Without question, some shipboard jobs are considered less desirable than others—rite-of-passage-type chores that are necessary as part of the ship’s business. Compartment cleaner, head cleaner, and mess cook are a few that spring immediately to mind, and I’d like to nominate side cleaner to join them at the bottom of the list. In July 1963, I encountered the side-cleaner chore firsthand when I spent two weeks of Naval Reserve duty on board the attack transport USS Cavalier (APA-37) as a seaman apprentice.
I reported aboard when the ship was at the 32nd Street naval station in San Diego. During checking in, I talked to the duty petty officer in one of the deck divisions and said, “I need a bunk and a locker.” His reply was short but not sweet: “You don’t need shit!” Obviously, we differed on what my needs were at that point. It certainly was a far cry from the warm “Welcome aboard” I had hoped for. I did eventually wind up with a bunk and locker. Bunk time was limited because the ship had a series of early reveilles. I do recall falling in with a kinder, gentler boatswain’s mate third-class whose name shows up in my 50-year-old diary as O’Connor. He was helpful as I got my practical factors signed off for advancement to seaman.
Another crewman who proved helpful was Seaman Wright, and he took me under his wing my first week on board. His first name has long since eluded me, but I remember that he called himself “Sugar Boy.” The Cavalier was a good-sized ship, close to 500 feet long with a lot of freeboard—important dimensions, I realized, when Sugar Boy and I, along with other side cleaners, painted the hull my first week on board. And it was no small hull.
When we painted down near the waterline, we worked from a float, essentially a wooden raft. We chipped off old paint, put on red-lead primer, and applied the haze-gray overcoat. Most of the paint got onto the sides of the ship, but some wound up on my shoes and dungarees. Being mostly a landlubbing reservist at the time, I didn’t have an old pair of ship-painting shoes available, so I had to clean the good ones off every night with turpentine. Another vivid memory was looking at the water surrounding the float—raw sewage close at hand. The Environmental Protection Agency was still far in the future. When we painted higher on the hull, we were suspended over the side on a stage, a wooden plank that was raised and lowered by stout pieces of line. At times each of us was on a boatswain’s chair, a square of wood that could also be adjusted. Working alongside the ebullient Sugar Boy was surely a help to me.
The weekend brought liberty, and I encountered several phenomena ashore. One was walking along San Diego’s Broadway, a main drag populated by businesses designed to lure enlisted men. I recall in particular one huckster out front calling, “Hey, sailor.” His job was to entice poorly paid personnel to buy items on payment plans at high interest rates. A look at the 1963 pay chart shows the monthly rate for a seaman apprentice with less than two years of service was $85.80.
Once, while riding in a bus, I overheard some teasing thrown in my direction by other sailors. Clearly I was a newcomer, but they were surprised to see the crisply pressed creases in the collar flap on the back of my white jumper. Thank you, Mother. Still another thing that struck me was seeing some of the boatswain’s mates from the Cavalier downtown in civilian clothes. The Broadway businesses included locker clubs in which sailors could stow outfits to wear on liberty.
When I spent nights on board, which was most of the time, I could avail myself of movies shown in the mess deck. A sheet was suspended in the middle of the compartment to serve as the screen. On any given night, half the crew saw the movie the right way, and the image for those on the other side was reversed.
In the second week, the ship got under way for amphibious landing exercises on the Silver Strand in Coronado, not far from San Diego. We had a number of Marines on board, and they clambered down debarkation nets suspended over the sides of the transport and into the landing craft. I served as bow hook in the crew of a “Papa boat”—a 36-foot landing craft, vehicle, personnel (LCVP). We were amid other vessels on similar missions of heading toward the beach, dropping the bow ramp, and watching the Marines surge ashore. That duty was exciting and a lot more fun than painting.
When I wasn’t involved in those activities, I was part of the seaman force that frequently swept and swabbed the main deck. Once I did something untoward—I don’t remember exactly what, but it was akin to sweeping dirt under a carpet. I still remember the response I received from one rugged, salty-looking boatswain’s mate: “What would your mother say if she saw you do that?”