Orlando, my heart hurts. Wholesale slaughter in the name of religion has happened regularly throughout history, and your town just experienced the terror of it. Elsewhere in the world, those who have corrupted Islam celebrate while the rest of the world looks on in horror.
Gay people are different. For those of us who are not gay, that’s a given. They’re different. Both Christian and Muslim religious texts speak of it with words like abomination, stoning, etc. Send them to God and let Him deal with them. ‘Problem’ solved. Homophobia reigns supreme.
Although the lesson I learned about courage from a homosexual may seem like ancient history to most, it applies today. In war, when you are stripped down to nothing; when your entire focus is on the tiny differences between living and dying, you find that things like sexual orientation only apply in a world where there is time to think. The convenience of applying judgmental thought simply doesn’t exist.
It was in this environment that I saw myself in a gay man. I had done previous tours in a combat zone; this was his first tour. I had already gone through learning that my courage was not the absence of fear – instead, my courage was what I did in spite of fear. I saw soldiers and sailors curl into a ball and cry, try to avoid combat by any means necessary, and I learned of myself that when my mouth was so dry with terror that I’d willingly sell my soul for a cup of water, then my courage kicked in. When your entire being screams at you to run, to hide, to live – and instead, you do your job, that’s when you find courage.
Orlando, the names below are changed, and you’ll find no MSO957 minesweeper, but rest assured that if ‘Bobby’ had been at the Pulse, he would have seen the job that needed to be done and he would have done it. I believe we’ll find more than one ‘Bobby’ as facts come out.
I’d like the LGBT community in Orlando to know this: There is at least one straight guy out here who knows that people are defined by the content of their character; they are not defined by the color of their … sexual orientation.
Rest. Heal. Reflect. Find your own courage. When you find it, you will not want to tell the world you’re victims. Instead, you’ll proudly call yourselves survivors. You will have earned that title.
There are sailors in this story, so be warned - there is sailor language, which can sometimes make a rock blush. You've been warned.
Carrying a picture of his girlfriend, Bobby Sutter came aboard USS LOYOLA, MSO957 during our refit and re-supply in Long Beach. He was our new cook. For us, this was significant. We operated at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Do we have enough fuel? Are the weapons cleaned? What’s the current inventory of ammunition? Is this wooden tub functioning well enough to get us where we must go, and more important, can it get us out? Can it get us home again? Is the crew fully trained? Are the FNG’s ready for Vietnam? Have we turned them all into Iron Men in a Wooden Ship, or are some still Terrified Teenagers in a Tinderbox?
… And then, there’s food. Most other things are hard and measurable, but food isn’t. For the first two weeks at sea, the 68 sailors on a mine sweeper could eat fresh refrigerated food prepared by the cook. How many clips of ammo are available for board-and-search? – Measurable. How did “Cookie” do with the creamed chipped beef at breakfast? Unquantifiable, and the subject of long-winded assessment and debate. Too much pepper, not enough salt. No damn beef in it – Cookie musta just led the cow through the galley to scare the creamed crap, never stopping to slice off any meat.
In this live-or-die world, a good cook seemed priceless. Fleet admirals fought over cook assignments to assure that the fleet flagship had the best cook. We enlisted personnel resisted this by claiming “terrible cook” to the other ships’ crews in our battle group. We could reach up and almost touch self-actualization by eating and discussing a quality meal.
Bobby’s arrival prompted a lot of scuttlebutt. Our engine room crew joined in.
The four of us top enlisted personnel gathered in the Main Control booth to debrief from the day’s work. We had repaired Engine #3, started the run test, and called knock-off for the lower-ranked enlisted crew members. The Main Control booth was the only place in the engine room where the sound level dropped below 100 decibels. Manning came in last, wiping diesel oil off his young hands and reaching up to adjust his Dixie Cup so that it settled forward just above his eyebrows. He wanted to have movie-star good looks, and he liked his uniform pressed and squared-away at all times. He would either lose that attitude once he had a tour under his belt, or he would earn the nickname “Hollywood.” His jury, composed of the three of us who had already done combat tours, remained undecided in spite of his green eyes, blonde hair, and face that must have dated cheerleaders.
We talked about the day’s work and how the new crew members had done as we watched #3 run at full temperature for thirty minutes; then we shut it down. Time for bullshit, lies, scuttlebutt, and the other honest tales all sailors tell.
Manning started it. “Didja see the new cook?”
