Dress Canvas Topside

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

In the smoke boat service, there was a marked absence of formal ceremony. It was called the 'dungaree navy' and it didn't care a whole helluva lot for 'peacock strutting' or doing the dance of the fifty doo-dahs for visiting surface royalty and transient brass. We took care of our own… Took care of business and let the other elements of the forces afloat do whatever it was they did.

We had no ritualized 'uniform of the day'… Our uniform of the day was simply whatever you had in your bunk or side locker that didn't smell like a saddle blanket off a Billy goat.  We wore black high top boondocks known on Requin as 'Mammy Yokums', after the weird boots worn by the old weather-beaten granny in the Snuffy Smith hillbilly comics. 

Some lads from the west wore cowboy boots called 'shitkickers'. I wore Mammy Yokums… Alcatraz loafers.  They were fairly watertight, damn near indestructible and created a fashion statement that drove the Orion master at arms nuts. If you wanted instant entertainment, just carry a message up to some clown in the Orion wardroom decked out in a faded dungaree shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a non-regulation wool ball cap with Dolphins pinned in front, red lead-spattered Mammy Yokums, and acid-eaten dungaree pants.

"Hold up son, where in the hell do you think you're going?"

"Officer's country, Chief…"

"Jeezus Christ! You look like you crawled out of the ragbag… You ever hear of uniform of the day?"

"Heard about it… Not sure I know what'n the hell it is."

"Well horsefly, it ain't what you're decked out in… Take my word."

"Well, it passes for the daily uniform in the operating, go-to-sea navy."

"Son, there's no gahdam way you're entering our wardroom dressed for the ragpicker's ball."

"Okay with me… Let me give you this message from my skipper and I'll tell our Old Man that the tender fashion police nabbed me and will handle our boat business… Here, this goes to Captain Rice, SUBRON Six."

"Hell, I don't want that… Listen horsefly, I'm going to pretend I never saw you… You don't know me… I don't know you… Just haul your raggedy ass out of my sight… Son, if anyone asks you what navy you're in, do me a favor and tell them you're a Mexican Sea Scout."

In the pre-nuke days, it was easy to identify a boat sailor… He always had little light yellow dots in the crown of his white hat, readily identified as hydraulic oil, which previously belonged to some overhead operating vent gear. You could wash the damn thing with Clorox and never get it all out.

On rare occasions, we would form up topside aft of the conning tower fairwater in dress canvas… Class 'A' uniform… Shined shoes… Reg neckerchief and clean white hats. We looked sharp… Any sailor, who tells you he didn't feel thirty feet high and bulletproof standing topside where God and all the Orion brown-baggers could see your Dolphins and how proud he felt, must be one cold-hearted sonuvabitch.

I remember a visit by vice admiral Elton W. Grenfell, COMSUBLANT… The Big Sea Daddy of the East Coast Underwater Navy. Admiral Grenfell was the gent camped out on the apex of the submarine big cheese pyramid in our force. He was a great sailor who took care of his bluejackets.

I was a sideboy when he arrived… Stokes, our skivvy-waver (signalman) piped him aboard.

After the admiral was aboard and the customary wardroom greetings had been exchanged and handshakes all around, they dismissed the side boys and we took our place in the two rows of ranks assembled aft. We were sharp and silent…

All you could hear was the gentle popping of the ensign aft, the nylon Squadron Six pennant (burgee) and the Division 62 pennant. Funny, I can always recall the sound of that gentle popping nylon… Day… Night topside watch… Always that light snapping in the breeze… It's the 'common denominator' in my memory. It was a big part of the life I loved… Cups of coffee shared with my forever mates and nylon popping.

Admiral Grenfell passed down our ranks…

"What's your name, son?"

"Stuke, sir."

"Where are you from?"

"Quincy, Illinois, sir."

"Where's Quincy?"

"Six hundred miles outside your 72 radius."

The admiral smiled… Anyone who ever met Stuke immediately liked him… You couldn't help it.

"What is Quincy known for, son?"

"The finest thing the sub force ever got, sir."

"And what would that be?"

"Me, sir."

I stood there waiting for Grenfell to wring his neck… My running mate was a total idiot.

"Well seaman, the next time you get to Quincy, tell 'em to send us some more."

He moved on.

"What's your name, son?"

"Armstrong, sir."

"Where are you from?"

"Arlington, Virginia, sir."

"Navy feeding you okay?"

"Three weeks out it 's still bug juice and mystery meat, sir."

Dress canvas topside in the company of fine men and seagulls crapping on fresh pressed blues… It never got any better than that.