Trimmer, No More Need Be Said
by Phillip Parotti
In the time of Camelot, long before I took up teaching as a career, I answered John F. Kennedy’s call by doing my bit as a naval officer. As a result, on a warm day in August 1963, I made my way to San Diego, where I reported aboard a new destroyer. As “George,” the junior Ensign aboard, I didn’t have immense responsibilities as the Assistant Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer. In fact, I was a gopher for the ASW Officer, a Lieutenant who had risen through the ranks. “Mustangs,” men formerly enlisted, were some of the most knowledgeable people in the Navy, and while I might have been the ship’s “George,” I wasn’t thoroughly green. Four years at Annapolis had taught me that Mustangs knew the ropes and that to prosper, I would be wise to listen to them. My training started at once.
The day after I reported aboard, my boss drew me aside for a few words of advice.
“We are not a large division,” he said to me. “We number only twenty-two men. The Chief Sonarman is knowledgeable. The First Class Gunner’s Mate who handles the ASROC is equally adept, the ratings who handle the torpedoes know their stuff, and our seamen are able.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“My policy is to be firm but humane. These men are adult professionals. Several of them are married, and nine of them have families. Crisp is a bachelor, with a Corvette; he came in forty minutes AWOL recently and got himself restricted to the ship for two weeks, but that aberration that has not been repeated.”
“Yes, sir,” I said again.
“Once you begin standing in port watches,” he continued, “you’ll be associated with more and more of the ship’s company. Both the Captain and the Executive Officer run a tight ship, so be mindful of the fact. However, like all organizations this large—and we have more than three hundred men aboard—here and there, one or another of the men do not always come up to scratch. Santini, in M Division, for example, keeps trying to run crap games; stop that at once if you ever stumble across one. Benson, our radio messenger, has a habit of trying to race through hatches, so he has twice knocked himself out by failing to duck. And Trimmer,” he said with a disapproving grunt, “the . . . individual slouching up the port side over there, has to be watched.”
I glanced in the direction indicated and felt stunned. If Edgar Bergan’s ventriloquist’s dummy, Mortimer Snerd, had a double, I knew myself to be looking at him. The individual, Trimmer, wearing the stripes of a seaman, looked to me in every way like a six-foot version of Mortimer Snerd, without the hayseeds protruding from his oversized ears. The freckles, the buck teeth, the slightly glazed eyes, and the enormous silly grin seemed to suggest a perfect idiot, so much so that I exerted myself in order not to break out laughing.
“Yes, well, appearances can be deceiving,” my boss said, as the sailor disappeared. “In fact, Trimmer’s IQ exceeds 140; I’ve seen his personnel file. Before he came to us, he flunked out of the Navy’s Class A school for Electronic Technicians, and as you are aware, that is a school which takes only the best and the brightest. Trimmer may have been one of the brightest of recruits, but he was less than the best and got sent down for sloth. No criminal tendencies, mind you, but he’s downright scatterbrained, and that’s what you have to watch for when he is around. Take my meaning?”
We talked for perhaps another fifteen minutes, and then my boss disappeared into the Weapons Department office while I took myself down to Sonar in order to see that the compartment cleaners were doing their jobs.
After my inspection, I went to my stateroom, the place that doubled as my office, where I updated training records. Later that morning, I stepped up to the pilothouse to take my first look around the bridge. Once I’d satisfied myself about the arrangement of the helm, the lee helm, the radio repeaters, and so forth, I stepped onto the bridge wing and stood for a moment looking down onto the pier, and it must have been at that point when a movement between the dumpsters caught my attention.
What drew my eye, several decks below and out on the pier, happened to be Trimmer, who was supposed to be acting as pier sentry. Wearing dress whites and a guard belt equipped with a night stick, Trimmer was supposed to be marching alertly up and down the pier along the length of the ship while keeping a sharp eye open for such things as saboteurs, careless smokers anywhere near the dumpsters, and wharf rats that might be trying to maneuver over our aluminum rat guards. Trimmer’s was among the most mundane of watch assignments but an important one; the problem, as I detected it, was that Trimmer wasn’t carrying out his duties. Instead, wedged between the dumpsters where he thought he couldn’t be seen, he was snatching a smoke in a place, at a time, and under conditions where smoking was strictly forbidden. I did not have to take corrective action because a petty officer two or three decks below me also spotted the offense and barked sharply before I could bite.
“Trimmer!” the man shouted down onto the pier, “Ditch that butt and march!”
