So, without furhter ado:
Remembering Charlie Hustle
“Nothing could be finer than to be a submariner,” said my recruiter, making the word “submariner” rhyme with “finer” in the most annoying sing-songy fashion. According to the posters tacked to the walls in his office, I was going to learn all about “undersea warfare on the world’s most technically advanced warships.” My recruiter added that I was going to meet some “extremely interesting, intelligent and all-around great people.” “In short,” he tacked on, desperate to place me on his monthly list of successes, “submarine duty is the good life!”
Before I get too far, though, and in the interest of accuracy, I think that I should point out that what follows isn’t my story. Not really. What follows is Jim’s tale. He arrived onboard the U.S.S Ohio about four patrols after I departed and Reactor Gus, our mutual friend, relayed these events to me in point-for-point detail during several phone calls and face-to-face conversations. Reactor Gus is a reactor operator extraordinaire and former shipmate, and Jim is his current protégé. And because I know Reactor Gus to be a man of fine upstanding character, I’m confident that I can tell this tale, knowing that it’s all true and happened exactly this way…
Jim Creighton, newly-reported reactor operator, was on the Mess Decks, enjoying a break from his work. Reactor Gus had the floor. Gus was telling a story about a former sailor, Uncle Bob, and about what a stud-man electrician Uncle Bob had been. It was a wonderful chronicle, nearly mythological in genre and delivery, but with details about Uncle Bob “healing” deranged electrical equipment simply by laying his hands on the gear, the story was just a bit too grand and wonderful for Jim to imagine. He was on his first patrol, after all, and, to Jim, everything onboard either smelled like recycled farts, or tasted like and had the texture of half-day-old hominy grits. To Jim, there was nothing mythological about submarine living; patrols were just plain stinky. How veteran submariners like Reactor Gus, or his mystical Uncle Bob could survive this way of life was beyond Jim’s comprehension.
When Reactor Gus was nearly done with his story, Jim’s stomach began to knot up. You could tell that Gus was finishing when his voice took on a quality that seemed to single Jim out, saying, “Now hear this last part, this moralistic ending, ‘cause it’ll help you in submarine life, young grasshopper.” Gus was a bit of a ham, but his didactic tendencies were not why Jim’s bile was starting to slosh. That was brought on by the thought of going back to work, back to the shitty, smelly Engine Room. The Mess Decks were bad enough, what with their Naugahyde covered chairs and tables, dingy piping running all along the walls and in the ceiling and the smell of forty patrol’s worth of poorly cooked food infused into every pore of every surface in the place. There were fake plants hanging from the overhead, placed sporadically around the room, reminding Jim that he was not anywhere near a place where plants could actually grow. They were there as part of a morale-boosting program, likely devised by some psychologists who’d never been on a submarine and surely never on a patrol. The plants’ leaves were dusty and yellowing from the fluorescent lights and they served as ready targets for spitballs and used tooth picks.
For Jim, though, the Engine Room was worse. It was hot. Super-heated steam hot. It had to be perfectly clean at all times, yet every machine in the place leaked oil and water and goo and, as if that weren’t bad enough, Jim had to learn every single aspect of it within one year. Period. Jim, like any newly reporting Engine Room worker, needed a break.
The submarine gods must have been looking after him, because, as Reactor Gus finished his tale, Willie, the head Mess Specialist (an accurate description of what Willie did to the food every time he and most any of the other M.S.’s tried to cook it), piped up with a story of his own in a voice and manner that insinuated that Gus’ tale had been merely an appetizer.
