All war stories are true, even the ones that are not. That’s the premise — greatly boiled down — of award-winning author and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried. Never read it? You should, along with Dispatches by Michael Herr, A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo and A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan. I highly recommend all of them.
Sea stories are a lot like O’Brien’s war stories. Many are probably true, even the ones that aren’t, and every Sailor with more than a month of service can tell a few — some that are their own experiences and some that aren’t.
Usually sea stories are told to make the teller seem smart, funny or squared-away, and that’s where they often stray from truthfulness. Dialogue is added, people who really weren’t there are suddenly part of the story, and events change or are added from other stories to serve the greater purpose.
Sea stories also often serve to indoctrinate a command’s newest members into the recent history and lore of the unit. Or, they can serve as an agent of change, when a new arrival uses a sea story to explain how it was done better at their previous command or ship.
The best ones often start with “This one time …” because those stories are the ones told later after all the other, lesser, sea stories have been shared.
Here is one of my sea stories, although I haven’t told it very often, for reasons that will be obvious. I look back at myself then and don’t feel funny or smart or squared-away. But, it’s a good reminder of how much I’ve grown, I suppose.
It is, I promise you, true.
* * *
About six months after leaving the Maine shipyard where she was built and officially joining the U.S. Navy, USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) steamed back north for a yard period known as the Post Shakedown Availability (PSA).
The idea of PSA, which was conducted in Portland, Maine, was to have the shipbuilder, Bath Iron Works, complete equipment upgrades or warranty repairs on things the crew broke during an intensive “shakedown” after commissioning.
Portland is a beautiful old seaport and the largest city in Maine. There is a lively arts community and an active gay community in the city and state, for that matter. If you think of Maine as a conservative state filled with flinty and cold-eyed Northeasterners — true story: moving there from Georgia the first bumper sticker we saw after crossing the border said: “Welcome to Maine; Now Go Home!” — those statements may surprise you, but Maine is a state of contradictions.
The PSA shipyard was in the harbor downtown, walking distance from, restaurants, theaters, shopping and, of course, bars. The crew assessed their various options in the days after getting to Portland and one bar in particular became a favorite hangout.
One weeknight I ended up in that bar after having dinner with the Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman and an engineer Chief Petty Officer who was the ship’s 3M (Maintenance and Material Management) System Coordinator. I had just moved up to be the Supply Officer but as plankowners the three of us had worked together for nearly two years by that point.
The room was rectangular in layout, with tables and a bar on one dimly-lit end by the door and on the other end were some pool tables, video games and pinball machines in a more well-lighted area.
We ordered some beers at the bar and then sat a table. A couple of young ladies were at the table next to us, and there was several other civilians scattered throughout the bar. There was about 20 members of the crew in the bar including us, most of them playing pool or video games.
The three of us probably complained a little about the Executive Officer — a not uncommon topic of conversation among officers and chiefs on any ship —and sipped our beers. We ended up ordering another round but as the next day was a work day we agreed it would be our last.
Suddenly there was a loud noise and some shouting from the game area — a bar stool fell over, someone made a great bank shot, a pool cue was slapped onto the table, something. The three of us quickly turned our heads to look in that direction, just in time to see the two women at the table between us and the game area lock lips in a very passionate kiss — hands on faces, tongues, etc.
None of us meant to but we all stared at the kissing women, and for more than a few moments, too. I don’t know about the other guys at the table with me, but in the early 1990s a woman French kissing another woman in public was new to me.
We actually stared long enough that the ladies became aware of us watching and they broke their embrace suddenly. I hadn’t paid attention to them when we sat down, but now I could see one of the women was solidly built, with short hair, and the other was thinner with long blonde hair and seemed younger.
“What’re you looking at?” the short-haired woman asked in a voice that indicated she was none too happy with our table. Evidently she expected an answer, and when none was given she repeated it: “What’re you looking at?”
As I wasn’t sure which of us she was talking to, I thought it worth finding out. That, and — to my frequent regret — I’ve always been a bit of a smart-ass. My mother was the first, but certainly not the last, to tell me my mouth would get me into trouble until I learned to keep it shut.
“Say, who’re you talking to?” I asked.
“You, you four-eyes!” Her voice had gotten louder and harsher.
Looking at the two chiefs sitting with me at the table, I realized all of us were wearing eyeglasses. The Senior Chief Corpsman was shaking his head at me, silently begging me to stop, but I ignored him.
“You’ll have to be more specific. We all have glasses. Which of us are you referring to?”
Maybe I was smiling when I said that, maybe not. Probably I was. At any rate, yelling that I was a “Son of a Bitch” she got up from her seat so fast that the chair went flying backwards and beer spilled from the glasses on the table. Did I say she was powerfully built? She was that and more, standing about a half foot taller than me with thick arms and fists clenched at her sides.
At that point every eye in the bar was on us, and the realization hit me that I was about to get my ass kicked by an angry lesbian and it was going to happen in front of the crew.
There was no way this was going to end well. I couldn’t fight back; beyond the stigma of hitting a woman as an officer getting into a barfight — especially in front of enlisted crewmembers — could be a career-ender regardless of the genders involved. I couldn’t just sit and let her pummel me bloody, and I couldn’t run.
Looking back on it I suppose the two chiefs with me at the table were also wondering what to do: should they be good shipmates and help me in a fight against the woman or stand by and watch her beat me senseless?
Just as the angry woman pushed the table aside and began to come toward me one of the bartenders came up behind her and grabbed her, pinning her arms. The bartender, who was taller and beefier than the woman, then dragged her to the front door and out.
The man came back through the door alone, gave us a wave and went back behind the bar. The three of us sat at the table for a second, mouths open, until one of the chiefs began to laugh. In short order we were all laughing, tears streaming down our faces, until we realized the other woman was still sitting next to us.
She stood up, called me a name, and then walked out with as much dignity as she could muster as the three of us broke out in fresh laughter and decided one more beer couldn’t hurt.