“I used to live in this room before I was a soldier”

tiffieI’m reading All Quiet on the Western Front and just got to the bit where Paul arrives home after a long time away at the front and suddenly, in my reverie, I was Paul, coming home from my first few months in the Royal Navy.

Paul’s journey home to Germany from the front in Flanders took several days
. When he arrived he felt foreign, like everything had changed though he knew that, deep down, everything else was the same and that it was he who had changed. His relationship with his family and his friends was different and would be so for ever more.

To be clear, I never went to the front. I was never in great danger during my six years in the navy. I did not watch my friends die. I was a sailor and not a soldier but, for a brief moment, I felt a bond across the 100 years and the cruel, ugly line that divides me from that German private soldier. A bond that connects everyone who has worn the uniform, even for brief time.

I came home after 10 weeks in the Navy for midterm weekend. It happened to be Speech Day at my school and I was going to be awarded a prize. I had been traveling all day to get home from my base in Cornwall and I knew I was slicing the time rather fine. No cell phones in those days but my mum was waiting for me as my train pulled into Sidcup Station and we raced down to the school, running into the assembly hall in time to see the last prize-winners crossing the stage. The Headmaster was already preparing to make his final remarks as rushed into the hall. After a 300 mile dash across the country, I had missed my brief moment in the spotlight.

Csgs_badgeLuckily Mr Hahn saw me striding down the aisle and was quick on his feet. In truth, it was hard to miss me as I was the only one in a navy blue uniform among a sea of purple. Mr Hahn recognized me, quickly grabbed the microphone and ad-libbedbut me.

“And the prize for mathematics goes to Kevin Lawrence.”

The Headmaster looked flustered and wondered why a sailor was walking across his stage until someone thrust a certificate into his hand to make him understand. “Congratulations, Lawrence” he murmured and shook my hand. As I made my way to the other side of the stage, I caught Mr Hahn’s eye and he smiled and nodded.

Coming home that weekend, I knew that everything was different now. My friends were still school kids but I was in the navy and no one understood what that meant but me.

30mm BMARC

Fire! Fire! Fire!

Hearing the reports and interviews about the San Francisco plane crash brought back a long lost memory.

I had just turned 21 when I joined the nuclear submarine HMS Revenge. I was one of two petty officers responsible for all the sonar systems on board. The other dude, Mark, was a year or two older than me. As you can probably imagine, sonar systems are pretty important to a submarine so it was a big responsibility. But no one on a sub has just one job. I had four. My main watch-keeping position was OPSO.

If you have ever seen a movie of a submarine in action – wait!…. here’s one!… – you may have noticed that there are five key roles in the control room of a sub and one more further back in the engine room.

This is a recruitment film deviously crafted to tempt disaffected but smart young men to run away from home and become engineers in the Royal Navy [they got me! – ed] Skip to 17:10 to see a submarine that may very well be HMS Revenge. Fun fact: The sub on the inside is different from the one on the outside!

The officer of the watch (OOW) – or the captain during tricky manoeuvres – is in charge of the whole boat and makes all the tactical decisions and the other four folks report to the OOW. The after-planesman is responsible for steering and keeping depth, a responsibility he shares with The Panel watch-keeper (open main vents, sir!) who continually monitors the submarine’s trim, opening and closing valves to keep the boat level. Back aft, the stokers take care of the main engines and generators and, of course, the nuclear reactor. Last, and very definitely not least, there is OPSO. Me.

When a sub is underwater – which is most of the time – it is almost completely blind. That thing you hear in movies with the Ping! Blip! of the sonar every 10 seconds does not actually happen these days. Soviet submarines used active sonar but NATO boats didn’t (if you hear a sonar ping in the middle of the North Atlantic, it’s probably from a Russian boat or a surface ship) so the only way to know what was out there was to listen very carefully.

HMS Revenge at dawn
HMS Revenge at dawn

 

Most of the listening was done by 16 year old boys with headphones and they would report everything they heard – carpenter fish; snapping shrimp; underwater pigs; other ships – and (if it was a ship) a guess at their speed from the sound of its propellers. We had no range information at all. We could guess the distance of a ship based on how much its bearing changed but even that was of no use if the ship was coming straight at us. If a ship had cut its engines, we wouldn’t even know it was there. OPSO’s job was to keep track of all the targets reported by the sonar department -including all the whales and dolphins and fishing boats that would start their engines, motor for ten minutes then cut their engines – and recommend a safe course to the OOW. Oh and – this at the height of the cold war remember – listen out for enemy submarines. So, while OPSO was my job #2, and actually took most of my working hours, job #3 was the most glamorous.

Polaris Missile Launched from HMS Revenge
Polaris Missile Launched from HMS Revenge

When a ballistic missile sub is called upon to fire its weapons of armageddon (weapons of mass destruction does not quite capture the extent of the horror) the submarine makes a lot of noise, instantly announcing its presence to every enemy submarine for hundreds of miles and its role changes instantly from dealer of destruction to recipient of it and the boat needs to defend itself to survive. My job #3 was, as torpedo guider, to kill those other submarines before they killed us. Lots of video game practice helped honed my torpedo-guiding skills.

If job #3 was most glamorous, job #4 was the most terrifying as I was in the attack squad of the firefighting team. Fires happen surprisingly often on ships and submarines and they are quite dangerous, what with all the hydraulics and the fuel and the explosives everywhere. We’d be called out to fight a fire at least once a week and maybe once a month it’d be a proper scary fire.

One big difference between a ship and a submarine is that on a ship – at least, on the destroyer I served on – when there is a fire, only the designated fire-fighting team has to react to it. Everyone else just carries on eating their dinner or cleaning the bathrooms or whatever. On a submarine, fires are a much bigger deal and the whole crew joins in the fun of fighting the fire.

There are two main sections to the firefighting team. One team dresses up in  fearnought suits – big woolly suits that keep you toasty warm even when you are not walking into a fire – ready to do the main work of fighting the fire with the main hose and a waterwall. The attack team just grabs a flimsy little mask and a fire extinguisher and runs into the blaze while the main team is suiting up.

I remember my first big, super-scary fire in an auxiliary machinery room (AMR) filled with diesel generators. We had already had several little fires since I joined the boat, but they were little affairs and extinguished quickly. There was always a kind of anti-climax after the excitement of the  Fire! Fire! Fire! on the Tannoy and the scrambling to grab a mask and get to the fire first, when the first dude on the scene was able to put out the fire straight away. This one was different though and it was clearly going to be a big deal.

At the Fire! Fire! Fire! alarm, I ran as usual to grab my mask from the pile but, as I reached for the very last mask and steeled myself for the battle ahead, a burly stoker PO named Mitch, 15 years my senior, put his hand on the same mask. He looked me in the eye and said “I think you’d better let me have that, son”. I didn’t argue and he ran into the burning AMR leaving me mask-less and safely away from the flames. No one died that day and the fire was extinguished without too much drama but, ever since then, I have had a healthy respect for people who run into burning buildings for a living. That memory came back to me this morning when I read the interviews of the first responders to the plane crash at San Francisco Airport over the weekend.

From KQED,

Firefighters said they encountered smoke, leaking jet fuel and passengers coming down on chutes when they arrived. Lt. Christine Emmons said Monday at the news conference that she and her partner ran up a chute into the plane and found four passengers trapped in the back. The conditions in the plane were changing rapidly, with the fire coming down on rescuers and the smoke thickening as the trapped passengers were pulled out to safety, she said.

Lt. Christine Emmons
Lt. Christine Emmons

and

Lt. Dave Monteverdi, who had also run up the chute, said someone had to be extricated after one of the bulkheads fell on top of him. When the firefighters entered the plane, they were surprised to find San Francisco police Officer Jim Cunningham already there, not wearing any protective equipment. Several of the public safety officers who spoke gave him a special shout-out for heroism. Police Lt. Gaetano Caltagirone also entered the plane, following Cunningham. “I couldn’t let him go inside the plane and just be there by himself,” he said.

People who fight fires for a living are amazing but I have a special regard for whose who, like flight attendants Lee Yoon-hye and Kim Ji-yeon have firefighting as job #4 – after handing out ginger ale, picking up your trash and getting unruly passengers to please turn off their electronic equipment now.

From Yahoo News

One flight attendant, Kim Ji-yeon, 30, put a scared and injured elementary schoolboy on her back and slid down a slide, said Lee, in the first comments by a crew member since the crash of the Boeing 777. A pilot helped another injured flight attendant off the plane after the passengers escaped.

Jiyeon Kim
Jiyeon Kim

Lee herself worked to put out fires and usher passengers to safety despite a broken tailbone that kept her standing throughout a news briefing with mostly South Korean reporters at a San Francisco hotel. She said she didn’t know how badly she was hurt until a doctor at a San Francisco hospital later treated her. When Lee saw that the plane was burning after the crash, she was calm. “I was only thinking that I should put it out quickly. I didn’t have time to feel that this fire was going to hurt me,” she said. Lee said she was the last person off the plane and that she tried to approach the back of the aircraft before she left to double-check that no one was left inside. But when she moved to the back of the plane, a cloud of black, toxic smoke made it impossible. “It looked like the ceiling had fallen down,” she said. http://news.yahoo.com/asiana-attendant-describes-dramatic-evacuation-101658097.html

Brave people, firefighters. Especially when they are flight attendants too.

Burning Plane at SFO
Burning Plane at SFO

Fun with Guns

 

The first gun I ever fired was a Lee-Enfield, the mainstay of the British Empire for the first half of the 20th century and the weapon of choice of the Sea Cadets. Wikipedia says that our Lee-Enfields were modified to fire .22 rounds but, in my memory, they were the original .303s. Who knows? (Petty Officer Barker, are you out there?)

I have a bunch of medals for shooting. Our Sea Cadet unit (TS Caprice, Bexley SCC), used to compete in tournaments pretty much every other weekend – adventure training, rifle drill, orienteering, rowing, sailing, football. We won almost every time we competed and my medal drawer overfloweth. Shooting was my forte.

I was pretty good at shooting despite the fact that I was – and still am – very short-sighted and, as a self-conscious teenager, never wore my glasses. I won silver in the South-East London shooting contest and gold in the pentathlon (shooting, orienteering, assault course, shot putt and…er … <mumble> something else I don’t remember) and best of all, we got the silver medal twice in a row in the All London Adventure Training competition (codename: Chosin; named for the Battle of Chosin in the Korean War) where we, a team of six fifteen-year-olds, were dropped in the middle of snowy nowhere for a weekend of hiking, camping, shooting and various other activities related to survival in the wilderness.

I also had an air rifle that my godfather gave me. It was already ancient when I got hold of it and the barrel was rusted. It wouldn’t shoot the little pellet thingies but I had fun chewing up bits of paper and shooting them at my dartboard. Once, I wondered whether it would hurt to shoot myself in the foot with a bit of chewed up paper. The answer? Fuck yeah, it hurts! I got a massive blister on my big toe [One day I’ll tell you about my experiment with a super-powerful slingshot, a section of hot wheels track and a dart. Spoiler Alert: it hurt exquisitely and it took me several minutes to pull the dart out of my thumb.]

After I joined the Navy, we fired all the usual Navy weapons. Most of the time we shot the standard issue SLR (self-loading rifle) but we also fired more exotic weapons like LMGs (light-machine guns), SMGs (sub-machine guns) and, once, a 9mm Browning pistol (fun fact: a NAAFI manager with an LMG was credited with shooting down a Mirage with an LMG during the Falkland’s War).

My next gun was a twin-barrelled 30mm BMARC.

This gun was my constant companion for 6 months in 1984/85 while we sailed around and around the Falklands trying to keep the Argies from coming back. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (because I love saying it), the thrill of firing that gun is something I’ll never forget.

Alarm Aircraft! Green 9-0! Elevation 2-2! Starboard guns, engage! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! (20 times per second).

My next gun presented a different kind of thrill. I didn’t get to pull the trigger but I did get to load it. With one shell fired every 2.4 seconds and with two little 18-year-olds – weighing not much more than the 72lb shells that the gun fired – tasked with making sure the firing ring was never empty, you can imagine how much fun it was when the Captain announced

Naval Gunfire Support! 300 rounds. Engage!

I think I still have the bruises on my collar bone from pulling those shells down from the top shelf in the magazine and catching them on my shoulder. With a range of 30,000 yards, the 4.5in Mk8 was the most powerful gun I ever fired but I fired other weapons that were bigger. OK. I didn’t actually fire a torpedo, but I fired practice shots a hundred times and I sat next to a dude who fired one from HMS Revenge. Did you know they were wire-guided? Pretty cool, eh?

I missed out on firing the biggest weapon of all, the Polaris inter-continental ballistic missile, by a few months. My submarine, HMS Revenge, fired a practice missile a few months before I joined her but we fired an uncountable multitude of water shots on my one and only patrol and, each time, I fired a practice torpedo, the theory being that if you fire a polaris missile, every russian submarine within a few hundred miles will hear it and come to try to sink you.

I was the only crew member on HMS Revenge who was also a member of Greenpeace. When the Jimmy made his big speech about how everyone on board had to be totally committed to our mission, three of my messmates had to physically prevent me from going up to the control room to share my reservations about our nuclear deterrent with the captain.

[postscript: odd that my security clearance came up for review right after I joined Greenpeace].

So, despite my history with guns, nothing prepared me for the ongoing love affair that my adopted country has with weaponry of all kinds.

Everyone in the world knows how much Americans like their guns but you don’t really appreciate exactly how much they like them until you get here and talk to people. Otherwise-normal people have some really strange ideas about the appropriate role of guns in society.

The oddest idea is the one that a well-armed citizenry is the last bastion against tyranny. Even some of my most sensible friends believe that one — not just the crazies who think that Obama is a Kenyan, socialist muslim who wants to take their guns as step one in secret conspiracy to introduce Sharia Law and gulags. Even people who can speak in complete sentences.

Put aside, for a moment, the knowledge that the government has kept all the really good weapons for itself, the main flaw in the well-armed citizenry argument, for me, is an emotional one. When I close my eyes and try to imagine what tyranny looks like, the images that scare me the most are the ones that include well-armed citizens and which way they are pointing their guns (HINT: it’s not in the direction of the government). Think of Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo, Bosnia, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan… and picture the folks holding the weapons. Were they the good guys or the bad guys? Any reason to think it might be different in a future American dystopia?

I expect that the mythology concerning well-armed militias grew from a seed of truth planted in 1776 and nurtured by 200 years of 4th grade history. Generations of elementary school kids have been taught that the bad guys from England were repelled by the good guys using long guns hidden in their barns. Not until high school do kids learn that it’s not always so easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

According to Jill Lepore in The New Yorkerit wasn’t until quite recently that the Second Amendment was used to justify gun ownership.

In the two centuries following the adoption of the Bill of Rights, in 1791, no amendment received less attention in the courts than the Second, except the Third. As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma.

The idea that the second amendment has something to do with self-defense is an even more recent innovation. A few years back, writer Jonathan Safran Foer wondered how a politician might justify gun ownership without relying on the Second Amendment.

…why, after the massacre at Virginia Tech — hours after — did Sen. John McCain proclaim, “I do believe in the constitutional right that everyone has, in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, to carry a weapon”? Just what is it, precisely, that he believes in? Is it the Constitution itself? (But surely he thinks it was wise to change the Constitution to abolish slavery, give women the vote, end Prohibition and so on?) Or is it the guns themselves that he believes in? It would be refreshing to have a politician try to defend guns without any reference to the Second Amendment, but on the merits of guns. What if, hours after the killings, McCain had stood at the podium and said instead, “Guns are good because . . . “

Why do Americans see guns as intrinsically good when the rest of the civilized world has such a different opinion?

In the rest of his article, Foer, explores a few potential arguments to his rhetorical question, like public safety, a favourite among my gun-toting companions.

Guns are good because they provide the ultimate self-defense? While I’m sure some people believe that having a gun at their bedside will make them safer, they are wrong. This is not my opinion, and it’s not a political or controversial statement. It is a fact. Guns kept in the home for self-protection are 43 times more likely to kill a family member, friend or acquaintance than to kill an intruder, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Guns on the street make us less safe. For every justifiable handgun homicide, there are more than 50 handgun murders, according to the FBI.