Caught like a child engaged in serious misbehavior, Trimmer jumped a foot into the air, and then, rather than throw the lighted cigarette into the bay, he pitched it straight into the dumpster in his haste to get rid of it. Heaven only knows what was in that dumpster, but whatever it was proved to be flammable because within seconds black smoke and flames started shooting straight out of the container with a roar. Moving quickly, I dialed the quarterdeck on the nearest sound powered phone. While the Officer of the Deck supervised from the quarterdeck, the Petty Officer of the Watch and the Messenger hurtled down the brow carrying fire extinguishers as they raced to put out the fire before it blazed out of control. In this, they were not successful. Whatever chemical solvents Trimmer had set alight forced them to retreat and leave the conflagration to the base fire department, which arrived on the scene within minutes.
Two days later, when he appeared before the CO at Captain’s Mast, Trimmer managed to sink himself even deeper into the soup by trying to shift blame for the fire onto the petty officer, who, he claimed, had startled him by shouting at him from the deck of the ship. I don’t know that this excuse absolutely enraged the Captain, but according to those present, it did make the Old Man angry—with the result that Trimmer wound up with a month’s restriction and severe warnings about attention to duty.
Soon after sentence had been passed, the Officer of the Deck set the Special Sea and Anchor Detail, and we got the ship underway for two weeks of exercises in the deep waters west of Catalina Island. My recollection is that we worked with a submarine so as to detect it and attack it with practice torpedoes. Whatever the case, fully occupied by my sea-going duties, I forgot about Trimmer and didn’t catch so much as a glimpse of him during the entire underway period. Finally, we returned to port, and on the very next morning, I was astonished to watch Trimmer give a second exhibition.
At the time, I happened to be talking to my roommate, the ship’s Damage Control Assistant. We happened to be standing atop the missile house overlooking the quarterdeck, talking professionally about some emergency fittings that he wanted me to memorize, when movements on the pier caught our attention.
The movements, as we saw at once, were being made by Trimmer. Once more assigned to walk the pier as sentry, Trimmer—in an apparent effort to break up the monotony of the exercise—wasn’t walking at all. Instead, like a child on a playground, he had suddenly started skipping down the pier and seemed to be doing so at a pretty good clip. And then, as the two of us watched with disbelief, Trimmer skipped right off the end of the pier and straight into San Diego Bay.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” my roommate exclaimed, and then, reacting swiftly, he leapt to the railing and shouted down to the In Port Officer of the Deck. “Chief Miggs, Man Overboard at the end of the pier! Get your messenger out there with a life ring ASAP! Send the Petty Officer of the Watch out with a second life ring and a heaving line, and call away the boat crew for the motor whaleboat. I don’t know if that lunatic can swim or not, but we’d better assume that he can’t. And get the Doc up here because he is going to have to decontaminate that man once we get him back on board.”
Trimmer apparently knew how to swim, for when the messenger reached the end of the pier and tossed him the life ring, Trimmer was treading water. A heaving line was then thrown to him, and eventually, by means of a mooring line made up with a bowline, Trimmer was hoisted back onto the pier where he stood to attention, dripping, in front of the Executive Officer.
“What in the hell did you think you were doing?” the XO demanded. And when Trimmer failed to respond. “Well?”
“Accident,” Trimmer stammered, his entire person reeking of sea slime and muck from head to foot.
“Yes,” the XO said, barely holding his fury in check, “that would seem obvious, wouldn’t it? So what I want to know is how you happened to have this accident.”
“Well . . ,” Trimmer hemmed and hawed.
“Well, sir,” the XO corrected.
“Well, sir,” Trimmer began, something of a sheepish grin creeping onto his face beneath a strand of sea weed, “it was . . . well, it was like I was counting the skips. I sorta figured that each skip must measure about a yard, and with the ship being 512 feet in length, I figured that I ought to be able to get in about 170 skips from bow to stern before I came up even with the fantail, and I guess I must have over-skipped ’cause I only got in 162 ‘fore I went off.”
The degree of heroic self-control that the Executive Officer exercised that morning struck me as exemplary. That Trimmer had tested the XO’s patience was obvious to all of us; the fact that the XO didn’t blow a gasket explains how he endured the frustrations of our profession long enough to complete his career as a rear admiral.
