September 13, 1954 to October 25, 1954
At Sea/Fall Patrol/Finding Chris
The piping of the boatswain’s whistle… “Now hear this! Now hear this! Cleaning stations! All hands man your cleaning stations!” The shrill, low, high, low whistle sounded again.
Stepping through the waterproof hatch partition, Mitchell Lipensky went to his permanent cleaning station: the C.P.O.’s (chief petty officer’s) head.
In one hand he carried a mop, in the other a steel bucket containing a toilet brush, a can of scouring powder, waste rags, window cleaner, a few pages of newspaper, a hand-made “HEAD SECURED” sign and a Max Brand paperback western.
Hanging the HEAD SECURED sign on the outside, swinging the hatch shut, securing it from the inside, lighting a cigarette, he went to work…
After spraying the three mirrors with window cleaner, he shined them with the newspaper. Sprinkling scouring powder onto the three sinks, he scoured the sinks and, not caring how much water slopped on the deck, rinsed and dried all three with waste rags. Using the window cleaner again, he buffed all three to a burnished shine with more newspaper. He scrubbed the inside of the one urinal and two commodes with scouring powder, then, spraying window cleaner on the outside of the urinal and one commode only, shined them with waste rags. Dipping the mop into the unshined commode, splashing water onto the deck, he swabbed around the urinal, beneath the sinks and commodes. Rinsing the mop, wringing it out by hand, he re-swabbed the deck until it was near dry, then shined the one unshined commode.
Having taken slightly more than fifteen minutes, his duty station manned, having about a half-hour remaining at “duty stations,” taking the paperback from his rear pocket, lowering a toilet seat, lighting a cigarette, sitting with his legs spread before him, flicking the ash into the toilet, Mitchell read his book.
Bong! A hollow, metallic banging, Bong! A C.P.O., anxious to use the head, Bong!, was pounding on the secured hatch.
Jesus, can’t he read? “Deck’s just been swabbed!” Mitchell yelled from his perch atop the toilet. “Try one’a the other heads!”
“Fuck!” The chief petty officer rushed to one of the larger, more difficult to secure, petty officer’s or enlisted men’s heads.
The boatswain’s whistle. “Now hear this! Secure all duty stations! All hands report for work parties!” The whistle sounded again.
Going to the utility closet, stowing the bucket, brush, mop, window spray, scouring powder and waste rags—that he’d rinsed and laid around the rim of the bucket to dry—Mitchell made his way to the bow of the ship where he reported to Boatswain’s Mate Third Class Myron Lynch, who, because the hobby of the Coast Guard is to paint it on then scrape it off, handed Mitchell a paint scrapper and a wire brush.
Located on the forward quarter of the ship, the Captain’s stateroom was directly beneath the bridge. Working aft, next to the Captain’s quarters was the X.O.’s (Executive Officer’s) private cabin. Commissioned officers and chief petty officers had semi-private cubicles. First, second and third class petty officers shared a combined living area just forward of mid-ship. The general mess and recreational areas were at mid-ship. Beyond mid-ship were two large compartments housing the “swabbies,” the non-rated enlisted personal. The swabbies slept in multiple rows of double-deck bunks. Each man had a narrow, steel locker and a sea chest.
In foul weather, cutting through waves, the bow of a ship rises above the water’s crest and, as it passes over the swell and drops into its trough, depending on the height of the crest and the depth of the trough, it descends, striking the water with a shuddering crash as the stern glides through in relative smoothness. So, while at sea, the comfort level of a ship usually begins aft and becomes increasingly less so going forward. In essence, the swabbies are more comfortable in foul seas than the captain.
Powerful winds howling through the constantly shifting rigging playing a discordant, lunatic’s cacophony, the prow rose, ascending upward and upward, until, momentarily, all the man on watch was able to see was a world of roiling black clouds as the Halfmoon was seemingly pushed backwards on the water’s precipitous turbulence. Three-hundred-eleven feet aft, the twin propellers rose out of the water to spin uselessly as the ship hesitated on the crest of the wave for an eternal heartbeat, then, as the torrent’s momentum pushed the Halfmoon backward, the propellers bit once again and, tottering, the ship slid off the crest of the giant wave into its dark-green, near vertical trough, where it picked up rollercoaster speed and, with a shuddering crash, the prow struck, submerged, and flung a sheet of water backwards, dousing the shivering lookout on the flying bridge, sending driblets of cold water down the back of his foul-weather gear.
Now the man on watch saw only boiling green water.
Rising… Rising, again… Plummeting again… Again.
Below deck: Rotating with the motion of the ship, the crew instinctively rotated their bodies from hip to hip as their legs alternatively became longer and shorter.
Miscalculating his footing, “God, damn!” a sailor painfully barked his shin on the rise of the waterproof hatch.
Another sailor: “Fuckin’ helm! Holding his penis with one hand and the urinal with the other as his stream went from vertical to horizontal. “Can’t the fucker keep this fuckin’ ship steady long enough so’s a guy can take a fuckin’ piss?”
In the galley: Hissing, spitting, water and cooking oil sloped out of secured pots and pans onto gas flames and hot griddles.
Eating: Chow trays slid from side to side on the long tables as the men held onto their trays with one hand and the bench they sat on with the other while waiting for a level moment when they were able to release either the tray or bench long enough to shove some food into their mouths before dropping their fork or spoon to grab hold of the tray or bench again.
At night: Laying awake, listening as a forgotten screwdriver maddeningly rolled from one side, clanking into the bulkhead… then, rattling as it rolled, to the other side.
Sleeping: Shifting from side to side, subconsciously hanging onto the bunk frame… occasionally falling off.
The seas abated.
The winds subsided.
The outside air cold, invigorating.
Clouds floated from here to infinity.
Forward, to the east, beautiful to behold in the intense, cerulean blue heavens, virginally white clouds formed thin, stuttering banks broken by ragged strips of deep blue sky. To the north and west the clouds were thick and puffy with stark, solid appearing, three dimensions, leaving the definition of their phantom shapes to the eye, and imagination of whomever was looking.
Back in port, on his first liberty Mitchell attempted to find Chris’ building, but could not.
Hoping she would be there, he went to the U.S.O.
But Christine Sanbourne was not at the U.S.O… then or ever, and he never saw her again.
A “Becoming” Excerpt.
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