Ghosts Sometimes Wear Bellbottoms
It was once mentioned in a blurb in Rolling Stone magazine back in the early 80's. The USS Yellowstone, a Gompers-class destroyer tender and a non-warship carrying a small compliment of female crew, had one of the highest pregnancy rates among all naval vessels. They called us "the Love Boat."
It was anything but. When I first got out of the cab at the pier to which the Yellowstone was seemingly welded, I immediately picked myself up off the icy tarmac. It was the day before my 23rd birthday, January 15th, 1982 and the entire base in Norfolk, Virginia was a massive sheet of ice. Bad weather always follows me around whereever I go, no matter the climate. My arrival in southern Italy in 1970 resulted in the first snowstorm they'd seen since 1935. RTC Orlando, Florida by my graduation saw the most brutal winter in living memory and Norfolk, Virginia was no exception.
I had just gotten kicked out of the Navy SEALs for reasons I refuse to go into and they gave me a week's leave without my asking for it so I could cool off and think about what I did or didn't do, depending on how you look at it. I visited family in both Central Islip and Far Rockaway, NY. I've never seen them since. It was an awkward affair, laden with guilt, alienation. You don't tell your loved ones at the dinner table what you did as a commando. They'll never look at you the same way again. I told them I went to submarine school in Groton/New London, CT because that was my original plan, and that it just didn't work out. Except for two loved ones, both outside my family, that's the cover story I still use.
So when the SEALs forcefully massaged my ass with a boondocker, I was made, without knowing it at the time, an IBM. That's Instant Bos'uns Mate, those poor, uneducated slobs you never seem to see in Godsmack-accompanied recruiting commercials, the ones in bare chests or white tee shirts swabbing the deck or scraping barnacles off the fucking water line. We also had to be there to assist in refueling operations while we were underway. Yes, we had the Merchant Marines refuel us during the rare oppie along the Virginia coast, the fuel line stretched amidships while we merrily sailed at 15-20 knots knowing fully good and well that if those fuel nozzle couplings ever gave away, the Pentagon would be sending letters of condolence to a lot of families.
I was infuriated that they made me a bos'uns mate considering what I was doing beforehand. Before I went to Coronado Island for BUD/S (SEAL basic training), I went to Great Lakes, Michigan for my JO or journalism A school (or what I came to term Propaganda 101, or what and how not to write.) The reason for this is manifold: As with the Green Berets, they won't even let you show up unless you're an E4. I needed to strike for a rating right out of basic yet also had to wait the minimum 7 weeks before I could qualify for my crow (the eagle you're given when you make Petty Officer 3rd or PO3).
All that got washed right out of the bilge tank when I showed up, depressed, pissed off, disgraced. My former employers never told my current one, Capt. Buford, our beloved, boozy CO, what and whom they were putting on his ship. They thought I was some fuckup loser who had nothing on the ball. I lost my crow and my JO rating when they almost courtmartialed me during my Article 22.
So for 6 1/2 months I bumped around this tub, the USS Yellowstone, painting walls, mopping floors, manning bilge pumps, polishing brass in the enclosed foc'sel (where they house the anchors) basically every shit job that no one else wants to do. Bosun's mates are the niggers of the Navy, plain and simple. Maybe if you keep your nose clean, you can aspire to blow on those stupid little whistles when some dignitary comes onto your quarterdeck to have his fat ass kissed. Sometimes, I'd go UA (AWOL to other branches), get sent to a Captain's Mast and get cashiered, busted in rank and put on restriction.
The summer of 1982, everything changed.
We'd had our ship's picnic that day so many of our crew members were still in their cups. I'd also made the mistake of taking over someone else's duty for $35 when their station's turn came around. When they saw my name on the roster, their ears pricked up and decided that they needed to keep me awake all night long despite having no watch stations to assign me.
Some fucking moron handed me a bucket and a sponge and told me to wash a wall on the open air deck at 2 in the morning just because they could. It was during this phase in my illustrious naval career that I honestly was thinking of releasing and setting one of the life rafts adrift, diving in the drink and paddling to parts unknown. I was a civilian wearing a navy Halloween costume at this point.
I was a lowly E2 by now, listlessly washing this fucking bulkhead at two or three in the morning when this fat-ass, drunken Warrant Officer comes up to me, puts his paw on my left arm and tells me I'm not washing the wall right. I look at his hand, then up at him and informed him that he had two options: He could either remove his hand from my arm or I could remove it from both our arms.
The next thing I remember was waking up in the ship's brig, not remembering anything of how I got there. The witness statements on the incident report given to me by the yeoman stated that I had this fat fuck in a figure four, a kill move that's engineered to do one thing and one thing only: Break a human neck with little more than a minimum of effort. I nodded, shrugged and said to myself, "Yeah, that's what I'd do, alright." Warrant Officer Warden suffered a broken wrist and stiff neck and they charged me with simple assault and battery. When I blacked out and made my move, I'm sure my intention was not merely assault and battery, trust me.