Even being a new submariner, or nub (as he was often called) (submarine acronym for non-useful body), Jim already had a growing contempt for Willie. Jim was certain that Willie worked only about four hours a day to his twenty and Jim had quickly realized that Willie was the kind of person who believed in the saying “rank has its privilege.” He had observed many times that Willie was sure to throw his rank around whenever the opportunity presented itself. In the Engine Room, rank had much less to do with respect than demonstrated ability and this idea made a great deal of sense to Jim. After all, it didn’t matter what rank you held if you couldn’t do your job, right? Jim couldn’t help but be taken by Willie’s story telling, though, because, with so much free time on his hands, Willie had worked his delivery of the oral tradition into high art. Willie’s eyes nearly glazed over when he began to speak, transporting him back in space in time. Everyone there could tell, inherently, that he was about to tell a good one. Willie’s normally squeaky speaking voice mellowed and deepened a bit and all of the M.S.’s, even the grizzled, seasoned ones who’d obviously heard the story before (or perhaps even witnessed its events firsthand), leaned in a little closer to their boss. Willie acted as if he didn’t notice the attention as he began:
“About four patrols ago there was this guy called The Smag. What a nut-case this guy was.” When Willie called The Smag “a nut-case,” Reactor Gus shifted in his seat uncomfortably but didn’t interrupt Willie.
“He nearly hit the Captain in the face over a drink of Coke! That patrol changed The Smag, boys, you know what I’m sayin’? It was his last patrol and it turned him loony!
“See, he’d always been pretty normal. A quiet guy.” Willie slowly whispered the last sentence as if he were a prophet dispensing soul-saving information. One by one he was looking each listener in the eye as he spoke, and, though Jim knew that Willie was just hamming it up, the hair on his neck pricked up as Willie’s eyes met his.
“Anyways,” Willie continued, “what happened was we had been on patrol for about three weeks and we ran out of CO2 for the soda fountain. See, we bring five canisters of CO2 underway for each patrol and we usually only use about one a month. But there was a leak, I guess, and none of us knew it. We kept putting in new canisters and they kept running out in no time, and pretty soon we were all out.
“So, it’s dinner time and here comes The Smag, ready to go on watch, right? See, he always carried around this big, huge--I’m talking freaking humongous--thermos cup from Circle K, 52 ounces, you know the ones, and he’d always fill it up with Coke for watch. The damned thing was so big we took to calling it the P.P.W.T.: short for Portable Potable Water Tank. He’d scratched off the Circle K logo and had written stuff on the cup in magic marker, real fancy, like ‘Remembering Charlie Hustle’, that was around the top in big letters, and ‘Latitudinarianism is The Way’, and ‘No excuses, results!” and stuff like that. The messages changed each patrol, except for that Charlie Hustler one. God, you didn’t want to get The Smag started on that Charlie Hustler character. Sometimes the messages would even change during patrol.
“Anyway, I knew he was going to be pretty disappointed when he stuck the cup under there and nothing came out. I mean, I knew he’d be pissed, but then again, I thought it was sort of funny too, you know what I’m sayin’? I mean there he was, a guy addicted to his soda, and it’s only three weeks into a three-month patrol and we’re out of CO2. You can see the humor there, right?”
The M.S.’s nodded in agreement like dashboard figurines reacting to a sudden stop. Interestingly, Reactor Gus and some of the other senior Engine Room personnel allowed a somewhat knowing, reminiscent smile to cross their faces. Willie was oblivious to anyone’s reaction, though, and he had only asked the question rhetorically anyway, because he quickly continued.
“Well, he sticks the cup under there--the thing barely fit it was so damned big--and nothing comes out of the nozzle. He looks at the machine and moves his cup down to the Dr. Pepper slot and still nothing, of course. So he looks at me. Well, I’m trying not to laugh. I mean he looks wounded. Like a wiener dog after you step on its tail or yell at it or something. But I calmly explained to him that we’d run out of CO2. I said how it must have been a leak ‘cause it’d gone so fast, and that though we had plenty of the syrup, without CO2 there’d be no more Coke this patrol.
“He asked me when I first noticed the CO2 going faster than normal and I told him that I could tell even while we were still in port but that I didn’t think nothin’ of it. I mean what’s the big deal, five canisters always lasts for one patrol, right? So, the crazy bastard gets under the cabinet and starts inspecting all of the CO2 supply lines under there! Then, he slides down through the floor decking, in between the pipes into the Torpedo Room to where the canisters are stored. He looked like a sort of dingy baby tryin’ to return to the womb, you know what I’m sayin’, and he starts checking the lines there, too!
“Anyway, he comes back up in a few minutes all greasy and sweaty and says that he found the problem and that it was, in fact, a leak. He says that he fixed it in about two minutes. He was looking pretty disgusted with me and then he had some smart words for me about how something that simple could have been fixed before we got underway and we’d not have had this problem, but whatever. I mean, screw him, you know what I’m sayin’?”
