Cold War Canoe Club
By Jeffrey Hess
In 1989, we were sea-going sailors. Not brave, just doing our jobs – jobs that happened to be aboard great steel ships, risking our lives in the invisible oceans between home and the Soviet threat.
We were single and married and divorced with two kids who hated us because we were gone six months at a time. We wore khaki shorts, or Levis, or Z-Cavaricci’s and got haircuts every two weeks. We shined our shoes and ironed our uniforms and took the test for the next pay grade every time we were eligible. Some of us turned screwdrivers, others of us drove the boats, some were locked away in the bilges tending to boilers, diesel engines, or nuclear reactors. We called the Navy the “canoe club.” We called each other squid, snipe, air dale, deck ape, wingnut, and worse, but would take offense if a non-Sailor did the same.
We called our ships boats, but would correct anyone else who did the same.
As Egypt grew smaller behind us, we bitched about the smell of the place we just left and also about not wanting to head back out to sea so soon. We’d been delayed pulling into Alexandria as we followed a Soviet submarine. We’d been in similar cat and mouse situations before, but nothing ever materialized from them – much to our disappointment. We were twenty-year-olds and thirty-year-olds, and kids fresh off our family farms. This was the fourth month of a seven-month deployment in the Mediterranean
In quiet moments out on the bridge wing, or the helo deck, or on the fantail, we stared at the water between us and the horizon, watching whitecaps crest and fall into the ink-dark chop of deep ocean. It was the same view almost every time we had occasion to go up on deck. At sea, it wasn’t unusual for days to pass without being outside, but on this day, we leaned on life rails, weight on our forearms, hands clasped as if in prayer. Some of us prayed and some chose to think about those they longed for – or those who had done them wrong. Some of us wished for something to happen, to put our training to the test.
The Captain secured us from Sea and Anchor detail when we got well into open sea, but before we had time to get a soda or hit the head, he spoke over the 1MC. We don’t remember the Captain’s exact words, but something was going down in Lebanon and we were headed to meet up with our battle group off the coast of Beirut. There was a civil war raging and we might have to get involved in that somehow. It seemed like a distraction then. A distraction from the real threat of the Soviets. But, we figured, if the Cold War sailors before us could deal with Korea and Vietnam, we could deal with Lebanon.
The Captain then ordered High Threat Condition 3 Watch Stations. We all ran to our battle stations amid the echoing gongs of the General Quarters alarm.
The anticipation of action filled the passageways and decks immediately. There were hundreds of guesses and scenarios in those early minutes, but the collective mood made us feel like all the training and practice of the past year and half since the ship had been commissioned would finally be called into action.
A ton of nervous energy came with the waiting. Instead of weighing us down, it fueled us like the JP-5 that ran our jet engines. Some of us thought, “Holy shit. We may finally get to see some action!” Some of us thought, “Ah shit. I came all this way and I didn’t get to see the fucking pyramids?”
We enlisted in the Navy two months after graduating high school, or after dropping out of college, or when our wives or girlfriends got pregnant. Our fathers drove us to the recruiter’s office when we were seventeen because they had to sign for us. On the way, they asked, half a dozen times, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Others of us went on our own. Some reluctant to leave their loved ones. Many others anxious to find something, anything out there.
Some of us knew our fathers had planned on going into the Navy before getting married. Others had fathers who’d served during the 1960s and 1970s in each of the military branches.
Some of us had boats growing up in Florida. Maybe sixteen-foot, open-bow, ski boats that motored down the Caloosahatchee River and into the Gulf of Mexico. We were pretty nervous the first time on those boats.
The floor beneath our feet was unsteady and we felt like we’d fall, even while seated. After a while, our bodies adjusted to the rocking and rolling and we enjoyed the ride. Rushing over water that we could reach out and touch, the wind in our faces, this all became the sensation of being super-human somehow. Maybe it was because of land shrinking and then disappearing behind us. Maybe it was the freedom from roads or stop signs and the practical recklessness of leaving terra firma and trusting our souls to boats and motors. Maybe it was the unknown that could happen out there. Maybe that was compounded by the notion that if something did happen, odds were there’d be no one around to see it or to help and we were all reliant on ourselves. Maybe it was just the love of speed and the wind in our face and the promise of getting to some tropical spot along the coast and turning around and skipping like stones all the way back again. All the while being mindful, even as six-year-old kids, that shit could go seriously wrong. We don’t know what it was, but we loved it.
