Saturday, August 12, 2006

Nostalgia - All of Us Have Some

Lorraine and Anita wrote to their fellow orphans about times in the Buckner Orphan's Home in Dallas during the sixties:

  • Thanx Anita, something light is always good to start the day on., hope you are well and things are good for you. You always make my day brighter.Wish we could have known each other at BOH, but better late than never, and like I have said so many times before, we all know each other by heart........Your friend and sister, Lorraine
  • Anytime, me too I wished I'd have known you too back then too, when ya'll are talking I try to imagine the time frame you were in and how it must've been stricter times than ours and I respect all of you so much for making it through it and braving that path for us younger ones and also some of the same stuff we went through, that's why I really enjoy hearing your stories and looking at pictures.Sometimes it feels like when your talking like your still the ages you were then-and it's like you don't even have to say anything and you understand each other-even us! It's a bond and love, so unexplainable, so innocent and pure! Innocent Hearts. Glad to know all of you, late than never! Love Anita

Dear Anita and Lorraine:

Regarding your nostalgia about Buckner’s Orphans Home in Dallas during the sixties…

My three youngest siblings (Norman, Debbie, and Claudia) lived at Buckner while I lived alone or with a friend in Dallas during my last year in high school. I narrowly escaped being sent to a similar orphanage on the Gulf Coast not far from Houston a couple of years earlier.

Because of that, I might have difficulty dredging up an emotional experience like the one you shared when you recounted your nostalgia over your childhood at Buckner’s.

Except for one.

After high school, I joined the Navy, went to Boot Camp in San Diego, Submarine School in New London, Connecticut, and then my first submarine assignment in Key West (see Web Cams), the USS Quillback (SS 424). Once assigned to the sub, I settled into whatever chores they assigned me, including learning enough about the “boat” to qualify “SS” Submarine Service sailor. After nearly a year, the Navy assigned me to another Key West boat, the USS Threadfin (SS 410).

Key West sat then as a tiny town with tons of sailors and locals who called themselves “Conchs.” I thought the place a tropical paradise, except of course for the dearth of females. Sailors had to share those local chicks who would deign to a tryst. Most worked as barmaids rather than church-going neighborhood sweethearts. In their spare time, most sailors sat around the bars, strolled the beaches hunting for “strange,” and wistfully fantasizing about boat rides to Jamaica or the Mediterranean to break the boredom.

Several submarines sat in side the quay walls at the west edge of the small Navy Base on Key West. A large ship called a Submarine Tender moored north and south at the Navy mole inside the quay, and submarines tied up along side it for repairs and refitting. The mile-long main drag Duval street, home of Sloppy Joe’s Bar, ran north and south just outside the main gate. I used to sit in that bar and sip a cheap beer while lusting for the barmaid and listening to a Leon Redbone precursor play 4-string guitar and sing old blues and ragtime songs on the tiny stage behind the bar.

I did make friends on boats aboard which I served, the USS Quillback and USS Threadfin, people I remember today with fond affection, like brothers.

Some of my ship mates had wives, but most enjoyed bachelor life the best they could. Because we could not all sleep in the boat’s bunking quarters at the same time, the salty sailors who had been in the Navy some years lived in barracks quarters while the boat sat in port. When we put out to sea the junior sailors “hot-bunked.” That is, we shared the same bunks. When one would be on watch, another would sleep in the bunk.

While at sea, we sealed the topside hatches, and the engine exhaust and diesel fumes unavoidably permeated the boat. All of us and our clothing smelled like diesel fumes because of the nature of the submarine environment. We did not notice the smell ourselves, but we heard remarks from others when we dressed in our white sailor suits and ventured into town for some excitement. Several of my shipmates grew fond of Canoe cologne because it covered up the subtle stink while making them smell like tropical flowers.

The SS qualified sailors whiled away their time on watch playing Acey-Deucy (backgammon) or cribbage. The unqualified spent all their spare time studying, learning about the boat’s propulsion, buoyancy, weapons, steering, oil, water, electrical, and other critical systems. We went through frequent drills to make sure we could handle emergencies like fire, flooding, or explosive that might arise. We got to know one another’s fortes, foibles, humors, moods, and sometimes secret yearnings.

During my first few months aboard the Quillback I worked as a messcook – a server in the mess hall and dishwasher in the galley (kitchen). I rather enjoyed the job, even though I had gone through school to learn how to set up, operate, and service the computers and other equipment used to aim and shoot guns, torpedos, and missiles (Fire Control Technician). I got to meet and interact with all my shipmates.