Gus’ right eye twitched slightly and he almost blurted out a quick, biting response, but, not wanting to find pubic hairs in his next omelet, he allowed, “Willie, you’re right, why don’t you just send Jim back to the Engine Room when you’ve taught him everything you know about submarines. That should be another half hour, at least.” He said the last sentence primarily under his breath, only loud enough for the Engine Room crowd, seated in a group in the back of the Mess Decks, to hear. Then he looked at Jim and whispered, “When Willie’s done with this altered version of reality, hustle on back to the Engine Room and bring some coffee and soda for the watch standers, okay?”
Before Gus was even done speaking, though, content that Jim was staying, Willie had resumed his tale, seemingly unfazed. “Okay, so anyway The Smag supposedly fixed this leak and is all pissed off about the fact that I don’t have any CO2, but there’s nothing that can be done, so I don’t give it a second thought. Like I said, screw him, you know what I’m sayin’?
“Well, since there’s no soda to drink, a lot of guys, including The Smag, take to drinking the instant tea with gobs of sugar in it. And all seems well. Well, this goes on for about two weeks, but, soon as shit, we run out of tea.
“Now see, normally four cases of instant tea is plenty for one patrol, but since everyone who normally drinks soda was drinking tea, well, you get the picture. So, next thing I know, The Smag is in the galley in my face again. He tells me that I’m a piece-of-shit dirt bag and worthless. He says how my only responsibility is to feed the crew, no watch standing, no duty days, just feed the crew, and he’s telling me how I can’t even get that right. How when I do cook something I may as well have just stayed in the rack. You know what a ‘rack’ is, right Reactor Gus Junior, or do you still call it a bed and keep your teddy-bear and pictures of your mom in there?” With that jab at Jim’s inexperience, most of Willie’s crony M.S.’s started to laugh and giggle (even though some of them were on their first patrol as well).
Like a seasoned stage actor, Willie waited until the giggling died a bit before continuing, “So, naturally, I started to get a little pissed off. I mean, they say this guy was a decent enough mechanic and stuff, but, after all, I did outrank him! I mean, I didn’t have to take his shit, you know what I’m sayin’? So I didn’t. I told him to listen up and I laid it on thick. I said how he didn’t appreciate how hard my job was and how ordering supplies and cooking for a crew of a-hunnert-fifty men, patrol-after-patrol, was not an easy job and how I outranked him and how if he had a problem with that then he could go see my Chief Petty Officer and then Chief’d shut his ass up. So he left. He was all pissed off and everything and telling me to ‘fuck off,’ but I told it to him right back, and in the end he stormed off and didn’t speak to me for days, you know what I’m sayin’?”
Willie’s voice lost its deep story-telling tone as he relayed the events of his argument with The Smag and by the point in the story when The Smag had stormed out, Willie’s voice reminded Jim of The Penguin from the Batman television show, nasally and high pitched. Jim’s impressions were unimportant, though, because by that point in the story, the M.S.’s were cheering Willie on, clapping and high-fiving in celebration of Willie’s telling off The Smag.
Jim had started to drift anyway. Willie’s defending his own work habits was a common occurrence onboard, even to someone new, and Jim had already heard Willie’s spiel about the “incredibly hard work” that he does many times over. Jim found himself thinking about Reactor Gus' story and the mystical Uncle Bob. He didn’t know Uncle Bob, had never met him, but he’d heard plenty of stories from other Engine Room guys. In all of the stories that Jim had heard prior to Willie’s, Uncle Bob, The Smag, most all of the former Engine Room guys, never came off as anything but motivated operators. Some of the Engine Room guys tell a story about a time when Uncle Bob was fighting a huge fire with one fire hose under each arm while simultaneously turning a valve with his foot. Then again, they tell similar stories about several former operators, so Jim wasn’t really sure what was truth and what was fiction. But that didn’t matter to Jim as he was lost in the mythology of it all.