Some of us got hooked when we saw the movie MIDWAY. Our breath caught in our chests as the movie played. Shooting down planes and firing torpedoes looked like the coolest thing ever.
Others of us had career day in third grade when our teachers brought in their brothers in their dress blues – looking like the guy on the Cracker Jack box.
It had been hot as balls in Egypt. A bunch of us had played golf at a local course the day before we had to ship out. The Biloxi Blues line, “It’s Africa hot!” kept getting repeated.
Afterward, despite the smell in the air, we ate KFC. If it wasn’t for the pyramids, we would have been happy to get the hell out of there. Instead of going to Cairo though, we spent twelve hours a day in our battle stations.
For some, battle stations meant manning their workspaces to ensure the normal operation of all shipboard systems. Others had heightened positions of security with missile control panels, electronic warfare, or five-inch gun switches, or shotguns or M-16s locked and loaded. Others sat ready for damage in one of three repair lockers aboard ship, filled with damage control equipment like fire hoses, axes, flooding pumps and more hoses, oxygen breathing apparatuses and canisters, rubber boots, and for those of us on the fire team, helmets and flame-retarding Nomex coveralls.
Some of us were appointed these positions, others of us volunteered for this duty because we’d learned early on that the best way to ensure survival at sea in the face of emergencies was to take matters into our own hands.
Our ship was in the early stages of fabrication in Pascagoula, Mississippi in the spring of ’87 when the Soviets were doing nuclear tests in Eastern Kazakhstan. Most of us didn’t know what they were up to now.
Some of us in the repair locker had the job of manning the nozzle and directing our fire teams in snuffing out any fires that broke out in our sections of the ship. With the nozzle on, we could direct the spray pattern wide to begin cooling the room or switch to a steady stream for power and distance. The fire hose wasn’t just heavy, but hard when charged with pressurized water. Think about holding a giant boa constrictor that maneuvered like a bucking bronco, but sideways. Some of us were well under six-feet tall and weighed only 150 pounds, but we were strong enough for the job.
We engaged in drills, pretending to fight engine room fires, flight deck fires, and mass conflagration. Everything we did involved sweating. Those Nomex coveralls were thick and heavy enough to keep out flames as well as air.
The next day’s dread of having to put on the still-soaked coveralls that smelled of mildew and sweat, no matter how much talcum powder we wafted inside. After countless drills and exercises during shakedown cruises and Battle Efficiency trials in the Caribbean, the Nomex suit was like a second skin. And there was all this time now, floating off the coast of Lebanon.
We didn’t know much about the Middle East at that time. We were more focused on the Soviet Union, which involved some tense days following that Russian sub awhile back, and again while sailing into the Black Sea on our way to dock in Constanta, Romania as we passed Soviet ships.
Some of us knew the Soviet ships, could recognize each distinctive silhouette – like knowing all the different types of cars on the road. Distinguishing a particular US ship was dependent upon how many hull numbers we had memorized. Hull numbers are the bright-white number near the bow in the typeface often associated with old-school digital clocks. The U.S. Navy began assigning these Naval Registry Identification Numbers way back in the 1890s. Our ship, the USS San Jacinto, is hull number 56.
The Soviet ships also had hull numbers on their bows, but these numbers were in a totally different type face. The ships cut all the right angles and their weaponry appeared not just lethal, but threatening.
Many of us held our breath in that instant of seeing them. Tension slithered down our backs and made it hard to swallow. The sky matched the haze gray of the ships which was a shade darker than our own. We knew a little about the classes of Soviet ships from what we’d seen in Jane’s Fighting Ships, and what we read in Clancy novels, but we had to guess that the ships were destroyers in their twilights.
