhat nonplussed to hear, after only half the calculated interval, the sound of a bottle breaking on a missile sponson, invisible in the darkness and only half way to the water’s edge. In his mind’s eye he could see the label holding bits of glass together for identification’s sake, probably holding fingerprints as well.

Voices were raised in alarm, and all across the flight deck, flashlights could be seen sweeping back and forth, while bobbing slightly up and down as folks came running to investigate the noise. Our hero briefly contemplated throwing himself into the sea, in the hopes that he might save himself the shame of arrest by drowning, or alternatively might divert attention from the bottle bits littering the sponson below to a man overboard rescue.

Whichever.

But no. Cooler thinking prevailed.

Instead he ducked back into the passageway, and happening on his own squadron’s ordnance work center, burst through the hatch to the manifest surprise and consternation of the assembled night check ordnancemen. These worthies were highly unaccustomed to visits from junior officers not in their direct chain of command at the best of times, and not one of them could recall seeing any such spectacle at 0200 in the morning.

Closing the hatch quickly and breathing heavily, the young officer looked into the shocked eyes of the work center personnel, and asked, “So, how’s everybody doing tonight?” while nervously casting stabs of his eyes from their faces to the hatchway behind him. The ordies at first merely exchanged amazed glances until one of them offered up, “Fine, I guess.

Anything we can do for you, ell-tee?”

“Mm – yeah… do any of you guys happen to have a broom and maybe a dustpan?” he asked. In response to their uncomprehending expressions, “I’ve uh, spilled something, that is, I’ve knocked over some stuff in my stateroom, and would like to clean it up before I go to bed,” the young lieutenant added gamely.

The requested implements were provided, and after our narrator had exchanged a few more pleasantries (stalling for time), he left the work center and tunneled back within the ship, stopping by his stateroom for a flashlight. His roommates’ friendly greetings turned quickly to alarm at his expression as he entered the room. Once the tale had been related, their demeanor changed in turn to grim resignation. Several possible avenues of approach to the missile sponson were discussed, as well as the beginnings of an alibi to shelter the many from the wrath of the few in the name of the greater good. This last was ultimately rejected out of hand, since it would involve what some would call “telling a story,” and what others might call “lying,” neither of which was considered officer-like behavior. Some rules you did not break.

So all would sink or swim together, come what may. Our man, reinforced now by his roommates, carefully made his way to the missile sponson, after many false starts and dead ends. The clean-up work was quickly effected, and all retired to the comfort and safety of their hooch without further ado, vowing that the evening’s festivities had changed their viewpoints on the whole enterprise. That was it, no more – never.

Until the next time.

Anyway, that was the story I heard. Like I said, no way to vouch for it.

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2 Comments

Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Uncategorized

2 responses to “A Dry Navy

  1. Pingback: Index – The Best of Neptunus Lex | The Lexicans

  2. Pingback: The Gentleman’s Club | The Lexicans

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