Engles boomed, “Yeah – the kid’s light in the loafers if ya ask me.” No hat for Engles – he and I used OD-green field slings tied tightly around our heads to catch sweat. Engles was a big, mean sonofabitch – he would assign an FNG to clean engine parts in a bucket full of JP5 diesel fuel, then walk past the project and flip his lit cigarette into the bucket so he could watch the Cherry scream and run. He had a voice that matched his 6’5” frame. He didn’t speak words; he boomed them like a cannon.
Simmons, top-ranked and the smallest guy in our engine room crew, shot a fuck-you look at the big guy. “Don’t screw with the kid, Engles.”
Somehow, Simmons’ blue eyes and freckled face could scare the crap out of a rock. Engles’ shoulders dropped a fraction of an inch.
Manning said, “The kid showed me a picture of his girlfriend. So outta focus I couldn’t tell if it was a dog, a teddy bear, or a girl.”
Simmons looked at me. “Whaddaya think, Perfesser?”
I had earned my shipboard name by spelling words longer than six letters and conversing intelligently with officers. Once, when our engine crew had worked with the ship’s operations crew to install a new engine, we had stood with the Operations Lieutenant as the deck crew hoisted a final deck beam out to allow us to drop the engine into the lower decks. I had shouted up at the crane operator, “Raise High the Deck Beam, Boatswain’s Mate!”
The Operations Ell-Tee had looked at me strangely; then he had simply walked away. Witnessing this, my crew mates concluded that I could magically frighten and confuse officers by saying stupid shit. They thought that was great, so they named me “Perfesser.”
I replied to Simmons, “It’s about food, y’all – that’s it. If the fucker can cook, who gives a shit what blows his dress up?”
Simmons said, “Okay, we’ll go SIERRA TANGO FOXTROT UNIFORM on this, guys.”
“What’s STFU?” Manning asked.
“Shut the fuck up,” Engles growled.
“Well, ya don’t gotta be rude about it, Engles; I just don’t know!”
Simmons and I began to chuckle; Engles damn near smiled.
“Manning,” I said, “You’re a shore-duty sailor. We can buy you books and send you to school …”
Simmons picked it up with a grin, “… But we can’t teach you anything if you sit there and eat the fuckin’ pages outta the books.”
“Uh, so, uh, on this sierra tango thing …”
“Shut the fuck up,” Engles boomed again, this time with a real grin.
“Goddamn secret sailor code shit,” Manning said, but red face and all, he began to chuckle along with us.
Rank gave Simmons the final word. “All right guys, we’ll shut up. The kid’ll get a dishonorable discharge if the brass finds out he’s queer. Let’s see how he does.”
We saw. Loaded with extra fuel cells tied to our deck and the ammo locker stuffed full, we set off for Vietnam. Crossing the pond, as we called it, meant over a month of the constant thrumming of main engines and walking on a moving deck that either lifted, fell, and tilted gently in smooth seas, or slammed sailors into bulkheads as the seas raged. Below decks, the ship smelled of diesel fuel and gun powder; noises assaulted us, such as the creaking and banging of pipes changing temperature and the pained shouts of sailors banging shins on ‘knee-knockers’ when they came off the upper decks.
We on the engine room crew stood four-hour watches in our screaming hell-hole. There, the smells were the worst and the sound level meant we cupped our hands around another sailor’s ear and shouted what needed to be said when we serviced the running engines. We took refuge in the Main Control booth where all we had to do was shout to be heard, and at the end of first watch and the beginning of mid-watch, at zero-hundred hours, we climbed the ladder out of the engine room.
Bobby proved himself in those dark hours at sea. For the first couple weeks underway, he ended our watches with a welcome sight. After we had climbed the engine room ladder and made our way through the incredibly hot boiler deck, we would open the final hatch into the starboard passageway, and there would be Bobby. He would be standing behind the open galley counter with an array of leftovers, cold-cuts, bread, and any treat he could get his hands on, awake every night to feed us midnight rations.
We talked about Bobby on watch.
Simmons shouted, “Kid’s all right!”
“Yeah. Good mid-rats!” I yelled.
“I don’t care who he fucks! He killed the entire cow for our shit on a shingle yesterday!” Engles thundered.
We complimented Bobby on his work. Officially, there was no Navy directive compelling a cook to get up and prepare mid-rats for the ship’s watch change every night. It was strictly optional. Bobby simply smiled at our compliments and told us he was “taking care of his snipes.” We agreed with Simmons’ assessment. The kid was all right, squared away, a good sailor.
We stopped at Pearl Harbor, refueled, and got back underway in the noise, smells, heaving deck and all. At the end of first watch on the second day out of Pearl, we climbed the ladder and found the galley counter locked and shut down. We saw no problem. Everyone gets tired, we told each other – Bobby doesn’t have to keep it up without a break. The next night was the same, as was the one after that. The galley remained locked and silent.
