Thursday, March 17, 2011

Travelling Around Drunk

Taking a quotation from Hamlet to heart ("the readiness is all"), the U.S. Navy spends much of its time preparing for war. It spends the rest of its waking time drinking. I was a sailor in 1993, serving with a unit in Okinawa. When I was sent with other members of my unit to take part in military exercises outside Okinawa, it was called "TAD" or Temporary Additional Duty. Always fond of our own acronyms, we sailors called it Travelling Around Drunk.

On one such occasion we were obliged to travel to South Korea to participate in an exercise that was officially known as Ulchi Focus Lens. Unofficially, it was called Ultra Fucking Long, since it lasted two hot weeks in late summer. The ship on which our part of the exercise was conducted was tied to a pier in the naval port of Chinhae. We were flown to Kimhae Air Base, near Pusan, and travelled by bus to Chinhae, a little more than 20 kilometers away. Unbeknownst to any of us, an accident occurred on the pier just before our arrival. The driver of the bus was told by radio not to approach the pier, so one of the ranking officers on board the bus told the driver to turn around and take us to the base's enlisted club, called Duffy's.

It was mid-afternoon when we pulled up to the club. As we filed off the bus we were given strict orders to stay together and not stray from the group. Once inside Duffy's, we sat down at the tables, without knowing how long we would have to wait before we could get to the pier and board the ship. We hadn't even settled into our seats before some of us were lining up at the bar, tended by the venerable Mr. Lee, to buy pitchers of beer. We were in uniform, on duty status.

We were in Duffy's until after dusk, drinking beer the whole afternoon. When the time finally came for us to leave, some of us were already three sheets to the wind. We got back on the bus and made our way to the pier. We offloaded our gear and carried it up the ship's ramp. To the unpleasant surprise of some of us, work commenced immediately on the overnight shift that lasted until zero eight hundred (8 AM).

The next day we learned that a Korean crane operator was lifting the ships's ramp off the deck and lowering it into position when he extended the crane too far and the ramp crashed down on his booth. He was halfway out of the window when he was cut in half.

The exercise proceeded to its conclusion according to schedule, a simulated war whose outcome was never in doubt. We worked aboard the ship during the day and spent the evenings drinking at Duffy's or off base in a whorehouse called Donna's Greenhouse. A dark red stain on the pier next to the ship was a reminder to us throughout the exercise of the unforeseen cost of all our war games.

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