After a passionate fireside discussion with some pirates on this subject, I had occasion to look into the statistics regarding gun deaths in the USA. They really are appalling. Check out these stats summarized by NationMaster:

  British Crime stats   American Crime stats
Murders with firearms 14 9,369
DEFINITION: Total recorded intentional homicides committed with a firearm. Crime statistics are often better indicators of prevalence of law enforcement and willingness to report crime, than actual prevalence.
SOURCE: The Eighth United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (2002) (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention)
Ranked 29th. Ranked 1st. 668 times more than United Kingdom
Murders committed by youths 139 8,226
DEFINITION: Homicide rates among youths aged 10–29 years by country or area: most recent year available (variable 1990–1999).
SOURCE: World Health Organization: World report on violence and health, 2002

The numbers are even more appalling when you factor in accidental deaths.

Foer again:

In 2004, more preschoolers than law enforcement officers were killed by firearms, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. The number of children killed by guns in the United States each year is about three times greater than the number of servicemen and women killed annually in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, more children — children– have been killed by guns in the past 25 years than the total number of American fatalities in all wars of the past five decades.

There are several theories for why America is the most violent country in the developed world. The most compelling is that democracy came too early to America. Steven Pinker’s   Better Angels of our Nature points to the state monopoly on violence as a major contributor to the persistent and dramatic decline in violence over the last several thousand years.

The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.

Book review of Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature in the New York Times.

Pinker documents in excruciating detail just how much more peaceful our century is than previous ones (if like me, you are wondering how Pinker explains away the Holocaust and World War I, go read the book. It will answer all your questions, I promise).

Homicide rates per 100,000 people in Europe.

One of the reasons for the decline in violence, as Pinker describes in this article, Why are States so Red and Blue, is that

All societies must deal with the dilemma famously pointed out by Hobbes: in the absence of government, people are tempted to attack one another out of greed, fear and vengeance. European societies, over the centuries, solved this problem as their kings imposed law and order on a medieval patchwork of fiefs ravaged by feuding knights. The happy result was a thirty-fivefold reduction in their homicide rate from the Middle Ages to the present. Once the monarchs pacified the people, the people then had to rein in the monarchs, who had been keeping the peace with arbitrary edicts and gruesome public torture-executions. Beginning in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, governments were forced to implement democratic procedures, humanitarian reforms and the protection of human rights.

In America, the sequence of events was slightly different.

The historian Pieter Spierenburg has suggested that “democracy came too soon to America,” namely, before the government had disarmed its citizens. Since American governance was more or less democratic from the start, the people could choose not to cede to it the safeguarding of their personal safety but to keep it as their prerogative. The unhappy result of this vigilante justice is that American homicide rates are far higher than those of Europe, and those of the South higher than those of the North.

How much higher?

Quoting Democracy in America at The Economist,

Murder rates are about four times higher in America than in western Europe. And guns are not the only reason; murder by stabbing and clubbing is higher, too. The murder rate is higher among blacks, but American whites are more violent than European whites. The South is America’s most violent region; both blacks and whites in the South are more violent than those in the northeast. In other words, the murder rate is highest in those states that most disdain the sovereign (“government”) and champion self-reliance.

The outlook isn’t all bad though. Even though it seems like liberal politicians are getting ever more cowardly about gun control as the NRA gets ever more powerful, rates of gun ownership are actually falling…

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.

The New Yorker

… and the opinions of gun-owners are diverging from the hard-line positions championed by the NRA.

Gun owners may be more supportive of gun-safety regulations than is the leadership of the N.R.A. According to a 2009 Luntz poll, for instance, requiring mandatory background checks on all purchasers at gun shows is favored not only by eighty-five per cent of gun owners who are not members of the N.R.A. but also by sixty-nine per cent of gun owners who are.

It’ll take a while but I am confident that Americans will eventually succumb to the same civilizing influences that have tamed Europeans’ violent urges.

Every country has, along with its core civilities and traditions, some kind of inner madness, a belief so irrational that even death and destruction cannot alter it. In Europe not long ago it was the belief that “honor” of the nation was so important that any insult to it had to be avenged by millions of lives. In America, it has been, for so long now, the belief that guns designed to kill people indifferently and in great numbers can be widely available and not have it end with people being killed, indifferently and in great numbers.

New Yorker, after the Aurora killings.

I expect that, part of the solution – the transition to a society with fewer guns, will result from the recognition that the second amendment, like all the other amendments, has limits.

From the Supreme Court’s judgment in District of Columbia vs Heller, written by Justice Scalia:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.

Tempus Fugit

HMS Invincible just sailed off to the scrap yards.

20110407-070353.jpg

Invincible came into service right before I joined up. It was a big deal at the time because Thatcher’s Axe inflicted a series of massive cuts on the armed forces right before I signed on the dotted line. HMS Invincible was actually sold to Australia and her sister ships were cancelled until General Galtieri showed up to become their unlikely saviour. The Falklands War caused a bit of a rethink about the role of the Royal Navy, you see.

I had requested to serve on HMS Invincible but ended up on a submarine – almost the exact opposite. Both my ships are now long retired.20110407-070312.jpg

 

HMS Southampton has been sitting, stripped bare of the systems that made her a ship of war – out in the channel, waiting for her appointment at the breaker’s yard.

 

HMS Revenge has gone to the limbo where all the other retired nuclear submarines sit until indefinitely comes.20110407-070403.jpg No one can decide what to do with them so they sit and they glow, their reactors pumped full of concrete and their empty hulls labelled with warning signs localized to the language of the far future.