“Hey, Simmons,” Manning shouted. “How about you do a little WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT with Bobby and see what’s up?”
“Roger that,” Simmons said … screamed.
When Simmons reported back a couple days later, the news wasn’t good. Gathering on the open deck of the fantail, we four held a quiet conversation.
“He’s scared shitless, guys,” Simmons said.
“Scared of what?”
“He’s got a problem. A real one.”
“Who we gotta kill ta set it right?” Engles prided himself on being direct.
“That’s not far from it, shithead,” said Simmons. “He’s got someone after him.”
“After him?” I asked. “What’s that mean?”
“You guys know Barker from Radio,” Simmons said. “Bobby says Barker’s after him for servicing.”
“For servicing what?” Manning asked. He was young. Very young.
“Barker wants Bobby to honk his sausage, dumbshit.” Simmons said.
“ … And Bobby don’t want to?”
Simmons sighed, “No, Manning, Bobby don’t want to. He’s fuckin’ terrified.”
“ … But I thought guys like him …”
“You got a girlfriend, Manning?” Simmons asked.
“Well, yeah, I do!” Manning puffed up a little.
“So, when we hit the Philippines, you gonna go bar-hoppin’?”
“Sure! Lookin’ forward to it!”
“Okay numb nuts, you gonna choose which bar girl you boink?”
“Yeah, I will.”
“You figure Bobby’s got the right to choose, too, or you think he’s gotta blow anybody wants it?”
Simmons’ point sank in, even with Engles. “Let’s kill Barker,” he rumbled.
“No,” Simmons said. “You’re gonna cool your afterburners, Engles. You, me, and the Perfesser are gonna have a little talk with Barker tonight.”
“Can I bring that big fuckin’ pipe wrench we got hung up in the engine room?” Engles, if nothing else, was consistent.
Simmons looked at me and Engles, “You two swap out your watches with, uh, … Manning, can you take Engles’ watch tonight?”
“I wanna come with ya.”
“Three’s already a crowd, Manning. We need you to take the watch.”
“ … Okay.”
“Perfesser, tell Coolidge I said he’s swappin’ out watches with you. Barker’s got Radio first watch tonight; let’s meet here on the fantail at 2300 hours and head to the radio shack.”
We met that night and headed for Radio. Simmons told us he’d go first and do the talking; he instructed me to make sure I stayed behind him and blocked Engles from getting through the hatch. Simmons and I noticed the huge crescent wrench sticking out of Engles’ back pocket and made him lose it.
The talk didn’t go exactly as planned. Simmons opened the hatch and stepped inside the tiny radio room; I stood in the opening and braced my arms against each side of the hatch sealing lip, ready to stop the monster behind me.
“Hey, Barker. How ya likin’ the food nowadays?”
Barker pulled a headphone clear of one ear. “What? Food? I like it okay.”
“Well, Barker, we’re here to tell you that’s all you need from the galley, get me?”
“Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
“Yes, you do, Barker,” Simmons said calmly.
“Get the fuck outta here, snipes. Stay outta my business!”
Simmons’ voice got quieter. “Look, Barker, enjoy the food, but leave Bobby be.”
Barker swung himself around in his deck chair to face us directly. “Whadda you fuckheads care about a little faggot bitch? I’ll do anything I goddamn want, and if anybody don’t like it, I’ll turn the little shit in for bein’ a homo. Get THE FUCK outta MY radio room!”
I sensed the monster behind me shifting left and right. The animal had become agitated.
“Then we’ll turn you in too, Barker,” Simmons almost whispered.
Barker spat, “I ain’t done shit, and you got nothin,’”
The word boomed out from behind me. Barker’s face paled a little.
Barker gazed past Simmons, past me, but his open mouth produced no words.
“HEY!” boomed the cannon. “How good are you?”
“Ah, … a-a-at what?”
“At swimming, you fuck! We’re eight hundred nautical miles from Pearl right now. How. Good. Are. You?”
Barker’s face had no color left. I was a little shocked, wondering for a brief moment how our monster had learned the big word ‘nautical.’ Simmons, thinking the point had been made, turned his back on Barker and stepped outside.
I stayed where I was, rebuilt my monster fence, and kept eye contact with Barker. I could tell he wanted to respond. Simmons tapped me on the shoulder, but I didn’t move. I waited to see it. Barker’s eyes finally softened, defiance fading. Simmons tapped me on the shoulder again. I tilted my head at Barker in question. Barker nodded and looked away.