What a scene that would’ve been, Jim thought, Uncle Bob’s blue coveralls unzipped to the waist, long sleeves tied around the front like a belt (as was necessary in the heat of the Engine Room), sweaty tee-shirt sticking to him like a second skin and a live fire hose under each arm. Jim found himself adding details like Uncle Bob wearing sunglasses as he fought the fire, deftly keeping them in place with an occasional, graceful flick of his head. Jim wasn’t sure if any of the Uncle Bob Stories had happened or not, or how much about them was truth and how much was fiction, but he did know that Uncle Bob and The Smag and many other former Engine Roomers that Willie liked to berate were universally liked in the Engine-Room (ed note: Truth be known, Uncle Bob did actually give the appearance of healing electrical equipment just by touching it. I saw it with my own eyes, even if Jim never did, and I still can’t explain how he did it!).
Jim snapped out of his daydreaming as Willie was ending his well-polished, well-practiced job justification monologue. Willie then continued his Smag tale: “A week or so later,” Willie began, “after there was no Coke and now no tea, is when the good stuff really started to happen. See, some guy got his appendix ruptured and The Doc said he’d have to be transported off to a hospital. Well, within minutes the Captain radioed base and turned the boat toward land. The next day, we were supposed to meet up with a helicopter for the Appendix Guy to be airlifted to a hospital, but the seas were way too rough. Thirty-foot whitecaps, so there was no way he was gonna be lifted off in that. Well, after a bunch of hemming and hawing, they radioed and said that we were to proceed toward land and rendezvous with a tugboat off of Alaska late the next day.
“The Captain came on the announcing circuit and said that all divisions were to turn in any emergency supply orders within the hour and that they’d probably be able to deliver them on the tug. Now remember boys, this is an incredibly rare thing, you know what I’m sayin’? Boats just don’t get to come off of patrol every day to get supplies, so I figured I could order up some special stuff for the officers, you know, ‘cause a little brown nosing never hurt nobody. Plus, I was gonna get a few other things, like stuff we’d run out of like tea and sugar, you know what I’m sayin’?
“Well, not even thirty seconds after the Captain got off the speaker but The Smag is in the Galley, eyes all excited and crazed, telling me to order canisters of CO2. Like I didn’t know that already. I told him to cool his jets, and that I’d get to it, no problem.
“I wasn’t about to forget the CO2 ‘cause I’d heard rumors of some of the junior officers buying cans of Coke and Pepsi from enlisted guys’ private stashes for over a buck apiece. First thing you learn as an M.S. is to take care of the officers ‘cause they’re the ones who sign your evaluations. That’s Willie’s Free Advice, rule #1, you know what I’m sayin’? So, damn right I ordered the canisters! Easy enough, right?
“Well, everyone was kinda tense that night with the boat riding so close to the surface. Waves were tossing us like a toy, nubs puking everywhere, and we also knew we’d get to send off some letters to the honeys, so most of the guys was up and awake when they should have been sleeping, writing letters to home. When morning came, The Smag volunteered to be topside to receive the supply on-load. He said that he actually wanted to help Appendix Guy off the boat, but everyone onboard knew the truth. Anyway he’s up there and we’re waiting on the Mess Decks for him to come in carrying CO2 canisters all happy and shit, but that’s not what happened.
“See, somehow the shore guys messed up the order code that I sent and they shipped out CO2 fire extinguishers instead of the consumable CO2 for the soda fountain. Easy mistake on their part, right? I mean they probably saw ‘CO2 canister’ on the list, and didn’t even think about there being another kind of CO2 canister onboard. They’re not submariners like us. That’s a mistake anyone could make, though, you know what I’m sayin’?
