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Subject to Change by Rudy Yniguez: Greate it up, mail buoy, halfway night

May 03, 2002

If there's one thing that binds sailors it is their ability to put on and tolerate practical jokes. This is especially true when you are the new kid.

Before I go any further, you should know there is a distinct difference between sailors and officers. During my eight years in the Navy, I found that, with three exceptions, officers hated enlisted men and went out of their way to humiliate us and treat us as poorly as possible. In return, I did everything I could to give officers a hard time, and I would not play ball for my commanding officers.

As a sign of how much I disliked the Navy, I started counting the number of days I had left when it was around 880. Usually people start counting down when they have less than a year left, and don't even talk to a one-digit midget, because they're not really there; they're a figment of your imagination.

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Despite my hatred for zeros (a well-known nickname for officers), there was a certain camaraderie among sailors.

One of the sad realities of the nuclear age is the demise of diesel electric submarines. In the years after the late Hyman G. Rickover invented shipboard nuclear power, the fate of diesel boats was all but sealed.

Diesel boat sailors were, and still are, a proud group of underwater rangers. As their numbers dwindled they took to wearing jackets with the letters DBF, for Diesel Boats Forever, on them. If you were a nuclear trained sailor, assigned to a diesel boat temporarily, as I was in late 1974 and early 1975, well, stand by. In fact, there were three of use nucs assigned fresh out of nuclear prototype training to the USS Tang SS-563. Its home port back then was Ballast Point Submarine Base, Point Loma.

I arrived in San Diego in November 1974; Tang was at sea. While I waited for her to return to port, I was sent to race relations, submarine damage control and periscope photography schools.

Because there were no real jobs for nuclear-trained personnel, each of us did what we could within our ratings. I was an electrician's mate. My first watch station was topside. The enginemen had a little tradition they performed on all new kid engineering personnel: They greased your butt. In this case, it was mine. Knowing, however, that as far as the Navy is concerned, penetration, however slight, is enough to be convicted, it wasn't all that bad, considering the proud tradition.

From where the electricians worked, we had to walk through the engine room to get to crew's mess, where we ate while on board. One day as I traversed the ER, three big, mean enginemen grabbed me. I knew what was coming, so I told them to hurry it up because I was in a hurry. They were, of course, completely disappointed that I didn't fight them tooth and nail because that's how they got their fun. So, they pulled my "poopie suit" open shoved the tip of the grease gun into my underwear and squirted away.

Another proud Navy tradition was the search for the stern gate key. The USS Point Defiance LSD-31 was a flat-bottomed landing ship dock. It had a huge stern gate that could be opened and landing craft could float in and out. The hull technicians had built a massive metal key they would send new kids to find, and after sending the poor sailor all over the ship to find it, he would eventually return muscling this huge key. Of course, the key fit nothing, but wherever the sailor went asking for the stern gate key, everyone knew to say they did not have it, but to go somewhere else for it. It always got great big laughs.

Then there was the assignment to watch for the mail buoy. You'd get assigned to stick your head out the bull ring — at the tip of the forecastle — and watch for a buoy with the ship's mail. The assignment was especially tough during rough weather because of the tendency to get sea sick. Needless to say, the mail arrived by helicopter.

On board submarines, at least the USS Flasher SSN-613, the biggest tradition was to do something special on what was called "halfway night." That was the day the boat had reached the halfway point of an overseas deployment, or Western Pacific cruise, a WestPac. On this day there would be beauty contests and a best-looking leg contest. These rough, tough sailors would actually allow themselves to be made up, have their hair cut and their legs shaved. As I said before, I was never much of a team player, but there was no lack for participants.

My preference was for Casino Night, when I played poker for 12 hours, then went on watch and could not stay awake.

Although I found the Navy lacking in many ways, I learned a buttload of things, especially in the area of mechanics. It was also during this time that I learned quite a bit about photography, stereo equipment and specifications, cars and motorcycles and sundry other things.

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