When I joined up there were still ships around from the 60s (the 60s!) and Invincible was new and shiny.

And now she is old and decrepit and on her way to the razor blade factory.

Buccaneer Scholars Unite!

I just started reading James Bach’s Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar. Buccaneer scholar is Bach’s term for someone who takes responsibility for their own education rather than having it handed to them by the authorities.

The book is an odd mix of autobiography and How To guide. The autobiographical bits have remarkable parallels with my own life right down to our reasons for learning harmonica and the kids we saved from certain death (I came across mine floating face down at midnight in the pool at Corton’s Holiday Camp with not another soul around).

A sampling of coincidences …

We both learned to program in BASIC from a book before we even had a computer to type them into. I used to write programs during French classes in a book under my desk and then type them in when I got home. I typed mine into a Zx81; James into an Apple II. I graduated to Z80; James to 68000.

James left home and school at 15. I waited until I was 16. We left for about the same reason – school was boring and we felt we weren’t learning anything. It took me several years though before I bluffed my way into my first programming job. I would’ve done it much earlier except I didn’t know it was an option.

Unlike James, I loved taking exams as a kid. It was a chance for me to excel at school without actually doing any work. In England, at that time, the only thing that counted towards your final grade was the exam at the end of the year, so I was pretty much able to do zero work for the rest of the year and still come top of my class. Sadly for them, American kids don’t have that option.

I should clarify what I mean by zero work. Like James, I was incredibly driven to learn. Apart from teaching myself to write software, I read lot of books – just not the ones my teachers wanted me to read. My dad got me a college textbook on organic chemistry for my 14th birthday. I read that several times.

Also like James, I excelled at antagonizing my teachers and was constantly in trouble at school. I also had an episode of failing exams on purpose.

The Navy had a very strict policy on throwing people out if they weren’t able to keep up academically. We had an exam every week or two for the four years of my apprenticeship. If you failed one, you were put on a Commander’s Warning; two got you a Captain’s Warning and so on as you worked your way up the hierarchy of shame. Each warning came with ever increasing ceremony (picture a military court and you’ll have the setting about right) and ever more impressive certificates of failure.

I got very good at getting exactly 49% (50% was a pass) but, on a surprising number of occasions, when I got my paper back, it had been altered to give me a couple of extra points and a passing grade.

When I received the final warning signed by the Commander in Chief himself, my Divisional Officer scribbled on a note “this beautiful certificate is even more impressive than the one you’ll get when you graduate”.

One more failure and I was out. But I blew it. I was so disenchanted with how low the academic standards were in the navy that I wanted to know if I could still pass a proper exam. A friend of mine was taking A-Level Maths and I went and asked if I could take it too.

The education officer explained how it was a two year course and no one had passed it in ten years and failures reflected badly on him and it was a waste of his time and blah blah. Somehow, I conned him into letting me take the exam without taking the classes.

A couple of days after I got my CinC Warning, I was pulled out of class and told to go see the Captain. I was not told why, but I assumed that I had failed my fifth and final exam and that the end of my career in the navy was imminent. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the Captain had called me out of class to give me my A-Level result personally. I had got an A.

It took them a couple of days to figure out that I was the same dude who had been failing all those exams. When they did, I was told in very plain terms that I would not fail any more exams or there would be serious consequences. In a couple days, I had hatched my new scheme: I would become an officer and exercise an officer’s option to resign…but that’s a story for another day.

Back to the book.

I am about three quarters through it already. I’m enjoying it immensely but it’s hard for me to recommend it.

If you are the kind of person to quit school at 16, you probably did that already. And you probably don’t need James’s lessons on how to learn.

If you are not that kind of person, you probably think of people like us as reckless fools. You are probably better off taking the establishment path to an education anyway.

Crossing the Line

Crossing the line is an important milestone in a young sailor’s life. King Neptune demands that every time a ship crosses the equator, everyone aboard be called to account for his sins and he rises from the deep to hold court. He pays special attention to those who are crossing the line for the first time. A visit from Neptune is an momentous event and the day that a ship crosses the line is set aside for festivities and the libations flow freely.

Three-Legged Volleyball
Three-Legged Volleyball

The first event of our day was the Race to the Line. The brave souls from the ship’s crew launch all manner of craft into the inky blue ocean and race the last 100 yards to be the first to cross the equator. A few sailors take the race seriously and  build elaborate sailing vessels and canoes but emphasize novelty over velocity and a more typical craft is an inflatable sheep or a sex doll chosen, no doubt, for her seaworthiness rather than her pulchritude. Sadly, our race had to be called off on account of the unusual number of sharks surrounding our ship so we turned to the second event of the day – the three-legged volleyball.

Chief MEM Doing a Handstand Dive
Chief MEM Doing a Handstand Dive

My readers have doubtless run a three-legged race in their youth and three-legged  volleyball is organized along the same principles. Each team consists of four pairs of player, each tied to his neighbour at the ankle and the thigh. The ball is tethered by a long rope to the net posts to prevent it going over the side. The combination of the Siamese contestants, the tangling rope and the vast quantities of beer is practically guaranteed to ensure hilarity. The WEMs’ mess – my mess – won the day! Hoorah! More beer for us!

Inward Dive
Inward Dive

Time for the diving contest and the Jimmy decided that we would safe from the sharks if we posted sailors with machine guns on the bridge wing. No one wondered whether we would be safe from drunken sailors with machine guns. We had three dives each and I took second place with a pike dive, an inward and one-and-a-half somersaults. Hooray! More beer!