“Well, as you can imagine, The Smag was unbelievably pissed off. In he comes, fire extinguisher on each shoulder, his eyes some deep shade of Hell, but he’s talking really calm. Too calm. He asks me where my Chief Petty Officer is, and I say that Chief’s in the galley and I follow The Smag in there. Boy did he blow a gasket! He jumps in Chief Matts’ face—you guys know Chief Matts, he’s one big motherfucker—and there’s The Smag, about half Chief’s height, all pissed off and holding these two extinguishers, unleashing on Chief Matts. He told Chief how I was worthless. He said how if I worked in his division he’d have had me kicked out of the Navy for Dereliction of Duty long ago. Then he whips out a requisition slip that he got off the tug and he shows Chief where it says that I ordered the wrong code number. Now see, I know that’s bullshit, you know what I’m sayin’? I been doin’ this job for ten years, and I know I didn’t make the mistake. But whatever. Anyway, he keeps rippin’ and rippin’ and rippin’ and Chief doesn’t say a thing. I kept waiting for Chief to rip him back, but instead he just listened and then he told The Smag that he was sorry, but that there was nothing he could do. He told The Smag that what’s done is done. See, basically, the way I see it, that was Chief’s way of telling The Smag to ‘eat shit and die’ and I added the finger too, from behind Chief’s back, as The Smag left. Crazy bastard.”
As before, when Willie told of a “successful” interaction with The Smag, the M.S.’s celebrated a shared round of smiles and laughs with one another and some even began flexing their muscles, emulating body builders in a pose-down. They looked at the few Engine Room personnel still on the Mess Decks with a sort of superiority, as if Willie’s story was a triumph for them. Jim looked around, avoiding the gaze of the triumphant M.S.’s and noticed that Reactor Gus hadn’t actually left, but was standing by the door rolling his eyes at the M.S.’s. “Sort of like a bullshit meter,” thought Jim. Gus’ rolling eyes were like level ten out of ten on the meter.
Willie sat back smiling contentedly, his tongue lolling in the space where his top front teeth should have been. As before, he waited for his cronies to settle down before continuing. Satisfied that all eyes had returned to him, Willie leaned forward, became even quieter than before, and told what happened next. “So anyway, The Smag is super-pissed, right? I mean he’s one angry dude. Well, the next thing you know he’s set up camp back aft on the Supply computer, just bangin’ away at the keys. He had operating manuals out, and tech guides all around, and no one knew for sure what he was up to. I do know that over the next forty-eight hours he didn’t eat a single bite and everyone says that he only left that computer to piss and to stand watch. So, there he is, looking stuff up, writing stuff, printing stuff out, paper scraps lying all around him. Then, he goes into the Torpedo Room and he starts taking really specific measurements with calipers and micrometers and stuff. Then when that was done, he was off to the Supply Shack where he started ordering connectors and tubing and all sorts of other weird stuff.
“Then, after all that, he went to Sickbay, arms full of all of these papers he’d printed out to see The Doc. I was standing there, shootin’ the shit with the Missile Techs, and saw him go in, you know what I’m sayin’? So I knew for sure he went in there. Anyway, Doc closed the door and it seemed like they were in there forever.
“See, apparently what was going on was that The Smag had found out the purity requirements for the CO2 in the fire extinguishers and for the consumable CO2 that we use in the soda machine. Then he traced the fire extinguishers’ origin using their control numbers and he checked the lot numbers and all sorts of crazy, stupid stuff, you know what I’m sayin’? Then he measured and figured out a way that he could cut off the hose of a fire extinguisher and connect an adapter that he’d made to marry it up to the soda machine’s lines. He figured out equations with gas pressure formulas and shit. He looked up the normal operating parameters for the soda machine and for fire extinguishers and on, and on, and on. Pretty much, that nut tried to think of everything
“But here’s the thing, what do you figure the Captain’s gonna say?” Willie asked everyone, and yet no one in particular. Without giving time for an answer, he continued, louder, “I’ll tell you: first off, The Smag was loony, certifiable, you know what I’m sayin’? So considering that, you already know what the freakin’ Captain was going to say? Did he think for even a minute that the Captain was going to let him screw-up a perfectly good fire extinguisher just so that the crew could have Coke? No way! And that’s what the Captain said too, ‘No way!’ I mean he was probably impressed and all, but even he’s not allowed to destroy perfectly good damage control equipment, surplus or not, you know what I’m sayin’?
“So see all that waste of time and stuff and what’d it get him? Nothing.
