The bond of shipmates is difficult to understand. It is even more difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it. Forged in the crucible of hard work, harder play, and salt spray, it stands the test of time and vast separations of distance. This story is very personal to me, and I’m going to try and do it justice.
It was a steamy hot summer in Norfolk, Va. The year was 1984. I was stationed on the USS LY Spear docked at Pier 22 at the Norfolk Naval Station. As a Torpedoman’s Mate Second Class my main business was loading torpedoes and missiles on to submarines. It was hard and exacting work. A simple mistake could kill hundreds of people, so we took our work seriously and worked damn hard.
I didn’t play as hard as I had in the past because I was newly married and had a brand new baby boy. My best buddy on the ship was Brian H. We got along well, I guess because we were both big guys, and had played football in High School, though not together. We were about the same age. Brian was married, but didn’t have any kids. We lived close by and were in the same duty section, so he rode to work with me and his wife took their car to work each day.
Brian was a real popular guy, while I was stocky and thick built, he was an adonis at 6-4 and 215 lbs of rock solid muscle. He had lots of friends whereas I usually only really connected with a few. On weekends or on the rare occasion when the Spear went to sea, we would party together, I guess we were still trying to hold out a piece of that single life. We drank a lot on these occasions, and like young men are prone to do we would get stupid now and then and drive drunk. Like I said, “stupid.” But hell, we were 10 feet tall and bulletproof, bad sh*t couldn’t happen to us, man!
One afternoon after a long weapons move, Brian and one of his friends approached me and asked if I wanted to go out drinking with them after work. This was a Thursday night. My initial reaction was to say yes, but I was broke, and it would have pissed off my wife mightily had I went out that night and drank up borrowed money. I was friendly with his friend Dave, but we weren’t really friends, you know? I told them I couldn’t go, but would like to go out Friday night after we got paid. Dave’s body language showed he was going to go out no matter what, and Brian said, “ok man, well we’re going to go, and we’ll see you in the morning at quarters.”
So I went home to my wife and son; we just stayed at home and did the family thing and I was perfectly happy with that. There would be plenty of times to go out with those guys and get hammered.
The next morning I went by Brian’s apartment to pick him up, and no one was home. I thought that was weird, because usually his wife would be there until about an hour after we left. I just supposed Dave had crashed at his place and drove them to the ship.
There were about 100,000 sailors going to work at NOB back in those days, and there were only about 50,000 parking spots. So I always got to the ship early, but usually my Chief, Charlie W. would be down in the shop when I got there each morning. The place was deserted. I had a weird feeling something was wrong. After about 30 minutes people started drifting down into the shop getting ready for morning muster and quarters. There was an unusual vibe, and a kind of whispering in the air. Five minutes later the Chief came down the ladder, looking tight lipped and instead of addressing us, he shot passed and ducked into his office.
At 0730 everyone was looking around waiting for him to come out, but he didn’t. Since I was the next senior guy, after a few minutes I went over to his office and tapped on the door, “Chief, you coming out?” I asked.
“I’ll be out there in a minute, just stand fast!” He shouted through the door. So I shrugged my shoulders and went back out to the formation and fell in. After a few minutes he came out and stood in front of us, looking kind of disheveled and clearly distraught. With his gravely voice breaking he struggled to tell us that two of our shipmates were killed the night before, he didn’t say who. I immediately felt sick to my stomach because we had all noticed that Brian and Dave weren’t in the formation that morning. The Chief couldn’t say another word and turned and went back into his office, leaving us to stand there befuddled.
Of course the formation fell apart and there were gasps, and lots of talking. I bolted up the ladder to go to the Weapons Office to see what I could find out. When I got there the door was closed, and I could hear the Division Officers in there talking. I banged on the door and it got quiet. Someone yelled out, “go back to the shop, all hands muster in ten minutes!” So I went back to the shop and told everyone what I’d heard. By that time the rumours were running thick and wide without anyone knowing much of anything.
I heard the phone ring in the Chief’s office, and he came out into the shop. At just that time I heard footsteps coming down the ladder, it was our Division Officer Ltjg E. The Chief called out “Attention to Quarters!” and we all came to attention.
The Lt E. told us “at ease.” One look at him showed that he had been up most of the night. His hair had been gray the day before, but was a silvery white that morning.
He took a deep breath and told us the news that none of us wanted to hear. Brian and Dave were dead. Dave’s Dodge Charger crossed the median on the interstate and hit a U-Haul truck head on. They were both killed. You can’t imagine how quiet a shipboard shop with about 50 people in it can be until something like this happens.There was some weeping and gasping but I kind of just stood there in shock. I just cried for the first time last night, almost 30 years after the event.
Not much work got done that day. They cancelled the weapons move we had scheduled. Most of us walked around in a daze. There was some quiet talking, but it was a negative 7 on the richter scale. Of course I thought that it could have easily been me, if I had had $10 to my name I probably would have went along with them. I was still a kid stuck in screw up mode, even if I did have a wife and a child. Pure dumb luck kept my family fed.
Later that afternoon and the next day more details came out. They were, of course, both drunk. There were empty beer cans all over the road. Word was that they weren’t instantly killed, but were trapped in the car, dying a slow, firey death. A local police officer tried to get them out but was badly burnt himself in the attempt. No one in the U-Haul was injured.
Later we heard that Brian and his wife had gotten into a spat the night before, and that she had flown out that very day to her parents home in Pittsburgh. Turned out she was three months pregnant. These details made the catastrophe almost unbearable, and the weekend was the most unpleasant one I can ever remember.
Brian and Dave had just disappeared out of our lives. There one minute and gone the next. Bright lights forever extinguished. We never heard from his wife or parents, and in some ways it seemed as if they had never existed. Unreal. But, regardless of our loss the pages of the calendar continued to turn, submarines still deployed, and we had to get back to our routine and load them up. We all grieved in some way, but the wound slowly healed, life went on, at least for those of us left to shoulder the load.
A few months later the wound was ripped open afresh when the police started a public information campaign starring the crushed and burnt Dodge Charger. One day after work I drove to the police impound lot and looked through the chain-link fence at the totaled car. The door was ripped off and there were beer cans in the floorboard. There was a huge dark stain on the exposed carpeted floor, I guess it was blood. It could have very easily been mine.