Jack In The Box
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Since 02-28-06

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Someone recently sent me a post.

"Dex, when are you going to get around to sonarmen?"

Got me to thinking about the guys with the magic ears.

We had Jack Schneider. Long, lanky cowboy from Arizona. Always wore cowboy boots. Hell, he wore the damn things for dress canvas inspections topside... I've seen those damn boots hanging out of his rack when he was asleep. I never saw him take a shower... He probably wore 'em in there. He could have wooden toes for all we knew... Never saw the sonuvabitch out of those block heel boots.

Jack smoked roll-your-owns on purpose. He did it when the COB was still selling nickel a pack sea stores. He always had a string with a Bull Durham tag hanging out of his dungaree pocket. And a twisted tamale-looking butt hanging out of the side of his mouth... The things turned the tip of his mustache yellow.

Took him damn near forever to tell you something. Slowest talking man I ever knew. Would have taken him ten minutes to have told you an atomic bomb was falling on you. Jack never had a sense of urgency about anything... A man completely devoid of pressure. Life just took place without Jack's help like it was supposed to. Jack just saddled the available horse and let it take him wherever it wanted to go... Didn't seem to matter. Jack invented 'laid back' and elevated it to a point one step below embalming.

God gave Jack one helluva set of ears. He could be off Iceland and hear tick farts in Philadelphia. He knew what leprechauns sounded like when they were having sex and angels sounded like when they scratched their tiny butts. Jack could hear sounds nobody ever heard. He could give the Old Man screw counts on ships in some other ocean. He was amazing.

Whenever we were in some exercise where they were hunting us and the sonarman on duty was having problems identifying certain noise levels, the Old Man would send for Jack.

"Go rack out the ear wizard."

Jack would come into the control room wiping sleep from his eyes.

"You call for me, sir?"

"Jack, crawl down in your hole and let me know what's out there."

"Aye, sir."

Jack would lift the lid on his box...

Sonarmen had this clubhouse below the control room walking deck. You entered through a hole with a hinged lid. The entrance hole was between the bow planes operating gear and the hydraulic manifold. The hole let the sonarmen drop down into what we called 'the box'. When you peered down there, it looked like someone had crammed Frankenstein's lab into a freezer crate. All sorts of lights and dials and wierd electronic monkey business linked with ten thousand miles of interconnecting cable... With just enough room for a sonarman if he didn't have a fat wallet. They put dead guys in boxes bigger than sonar shacks and dead guys smell a helluva lot better than diesel boat sailors. The bathrooms in recreational vehicles look like Wall-Marts to sonarmen.

Jack would crawl down in his magic box hoping the methane effects of the evening meal's lima beans didn't kick in, and go to work. Then he'd pop up like a 'Jack in the Box' and say,

"Cap'n, ain't navy... Some whompin' contraption out there crossin' astern... Gotta be some tired-ass merchant... Screws all dinged to hell and she needs work on her strut bearings... Sounds like the dumptruck of the seas... Ain't navy, that's for damn sure... Least it ain't OUR navy... How 'bout a black n' bitter for a workin' man?"

And the lid would close.

All boat sailors had something going. Jack would hand tool leather. Made pocketbooks, wallets, pistol holsters, knife sheaths, and real neat belts. Listening to crap through a headset left your hands free. Jack made great hand-carved delicate designs in leather. Had all kinds of punches, carving knives, patterns, dyes, and pieces of leather. The sonar shack on Requin smelled like a shoe repair shop. Every officer's wife had a hand tooled purse and a nice belt... Most of the chief's wives had the same... Cigarette cases... Check book covers... Old slow-talk magic ears made them all. Every E-3 lad had an ID and liberty card folder with dolphins and laced edges... Very salty. Being salty took a lot of concentration when you were able to see boot camp not that far behind you and your white hats aren't soft yet.

Small note: For sailors who may be reading this idiotic nonsense and are in their first enlistment, you are not Navy until (A) Your white hats get soft, you put wings in them by folding down the sides and cocked down over one eye or wear them on the back of your head. (B) You toss out your boot camp issue official genuine bonafide navy neckerchief, that thing you stuck a dime in and rolled up like three feet of garden hose, go out and buy a flat pressed 'greasy snake' and wear it with a knot an inch above the 'V' in your jumper. (C) You come to realize that chief petty officers are not God's direct representatives on earth. This will dawn on you the first time you find one face down drunk and you have to get him in a cab and back to the boat. And last, (D) you know what it feels like to be three sheets to the wind, standing on a pier in a place you've never been before and will never be again, wondering what the hell you did with your raghat, drinking stuff out of passed-around bottles, and singing songs that would make your mom shoot you... The stuff in the bottles could be fermented pigmy piss for all you care... And the launch lays alongside... And the cox'n yells,

"Okay girls, it's late and I don't intend to put up with any shit from you f*cking idiots!"

And you help men with whom your heart will be forever linked, in the boat and head 'home'.

That's when you're Navy.

Where was I? You get older and your mind wanders... Oh yes, sonarmen.

They tell me sound carries better in water than air. I've always taken their word on that. Being an E-3, you took a lot of people's word on stuff.

Once, Jack patched underwater sound into the conn when I had the helm. There was the damndest racket going on somewhere out there in the ocean.

"What the hell's that, Jack?"

"Carpenter fish."

"What in the hell is a carpenter fish?"

"Nobody knows... Never figured it out. Sounds like the bastards are building a house."

"That's why they call 'em carpenter fish?"

"Dex, you're a gahdam genious."

I'll bet the nukes figured 'em out... They've got stuff nowadays on those whomping big iron rascals that can give you the nipple size on a mermaid tit.

All sonarmen... Real honest-to-God sonarmen, have magic ears. That's why cockroaches on smokeboats passed notes and never whispered important stuff to each other.