“Anyway, the next day when The Smag comes through the chow line I act all sorry that his plan didn’t work out, right? And kinda like a peace treaty, I offer him a can of Pepsi from my own personal stash. The trick, though, is that I’d punched a little hole in the bottom of the can and had let all the soda run out. So you can’t tell it’s empty just by lookin’, you know what I’m sayin’? Well, anyway, his face brightens a little, like the last bit of faith he had left, you know, and his eyes get a little misty and he thanked me and reaches for the can. So I hand it to him. Oh God, it was choice! The Smag just smiled a little and handed back the empty can, but I got his ass good on that one, you know what I’m sayin’? I saw him lose all hope. I saw it die in his eyes right in front of me like I’d actually strangled it out of him with my bare hands.”
With this revelation, the M.S.’s instantaneously fell into a sort of hysterical victory celebration. In the hubbub, Willie began chuckling, shaking his head approvingly like a proud father. As the M.S.’s danced, Jim noticed, or maybe just imagined, that the two new M.S.’s were much less enthusiastic than before. They were still going through the motions, still whooping it up with the others, but their eyes were giving them away. They were as appalled as he was, or so Jim imagined.
Jim and Reactor Gus slipped out as the celebration continued and they headed back toward the Engine Room. Jim wasn’t happy to be going back to work, but he was thrilled to be leaving the Mess Decks and the M.S.’s celebration. It must have shown, too, because Gus stopped him and, smiling, he told Jim about a part of The Smag’s story that Willie had left out.
It turns out, according to Reactor Gus, that someone did not let Willie’s empty can prank go without retaliation. The other stuff, Willie’s running out of CO2 and tea, or ordering fire extinguishers instead of consumable CO2 was stupidity and, frankly, part of Willie’s lot in life, but the empty can of Pepsi was personal and mean. And the Smag, his excessive love of soda aside, would never have sought revenge himself. That just wasn’t his style.
Gus said that shortly after Willie’s prank, just before meal times, appliances in the Galley began shutting off for no reason. When Willie frantically called back to the Engine Room for a mechanic or an electrician, there would inevitably be none available. Within thirty to forty minutes, though, the gear would re-energize with seemingly no repair activity having taken place. Willie’s excuses to the officers for why their meals weren’t ready on time began to wear thin and that fact showed on Willie’s face. He insisted that the engineering crowd was out to get him, and he was certain that his gear was being sabotaged, but he had no proof and seemed to lose face with each additional accusation.
Gus also reported to Jim that, after the Empty Can Incident, someone began using Willie’s comment box on the Mess Decks to leave comments of a more direct nature than probably intended when the box was placed there. The index cards, which had been provided for convenience, were set aside and entire Monte Cristo sandwiches were inserted into the box’s slot. “That’s the kind of comment that is hard to ignore,” said Gus, allowing no hint of humor to cross to his face.
Gus’ stories made Jim feel a bit better. Jim thought that it was good to know that someone had knocked Willie down a peg, even if only for a little while. Jim’s only critique to Gus, considering the celebration on the Mess Decks, was that he wished it’d been more permanent. As the two reactor operators continued back to the Engine Room, Reactor Gus began to quiz Jim on his general submarine knowledge.
“So, where are the temperature control modules for the Bunk Rooms?” he asked. Jim knew that the modules were in The Missile Compartment, but couldn’t remember where, so Gus took him to them. Removing a cover plate, Gus asked Jim if he could remember which Bunk Room the M.S.’s slept in. Jim knew that they slept in Bunk Room #9 because they were always standing around outside talking and joking it up and never working, but Jim didn’t yet know what possible importance that information could hold.
“Good,” said Gus, “now, do you know how to operate the controls? For example, how would one increase the temperature in a bunk room to, say, ninety or so?” Again, Jim didn’t know, but Reactor Gus happily showed him the sequence of buttons to push in order to raise or lower room temperature. Jim, catching on, expressed a certainty that Willie would like nothing better than to sleep in his own sweat, so he pressed the correct buttons and turned the control knob all the way up. Gus raised an eyebrow and said, perfectly imitating Willie’s nasally voice, “Welcome to the good life, Jim, you know what I’m sayin’? Welcome to the good life!”
“All the way up?” I asked Gus in disbelief, during one of our most recent phone conversations, “That’s torture, and truth be known, unnecessary. Willie’s basically harmless, you know that.”
“After eating Willie’s cooking for five years, why yes, you know it does!”