And sometimes for entertainment, I’d go topside while in port after taking out the garbage from the mess hall, and hook a piece of fat on a fishing line, toss scraps along with the baited hook into the water, and try to lure one of the flock of hungry seagulls to snag the bait. Inevitably, I’d catch one and reel it in dazed, confused, and squawking, to release it and try for another. One day when dropping the cylindrical stainless steel garbage cans down the hatch to my fellow messcook Swartwood, I failed to notice he had bent over to pick up the pen that had fallen out of his pocket, and the can bonked him on the head with a loud clang, putting a blood-spurting gash in his scalp. I felt so horrible about that because I loved Swartwood as I did nearly all of my shipmates.

We all lived a fairly confined, circumscribed life in a special community on the submarine, just as you did at Buckners. Our captain and officers regulated our schedules, chores, and group leisure and recreation activities, just as the adults regulated yours at Buckners. And I earned a whopping $80 or $90 per month, some of which I sent home to my mother.

We did take the boat to Guantanamo Bay, Jamaica, and various exercises at sea. I loved all those adventures, but shall save till a future note some of my juicy stories about native girls, island music, swapping cigarettes for services, and smoking weed in the bulrushes behind Port Antonio’s Sunset Lounge.

When at sea, I loved standing watch on the top of the sail as the boat seem to cut a swath through the sea with its pointy bow and porpoises (called dolphins) raced the boat and leaped across the bow wake. I loved the storms at sea, with the puffy gray clouds showering rain in the distance against a bright blue sky. I loved scanning the beautiful horizon with binoculars and talking with my fellow watch and the Officer of the Deck. I loved diving into the rich blue water of the Caribbean during swim call. I loved the fabulous food, the best I’d ever eaten. I loved the excitement of learning how the submarine operated and working with shipmates during the drills, then hearing the Captain call out a congratulations and well-done for our accomplishments. I loved driving and diving the boat, the double-ooogah of the diving alarm, flooding the buoyancy tanks and feeling the boat settle beneath the waves, and then the silent running underwater. I loved going to the sonar room and listening to the sounds various fish made, and tracking the navigation of other vessels at sea. I loved the brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures, the balmy breezes swaying palm trees, and even the crotchety provinciality of the community of Key West. I enjoyed the sense of danger sitting only 90 miles from Cuba in the early 60s when we had a terrible relationship with Castro.

And I remember the day of the assassination of JFK. The topside watch informed me about it as he and I saluted one another when I walked aboard after a sunny afternoon adventure in town on a day in late November, in 1963. I lived in Key West just short

In 1998, after not having seen Key west since leaving in the fall of 1964 for Polaris missile fire control school in Dam Neck Virginia, I returned with my wife to Key West. How the town had changed. The salty feel of a navy village had transformed by some magic into a teeming tourist trap visited every day by pleasure cruise ships that had ignored it earlier. Sloppy Joe’s bar had no more of its Hemmingway atmosphere, and had converted much of its space to retail store selling Key West and Hemmingway souvenirs. The Conch Train still takes tourists around the town, pointing out historical landmarks, vegetation, and areas to visit on foot. My favorite bar had disappeared, the Tomato Patch, where a barmaid had taught me the jitterbug, Texas Two-Step, and slow dancing to Buck Owens songs like “Together Again”. The dangerous Cuban expatriate saloons no longer existed. Captain Mel Fisher had built his a treasure museum.

We visited the remains of the Navy Base, called the “Truman Annex.” The CIA listening station at the south end of the base still bristled with antennas, and cars in the parking lot hinted that the CIA personnel were still tuned in to radio signals sneaking out of Cuba. We drove down to the quay where the submarines had lain at their moorings. None of the 7 or 8 boats sat where they had in those days of my youth a year after I had graduated from a Dallas high school. The government had sold the submarines to foreign Navies or scrapped them. The base, although well-groomed and lovely as it had been 34 years earlier seemed deserted - I didn’t see a single sailor anywhere.

I stood there on the concrete mole overlooking the submarine basin and let the waves of nostalgia flood my thoughts and sense of existence. This tiny Navy base had served as home to many submarine sailors, including me. All had lusted, loved, and indulged the obligations and benefits of life there. Now, nothing remained but the memories.

And those memories, while not real, surely seemed so intensely true. But only the tidy little white buildings and manicured lawn stood behind as a hint to the work and play of so many years ago.

Norman and Debbie visited the remains of Buckners a few years back, and mentioned that little remained there but rubble and memories. I know they felt the same nostalgia I felt in Key West, and the same you must feel now as you think of your childhood years.

Bob Hurt

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