Monday, November 1, 2021

Bored sailors, broken supply chains & what Alex Haley has to do with it


(755 words)


I try and commit to memory as many interesting facts as I can. You just never know when a conversation needs a little jolt to keep it percolating.

Thanks to my friend Jim H., here’s all I know about the South Pacific island of Guam: US Navy sailors contend it is so boring the name’s letters stand for “Get Up And Masturbate.”

I think of Guam whenever I think of anyone in a situation so utterly tedious that men feel compelled to engage in what our fundamentalist friends call “the sin of Onan.”

What bored women do in a similar predicament I cannot fathom and reckless speculation could only lead to a loss of readership which would lead to reduced opportunity and next thing you know for me it’s … 

Hello Guam, here I come!

I mention this now because there is an outbreak of boredom so profound, so poignant, I feel compelled to address it. I do so out of common humanity and because, gee, there but for the grace, etc.

I’m talking about the godforsaken crews of the hundreds of massive cargo ships marooned off our coasts waiting for persistent supply chain problems to be resolved.

It’s been said that being at sea is like being in prison with the possibility of being drowned.

There are right now, I’m sure, many men so forlorn they are looking at drowning as the rosier option. They are hungry, they miss their families, their futures look bleak.

I don’t think people are aware of just how massive these ships are. A length of 1,300 feet is not uncommon. So that is like tipping the Empire State Building on its side, caulking all the windows and setting sail for Taiwan.

More than 700 men and women go to work each day in the Empire building. Guaranteed, many of them start the day as strangers and end the day screwing each other’s brains out in the maintenance closet before going home and answering, “Fine,” when their spouse asks, “And how was your day?”

Know how many sailors are required to keep your typical mega-ship ship shape?

About 20. And they’ve been together for going on six months with no relief in sight. The same 20 faces. Same annoying habits. Same petty grudges. Day after day after day.

The cast of “Survivor” is bigger (and guaranteed, more diverse) and they’re together just 26 days. And by the final tribal counsel, many of the hatreds are primal.

Then there are the logistics. Provisions are being rationed.

Understand, being anchored 20 miles off the California coast puts you just outside the nearest Domino’s delivery zone. And you can forget about hearing the food truck’s honking horn.

As any swabby familiar with maritime history knows, they’re just a few chunks of moldy hard tack away from turning Gilligan into stew.

I guess I’m hyper-sensitive to their predicament because by this point in my career I imagined I’d be among them.

Not as a sailor.

As a best-selling author.

It was 1986. I was a young reporter at the Nashville Banner. My editor said, “Kid, get your ass over Vandy. You’ve got an 20 minutes with Alex Haley. Make ‘em count. Get his golden insights on the future.”

Well, we talked for more than an hour. And a kinder, more warm and open-hearted gentleman I’ve never met. (note the earnestness of the handsome devil on the right, above).

We talked about baseball, grandparents, beach vacations and the chances a young reporter would find love in Music City; he assured me it would happen (he was mistaken).

And we talked about writing. Thanks to “Roots,” he was a rich and famous author, but his passion for the craft of writing matched mine. I burned with desire to be a great writer.

Still do!

He urged me to one day follow in his footsteps.

Or wake, really.

Alex Haley did the majority of his writing, months at a time, on board desolate overseas freighters.

“It’s perfect,” he said. “No distractions. No phones. No one to pester you. It’s just you, your typewriter and a stack of blank paper. Food’s good, too.”

To this day, I dream of what it would be like to write in such grand isolation, as if that’s still possible anywhere in the solar system.

But those youthful ambitions have been dashed.

Today, I struggle to get noticed in a world where teen tik tokkers set the pace.

Alex Haley wrote “Roots.”

I wrote “When Bad Things Happen to Good Golfers.”

Do I despair?


I hold the future in my hands!

That means there’s just one thing for me to do. “Get Up And …”


And I mean go to work.

Not to, say, Onan.

This from my Navy friend, Jim H.

I'm sure they are (going nuts). You may be surprised to hear, the longest I was ever continuously underway was 30 days, but that was a busy time, compared with sitting at anchor, something I never did for more than a few days at a time. Now, that really would be a major drag. The biggest thing about it was access to unlimited fresh water. When the ship is tied up to the pier, it gets all the fresh water you could possibly want, for showering, for drinking, and for laundry, piped aboard through clean firehoses. But when you're not tied up to the pier, water use is restricted. A Navy ship can make its own fresh water by desalinating sea water, but it's not a generous amount of water. You can still shower, but it's Navy-style: get wet, turn off water, soap up, rinse off. It's way, way better than nothing, but after 30 days in a row, inevitably everybody gets a little funky around the edges, and a so-called "Hollywood shower," with the water running continuously, becomes a real luxury. Same with laundry. I can't even imagine what it would be like to sit at anchor for weeks on end, those poor merchant sailors must really be suffering, unless they're getting regular and substantial re-supplies from the shore establishment. To this day, almost 40 years later, clean laundry and a daily Hollywood shower -- sometimes two in one day! -- are enough to make my day. I know, the bar is pretty low.

Subscribe to my “Use All The Crayons!” newsletter — just $5 month/$50 a year — and get all my best stuff delivered twice-weekly to your inbox!

No comments: