The Big Bos’n In The Sky


I was a new airman turned seaman, booted out of the aviation side of the house, when I was reassigned from the helo squadron to the destroyer SPRUANCE. The fiasco at the aviation side of the house opened my eyes to the complicated nature of the military, of life in general, and I mostly stayed on the ship just trying to keep my nose clean. When other sailors were quick to hop in their civies and head to the beach, I volunteered to work late off duty; understandably, this endeared me to my first class. Added to the fact that the ship no longer needed a rescue swimmer (after the senior swimmer was discharged for alcohol rehabilitation failure), and I filled the billet as a former aviation swimmer, the skipper also figured I was all right.
When SPRUANCE pulled into New York harbor for fleet week, I resigned to stay onboard. If I left on liberty I was sure to get in trouble, I figured. But BM1 Curtis had taken a liking to me—had other plans—and told me we were going out on the town. “Don’t get too excited, though,” he said. “I ain’t Sinatra and you damn sure ain’t Gene Kelly. There ain’t gonna be no singing or dancing, shipwreck. Don’t get depressed, kid. In these dress whites, we’ll get our dicks sucked. At minimum we’ll drink for free. Hell, it’s fleet week. These monkey suits are our meal tickets.”
Curtis, on his nineteenth year, was a bona fide lifer with spinach in his teeth. He’d been everywhere, done everything, and had the tattoos to prove it: anchors on left and right forearms, a compass rose on each shoulder, a pig on his left foot, a rooster on the right, and a chest etching of a fully rigged ship that said “I’m Home” underneath, as opposed to the standard, “Homeward Bound,” in commemoration of rounding the horn of Africa. His calloused hands, the knuckles scarred in blown-out ink (the left said PORT, the right, STBD) preceded his unkempt fingernails like massive merman claws.
True to boatswain’s mate tradition, whereby crossed anchors are tattooed between the thumb and index finger (whether it’s left or right hand is negligible), Curtis had gone one over and—to avoid confusion—the old tar had had his hands tattooed equally in said location with the specialty marks.
When he wasn’t on watch, or in the deck office reading tech manuals, he was in the gym powering the bench press, stacked with two hundred and fifty pounds, snarling at God and country. Hash marks (diagonal stripes that designate time in service: one hash mark for every four years) rode his sleeves like high tide. On the dress blues, if twelve years are achieved without going to see the Old Man for non-judicial punishment, they’re golden. If you’ve paid the skipper a visit, they remain red. Curtis’ hash marks were red as the port navigation light at midnight.
I’d heard Curtis was a bit of a liberty risk, so I was reticent to accept his offer. But then I saw him in the lounge all dressed up with nowhere to go, I decided to take him up on a night in the Big Apple. After we left the ship, Curtis popped his Dixie cup aft and rolled his sleeves up to the elbows exposing the tattooed forearms.
“This is how you wear your uniform, shipwreck!”
We were somewhere in the subway, just exiting a car, when an old man passerby took note of Curtis’ uniform.
“Is that how we wear our uniform, sailor?”
Curtis smiled and nodded, “It’s how I wear it. I don’t know you, brother. Looks like you’re out of uniform.”
The passerby, who looked like a spider monkey in a windbreaker, became incensed. He rummaged through a large wallet pulled from his back pocket. Large enough to be a Bible, or one of those pocket versions of the New Testament, from the inside of the billfold he produced an ID card that I didn’t recognize and panned it in front of Curtis’ face which had quickly turned from a waving smile to a startled gaze.
“This is my VA card. It shows my rank. Do you see that?! Thirty-four years of service—Master Chief Petty Officer. I’ve earned the respect. Now fix your cover and roll down them sleeves, boatswain’s mate. You aught to be ashamed of yourself out with a junior sailor looking like that!”
Curtis studied the ID, picked it from the man’s hand, and studied it some more. In the distance, a subway train rumbled louder and louder, its forward light began to illuminate the tracks. Onlookers gawked at the scene: two sailors being hassled by a stranger in the subway during fleet week.
Suddenly, Curtis flung the ID into the train tracks as the train mowed over it. The train’s whistle muffled the man’s protests.
“Nah, this is a fake! Fuck you, old man! Come on, shipmate! We got beers to drink and whores to sink!”
I followed Curtis leaving the old man cursing, shaking his fists in the air, and scrambling back and forth on the subway platform in a futile attempt at recovering his jettisoned ID. The onlookers clapped and laughed. Not a few of them patted Curtis on the back. Walking up the stairway, the light of New York City in his eyes, Curtis looked at me through his periphery, “When I retire, I ain’t gonna act like that. Fuck that old man.”
Like a lot of sailors, boatswain’s mates in particular, Curtis struggled with alcoholism. He’d been thrice divorced and was working on his fourth. Back at homeport, when Curtis wound up on liberty, he’d end up at Capt. Odie’s looking for infidel wives, or at Cast-A-Ways, the enlistedmen’s club, slurring his words to the barmaids. Wherever he’d end up, he’d drink till he’d get flagged. Many nights the Master-At-Arms’d bring him back to the ship. He should have been sent to rehab—and he had gone, so the story goes, back in the ‘80s—but the ship always had something on the horizon requiring the old sailor’s attention. From the time I was assigned there the ship didn’t have an acting boatswain, so Curtis filled the billet. That’s how the military works. If it’s broke, put a band-aid on it. You can get your kitty fixed up at the VA hospital after your hitch is up. In the meantime, grab a swab and quit crying. Curtis’ name more than adequately filled the billet. In fact, if it weren’t for those blood red hash marks, he would have been a Master Chief twice over.
At the end of any major evolution, Curtis would go on and on about the Big Bosun In the Sky. He’d offer praise. He referenced this deity when delivering bad news, too.
“We’re not pulling in this weekend, mates. So says the Big Bosun in The Sky.”
At his retirement ceremony a year later, Curtis wept. I didn’t know he had it in him. The ceremonial boatswain’s mate piped him ashore and I never saw him again. Six months later, after a bottle of Old Grand Dad and a Creedence Clearwater Revival marathon on his hi-fi, Curtis tied a twenty-five pound dumbbell to each ankle and walked off the pier in St. Augustine. Nowadays, when I look skyward, or into the depths of Davy Jones’ locker, I can see that Big Bosun clearly as Caribbean blue: old Curtis smiling back at me, his Dixie cup cocked aft, arms folded over, a tattooed triumphant tragedy.


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