The irony is, the girl whose duty watch I'd taken never even paid me the $35.
I was sent to another Captain's Mast, presided over by the abovementioned Captain Buford, a man every bit as stupid as his surname would imply. I told him, not asked, told him to clear the bridge because I needed to tell him something that I didn't want my other shipmates to hear.
Amazingly, he cleared the pilot house and listened to me tell him with growing alarm what I'd done in the SEALs and that my last command had basically cuckolded a killer on his ship. By the time I was done talking to him and convincing him why he needed to get me off his tub, his face was almost as pale as his dress whites and even the gin blossoms on his nose were gone. I told him that he wasn't doing me any Goddamned favors by keeping me prisoner on his ship and he was certainly wasn't doing himself any favors by doing so.
I went back to the brig and stayed there for two days while I'm sure he made frantic calls back to shore asking if what I said was true. To put it in a nutshell, they got me out on the third day, and I left with a general discharge under honorable conditions, a rather creative DD214 that expunged any reference to the SEALs, $600 in cash and nowhere to go. NIS, or what used to be the Naval Investigative Service, came on board to talk to me when my captain's frantic calls to shore tipped them off. They knew exactly who I was. Buford did me a favor by bouncing me like a lottery ping pong ball but I suspect he was doing himself more of a favor than me.
The Yellowstone featured largely lifers and latter-day pirates who didn't think anything of tossing my footlocker, rifling my wallet and basically treating me with disrespect and I can't say I didn't bring some of it on myself. I wanted out ever since I was in basic and the Yellowstain, as we called it, didn't exactly soften my attitude toward the USN.
So they tossed me off the ship and onto a jeep where they then dumped me off at the gate like last week's garbage. It was August 4th, 1982.
The people you see in the picture above, especially the girl whose name is Wendy Billig (who was in my sister company in boot camp and another medal-winning sharpshooter) and the plump little guy you see holding the binoculars whose name was Lindsay, were among my few friends on the ship. Seeing these guys again after nearly three decades just got me thinking about the USS Yellowstone AD41 and I've spent all day doing research on it.
It was decommissioned in 1996 and sits in dignified disuse in a mothball fleet in Virgina to this day. The pilot house I looked out of on many nights at sea has long since been boarded up, the number designation long since painted over. She's blind, armless, legless, and anonymous and I couldn't care less.
So why the day wasted looking her up? Maybe because I wanted to find some good in my otherwise negative experience on her. I'm going to be 50 years old this Friday and I'm at the stage of life now where I want to start making a clean breast of things and to find some post-existential meaning in my life. I'm not so aged that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel but I'm old enough to know that I'm probably more than halfway through it. The incident that got me kicked out of the Navy features prominently in chapters 39 and 41 of American Zen but it wasn't enough.
And today I found it. At last, after avoiding looking up the Yellowstone on the Internet for years.
Three years after I was, ahem, abruptly mustered out of service with none of the pomp and circumstance given to plankowners (precomm and original crew) when they step off the quarterdeck for the last time, my old CO, Capt. Buford, almost capsized the Yellowstone during an oppie in the North Atlantic. The subsequent investigation showed that if the ship had listed more than one or two more degrees during that 1985 storm, it would've capsized. The drunken prick was relieved of command.
I may have killed complete strangers as a SEAL, I may have been a pain in the ass with no military bearing whatsoever and may have been a disagreeable son of a bitch most of the time but at least I didn't almost capsize the ship with 1500 men, women and officers on board. The Yellowstone had a tonnage displacement of 20,263 tons. With a waterline that deep, you have to fuck up big time to almost capsize a tub that size.
When I was on the bridge, they'd often give me the helm for two reasons. 1), I genuinely loved it. The pilot house, naturally, was dark at night so we could see, and it was the only peaceful time during my naval career when I knew no one would fuck with me, when I felt all alone. Even if I pulled an 18 hour day before my watch, as it often happened, they still had to pry my hands off that fucking wheel after a four hour watch. 2), I was simply good at it. No matter how much the waters roiled, I always kept us to within 1-2 degrees of our course heading and I knew that while I held the wheel, we'd all be safe.
Old time mariner shit, fulfilling a function that went all the way back to the days of the ancient Phoenicians and Greeks. So much for not respecting naval tradition.
So now I know that if I ever went to the mothball fleet in which the Yellowstone rusts with other dead vessels on her port and starboard sides, I know that I'd climb aboard and look around, surrounded by all those bellbottomed ghosts. The ship that I'd fantasized about jumping while I was on restriction and looking longingly at the Boston city skyline, is now one on which I'd happily climb on board no matter how illegal it would be.
And if that's not coming full circle and forgiving yourself, I don't know what is.