One Down, Half a Somersault To Go
One Down, Half a Somersault To Go

I did a little extra curricular diving later in the day. I dived from the bridge wing – about 35 feet up. You had to dive out about 8 feet to clear the side of the ship and my foot slipped as I dived. I tumbled a full somersault and narrowly missed hitting my head on the side. Oooh. Close one!

A Last Minute Contestant
A Last Minute Contestant

Next up was the deck hockey. Deck hockey is a traditional naval pastime – more ancient than Uckers – played with a puck made of masking tape and a set of walking sticks which double as weapons. The WEMs won again! More beer!

Time for the main event of the day – The Court of King Neptune. The role of the King was played by the Chief WEM who was the fattest man that I have ever seen in real life.

King Neptune with his Entourage
King Neptune with his Entourage

He was also the meanest. We called him Ten Bellies. Not to his face, of course – except that one time when Jumper Collins called him that over the phone. Ooooh! That did not end well!

King Neptune has a large entourage of oddball characters – a judge, a doctor, his queen, some henchmen and (honestly) the Three Bears. Neptune’s Queen Consort was played by my very best friend Jacko.

King Neptune starts the proceedings with a speech about how there are sinners aboard and he has come to deliver justice. One by one, the sinners were called up to the dock and the charges against them are read aloud.

Silence for King Neptune!
Silence for King Neptune!

The Captain is the first defendant and then the Jimmy and they are followed by all the first-timers. The routine is the same each time and – as far as I know – has barely changed over the centuries. King Neptune calls the name of a sinner and Neptune’s henchmen armed with maces, battle-axes and clubs made from masking tape apprehend the suspect, beat the crap out of you and drag you to the dock – a large, red chair – where you prepare to face justice.

The Judge reads the trumped-up charges and quickly finds you guilty [this is not too different from normal military justice, about which more another time – ed]. The Doctor forces you to swallow a disgusting and unfeasibly large pill and then the chair dumps you unceremoniously into a pool filled with nasty-smelling leftovers from the galley where the three bears beat you some more.

The Trial
The Trial

I have compared notes with sailors from other nations and they all report a similarly bizarre  ceremony with only minor differences in the proceedings. How great is it that such a crazy ceremony should survive for so many years?

Wikipedia has an account from 1825.

There were on board the ship a great number of officers and seamen, who had never yet gone South of the Tropics, consequently were to be initiated into the mysteries of crossing the Equinoctial line, and entering the dominions of Neptune; great preparations had been making since our leaving Woolwich, for an event which promised to some part of the crew great amusement, to the other great fear; many a poor girl at Woolwich, and at Spithead had been deprived of some part of her wardrobe, to adorn Amphitrite; from one a night cap and gown had been stolen, from another some other part of dress, and although I had no hand in it, I was as bad as the rest, for I was consenting thereto. An immense grey horse hair wig, sufficiently long to reach well down the back of Neptune, had been purchased in England by subscription, accompanied by a venerable grey beard to sweep his aged breast; a tin crown and a trident completed the regalia. On a review of all those who previously had crossed the line, I was selected as Neptune; in vain I endeavoured to defend myself from being deified, it was useless, I must be Neptune, all remonstrance was vain; I took it, resolved to use the trident with mildness. Now reader fancy to yourself the writer of these lines with his legs and arms well blacked, his cheeks, vermillion, short and very loose trowsers, a double frilled shirt, from whose ample folds the salt water dripped plentifully, two swabs for epaulets, a long grey horse hair wig, a venerable beard of the same colour, a tin crown, a trident, and to complete the whole, a hoarse church yard cough; fancy all this I say, and Neptune, or your humble servant in his shape stands before you. The evening before we expected to cross the line, the lookout man reported at 8, P.M., a light a head; presently a hoarse voice hailed “ship ahoy” which being answered by the Captain, Neptune intimated his intention to visit the ship early next morning. Accordingly early in the morning the ship was made snug, the top-sails were close reefed, courses hauled up, top gallant sails furled, a new sail was secured to the gunwale of the barge on the booms, the other edge to the hammock netting, leaving a hollow of eight feet, capable of containing an immense quantity of water; into this sail the very men who were to be dipped in it, were employed in pumping and bailing water, little thinking, poor creatures, they were making a rod for themselves. A gun had been dismounted on the forecastle, the carriage made into a car, on which were to sit Neptune and Amphitrite, and between them the Triton; in order to keep all secret, a sail was run across the forecastle to screen Neptune and his gang from observation. Just before the appointed time, all who were likely to undergo the dreadful operation of shaving were ordered below, the gratings put on, and a constable stationed to prevent the ascent of more than one at a time; a wise regulation, for our numbers were nearly equal, and had they shown fight, might have conquered; a rope was rove through a block on the main yard arm, to one end of which was secured a handspike, astride of which sat a man with his hands fastened to the rope over his head.

