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Now and Then in the SCV | Commentary by Darryl Manzer
| Tuesday, Dec 23, 2014

darrylmanzer_blacktieMore Christmas memories.

I’m sure much of what I’m about to write could not happen in the “politically correct” Submarine Service of today’s United States Navy. Why, there are even women aboard the boats now. But when I was making Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine patrols in the early 1970s, it was a man’s world.

Out of tradition, submarines, no matter the size, are still called boats. This is a story from when I was aboard the USS Thomas A. Edison (SSBN610) Gold Crew. (Each SSBN, or nuclear powered ballistic missile boat, had a designation as SSBN, and each boat had two complete crews, Blue and Gold.)

There are those who rode those boats who say we really had three complete crews: the Blue Crew, the Gold Crew and the Other Crew. The “Other” crew got the blame whenever something went wrong. For example, “The pump broke because the ‘other’ crew didn’t do the required maintenance.”

Anyway, since we didn’t have the much fairer sex on board, we never remembered to pack Christmas decorations. Instead we made our own. Boxes of those green scouring pads made some pretty good Christmas trees. They could also be cut and strung together on a small rope that had been dyed in food coloring. Holly garlands were now in the crew’s mess space, and there were also uses for the red, green and yellow rolls of duct tape. Strips of that could be rolled into balls that became the ornaments for our trees.

A soldering iron, solder, small light bulbs and strips of wire made strings of lights. Various colors of marking pens gave us the colors for our lights.

While we guys couldn’t remember to pack decorations, our wives and girlfriends (sometimes both) would buy and wrap gifts to be placed under our tree in crew’s mess (the place we ate meals). Every man got at least two gifts. If a man had none, somehow the Chief of the Boat, or COB, would make sure he got two.

There was the Christmas patrol, when a bunch of us tried to quit smoking. We hadn’t taken enough cigarettes to taper off and were “bumming smokes.” Sure enough, the good old COB provided us with a carton each to finish the patrol.

There was also an exchange of gag gifts. Maybe it was a copy of Playboy magazine that someone wanted. Of course, as a gag, all of the “good” pictures had already been removed. The “good” pictures could be seen posted all over the boat in those days.

Decorations were all over the boat. On one patrol, our executive officer, or XO, dressed as Santa. Jim Wilson was the best XO I ever served with. He also made a great “biker dude” at Halloween. As Santa, he was the best. He handed out the gifts under the tree in crew’s mess and also went around the boat spreading good cheer in the form of a shot of bourbon and a candy cane.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The booze wasn’t authorized, and in fact it wasn’t even supposed to be on the boat. It was of better quality than what we made. The torpedo room cornered the market on winery production. The engine room made some pretty decent moonshine, plus there was what was brought aboard from the local liquor store.

The Navy has been dry since 1919. Yep. If you believe that, do you want to buy a bridge?

Up in the world of the boat’s electronic technicians, radiomen, sonar techs and such, there was a need for them to have gallon cans of pure grain alcohol for cleaning parts of the electronic systems. I don’t know how it happened, but before every patrol over the holidays, we would load enough of that alcohol to get and keep every crew member drunk for a couple of months or more.

So along with the cooks, those electronic types would take their alcohol and, in the dark of night prior to patrol starting, take large, No. 10 jars of maraschino cherries and drain most of the juice out of the jars. They would be refilled with the alcohol and the lids or tops put back on. The special jars of cherries would be placed in the boxes they came in and stowed as usual.

Well, those cherries were stowed in the cook’s storeroom in my torpedo room. That means someone responsible for the welfare of the crew would have to taste-test the cherries once in a while.

The rest of that part of the story I cannot tell. It isn’t because it didn’t happen, but that I don’t remember. Complete blank. Gone forever from my memory.

It was during one of the taste tests that I created the infamous “Christmas carrot” and story. Ask me about that when you see me. It isn’t for publication in a family medium.

So relax, America. In the PC world of today’s Navy, such stuff could never happen.

Did I tell you about Christmas dinner? We might have been at sea and underwater, but we ate well. That was to make up for all the times we didn’t get time off or liberty when we should have. A good boat was one of which could be said, “It ain’t much on liberty, but it sure is a feeder.”

Petty Officer Gordon, our night baker, made Christmas-colored pastries one year. Biting into the green exterior cinnamon sweet roll with red frosting and blue streaks on Christmas morning was a delight.

The Thomas A. Edison also had a piano. Yes, a 77-key spinet. It is now on display at the Navy Museum in the Washington Navy Yard. (That place you see as NCIS headquarters on the TV program). We always had carols around the piano … except when we had to be “ultra quiet.” No piano playing then. It must have been the secret weapon we carried. We had a Chief of the Boat who had a singing voice that was a cross between a large saw and a bagpipe. The Soviet subs would have crashed into us laughing too hard upon hearing him.

Now about that bridge…

Merry Christmas to all those under the sea this year, and may you be blessed with joy and a safe return.

 

Darryl Manzer grew up in the Pico Canyon oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s and attended Hart High School. After a career in the U.S. Navy he returned to live in the Santa Clarita Valley. He can be reached at dmanzer@scvhistory.com. His older commentaries are archived at DManzer.com; his newer commentaries can be accessed [here]. Watch his walking tour of Mentryville [here].

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1 Comment

  1. jimvs says:

    Good story DM. Never been in any “boats” except the one at Disneyland, but I suspect stories of camaraderie at are are similar to those on construction projects, high voltage line crews, etc. Except for all that water of course. And having to duck all the time.

    It sure sounded familiar to me.

    Merry Christmas!

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