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On the internet there is a site entitled The Unofficial, Unabridged Dictonary for Marines that defines a sea story as “A tale. Often containing a small grain of truth somewhere.”  Another site, devoted to Naval terminology says that a sea story differs from a fairy tale only because a fairy tale starts out “Once upon a time”.  While these are both fair assessments, they fail to capture the true essence of the term.

A sea story generally starts out as a plain piece of cloth.  Each time it  is taken out it gets embellished and embroidered.  The product is never finished and  each retelling adds another stitch until the overall effect is a crazy quilt of a tale that is always honest (but only sometimes true), decidedly exaggerated (sometimes to the point of understatement),  and usually semi-autobiographical (but mostly borrowed and occasionally fabricated).

Sea stories are a modern sort of mythology, but seeing that I lack the poetry of Homer (and my sea stories are decidedly un-epic), perhaps I will shoot for a slightly more intelligent, nautical sort of Bridget Jones Diary.

(December 11, 2009)

I had, a while back, intended to have a couple of secondary blogs where I could…sort of…parse out topics that might not be of interest to my regular readers here, things that I felt compelled or inspired to write about, but that didn’t necessarily fit.  I never really had the time though, to do any of those side blogs justice.  And now, I really don’t, so I’ve decided to bring those topics and posts back home (I’ll try to date them from their original posting, or compile them into a couple of posts depending on the situation).  Hopefully you will enjoy them, and if you don’t, hopefully you might at least learn something!

*Random Public Service Announcement: There will probably be a couple other changes to the blog over the next month or so*

Sunday is the birthday of the United States Navy, so I figured I’d start with the handful of short, snippet into Navy life, posts from my “Confessions of a Sailor” (former) side-blog…

Looking out (December 14, 2009)

There is a certain peace found during a cold cold clear night, in the middle of the Atlantic while standing the midwatch.  It takes a while for the eyes to adjust to the darkness after walking through the bright lights of the mess decks to get to the aft end of the ship (according to the book, 30 minutes). But once they adjust, the sky is ink sprinkled with glittering stars.  The moon glows bright and my breath hangs in the air with each puff.  I wear about five layers of clothing–long underwear, sweats, my uniform, my peacoat and a pumpkin suit (a blaze orange full body snowsuit sort of thing that is issued for bad weather), but the air still cuts in, striking like a knife.  It keeps me awake.  I hold a steaming hot cup of coffee in my hands, trying to absorb the warmth before the coffee goes cold as I watch the water churned up by the ship’s screw (propeller) glow.  Bioluminesent plankton is probably the culprit, but such intellectuality has no place on a night like this.  I do have a job to do–I scan the sky and the horizon, I report in, ”Surface contact bearing 2-2-0…”.  I go back to feeling the night sky wrap me in its cold embrace as the sea swells beneath my feet.

Fires have class (December 14, 2009)

Bells.  On board a ship a fire is announced with bells.  Ring-ring-ring-ring-ring-ring *pause* RING! The number of times you hear the bell go RING! after the pause tells you what kind of fire has been reported. Class Alpha fires have one bell and are characterized by white smoke, have a fuel source of a material like wood, paper, clothing, etc and leave ash behind. Bravo class fires have two bells and are characterized by black smoke and have a fuel source of oil or fuel. Charlie fires (3 bells) are electrical and produce blue smoke while Delta fires (4 bells) are fires of combustable metals.

Onboard a ship, damage control is considered a training priority. All hands are expected to have the training to handle any casualty (such as fire or flooding) that might arise in either a combat or non-combat situation. Ship’s crews train for this regluarly after the calamity of the fire aboard the USS Forrestal in 1967 (youtube has an 18 minute film detailing the Forrestal fire, of which the official version is shown to every Navy sailor in training).

My Rack (December 22, 2009)

A rack is naval terminology for a bunk and is sometimes also called a berth ( berth also being the place where a ship “rests” when it is “parked”), though the berthing areas of ships are really the entire space.  This is an example of a  modern three rack set-up.  On troop carriers, they have a couple of four rack berths  as well.  On submarines (and back in the day on surface ships), a practice called “hot racking” is (was) fairly common, in which you have to share your bunk with someone that has a different sleep/watch schedule than you do.

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A typical shipboard berthing

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rack sweet rack (my rack aboard the USS Bataan (LHD 5) during deployment)

There are pros and cons to each rack position, and I can honestly say that I have experienced all of them.

  • the top rack offers the most privacy–its high enough up that (unless they are really tall) the most you see is the tops of peoples heads as they pass by…of course, the trick is learning how to get up into the top rack (particularly after a night out) and (if you are a restless sleeper) staying there, also, getting things out of the rack can be tricky
  • the middle rack offers the most convienence–its a little more than waist high, so its easy access to the coffin locker and easy to get in and out of…unfortunately, people with the top rack occasionally need assistance from your rack to get into theirs, and everyone in your section has a tendency to use it as a shelf (just imagine 6 people trying to get ready in this area at the same time), and people come by to talk to you more often
  • the bottom rack is the best if you are a restless sleeper, or if you are on a ship that rolls a lot (smaller ships move more), or if you like to party…the downside is that people often brush by your curtains, step on your rack, etc.

It could be worse…here’s how sailors lived in the 1890′s:

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 You are here—->  (December 13, 2012)

Ships are big.  Some are bigger than others, but all of them have one thing in common.  They are big enough that its easy to get lost.

One of the most important things to know on a ship, is how to get from point A to point B.  And before you can figure out where point B is, first you need to know where point A is! Thankfully, the Navy has standardized this into something known as a “bull’s eye”, which acts as a “you are here” sign, minus the map.

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Unfortunately, the sign is written in Navy…

The first thing you need to know about this sign is how to read it.  The first line reads “one tac eighty two tac zero tac lima” (‘tac’ is the Navy word for a dash). Next, you need to know that all that means…

The first digit in the first line tells you where you are located up and down from the main deck.  This bulls eye is for a location on the main deck, deck one.  The main deck is the first full deck of a ship that runs the full length and width of the ship, from stem (front) to stern (back), port (left) and starboard (right).  When the first number has a 0 in front of it (01, 02, 03…and its pronounced ‘oh’-one, ‘oh’-two, etc) it means that it is a level, going aloft (upwards) from the main deck.  When the number does not have a 0, it is going below (downward from) the main deck.

The second digit tells you the frame number of your location.  This bulls eye puts us at frame 82.  Frames are the “ribs” of a ship.  They start at the stem, and increase as you go to the stern.  There is a frame approximately every 3-4 feet, and the number of frames varies depending on the size of the ship in length.

The third digit tells you where you are located port and starboard on the ship.  This bulls eye puts us at the centerline of the ship.  The center-most point of the ship (above the keel) is known as the centerline, and a compartment (room) at this location is denoted as ‘zero’ on the bulls eye.  Compartments to the starboard (right) of the centerline are numbered in odd numbers–1, 3, 5, etc., while compartments to the port (left) are numbered even.  The easy way to remember this is that port, left and even all have the same number of letters!

Last, but not least, the letter tells you what the space you are in is used for.  An ‘L’ (lima in the phonetic alphabet) denotes a “living space”.  This could be a berthing, mess decks, heads, etc.  This particular living space is a passage way.  Other types of spaces have different letters to represent what the space is used for.

This is probably the most important part of the bulls eye.  Not only does it tell YOU where you are on the ship, but you can also use it to tell others where you are.  If there is a fire, or medical emergency, flooding, poisonous gas leak, or other casualty, you can report the location easily!

The second line tells you the front most and rearmost frame of the compartment–in a way, it gives you some idea of its relative size.  The third line lists the department and division responsible for the cleanliness and upkeep for the space.  If you look below the bulls eye, there is an additional sign that names the sailor responsible for the upkeep of the space.

Screaming Alpha (April 29, 2011)

If you’ve never been aboard a naval vessel, you might wonder, “Whats a screaming alpha?”  The answer is sort of demented and a perfect example of how morbid the sense of humor of sailors really is.    The answer?  Well…I’m sort of fond of Urban Dictionary’s definition:

“Navy slang for a person engulfed in flames, usually running around screaming; so termed because burning people fit into the category of class-A/class-Alpha fires (those involving solid, organic combustibles and which leave ashes).”
Some examples of the term “screaming alpha” in conversational use:
  • Dude, I’m so freaking bored.  If the net is up, we could play that lame screaming alpha game. (yes, there really is a flash-style game where you light people on fire)
  • Look, if you go down as a screaming alpha from all that lighter fluid, I’m just gonna CO2 your ass.
The fact that there is an (un)official slang term for a person that is on fire indicates that a) it happens and  b) it has happened enough that we have felt the need to make light of the situation and c) that making light of the situation in a morbid sort of way is a way to deny its power as a possibility or an event.  This should be a tiny eye-opener for all those people that were *so* outraged over the Enterprise incident that unless you are a sailor, you don’t  can’t get our brand of humor (yeah, one of these days I might get around to discussing the Enterprise incident).
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