The Real Grapes of Wrath
Don Meadows MMC/SS U.S. Navy (Ret.)
I turn 44 this year. I never understood as a child how grownups could care so little or even forget about their own birthdays. Now it hits me. Unfortunately I now get the big picture.
My medicine chest is slowly filling up. When I was young the worse thing that could happen when I went to the doctor was him sticking a needle in me. Now the worse thing is him sticking his finger…you get the idea. Each year something seems to go wrong. Another ailment reminds you that you are not a kid anymore.
How many birthdays can you remember? I’m sure you are like me and can remember some of those long gone days. Something happened to make it special. For me it was the day I turned 20.
Now this story began two months before my birthday. I was serving on the now gone USS RAY SSN 653. We were of course operating as part of the 6th Fleet. The Mediterranean was a great place for young Sailors. Too great a place it turned out.
I know I keep getting off subject, but this is supposed to be both entertaining and educational. One of the reasons Sailors are kept busy with seemingly mindless and useless tasks is to keep them out of trouble, give them something to do. Because if you don’t here is what happens.
In the many Italian ports we of course sampled the wines. Sample is such a gentle word, but it sounds better than guzzle. We grew fond of the grape, very fond. It was at quarters one morning that we received word that we had been ordered home. A few of us plotted a schemed about ways to carry back some of our favorite wines. Ten of us decided the risk would be too great. However one enterprising member of our little “Tasting Club,” hit upon the idea of us making our own.
So now we have ten guys all under 20, serving on a nuclear submarine, at the height of the cold war, plotting to make wine. What could go wrong?
The grapes were easy. We bought those in town. Twenty pounds if I remember. We stole sugar and yeast from the cooks. All we needed was something in which to make our vintage 1982. While going aft to do some maintenance on the anchor windless I spotted these large plastic bottles just behind the jacking gear. These bottles, had a slight yellow hue to them and were about the size ad shape of those water bottles you see upside down in coolers. Perfect!
To this day I do not know if the bottles had been used by the nukes or not. If they had been used then that would sure answer a lot of questions my wife has.
The ship left as scheduled. On the mid-watch, when few people were up, we began. The grapes were crushed and into the bottle they went, then the sugar and the yeast. We topped the bottle off with a rubber glove secured to the neck with a heavy rubber band. That was easy. Now all we had to do was wait.
. Tales from the Torpedo Room 2
Of course we could not let the entire boat know of our winery. We knew we had violated about 700 regulations. We had to find a hiding place. If you think there is no where to hide anything on a submarine, you are so very wrong.
Under the torpedo tubes there are grates. These greats are behind the tubes and just forward of the mine handling tables. When a tube is opened there is always water inside. These grates allow the water to fall into the bilges where it can then be pumped into SAN #1. We picked up the grate under the port tube nest. Under the deck was a nice bend in the hydraulic line for the Tube 3 flood and drain valve. Using some line from the TDU we made a nice barrel sling and hung our brew. With the grate in place it was hidden.
Many things which I can still not discuss happened on our way through the Med. Truth be told we forgot about our wine. It just sat there aging away in authentic 1984 plastic.
Fridays on submarines are unique. Either in port or at sea always means one thing “Field Day.” For those not familiar, “Field Day,” is where the entire crew is awakened and the ship is cleaned for four hours. It was such a Friday, and as it was also my birthday. Why the grape god decided that today was the day I’ll never know.
As we went about cleaning the torpedo room we received a visit from the Executive Officer. Our XO at the time was a fearfully mean man. He used to carry a pocket ruler and would measure the length of our hair at random times. He even once had a Sailor removed from the boat for being left handed. I kid you not dear reader. This man was Satan incarnate. When he did not speak to you it was a blessing. If you heard his voice doom was sure to follow.
It was at the exact moment that the gas of the wine’s fermentation filled the rubber glove we had secured to the bottles top. We looked in stunned horror as the XO walked over to the grate and he saw the same thing we did. A hand sticking out of the bilge finger spread gently waving. For a split second I thought of climbing in tube one shutting the breech and dying an easier death than I knew would follow.
The XO turned and smiled. “I see someone finally had the guts to clean down there.”
“What?” My mind screamed. I had to say something. “Yes sir it was getting bad.”
Then the anti-Christ leaned over the grate. “Good job down there,” he said. Then he turned and went up the forward escape scuttle. We stood in stunned and grateful silence, as if we had been given new life, as if a kidney stone was passed.
After Field Day we retrieved the five gallon jug. We smelled the top but our noses noted nothing. Had we failed? We quickly strained our wine through a towel into plastic buckets lined with garbage bags. Once filtered, we returned the wine back into the bottle. Some had spilled onto the tile deck of the Torpedo Room. We failed to notice that it ate the wax, the tile and probably would have eaten the steel deck.
Now came the moment of truth. The first ever USS RAY wine tasting event was about to start. Since it was my birthday I had the honor of the first sip. Carefully we poured equal amounts in the cups. After a few happy birthdays, I brought the cup to my mouth. It was like grape juice. I was disappointed. I had visions of a great kicking fun knock your socks off shot of pop skull. The consensus of my shipmates was the same. We pondered where we had gone wrong. We decided that it had not aired enough. I had another cup. It was still weak. I shook the bottle and tried another cup. Now it tasted even weaker. Strange though I felt my tongue go numb. Then the big mistake, I stood up. My entire body flushed with a heat that I have never felt before. The Torpedo Room twirled around. The look on my shipmate’s faces was suddenly so funny. I laughed at everything. I wanted to sing KISS songs. I managed to feel the boat move at an angle and heard on the 27MC that we were making preparations to go to periscope depth. Oh how I wanted to go see the pretty lights in control. The last thing I really remember was four of my shipmates each holding one of my limbs and throwing me in my rack.
I woke up thinking it had been only hours to find I had been out for 27 hours. Thank God the Corpsman was a kind man and attributed my condition to a sudden case of the flu.
When analyzed by the nukes who used a hydrometer it was determined that our wine was nearly one and half times stronger than pure grain moonshine. I never knew what happened to the rest of the bottle.
So friends you will understand that someday if we are together and we are offered wine, you will understand if I pass.