By Mark Lovelace
We took a cab back to the pier to meet the Chief, promising the cabdriver a generous tip if he stayed with us. The Chief walked out over the brow in civilian clothes, and stood at the end of it looking impatiently at his watch.
Billy walked up and started talking to the Chief, and pointed us out waiting in the cab. Billy and the Chief got in and away we went, cruising the streets of Barcelona with criminal intent. As we sat in the cramped, urine stained taxi, the streets of the city flew by before us, when Chief Harth suddenly piped up. “What a bunch of dumb f**ks! Three dumb-ass mess-cooks trying to brown nose me.” Then he added suspiciously “You dipshits don’t think you’re gonna get over on me do ya?”
Instantly, this carload full of dangerous criminal minds was transformed into a gaggle of speechless creampuffs incapable of completing a sentence, much less answering the Chief’s question. “Honest, Chief,” I squeaked. “We just wanted to buy you a beer and pick your brains about the Med., since you have been here so many times.”
“Hmpff” snorted the Chief. “Yeah I have been here a few times. If I had a reason to, I could teach you ass-wipes a thing or two.” Thankfully, wonderfully, the cab glided to the curb outside of the bar we had previously selected. The Chief tumbled out of the cab and plopped his fat ass in a chair facing the boulevard. I paid the cabby, having just been promoted to Seaman deuce (a $40 per month pay raise), and followed the rest of the gang to seats around the table.
We ordered a round of beers, and started munching on the Tapas the waitress placed on the table. Just as we finished our first sip of beer, the Chief slammed his empty down on the table top with a bang. “Goddamn you sissies, you gonna let a forty-seven year old man out drink you?” Instantly our beers went to our lips, bottles turned up against the evening breeze, and we choked down the rancid brew as if we had been dying of thirst.
After ten or twelve rounds of beer, four or five plates of Tapas, and one pissed off barmaid (pinched on the ass by the Chief); the conversation had dropped to a lull. The Chief was laughing and joking; a one-man show –and we were the audience. I was beginning to worry about our ability to get him drunk. It seemed to me that we were buzzing much faster than he was.
At last divine intervention swooped in and saved us. We were just starting to lose hope in our quest, then it happened. “F**k this Spanish horse piss, let’s get something worth drinking!” The Chief blurted out in halting Spanish: “Hey beautiful, bring us a bottle of Jagermiester with that next round.” his shout getting the attention of the glowering waitress.
As the bottle and the beers arrived, I think we all realized we were in trouble. While the Chief was pouring his shot, I gave the others a high sign. I raised my empty glass to my lips and winked, hoping they would understand I meant for them to nurse the drinks while the Chief plowed on; full speed ahead. Gary caught on, but I guess Billy didn’t get the sign. After he and the Chief had a few shots –to our couple of sips– Billy and the Chief were best of friends. We watched and feigned drunken ecstasy as the Chief and Billy hooted, hollered and acted like complete asses.
The Chief had started to doze now and again, and mumbled something about Isabella. When he was awake, he was still the life of the party. Every time we thought he had snoozed for good, he woke up again.
Billy was loony tunes, hopping, jumping, and dancing to the beat of some imaginary rock and roll band. Looking at my watch, I noticed that the critical time was quickly approaching.
When Billy got up to go take a leak, Gary followed him to assess his ability to help us carry out the plan. While they were gone, I tried to talk to the Chief. He was stoned. He couldn’t hold his head up, and was muttering things about bullfights, champagne and Isabella. I knew the time was right, because we had about twenty minutes to get him across the street and into the bus to Bilbao.
Gary was nodding his head to indicate no to me as he came out towards the table. I could see that Billy was too far-gone to help. This was a problem because Billy was the only one of us who could speak any Spanish.
The first obstacle was getting across the busy street. It was twenty two hundred and it seemed like rush hour traffic was just getting started. After numerous false starts, we were finally able to navigate across to the Island in the middle of the two lanes. As we stood there waiting for the traffic to thin enough to let us move across, I noticed two shore patrol loitering on the opposite corner, just where we were headed. My testicles began to shrink as I thought about the courts-martial and my subsequent imprisonment.
Just before we were about to turn around and cross back over to the bar we had just left, the shore patrolman walked away down the street. Fearing their return, I dragged our little party across the avenue just escaping the impending, crushing wheels of a garbage truck.
We rushed into the bus station. Neither Billy nor the Chief had shown recent signs of brain activity. Looking at my watch, I determined we had just enough time to find the bus and get the Chief on it. Looking at the bus schedule and the listing of bus numbers and departure lanes was a complete waste of time. So we skipped outside to where the buses were lined up, and located the bus to Bilbao.