The first of the ship’s company that were shaved, who was brought up blindfolded by the whole posse of constables was the armourer, a weather-beaten honest old Hibernian, who had been a farrier in the Peninsular Army for many years. At the reduction, he had found his way as armourer of some small craft, and thence to our ship; on his entering for our ship, so anxious was he to be within the given age, which was thirty, that on being asked his age he gave it as eight and twenty, although fifty six was written in legible characters on his old cribbage face, which throughout the ship’s company had gained him the cognomen of old eight and twenty. On this man then the barber had to perform his first functions; a bucket was filled with all the cleanings of the hen coops, pig-stys, &c. and with it a due proportion of tar had been mixed; with a large paint brush dipped in this villanous compound, and his razor, close to him the barber stood waiting the signal. My first question was “what is your name my man?” “John S—-, your honour,” at the instant of his opening his mouth the brush went across it, when the face the poor creature made it is impossible to describe, “phoo what do you call that?” “what do you call that?” I again asked the old man how old he was, “eight and twenty your honour, and so I am; oh I will spake no more, I will spake no more.” As a last effort to make him open his mouth, I said if you mean to put him overboard, mind have a good rope round him for perhaps he cannot swim. Terrified at the idea of being thrown overboard the poor fellow said “I cannot swim, oh, I cannot swim;” but as the brush again crossed his mouth, he uttered with his teeth closed, “I will spake no more, by J—s I will spake no more if you drown me.” Amid a roar of laughter two men tripped the handspike on which he sat and sent him backward into the sail where the bear was waiting to receive him; it was soon over, he escaped and stood by to see his shipmates share his fate. At the time of his being shaved he was not aware who Neptune was, when he found it out I could not get him to speak to me for some time; at length Irish good temper conquered, and we were friends again.

John Bechervaise, Thirty-six Years of Seafaring Life p.146-150

Long may King Neptune reign!

Epilogue

After I left HMS Southampton, the Navy instituted new fitness requirements and Ten Bellies was forced to leave the service. No one cried. Did I mention how mean he was?

I lived with Jacko in five different houses and he was my very best friend for a long, long time. I lost touch with him when I came to the States. If anyone knows his whereabouts, tell him I am trying to track him down.

I Was in the Navy You Know

See, I was looking for a picture of a freshly inked tattoo. I knew it was there somewhere but I found a thousand other pictures first. There goes my evening. I’ll have to look at every single one of them….and so will you!

First up, Falklands tour from September, 1984 to March 22, 1985. Your blogger was eighteen years old and had already been in the Navy for two years. I joined HMS Southampton, a Type 42 Destroyer  in June of ’84 and was with her for a year.

HMS Southampton
HMS Southampton

Trivia note from the Wikipedia article:

In 1984, she ran over one of the Shambles Buoys off Portland during final War Games before deploying to the Falklands, sinking the buoy and resulting in repairs in dry dock.

I was on board when that happened!

Top of the Rock of Gibraltar with a Barbary Ape
Top of the Rock of Gibraltar with a Barbary Ape

We had left Portsmouth and stopped in Portland for some war-gamey kind of exercises and finally set off for Gibraltar. We had just made it out of Portland when the ship lurched and there was a painful scratching sound. Then the propellers started making a horrible noise. Back we went to dry dock to have one prop shaft replaced and the other straightened out a bit. We then headed with careful haste to Gibraltar.

It was pretty funny when we arrived in Gibraltar as we were the lead ship of our convoy and the two frigates had to salute us as we came into to harbour. All three ships were in full dress with all the crews lining the decks and right after the salute, each of the frigates unfurled a ginormous banner over the side.

One said

Buoy, Oh Buoy! What a Shambles!

The other said

Congratulations! It’s a buoy!

Note to Americans: “buoy” is pronounced like “boy” in normal countries (as in buoyant).

Our Captain went mad. He was very embarrassed. But not nearly as embarrassed as he was when he got court-martialed. And though they did a fine repair job of trying to straighten out that shaft it wasn’t fine enough and for the next six months, if we went above 12 knots, the noise in our mess – right above the seals where the shafts entered the ship – was absolutely unbearable. We couldn’t even shout to each other. My bunk (pit in nautical lingo) was about 4 feet from the seal.

From there, we were headed south!

[I’ll tell you about our Crossing the Line ceremony another day]

Shit Fish!
Shit Fish!

Next stop:- Ascension Island where we encountered the shit-fish. They were like salt-water piranhas. We used to throw huge bags of garbage (gash in the lingo) over the side and watch them get eaten. The water would swarm and froth and the whole thing would be gone without a trace in a couple of minutes. Legend had it that if you fell off the ship, you would have a heart-attack before you hit the water. Any ichthyologists know what they are really called?

On to the Falklands!

falklands

The Falklands sucked really, really bad. It’s hard to imagine a worse place on earth. My family almost moved there in the late seventies as my dad worked for the company – Southern Ships Stores – that owned most of the fisheries there. We used to call the people that lived there Bennies after Benny from Crossroads until, one day, we weren’t allowed to call them that any more because someone noticed that it was derogatory. So we called them Stills (because they were still Bennies). I coulda been a Benny!

Christmas Day on the Flight Deck

Port Stanley, the capital of The Falklands, had four pubs and they all sold the same cans of Penguin Ale. It was not uncommon to get banned from a pub in Port Stanley and, indeed, on one night I got banned from all four of them.

We spent Christmas Day anchored in San Carlos Water which the military historians among you may remember as one of the main landing sites – and the scene of a ferocious battle– from which British forces had recaptured the Falkland Islands two years earlier.

The picture on the right is taken on the Flight Deck. See the clear blue skies? I think that must’ve been the only clear day the whole time we were there. The five of us (Harry, Jock, Andy and Pincher) were great friends and went everywhere together. I wonder where they are now?

christmas dinner

And here’s us having dinner. For some reason that I don’t quite remember, I wasn’t drinking at the time but everyone else was pished as a fart.