World War III always felt imminent to us. Some of us feared it to the point of diarrhea. Others wanted it, back then. If it didn’t kill us, we’d likely get some medals out of the ordeal. If it did kill us, so what? We’d never consider ourselves suicidal. Instead, our fatalistic minds wer convinced that we wouldn’t live to see thirty anyway. We felt that in order to enjoy our remaining time, we’d need to have done something heroic. This hero delusion may have been exacerbated by the books we read or didn’t read during this time.
Some of us read Tom Clancy’s book, “The Hunt for Red October” obsessively. The book fascinated us because he wrote about classified information so convincingly, but also because we wanted that level of mission – something big, important, and death defying.
In the down time during this High Threat Condition 3 Watch Stations, while we sat or stood in the passageway outside the repair locker, amid the chatter of other sailors, what we called “tell a lie time,” amid the smells of mildew, talcum, and Skoal spit, some of us thought of the USS Stark (FFG-31). It was the one thing we knew about the Middle East.
The Stark was on patrol in the Persian Gulf when it was struck in the port side by two Iraqi Exocet missiles. The first missile didn’t detonate, the second did. It was May 17, 1987 and thirty-seven men were killed. The hull was ripped open, she took on water, listed, and eventually limped into Bahrain for repairs. The Stark never fired a single weapon in defense or retaliation.
When we’d heard of the attack, some of us sort of jealously imagined the noise of the missiles piercing the ship’s steel hull, the explosion’s percussion. The sound of the fire bell and the ear-splitting gongs of the General Quarters alarm sending boots pounding down passageways to battle stations. We knew the first step was cutting off power quickly so those of us on the fire team would be able to lug hoses and put down as much water as our brass nozzles would allow.
The loss of so many fellow sailors angered the hell out of all of us when we heard the report, but some of us sort of envied them, too. Whether they were killed instantly or while trying to put out fires or stop flooding, their deaths were honorable. We figured if it were us, the honor associated with such a death would ease our parent’s grief, at least a little. We’d still be dead, but dying “in action” had to be easier on them than a car wreck or alcohol poisoning taking our lives. At least that’s what we thought back then.
Many of us didn’t think of the sadness those sailor’s parents and wives and girlfriends would experience upon learning their sailor was one of the thirty-seven killed that day. Those who survived would be decorated both for having endured the attack, but also for their efforts to restore the natural order in the face of such challenges.
To this day, we don’t know what kept the Stark’s captain from defending the ship, but we were convinced that we’d return fire immediately and destroy the enemy bastards.
The Iraqis later apologized for the attack, but that doesn’t bring back any of the men who died that day.
Some of us knew guys injured or killed on the Stark, but most of us didn’t. We couldn’t have been much different from one another. We’d each come from some town where we’d had families and at least some semblance of happiness, or comfort, or maybe just a sense of familiarity we were anxious to get back to. We wore the same uniform, took the same oath, and boarded our ships the same way. Some of them did their best on that fateful day. Some might have let fear overtake them. We hoped, if the time ever came, that we’d step up. What’s the use of studying if there’s never going to be a test?
While steaming off the coast of Lebanon, spending twelve hours a day in battle stations, we kind of had a feeling that something would happen. We didn’t know if it would happen when we were already dressed out in the firefighting gear or if it would happen in the middle of the night when we were asleep. The worst case would be getting caught with our pants down on the shitter, but that was possible, too.
Back on April 19, 1989 we’d been out at sea participating in battle group exercises in the Caribbean. Word spread aboard ship that the USS Iowa (BB-61) had an explosion in its sixteen-inch gun turret 2 and needed assistance. We were only a couple miles away. There was no way to know at that moment, but, the explosion and the fires that followed killed forty-seven men. It was the worst loss of life the Navy had during the Cold War.
We imagined the carnage and chaos based on the training films we’d seen. We don’t know if we would have been fighting one of those fires had we been aboard the Iowa. We don’t know if we would have been killed.
There’s no way to know exactly how we felt the day the Iowa exploded, but we got excited that we were dispatched to assist. There was talk aboard the ship that a repair locker might be sent over to help with damage control. We wanted to be the ones. We were heroic in every scenario we played out in our heads.
