Potatoes, thousands of potatoes. Stinking, rotten onions, thousands of stinking, rotten onions. My first night in a foreign port, and here I was peeling potatoes and washing onions.
This pathetic turn of events began with my journey up to the spud locker. The spud locker was an evil thing, outside of the skin of the ship, up on the 01 level. It was an aluminum container, roughly six feet wide by four feet deep, standing about four feet high, with a hinged lid. Inside were hundreds of bags of potatoes and onions, various creatures that enjoyed feeding on onions and potatoes, and two or three inches of ooze which may have once been onions and potatoes –or whatever else. So while the majority of my shipmates went out on the beach, I had the aromatic pleasure of carrying forty, twenty-pound bags of Idaho potatoes from the 01 level to the galley.
Now I know a twenty pound bag of potatoes isn’t much of a big deal, but make twenty trips up and down a half dozen ladders carrying one under each arm, and it is, to say the least, tedious. In the galley I positioned myself next to a large trashcan and commenced peeling them. After a few rebukes from the cook about my peeling technique, and the wasting of “his” onions, I was pretty much left alone.
There is nothing cerebral about peeling potatoes. Potato number one and potato number one thousand have exactly the same features, and peel exactly the same way. Next I dumped the potatoes into a large stainless-steel sink half filled with water. Stretching my nineteen-year-old brain, and extremely limited creativity, I played out famous naval engagements in the sink with my fleet of Idaho’s finest.
There I was in this little apron and hat, recreating the British fleet at Trafalgar, when he appeared. Chief Petty Officer Harth was in charge of all of the ships cooks, and responsible for the ship’s food services. He drove all of us mess-cooks like sharecroppers. To me he was a hundred years old and mean as hell. Every time he saw me he took a swing at me. Thank the gods I was young and although not really nimble, I was always able to dodge his wayward blows. His jaw was always filled with an enormous chaw of the world’s cheapest chewing tobacco, and he spit the filthy juice with deadly accuracy. The Chief was everything I never wanted to be –plus fat, dumb, and ugly.
After finishing my most illuminating task of preparing the next days meal, I completed my glorious duties by scrubbing the lard soaked, age cracked deck on my knees for nearly an hour under the watchful gaze of the near sighted, obese, half-asleep leading cook. Dragging my weary carcass to my bunk for a very short night’s sleep, I wondered what I had to look forward to tomorrow; Because after breakfast and lunch, I would be, finally, granted liberty.
The next day, the mess-decks were abuzz with the talk of the city and it’s delights; San Miguel beer, prostitutes, leather goods, and even the occasional souvenir for the family. All of these topics and more were on the lips of the crew while eating the good old “SOS”, otherwise known as shit on a shingle, and gulping down copious amounts of strong black coffee. These stories of heroic deeds and sexual escapades made my heart beat with the rhythm of a Latin drum.
The clock slowly crawled around in a never-ending circle, each second ticking off like a week. Breakfast finished, we washed the dishes, and started preparing for lunch. My mess mate Gary, told me that he had heard Chief Harth bragging in the Chief’s mess that he had gotten fed, gotten drunk, and gotten laid.
The general opinion of our crew of mess-cooks, was that Harth was a drunken lecher, lucky to be able to stay in the Navy these last thirty years. My personal opinion was that he was an asshole, and that if he could get laid; I could understand the reasoning behind convents, and vows of chastity.
The crew stomped through the mess decks around eleven thirty. They brought with them eyes with heavy black circles around them, and a desire to go lie down and take a nooner. Believe it or not, the meal itself was the easiest part of our workday. Sure, we had to refill the pans on the chow line, or replenish the trays of silverware, but for the most part we could stand around and shoot the shit.
Our discussion centered on the possibilities that the women in Barcelona were the most beautiful, most willing, and most available in the universe. We were extremely motivated to make our liberty and have a great time, and as a whole, we couldn’t wait to get out there. After washing the dishes, scrubbing the deck, and filling the coffeepot, those of us that were in the day before duty section were twitching with anticipation.