Dunno who the dude at the front was but I remember he was like just turned sixteen. Impossibly young to us eighteen year olds!

christmas coffeeHere’s me with an after dinner coffee and my Green Machine Fighting Machine (the name of my mess’s football team) t-shirt.

Wearing that very t-shirt, I managed to play a full 90 minutes of football with 6 pints of beer in me, narrowly missing George Best’s record by 2 pints.

My BunkAnd here’s me sitting on my bunk.

Note that the bunks were stacked three high and note also that all of the bunks in the mess were, in theory, collapsible to make a kind of couch but, in practice, only two of the bunks ever were actually collapsed – the bunks in the two mess squares where the fridges, stereos and TVs were and where all the socializing happened.

The pits in mess squares were reserved for the most junior of junior ratings … unless… unless there was an Artificer Apprentice on board. Artificers (or Tiffies) were engineers and, because they were destined to be rapidly promoted up to a senior rating quite quickly, were condemned to suffer twice as badly during their apprenticeship. Most people had to tolerate 3 months in the mess square before they got promoted into a gulch pit, but tiffies – me and Jacko – had to spend the whole year there.

The rule for Mess Square pits was that you weren’t allowed to go to bed before Pipe Down at 23:00, but even then, you would have people sitting on your bed drinking until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning while you were trying to sleep. Fortunately, you couldn’t hear them over the noise of the bent propeller shaft.

After Christmas, we had a fun little trip over to South Georgia. I hope to tell you more about South Georgia another day so I’ll just mention that South Georgia may be the most beautiful place that I have ever visited.

It wasn’t all fun and games though. As an apprentice, I had to work for a period in each of the Weapon Engineering departments (small arms, Sea Dart, 4.5in Gun, Comms, Radar, fire control, Sonar plus some others that I don’t remember). That was my day job. But we each had other responsibilities too. Defense Stations and Action Stations.

On DeckFor Defense Stations (americans have a funny term for this – Sean, help me out), but it basically means “we are not under attack right now, but we might be at any moment”. Defense Stations has half the ship’s company manning the weapons systems. We were at Defense Stations for most of the time we were in the Falklands and my Defense Station was the 30mm BMARC.

It was a pretty cushy gig actually. Each gun had two people (one to load and one to fire) and a little cabin where you could be ultra-ready which was code for sleep. Actually, I was teaching myself A-Level maths at the time and spent all of my watches working through a text book that I borrowed from Jacko (except for the dog-watches, which were cur-tailed).

Every now and again, we would spring into action.

“Alarm aircraft! Bearing: Red nine-zero! Elevation two-two!”

Usually it was a drill but one time it was for real when two Argentinian Jets came to give us a scare. They closed us to about a mile before they veered away and left us in peace.

Also, every now and again, we would actually fire the thing.

Defense Stations in a 30mm BMark
Defense Stations in a 30mm BMark

A brave pilot would tow a target on a wire – or release a drone – and the

“Alarm aircraft! Bearing: Green nine-zero! Elevation two-two!”

would be followed by

“Port guns, engage!”

And then I would blast away at the target at 60 rounds per second per barrel, flanked by two 20mm Oerlikans and accompanied by the 4.5in Mk8 gun in the bow, all filling the sky with tracer.

My Action Station (translation: we are about to engage the enemy) was in the gunbay.

The gunbay is the magazine underneath the 4.5in mk8 gun way up in the bow of the ship. The gun fires a shell every 2.4 seconds and there is a feed ring thingie in the gun bay below decks that has, like, 12 rounds ready to go. There are also rows and rows of shelves of additional shells. My job – along with a little scottish dude named Jock – was, when the gun was firing, to make sure that the feed ring never got empty. Because then the gun would stop firing and we would get shouted at.

Now. Imagine, if you will, a rolling sea. Imagine a magazine full of rounds weighing about 80lbs each. Imagine two 18 year old who have 5 seconds each to grab an 80lb shell and carry it over to the feed ring.

Any Gun in a Storm
Any Gun in a Storm

Did I mention that we were way up in bow? When the ship rises and falls in a heavy sea, the forces on your legs are so strong that you can barely stand – never mind carry an 80lb shell. If it’s rolling too… fahgettaboutit.

Now imagine this:

“Naval Gunfire Support! 300 Rounds! Engage!”

Holy crap, that was hard work! The top shelves in the magazine were so high that you had to stand on tip-toe to drag the shell down from the shelf and catch it on your shoulder. 4 times out of 5, it would hit your collar-bone. Holy crap, that hurt!

The rest of our tour passed without incident. Oh. Except for the Argentinian submarine that followed us for a day or so before we started following him for another week or two. Oh. And the storm that caused the ship to roll over so far that one of the seas dart missiles fell over in the magazines and we all thought we were going to die. Oh. And the Force 11 storm  that followed us for a week on our way home.

Actually that storm was pretty nice. On any given ship, about half the people get sea sick and about half don’t. I get sick for about the first 2 or 3 days on board – whatever the weather – and then I am fine and nothing will bother me after that. Our Captain and The Jimmy both suffered from seasickness so, whenever there was heavy weather, they would send everyone who wasn’t actually required to keep the ship sailing to bed. The half of us who didn’t get seasick got to sit around drinking and playing cards. Sweet! A storm that lasted a week was a week’s vacation!

I am sure I have missed some important bits – like the Master of Your Domain contest (predating Seinfeld by several years!) and the deckchair bonfire and my Two Days’ Nines for being thirty seconds adrift from the operations room which place it was my duty to attend and the three-legged volleyball, but I am tired so, if I remember them, I’ll tell you about them another day.