Another part of us withered a little from the fear that something like that could happen to our ship. While in our heroic fantasies, we were instrumental in minimizing damage and saving lives. We also cringed at the thought of burning metal curling in thick black smoke from flames that melted steel and suffocated countless men as they ran toward or away from the destruction – running through passageways, hurdling through the opened water-tight hatches.
Our hopes and fears squelched when we got called off and ordered to maintain course. Another ship was closer. Later that night, we might have spun the combination on our lockers slowly or we might have leaned on our racks for a while, but we cannot forget the surprising sense of “better them than us” which led immediately to guilt.
We patrolled of the coast of Lebanon for weeks. Some of us kept hoping we’d launch missiles. We also worried about being blown up like the Stark.
After an exhausting stretch, and without any real explanation, we secured from the High Threat condition and went back to our normal at-sea routine which entailed work, underway replenishment, drills, and sporadic amounts of downtime, much of it enjoyable.
Usually, after hearing the Knock Off whistle signaling the end of the workday, if we weren’t in the middle of something or on watch, we were technically off, but not off the clock. There’s something unique about the confinement of ships out at sea and of the workshops on those ships. People of various ages from often very different backgrounds are thrown together and there’s no escape. We couldn’t call in sick on a ship. And we couldn’t quit. And at the end of a long day, we couldn’t go home. So, in a way, it was like we were never off. We generally liked the guys we worked with and spent a lot of time hanging around the workshop at the end of the day. We played cards or watched movies on VHS and BetaMax. Some time was spent helping others qualify for the Enlisted Surface Warfare designation. And every day, a bunch of us worked out in the weight room we’d set up below the helo deck.
No matter what we did in our off time at sea, we also had to keep ourselves squared away. This involved shining our work boots or ironing a uniform shirt for the next day, or asking somebody to shave the back of our necks, because even though we were in the middle of some tense bullshit going on in the middle-East, we were held to Navy standards. As well as subject to the Command Master Chief calling us, “Joe Shit the rag man,” if we didn’t meet or exceed standards, which could reflect negatively on our annual evaluations.
Another way to spend off time was by not being off. We had a rotation for standing watch while at sea which entailed being the on-call technician or manning the helm or checking gauges or watching for fires. A full night’s sleep was a seldom enjoyed luxury.
No matter how little sleep we got, the one thing about seeing the world through a porthole is that we slept in the same bed every night. No matter where in the world we may have been, we got to go back to our racks. Our beds. Our oasis in the haze gray steel existence of shipboard living.
Our racks aboard ship were sheet metal boxes just over six-feet long and just a little wider than most guys shoulders. Each rack had a reading light and a shelf just big enough for a book and an alarm clock. They were stacked three-high so the bottom of the rack above you was like a coffin lid. The top rack was usually close to the pipes and cable runs that lined the overhead, what civilian’s call a ceiling. The middle racks were always used as desks to write letters to our families and girlfriends and wives or to write out postcards to send to friends.
We climbed into these racks through the side openings and onto two-inch-thick, foam mattresses. We were each issued one feather pillow and one wool blanket that we had to fold exactly the same way every morning before berthing inspection. For privacy, the open area of each rack had curtains just big enough to cover the opening. These curtains were blue and thin and prone to billowing out from the breeze of someone walking down the aisle, giving any one looking a glimpse of a sailor’s private time spent reading, praying, sleeping, or playing with himself.
In these racks, we’d lie awake and think about all the trouble that could befall us as we slept. The Soviets with their nuclear evil. The rogue actors like Iraq that could target our ship. The myriad of accidents and the potential for sabotage boiling in the disgruntled bodies sleeping around us. The nightmare of being adrift at sea was common to us all.
On October 1, 1989, after evening chow, the bridge sounded the alarm for General Quarters. Drills were rarely conducted at that time of day, so we all hustled into action. There was a fuel oil leak in Auxillary Machinery Room 1. A busted pipe pissing fuel into a space with moving, metal parts could explode in an instant. Those of us on fire teams suited up in our soggy Nomex coveralls and harnessed into our breathing apparatus and casually braced for the shock such an explosion might make. In the tense minutes that followed, we heard someone spitting Skoal juice into a Pepsi can. We then heard the Master Chief holler, “Damn it, Hanson. Spit out that dip and straighten up.” Many of us laughed. It was funny, because it was typical. To have something typical in such a tense moment was a welcomed distraction.