“Mr. Talbot,” the Executive Officer said, turning after several seconds of uneasy silence to the ship’s First Lieutenant, Trimmer’s division officer, “I don’t want this man infecting the ship with cholera, typhus, or something worse in the wake of this dunking, so you and the corpsman see to it that he is shipped up to Balboa Naval Hospital and decontaminated before either of you lifts another finger. And then, Mr. Talbot, you see to it that he is brought straight back here because tomorrow morning, I will expect this lunatic to be the first man in line for punishment at Captain’s Mast.”
As I remember it, Trimmer was not even allowed back on board in his filthy condition. Instead, he was hosed down at the foot of the pier, and then, an ambulance—an ambulance filled with incensed corpsmen—conveyed him to the hospital, Lieutenant junior grade Talbot riding in front with the driver. And on the following morning, the Captain broke Trimmer to the lowly rank of seaman apprentice and gave him an additional month of restriction in which to cool his heels. Meanwhile, everyone qualified to stand watch as In Port Officer of the Deck was given an order never to allow Trimmer anywhere near the pier without sending a petty officer to supervise him.
Not long after, the ship steamed up to the Long Beach Naval Shipyard for a period of restricted availability. We did not go into dry dock, but across a three-week span, civilian yard workers came aboard to modify our radars, install new electronic equipment, replace some pumps, and repair our shaft bearings. At the same time, the deck force turned to so that from dawn to dusk, we were deafened by the sound of chipping hammers and sanders in our failing attempt to eliminate rust. Given a severe Santa Anna condition with hot winds blowing in from the Mojave desert, most of us inside the skin of the ship felt like we were being broiled. In short, that cessation from operations seemed like a brief stint in hell, so much so that when we once more headed back to sea, everyone cut loose with a hearty cheer.
For two or three weeks thereafter, we remained underway, sometimes operating independently, sometimes providing lifeguard services behind one of the aircraft carriers. Rumor told us that we would deploy to the Western Pacific in January, so with a firm purpose, the Captain worked to bring us up to speed for wartime operational steaming. In the midst of those preparations, in order to accomplish some onshore schooling scheduled for members of the crew, we once more tied up at the 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego, and it was there, on our second or third day in port that I found myself on the quarterdeck for the morning watch as In Port Officer of the Deck.
Watch relief involved finding out such routine matters as how many boilers were on line, a check of the mooring lines, learning which officers were aboard, and asking if the Captain’s gig had been dispatched in order to pick him up from the fleet landing at North Island.
“I sent the gig up at about 0700,” Chief Miggs said to me as I prepared to relive him. “And one more thing, sir. The deck force has a man over the side on a stage, painting out the counter stern.”
“Wearing a life jacket, a life line, and with two men on deck to tend him?” I asked, running quickly through the safety procedures.
“Right, sir,” the Chief said.
“I relieve you,” I said. “Petty Officer of the Watch, note in the log that I have relieved Chief Miggs as Officer of the Deck.”
“Aye,” said the POOW, bending over the log.
Taking the long glass from Chief Miggs, I sent him in to breakfast. Then, to double check the status of the man on the stage, I drifted back across the fantail to where Stanley, one of the ship’s boatswain’s mates, and two seamen were tending the lifeline to the man who, paintbrush in hand, sat on a plank suspended over the water some six or eight feet below the fantail.
“Morning,” I said, speaking to Stanley, “all secure here?”
“Morning, sir,” Stanley said. “Yes, sir, all secure. We got an early start, so we ought to be done in about twenty minutes. He’s already finished with the haze gray, so I’ve sent the black paint down, and he’s blackin’ in the letters of the ship’s name right now.”
Across the stern, as with all Navy ships in peacetime, the letters of the ship’s name, cut from quarter-inch steel and measuring about eighteen to twenty-four inches square, were welded to the hull and painted black for quick recognition at sea. Periodically, like everything else on the ship, these needed to be repainted, and thus the task in hand.
Bending over the fantail and looking straight down, I could see the head of the man on the stage, but given the fact that the counter stern angled a degree or two toward the bow, I would have had to have walked out onto the foot of the pier in order to inspect the actual work the man was doing. As Officer of the Deck, I was forbidden to leave the ship, and furthermore, I knew that the work underway fell to the responsibility of the First Lieutenant, on whose turf I didn’t wish to tread.
“Who’s over the side?” I asked, straightening up.
“Trimmer,” Stanley said, “as a part of his punishment.”
At the mention of Trimmer, I felt a stab of apprehension.
“Keep a sharp eye on that man,” I said, speaking quietly but firmly. “I don’t want him taking another swim while I’m on watch.”
“No, sir,” laughed Stanley. “Enough said.”
