Don’t let the old salts send you topside on mail buoy watch

The carrier's island - goodhugh photo on flickr
The carrier’s island – goodhugh photo on flickr

As I work through the final edits for my upcoming novel The Sailor, I find myself smiling at all the weird, strange, and often crude navy slang and acronyms that were a part of daily life when I served aboard the four acres of sovereign soil better known as an aircraft carrier or a bird farm.

Since this is a family blog (don’t ya think?), I won’t mention the profane slang other than to say you can find it quickly enough in a Google search.

One of the first things you learn on an aircraft carrier is that the navy does not fly choppers. If you call a helicopter a chopper, you’ll probably be placed on mail buoy watch (more on that later) or sent off in search of various kinds of equipment and supplies that don’t exist. The helicopter is a Helo (hee-low).

A liberty port
A liberty port

Going ashore is going on the beach whether it’s a beach, a pier, or liberty (free time) in a foreign port where you might get screwed, blued, and tattooed. (Oops, I forgot this is a family blog.)  Now hear this, if you get back late from liberty you are not AWOL, you are UA. UA = authorized absence, as in, “I was UA” or “Mr. A.J. Squared Away (a sailor with a perfect shave, perfect uniform, etc.) went UA.”

Once you become a member of Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club, called the Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club during the WESTPAC (western Pacific) Vietnam War days, your first duties involve listening up, taking a good set of notes, and otherwise learning the rocks and shoals (regulations).  If the chief (chief petty officer) thinks you’re slacking off, otherwise known as skating, and aren’t learning, he’ll either write you up (put you on report) or send you off to the galley to wash the flavor extractors.

If you get written up, you’ll end up shooting pool with the captain, that is, brought before a captain’s mast hearing after which you might variously be sent to the brig, demoted, or served a big chicken dinner (bad conduct discharge).

A Tin Can is a destroyer, like the one escorting your carrier, not a metal outhouse.
A Tin Can is a destroyer, like the one escorting your carrier, not a metal outhouse.

If you’re serving on an aircraft carrier, you’ll soon learn to stay off the flight deck during flight ops unless you are authorized to be there. If you work on the flight deck, the color of your shirt (yellow, green, white, red, blue, purple, brown or black) identifies the job you’re supposed to be doing. Red is, of course, for crash and smash (firefighters). If you want to watch launch and recovery operations, head up to the windows called vulture’s row in the island (AKA superstructure) where the view is perfect.

Old salts will try to fill your head (brain, not the rest room) full of crap (lies, yarns, and obviously erroneous scuttlebutt) that will only result in your being considered as gear adrift or a good candidate for mail buoy watch. “Mail buoy watch” is mandated by lifers (old salts) when the weather is poor.

During bad weather, somebody (you) is dressed up in foul weather gear and sent topside (AKA, a weather deck) with a hook. Your job will be to watch for the mail buoy, that is to say, the place where the ship’s mail will be waiting because either the COD (the mail plane) or some mythical mail ship can’t deliver the mail in a storm.

Before you head out to snag the mail, your uniform of the day (helmet, life jacket, etc.) will be critiqued by those in the know. Pictures will be taken and then you’ll be on your own in the rain until you realize you’re a victim of the kind of good-natured hazing that will give a guy a lot of grief, a bad cold, and a trip to sickbay for some Corpsman Candy (an ineffective cough drop).

It’s always best to at least look like you know what you’re doing, that is to say staying 4.0 (pronounced four-oh) and squared away during your tour of duty on the big gray ship (BGS). Who knows you might stop saying FTN (you can figure out what that means) and ship over (reenlist). On the other hand, if you’re a bent shitcan, then you’re too hopeless to even be in the navy.

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Can’t get enough Cracker Jack

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

–Take Me Out to The Ball Game

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written in 1908 by a Vaudeville star who had never seen a baseball game. Jack Northworth, who wrote some 2,500 songs (including “Shine on Harvest Moon”) didn’t see his first ball game for another 32 years. Albert von Tizer–who wrote the music–didn’t see his first baseball game for another 20 years. Today, baseball fans know the song well.

I wonder if either Nortworth or von Tizer had ever eaten Cracker Jack, the caramel coated mix of peanuts and popcorn introduced by F. W. and Louis Rueckheim at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The secret to Cracker Jack–which is still a secret today–is what keeps the peanuts and popcorn in a box or sack of Cracker Jack from all sticking together.

Cracker Jack was a success, but the song made it famous. While the song was first sung at a baseball game in 1934, Harry Caray made it a solid tradition when he started singing it in 1971 from his Chicago White Sox broadcast booth. Across the country, fans sing “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack” during the seventh inning stretch at the ballpark no matter who is winning or losing.

Legend has it that a salesman for F. W. and Louis Rueckheim tasted a batch of the caramel coated popcorn and peanuts and exclaimed, “That’s Cracker Jack.” Suddenly a product name and a now-famous trademark were born, one that–under Borden and then Frito-Lay is lasting far longer that the term “cracker jack” is lasting in general English usage. In the late 1800s, the term was popular slang for what, today, we would call awesome!