The dangerous leak was isolated before it ignited and a cleanup team had been dispatched to remove the flooded fuel.
But then, immediately after securing from that, the Captain spoke over the 1MC to inform us we were going back to High Threat Level 3 because we were going close to Lebanon again. This time with the repaired USS Iowa to be their anti-air firepower. The rumor was the Iowa would fly a drone over Lebanon to take pictures. Drones were new then and this was a first for us to witness or be a part of. We would sit back and make sure no planes or missiles launched against her.
And just like the last trip to Lebanon, our missiles were armed. We figured that we would surely see some action. After twenty-four hours, the missiles were taken off-line and we headed west again.
Ten days later, we pulled into Naples, Italy – our first port in thirty days at sea. Somehow the Navy routes mail so we had a good Mail Call. Some of us got care packages from parents, wives, or girlfriends filled with Doritos, Charmin, Skoal and magazines. We also got books from our sisters and letters from our girlfriends and wives. Then liberty call.
There’s not enough time here to describe all the ways we amused ourselves in foreign ports. Everything you’ve heard about sailors on shore leave is true. And none of it is true. Some of the stories involve alcohol. Some are sweet stories like when a newly married guy spends his entire day in Istanbul searching for a music box for his wife as a souvenir. Lots of times alcohol is involved. Once in a while the best intentions can take a turn for the worse. Sometimes there’s a girl or an irate store owner. But usually, alcohol is involved. Then there are fights and broken hearted phone calls home. Alcohol makes everything better.
We got tattoos of girl’s names, or pictures of pinup girls, or the Playboy bunny, or baseball team logos, or of crossed anchors, or a ship surrounded by the words, “Cold War Canoe Club.”
We played golf in places like Cuba, Egypt, and St. Thomas, and Rota, Spain.
We bought diamonds in Israel, china in China, rugs in Turkey, and inexpensive paintings in France.
We drank rum in Puerto Rico, plum wine in Romania, and beer in more countries than most people ever get to visit – more countries than most of us have visited states in our own country.
We toured the Vatican, the Coliseum, and the ruins of Pompeii. We danced in the streets of New Orleans, broke the speed limit in Hollywood, and stumbled back to the ship in the Philippines.
We entertained lady friends in dozens of beds, swimming pools, and more than once on toilets.
We rode the Korean bicycles we bought while stationed on Guam on the French streets of St. Tropez, where we got drunk on red wine and met the host of the old Gong Show. But more important than the admirals, politicians, and celebrities we met, we made friends from places like Kentucky, Texas, Maryland, Georgia, and Jamaica.
We complained about everything, the way sailors always do. The chow was never good enough, we never slept enough, we were hot, bored, tired of suiting up for drills, anxious to get to the next port, to return home.
We were out at sea, again and still, on November 9th when we got word via teletype feed in the Comm Shack that the Berlin Wall had been torn down. The news spread fast around the ship as it always did. There were high-fives and Hell Yeahs and the definite joy of victory in the air. We might have chanted “USA.” We were proud, too, for our country, but we didn’t know if the wall coming down was a victory or a gateway into a greater confrontation. We didn’t have the benefit of live footage or talking-head analysis. There was no way to know at that time.
We returned home to Norfolk eleven days later.
Hundreds of people waited for us on the pier. Big crowd. Wives, girlfriends, kids, parents everywhere. Cheering. Banners. Balloons. Signs waving. Flags.
We were home after playing a part in taking down the Berlin Wall – in closing out a win in a forty-four-year long conflict with the Soviets. Afterward, we got out or stayed in and made it a career. As we grow old, we have our memories and tattoos.
Whether we experienced one giant challenge on one particular day or many little ones on many occasions, our show of strength was what appeared to have mattered most to the Soviets, and to us.
Jeffery Hess served six years in the U.S. Navy aboard the fleet’s oldest and then newest ships before going on to earn degrees in English and Creative Writing. He is the editor of the award-winning anthology, Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform (Press 53) and his writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications. He lives in Florida where he writes and leads a creative writing workshop for military veterans.