“Good,” I said. “Carry on.”
And with that and after glancing once up the bay to be certain that the gig was not yet in sight, I paced back toward the quarterdeck, and let the monotony of the watch begin to numb my legs.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, a signalman called down from the bridge to inform me that he’d spotted the gig passing the foot of the National Steel shipbuilding slip about half a mile north of our berth.
“Stand by to gong the Captain aboard,” I said, turning to the Petty Officer of the Watch.
“The gig will be alongside in less than five minutes.”
I then glanced around to make sure that everything on the quarterdeck and the fantail seemed to be in order, and once satisfied, I raised the long glass and looked up the bay in time to see the gig, a rooster tail of high water trailing, coming into sight outboard of the station’s northernmost pier. Our gig was one of the finest on the West Coast, and within acceptable limits, the Captain liked for his coxswain to make speed, so when I first saw it, the bow seemed to be elevated a good thirty degrees above the surface of the bay. Given my best guess, I thought the boat might be moving at more than fifteen knots. And then, as I watched with the long glass and as the gig drew perpendicular to the stern about two hundred yards out in the bay directly behind us, I saw the coxswain take off all his power and the Captain leap instantly onto the deck from the after compartment where he had been riding. At that distance, I could not see the Captain’s face, but I could see him jumping up and down, and in the next instant, I saw him push the coxswain aside, grab the helm, thrust the power controls all the way forward to flank speed, and turn the gig directly toward the ship, virtually standing it on its propeller. Something was wrong, and glancing swiftly in every direction, the Petty Officer of the Watch and I didn’t have a clue about what it might be.
Even before the gig could touch the accommodation ladder, even as we gonged him aboard and the Executive Officer hurried out from his stateroom, the Captain, in a seething rage, leapt three feet from the still moving gig and straight onto the foot of the accommodation ladder. And in the next second, as he hurtled up the ladder and roared straight past me, he shattered the morning with a thunderous command to Stanley:“Get that idiot on deck right now!”
It was Trimmer again; I knew that I should have known. The fact that Trimmer’s lips were curled with the slight trace of another of his sheepish grins as Stanley and the two seamen hauled him up on deck only made matters worse, and in looking back, I am surprised, given the degree of the Captain’s fury, that the Captain didn’t haul off and strike him. But, of course, the Captain didn’t. Instead, after looking at Trimmer for only a few seconds, the Captain turned to the arriving Exec and said, “This man goes to the brig, now, for three months, and I don’t ever want to see him back aboard my ship again.” And then, he turned to Stanley, “Boatswain, gray paint and rollers! I want that counter stern painted out in haze gray as fast as your men can move! And then, you, yourself,” the Captain said, shaking his finger at Stanley, “get down there and black in the ship’s name!”
As Stanley and his seamen jumped to their task, aside from the Captain and the gig’s crew, no one on board had the remotest idea what Trimmer had done to have himself consigned so suddenly to the Marines and their supposed rubber hoses. The Captain, still fuming, turning instantly on his heel and heading for his cabin, didn’t stop to explain, and the Executive Officer, busy assigning my Petty Officer of the Watch to march Trimmer straight to the Naval Station’s brig, didn’t take time to ask. But within minutes, as the ship’s telephones began to ring off the hook, we knew that Trimmer had made us into the laughing stock of Pacific Fleet by painting the F-word across the ship’s stern in imposing gloss black letters more than eight feet high, letters that could be read all the way across the bay by every driver moving north or south up the Silver Strand between Imperial Beach and both sedate Coronado and the US Naval Air Station at North Island. It was bad enough to receive telephone calls from occasional civilians who happened to notice our shame, but the three or four rockets we received from senior officers who also became aware of the offense put the Captain’s equanimity out of joint for more than a month. During that time, all of us, lieutenants and ensigns alike, kept a low profile while walking softly in the Captain’s presence.
What eventually became of Trimmer, none of us ever knew. Insofar as we could learn, he had disappeared into the mist, never again to be seen. But in looking back, I don’t think we managed to put Trimmer fully behind us until, finally, late on a February evening, we steamed silently into Tokyo Bay and up to our berth at the Yokosuka Naval Station beneath the soft winter flakes of a cleansing snow.
Phillip Parotti graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1963 and subsequently served four years aboard destroyers before spending thirty-two years teaching English literature at Sam Houston State University. In addition to three novels about The Trojan War, he has published multiple short stories and essays and is now retired to his New Mexico hometown, where he continues to write and work as a print maker.