“Cracker jack” meant high quality whether it referred to a person and event or a product. We still use the word “crack” in that way today, as in “she’s a crack shot” or “my crack staff will finish the project before lunch.” “Jack” was slang for a boy or man or a manual laborer, as in lumberjack or steeplejack, and often referred to a sailor. (The Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo trademark image still adorns Cracker Jack packages today.)

I like Cracker Jack, and the chance purchase of a couple of sacks at the grocery store this morning when I was purportedly there to purchase fresh produce, got me to thinking about the ever-changing use of slang. I haven’t heard a phrase like “He is one cracker jack salesman” for a long time. In context, I suppose most people would figure out what it meant. I know what it means, but I never use the term–except when buying a sack of Cracker Jack, because it’s not in fashion any more.

As a writer, I like tracking down how word usage has changed as well as the original meanings of slang expressions that continue to be used long after their literal meanings are forgotten. Some day–and perhaps that day is already here–most people will think the word “Cracker Jack” has always applied to the candied popcorn and nuts, and nothing else.

But for the moment, we know better, don’t we?

Heave Out and Trice Up

When a sailor reports aboard Navy ship right out of boot camp, s/he will have four immediate concerns: (1) Not being fooled by old salts into searching the boat from stem to stern for pieces of equipment that don’t exist, (2) Getting lost, (3) Following the proper General Quarters “traffic pattern,” and (4) learning Navy phraseology.

1MC Speaker

The Navy insists upon standard phraseology in its deck logs, phone talker communications, reports and 1-MC (ship-wide public address system) announcements. 1-MC announcements are accompanied by boatswain’s pipe calls which all sound the same at first.

While I was working on a novel about the sea, I remembered what it was like being transferred to the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CVA-61) right out of boot camp. Compared to boot camp, the ship was much better duty, but there was still a lot to learn.

When I reported aboard, I was informed that I had been assigned to a floating city with an airport where the residents spoke a foreign language. Soon, I would have to learn what was supposed to happen when we “set condition zebra” (a readiness condition with certain hatches and fittings closed); and that a “shot line” didn’t refer glassware on a bar but to a small-diameter line fired over an alongside ship prior to an underway replenishment (UNREP).

Reveille throughout the city came a lot earlier than one expected even though the chief petty officers in charge of our boot camp companies at Great Lakes had brainwashed us that squared-away sailors loved getting up early. But they didn’t tell us that aboard ship a BMOW (Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch) would announce over the 1-MC to “Heave out and Trice Up.”

My first thought was that everyone aboard ship was being asked to vomit on command in the head. I was wrong. The phrase means get up. If you’re sleeping in a hammock, tie it up. If you’re sleeping in a rack (bunk) tilt it up against the bulkhead (wall). This makes it possible for the sweepers or compartment cleaners to sweep the deck (floor) underneath it. In the old days, a trice hook held the rack/hammock to the bulkhead.

The Public Affairs Officer as the Lone Ranger
The Public Affairs Officer as the Lone Ranger

Planning to join the Navy and–as we always said–let the world see you? Be ready to learn fast. When it’s time to get up, you won’t have time to study your Bluejacket’s Manual for instructions. But one way or the other, you’ll need to know the difference between heave, heave in, heave around, heave out, heave to, and heaving line.

Scuttlebutt (gossip) isn’t always “the straight skinny” (accurate facts) especially when it comes from the fabled all-knowing (and mythical) “port butter cutter.” With luck, the old salts will soon tire of sending you off to find fictional left-handed crescent wrenches, cans of relative bearing grease, buckets of prop wash, or of asking you stand “mail buoy” (huh?) watch on the bow. Then they’ll remind you (if you need reminding) that all stairs on ships are called ladders and doors are called hatches and dogs are what keep them closed.

Maybe they’ll tell you the handy general quarters acronym FUSDAP so that in the three-minute rush to get to your duty station you’re moving with traffic rather than against it. Forward and up on the starboard side, down and aft on the port side is very handy to know.I hope they don’t have to tell you not to head for the flight deck looking for a Quidditch game when the BMOW comes on the 1MC and says “sweepers sweepers man your brooms.”

On the other hand, our ship really did have a horse, fiberglass, that is, so if the chief sent you to give it a bucket of oats, it was best to disappear for a while until everyone else in the compartment was done laughing at the joke.

Update: Since this post was written, the USS Ranger was sold for scrap because in all the years it was available to be purchased by a group willing to turn it into a museum, no viable plan was submitted to the navy. Movie stars spend more on their houses than was needed to preserve this ship and all the history it contained. Screwed up priorities, I guess.


AtSeaBookCoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Vietnam War-era novel set on board an aircraft carrier, “At Sea.” For David Ward, going in harm’s way seems to apply more toward the people back home than life in the sailor towns and the ship.