Two midnights later, we climbed out of the engine room and found Bobby standing in the open galley behind an impressive spread of mid-rats. Bobby didn’t say anything about what had happened, and I didn’t ask Simmons what he had told Bobby. It didn’t matter. We had our mid-rats. Bobby was back to taking care of his snipes, and he kept it up through the entire tour in Vietnam.
* * *
Bobby spoke to me about the incident only once, and he spoke indirectly in the worst of circumstances.
“Normal” combat operations are ninety-five percent crushing boredom and five percent sheer terror. That’s the nature of a board-and-search patrol. Your ship floats around near a hostile coastline, and every day or so, you’ll stop a sampan or junk, board it, search it, take prisoners if weapons are found, and go back to floating around.
Mine sweeping, though, is different. An MSO has a 90-second predicted operational life expectancy when it enters a live mine field. The phrase “predicted operational life expectancy” is military jargon indicating how soon you’ll die. It means that the average mine sweeper blows up somewhere around second number 91, leaving wood shards and dead sailors spread across the water. An MSO hit by an incendiary round will burn to the waterline in seven minutes, but seven minutes pales in comparison to 90 seconds. Every sailor aboard focuses on that scant one-point-five minutes. Every sailor aboard lives an entire lifetime in 90 seconds, then lives another lifetime in the ensuing 90 seconds. Again and again. It’s a little stressful.
During a sweep, with only a few exceptions, the entire crew stays above decks and behind cover. When a mine explodes, the majority of sailors who die are not directly killed by the blast; instead they are killed when a ship weighing hundreds of tons leaps out of the water and the deck heaves them upward, slamming them into the overhead. All personnel not essential to the ship’s operation, then, position themselves where they have open sky above their heads. The exceptions include personnel who work on the ship’s Bridge and those who operate the engines. Bridge personnel tie mattresses into the overhead in hopes that this will soften the impact when it comes.
On the Qua Viet River, Simmons and I shook hands on deck behind cover, thumbs up and interlaced. Simmons gave me a quick slap on the back and said, “Keep your knees flexed down there, asshole.”
Having already tucked my head firmly between my legs and kissed my own ass goodbye, I snickered at Simmons’ comment and headed down into hell. There, I nursed the engines as they strained to keep up with massive demands. Almost at a stop, the ship crept between the sniper-infested shorelines, but when Sonar detected a mine nearby, the engines had to carry the load of immediate full reverse, hard to port, hard to starboard, full ahead. I stood at the controls in the Main Control booth, knees flexed, operating throttles on our four main drive engines, feeling .51 caliber rounds thumping into the hull, feeling the thump-thump-thump of our own .50 calibers as we returned fire and tried to explode the mines from a distance. I lived a lifetime of 90-second lifetimes in the heat, noise, and sweat until my relief came down the ladder and banged through the booth door.
It was Engles.
“Okay, Eng – number two’s drawin’ a lot of vacuum – watch it close. Keep your knees flexed.”
“Roger that. Get the fuck outta here, Perf.”
Engles’ hands touched the controls and I was out. Up the ladder. Through the boiler deck. Running. I hit the starboard passageway and stopped dead.
Bobby stood in the open galley, dealing slices of bread onto the counter like cards. Fast. He shook, like aspen leaves in fall. He dripped sweat.
“Jesus Christ, Bobby! What the fuck are you doin’ below decks?”
“The Bridge wants lunch.”
“Well, so do I. I’ll help you.” I started through the galley door.
“No! No!” Bobby’s voice shook. “I got this! There’s a case of combat rations on the fantail! Go! Eat out there!”
I stood still.
Bobby stopped making the sandwiches, “Go, Smitty! Go, Perfesser! I GOT THIS!”
I saw Bobby then. I really saw him. He wanted me out, wanted me above decks. He was willing to spend fifteen seconds out of his allotted ninety to make me leave. I saw his bloodshot eyes; I saw his sweat; I saw him shake, and I saw his resolve as he returned to card-dealing ham slices and mayonnaise and bread.
I walked down the starboard passageway toward the fantail. I walked.
“Hey, Perfesser!” I heard shouted behind me.
“Yeah?” I stopped and looked back.
Bobby had leaned across the galley counter. I saw his face barely sticking out into the passageway.
“Thanks!” Bobby shouted.
I knew what he meant.
“Keep yer fuckin’ knees flexed!”
I stepped through the hatch onto the open deck, blue sky above me.
You’re welcome, Sutter, I thought. Thanks for the mid-rats.