April 27th, 2011

One of the radio programs I like to listen to is Stuart McLean’s The Vinyl Café, broadcast in Cleveland at 3 p.m. Sundays on WCPN, 90.3 FM. Think of it as a Prairie Home Companion with much better music and stories.

Each week he reads a story from listeners. The segment inspired me to write, and submit, the following.

In the Navy I learned a lesson about Minnesotans, peppermint schnapps and Schlitz beer.

In the late ‘70s I served as a second-class Gunner’s Mate responsible for the after missile house and the men who worked there aboard the Billy B, officially known as the U.S.S. Bainbridge. One of those young men was from New Jersey. His name was John Scamper. Scamper’s father died and he went home to bury him. He came back with a wife. The day after his return, he got a surprise at mail call, a check from his New Jersey bank for more than a hundred dollars. Scamper told us that he had cashed out the savings account while he was home, but the bank had duplicated the transaction. He knew that the check was an error and any responsible person with a new wife would have set it aside and called the bank to clear up the matter. Scamper wasn’t a responsible person, however, he was a sailor. It was Wednesday. Scamper declared that after knock-off we would party. Who were we to argue?

The petty officer of the watch rang two bells on the first dogwatch – 5 p.m. for landlubbers – and I locked up the missile house. I walked forward to my berthing space. My rack was the middle of a stack of three grouped with three other identical stacks separated by a three-foot aisle. Vertically we each had about two feet between our mattress and the bunk above us. Getting changed into our civvies in that tight space involved choreographed maneuvers, but ones we were all well practiced in. Within 20 minutes we had crossed the brow and were headed for the West Gate. Scamper cashed the magical check at the Navy Exchange and we stopped at the package store to spend it. Soon, like Snow White’s dwarfs, we were marching toward Scamper’s newly rented bungalow in Bremerton, Washington, with our alcoholic burdens hoisted on our shoulders.

The Scamper marital manse had four furnished rooms: living room, kitchen, bedroom and bath, perhaps 400 or 500 square feet in all. He led the way into the living room where we found his bride Cheryl standing behind a tiny table set for two with flatware, plates and wine glasses across a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. Two candles burned in the center of the table and the aroma of Bolognese sauce came from the pot on the stove. “You’ll never guess what happened, sweetheart,” Scamper said. Cheryl was a deer in the headlights. He made room in the refrigerator for the cases of beer and we huddled liquor bottles on the table. Scamper blew out the candles.

Over the next five hours or so we listened to cassette tapes, told lies and drank steadily. Sometime between ten and eleven we ran nearly dry. Unwilling to call it a night, I took up a collection and, here is where the Minnesotans come in, handed the wad of cash to Charlie Clasen and Roger Sundby with instructions to go buy as much alcohol as possible. They left and the rest of us nursed our final beers. As our last swigs disappeared, Clasen and Sundby returned with fifths of peppermint schnapps and cases of Schlitz beer. None of us were familiar with the Scandinavian custom but we drank shots of the first and chased them with cans of the second to appropriate Swedish (or maybe Norwegian, I can’t recall) toasts. I do remember thinking how minty-fresh my mouth felt.

Around midnight, the last can crushed and tossed into the recycling bag – we were even then an environmentally conscious crew – we said our goodnights, thanked Cheryl profusely for her hospitality and strolled back the ship. Walking along under the clear night sky, I marveled at my steady gait. Back in the berthing compartment, I stripped to my skivvies, rolled into my rack and fell quickly asleep.

At four bells on the morning watch (6 a.m.) I awakened to the traditional “Reveille, reveille. All hands heave out and trice up. Now reveille. “ I turned to roll out of my rack and froze. There, three inches from my eyes, on the corner of my pillow case, no bigger than a quarter, was a small, perfectly round, gob of vomit. Never in my life had I been sick from drinking; only once had I even had a hangover (bad Tequila). Before anyone else could see what I’d done, I sprang out, grabbed my towel, shaving kit and the damning pillowcase and hurried unseen into the head. I showered, shaved and returned to my bunk – stuffing the rinsed pillowcase into the laundry on my way – to dress. My bunkmates were all still asleep. I went up to breakfast. I felt fine. I felt hungry. I had dodged a bullet.

When I returned, ready to admonish the non-hackers for sleeping in, I was stopped by Sammy, “Doodle” Dolen. Doodle slept on the bottom rack immediately across and down from mine.

“Hess, do you remember what you did last night?”

“Uh, sure. We had a party at Scamper’s.”

“No, I mean after we got back.”

“Uh, I went to sleep.”

“You don’t remember, do you?”

“Remember what?” I asked with uncertain dread.

Everyone around us in the tight space leaned in. Doodle told me how during the midwatch he had awakened to what he thought were gagging noises. He had turned on his bunk light and rolled over just in time to see me lean out and open the floodgates. The spew was prodigious. I filled his boots and sprayed him, his bunk and the two bunks above him.

“We woke up the whole berthing compartment yelling,” he said. “Baldwin” (Sherwood Baldwin, my division’s first class petty officer, slept in the bunk above Doodle) “used cuss words I’ve never heard before. We dragged you out but you wouldn’t wake up. We carried you into the showers and turned the cold water on you. You didn’t move. I wanted to get a corpsman,” he said, “but Baldwin said you were breathing fine. We cleaned up the mess, changed you and all the sheets and rolled you back into your bunk. You owe me a new pair of boondockers.”

I stood silent for several beats. “Sorry,” I said. “I probably shouldn’t have sent Clasen and Sundby.”

Like all Sea Stories (see Basic Rules), and per McLean’s requirement that the story be mostly true, the above contains embellishments, twists and fuzzy memory. Errors, inconsistencies and fabrications are all my own.


  1. Jeff Hess says:

    Shalom Y’all,

    From a Vinyl Café form email:

    Thank-you for sharing your story with us.

    We have been swamped with stories from people across the country. We have received thousands of letters –more than we ever imagined. We promised to read every story and we are doing that, but we certainly won’t be able to read every story on the radio.

    If we choose to read your story on the Vinyl Café Story Exchange we will call or email you the day before your story airs.

    Thanks for taking part, we are looking forward to reading your story.

    Jess Milton
    Story Exchange Producer
    The Vinyl Café

    Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

    Oh well.



  2. Mary Jo says:

    So, that is the lesson you learned?? Never send a Minnesotan on a booze run?! A bit of a case of “blame the messenger,” No?

    • Jeff Hess says:

      Shalom Mary Jo,

      Some lessons are harder learned than others. A leader’s qualifications are often measured by the wisdom of his decisions to delegate.



  3. Did the marriage last?

    • Jeff Hess says:

      Shalom Sherry,

      They were still married when I got out of the Navy and I didn’t stay in touch, but I’m thinking not.



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