Then about thirteen-thirty, Chief Harth appeared. “Men” he belched, “there is a little job you gotta do before you knock off.” Our faces dropped, and our stomachs flipped over. Then the chief added, “I’ve got three trucks with fresh and frozen stores out on the pier, and they have to get unloaded today. The off-going section will unload ‘em before going on liberty.” We could not have been more stunned had we heard gunshots in the hallway. All of our plans were put on hold so we could load the f**king freezers!
Without further ado, we were ushered out to the pier under the tutelage of a highly experienced twenty-year-old, third class petty officer. He then hastily arranged us in a chain so that we could load these badly needed foodstuffs in the quickest and most efficient manner all while curses and threats to Harth and his descendents were shouted at the top of our lungs (as long as there was no one around).
Five hours later we were done. Tired, sore, hungry and thirsty –but done. We rushed down to our berthing compartment, raced into the shower, jumped into our liberty uniforms, and ran up to the quarterdeck. Barely taking time to render the appropriate honors to the flag and the officer of the deck, we streamed over the brow and into Barcelona!
As most sailors do, we settled into one of the seedy bars that happen to crowd the waterfront, and immediately bought several of the overpriced local beers.
After gulping down the first few beers, we finally settled down and began to talk about our happy lot in life. “I’d like to decapitate that asshole Harth,” I ventured.
Billy looked at his watch and exclaimed “Shit, we only have two and a half more hours on the beach!” It was a sad fact: None of us were Petty Officers, and non-rates were required to report back on the ship by midnight; “Cinderella liberty” it is called.
After drinking a toast to the permanent flaccidity of Chief Harth’s genitalia, Gary surprised us all by saying “Why don’t we get rid of him for good?”
Several seconds of stunned silence were followed by murmurs of “sounds good to me!”
“Okay smart-ass,” I said “How are you gonna do that?”
“Simple” said Gary. “We’ll just get him drunk and knock him in the head.” We all sat back and sipped on our beers as we contemplated a life of crime.
“I don’t want to kill the guy,” said Billy, “I just want to get rid of him.”
“You’re just a chicken shit,” said Gary.
“F**k you butthole!” shouted Billy. “I just don’t want to go to jail for the rest of my life.”
I sat my beer down on the table and interjected “Why don’t we get him drunk and put him on a bus to the other side of the country the night before the ship gets underway? You could almost see a light bulb shining above each of our heads, as I added: “That way the ship will sail without him, and will finally be free of him.”
“Yeah! All Right!” Shouted the group in unison. It was there and then that we decided to rid ourselves of Chief Harth.
The next day we were exceedingly respectful to the Chief. Courteously asking after his family, and hoping him health and happiness, we were quite giddy with anticipation of his professional demise.
Gary was put in charge of finding out about the bus. He was a friend to a guy named Mark Gammon who had been to Barcelona several times in his career, fluently spoke the language, and could possibly help him get the ticket we needed. The following morning, a liberty day, we all got together after breakfast. We met on the 01 level, up by the spud locker. Gary was the last to show up. “So, what’s the deal?” I asked. Gary said nothing, looked around at all of us, and then over his shoulder, then reached into his dungaree pocket and removed a bus ticket!
“How the hell did you get that?” Billy asked.
“Mark Gammon got it for me.” Said Gary “I told him my aunt lived in Bilbao, and I wanted to go visit her.” We all busted up laughing and pounded Gary on the back congratulating him on his great coup. Gary held the ticket up so we could all see it, “So, how do we get Harth on the bus?”
“Hmmm,” I mused, “Simple, we invite him out for a beer tonight, get him shit-faced drunk, then stick him on the bus.”
Billy piped up “I’ll ask him to come out for some beers after work, on us, he’ll never turn down free beers.”
Once we had completed our duties for the day, we all met at the bar on the pier. Billy had arranged for the Chief to meet us at the bar about eighteen hundred. We decided we better find out where the bus station was, and then tour the town as this was our last night out before the ship went back out to sea.
We walked down the Las Rambalas, gawked at the whores, drank some beers, and went to the bullfights. The bullfights were awesome –but the bus station was our objective this afternoon. We found the bus station, and to our glee, there was not a sailor or shore patrolman in sight. Just across the busy street was a bar with tables out on the sidewalk, a perfect location for our conspiracy.