I sat the Chief down into the seat and handed the bus driver his ticket. Not knowing what to say I pointed at the Chief and said to the incredulous bus driver “Papa. Papa, Bilbao” I repeated myself, pointing frantically at the Chief until the bus driver shrugged his shoulders.
“Sii, si, Bilbao.” The bus driver affirmed that he understood.
We held our collective breaths while we waited for the bus to leave the station. As the bus pulled away Billy woke up and asked, “Where are we, where?” Gary and I hoisted Billy up and ran out to the line of taxis in front of the bus station. We sped through the night back to the waterfront. My mind was full of doubt, hoping against hope that bus would go non-stop to Bilbao.
The light exploded on the outside of my eyelids like a state trooper’s roadside flare at midnight. “Mitch, Mitch, get up asshole!” Gary shouted as he shook my sleep-numbed body. I looked over at my clock and saw it was almost zero five hundred. I was late for breakfast! I threw on my uniform and ran to the mess-decks pulling on my boots as we ran. By the time we got there the coffee was already made, and the tables were all set up. The old cook Joe (twenty years in the Navy and still a third class petty officer) just glared at us, but didn’t say anything. It was clear he had set the mess-decks up for us.
I took a tray of silverware into the CPO mess, and looked around for Chief Harth. He was not in the small dining/lounge area, so I went back into the CPO sleeping quarters. The chart of bunk assignments was posted on the bulkhead near the hatch to the compartment, so I found the Chief’s bunk, and saw that it was empty, apparently unused during the night. If Harth didn’t make it back in the next hour, the ship would leave without him, and we would be rid of him forever!
I skipped out the mess-decks with joy in my heart. This meant we could finish our tour on the mess-decks free of Harth! Free of misery! Free, free, free! In just three weeks we were slated to stop in Naples, Italy for a week, and even now anticipation was building for our chance to see another legendary city on the sea. I patted myself on the back for outwitting the old and knarly CPO. Hell he was born in the throes of WWII, how could he match wits with me? Haha, I was flush with success and walked the mess-decks with a swagger!
We had done it! I quietly told Gary and Billy that it looked as if we had succeeded. The rest of breakfast flew by like no other meal ever had. At 0700 the word was passed over the 1MC “Now station the special sea and anchor detail”. This meant that it was time for us to assume our line handling details, making ready to haul in line in preparation for getting underway.
I zoomed down to my bunk, whipped off my smock and paper cap, grabbed my utility shirt and white hat, and shot up the ladder to the fantail. The next thirty minutes took forever. While waiting to untie the ship, we made a few preparations to remove the brow, and to store the lines in the line locker. Finally, the line captain shouted “single up all lines!” At this signal, the Spanish sailors on the pier removed the eye of the line from the bollard, and slid it through the eye of bitter end of the line. We heaved on the line furiously so that it would not fall into the water and become much more difficult to pull onboard.
While waiting to single up, I found myself actually looking forward to the salt air and the regimented daily life at sea…..at least for a few days. There is something powerful in knowing without hesitation where and when to go, and how to do it. The question of why holds very little importance in the kingdom of the briney deep. To be able to proceed to sea without Harth was just tasty icing on the cake! I had a few second thoughts…perhaps I should have taken the time and trouble to make an international call back to the folks at home, maybe I should have bought some more souvenirs, or even taken some more photographs, but none the less we had planned and executed our mission with success, and we were ready for the next step in our nautical education.
As we were flaking the line out on deck, we watched a silver Mercedes pull onto the pier. When the car got closer we could see that it contained two occupants. The person on the passenger side leaned over and kissed the driver. We were all perplexed as to who this might be. When I saw the gray shock of hair, and heard the gravelly voice say “goodbye dear”, my heart sunk with a quickness.
Yes, it was the Chief. Other than the fact that he was in different clothes he looked none the worse for the wear. He strutted up the brow with a smile on his face and a cigar in his mouth. With a wink at me he turned and headed down towards the CPO mess.
The Chief never acknowledged that anything had happened that night. I spent another miserable month peeling spuds and washing pots, and each time the Chief saw me with no one else around he gave me a wink and a grin, and nothing else.
A year later at the Chief’s retirement ceremony, after he had been officially retired, he pulled me off to the side. “Shipmate,” he told me, “always remember and never forget, youthful energy is no match for age and experience.”
To this day, I have never forgotten.