MY LIFE IN THE NAVY

CHAPTER 3

Conyngham:

(a\k\a “The Way West and East and South and then West again”)

Sometime in May of 1969, I reported aboard the USS Conyngham (DDG 17) http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/01017.htm  in Norfolk, Virginia.  As a Quartermaster “striker” (QMSN), I eagerly looked forward to what the Blue Jacket’s Manual had promised: I would get further training from the petty officers to whose crew I was assigned.  Boy, was I a fool!!  The ship had just returned from a “Med (Mediterranean) cruise” and about half of the QM crew was on leave.  There were, as I recall, one chief (QMC), two second-classes (QM2’s), one third-class (QM3), and one other QMSN like me. It probably took a month before I even met them all but I didn’t miss much.  Only Morgan, the QMSN who was younger than me, was the least bit friendly and I don’t even recall the names of the others.  I’d seek more training beyond what I’d learned in “A” school, only to often be rebuffed with a gruff “Here, college boy, shine the bright work!”  [Any brass-finished piece of equipment was known generically as “bright work” and, due to the corrosive nature of the sea air, required polishing at least weekly.]  Non-QM shipmates in my berthing area didn’t even seem to be interested in conversation.

Even worse than the non-congeniality of my superiors was the fact that I got assigned to the task that I had ducked in boot camp; working in the galley.  What had been “service week” there became “service MONTH” on the Conyngham.  I didn’t mind serving food, for I had often done that in the King’s College cafeteria.  The harder part was the food preparation.  I was not born very manually adept and the cooks were always yelling at me to slice those carrots faster.  Needless to say, I cut myself more than once.  Tossing potatoes into a rotating barrel-shaped machine to scrape the skins off was easy enough but crawling on my hands and knees to scrape dirt from table legs was more than I could bear.  At the end of a day, my knees would be so sore than I could hardly walk but they handed out no knee pads such as carpet installers wear.  The Master At Arms who policed the mess deck was a high school dropout, a sadistic S.O.B. who delighted in teasing me about the great use to which I was applying my college degree.

It didn’t take me long to learn that only seamen and seamen apprentices got mess deck assignments.  Once you attained third-class P.O. level, you were immune.  I resolved to become a QM3 as soon as possible and, to that end, I obtained the requisite correspondence courses.  At night, after galley duty, I wouldn’t go ashore on liberty.  I’d retire to the chart house and study harder than I’d ever studied at King’s.  I passed them with flying colors but then came the killer – I wasn’t allowed to even take the test for advancement!!  One had to, I found out, be recommended for the test and my “friendly” superiors were in no way going to do that.  [In all fairness to the Navy, I must now admit that they were well within their rights.  Having never set foot on a moving vessel, I wasn’t qualified to stand an “underway” watch as the only QM on duty on the bridge.  Only later, on the USS Hammerberg, would I gain that experience.]

I was totally frustrated and downtrodden.  I had no idea WHEN the Conyngham would ever get underway again.  In that it had just come back from a Med cruise, it could be MONTHS before she “set sail” again.  During that period I might be assigned to one or two more “tours” of the galley.  I could see no future for me on the Conyngham.  Theretofore, my brains had served to get me through life but, here, I was totally stymied.  They seemed content to keep me down and crap on me. 

I came to the conclusion that I simply had to ESCAPE!  Going “over the hill”, I reasoned, wasn’t really a “crime”; I was simply breaking a contract.  I realized that this could spell the end of my Federal career as an Assistant National Bank Examiner with the U.S. Treasury Department but I was desperate.  Although that job was being held open for me,  they more than likely wouldn’t want me with, perhaps, a less-than-honorable discharge.  I hated to put my Dad in the position of knowing that his son was a wanted man but I could no longer stand my situation.

The date was around July 31, 1969, less than two weeks after Armstrong had walked on the moon, when I took my “one BIG step for THIS man”.  I had the overnight duty on the bridge but talked Morgan into swapping with me.  I figured to be long gone by the next morning’s muster.  I went ashore in Norfolk, bought some civilian clothes, and grabbed a bus back home to Wilkes-Barre.  The next morning, while my shipmates were realizing I was gone, I closed out my $900 savings account at Miner’s National Bank and left Wilkes-Barre.

I had no really clear plan on what to do next but I was sure of one thing; I WASN’T going any closer to Sweet Valley.  Poor Dad would be heartbroken to hear the FBI, undoubtedly, would be looking for me as a deserter.  I didn’t want to make him choose whether or not to turn his son in.  If he didn’t know where I was, he was relieved of that awesome responsibility.  I had no need of my 1962 Chevy 11 Nova.  It would too easily be tracked and the cost of operating it would soon drain my funds.  I left the car at Dad’s house and left the area “on Shank’s mare” (walking) and by thumb (hitchhiking).

I first headed south to the Harrisburg, PA area, resolved to contact my college buddy, Mike Brown, who was from Duncannon.   We had both marched in anti-war rallies at King’s and, surely, he could give me some advice as to what to do next.  I called, I think, five Brown families before I finally reached his mother.  Unbelievably, she told me that Mike had been DRAFTED and was in the Army!  “What? He’s deaf in one ear and, as a history major, used to read Pravda!!  They took HIM?” 

Los Angeles came to mind next.  That was about as far away from Norfolk, Virginia as one could get.  If they were going to find me, let them work hard at it.  Besides, I’d been a Dodger fan since the age of 6.  I may as well take in some games at Dodger Stadium as long as I was free.

I forget where I spent my first night on the road but I think I made it to Ohio the next day.  Interstate 70 was the most direct route to LA and I caught a ride with a 20-something fellow who was going all the way to Riverside, California.  Dang, thought I, this was going to be easy.  WRONG!  Seeing that we were to be chums for the next few days, we started partying along the way.  We drank a few beers, played some pool, and took along a few more beers to tide us over until our next stop.  Our intermediate plan was to make St. Louis by dark but in the small town of Vandalia, Illinois, just 69 miles from St. Louis, we were brought to an abrupt halt.  “Local yokel” cops stopped our car for speeding and determined that the driver was deserving of a D.U.I.  They were also quite interested in my can of beer for, in Illinois, it’s illegal for anyone in a car to have an open can of beer.  They asked to see my ID and I showed them my PA driver’s license but certainly NOT my Navy ID card.  My story was that I was a college kid just out seeing the country prior to my senior year and they bought it.  I hoped to hell they wouldn’t search me, for not only did I still have my Navy ID in my wallet, I also had my Navy full dress whites stashed in the bottom of my gym bag!!  I’d kept the uniform just in case I’d need it to get a cheaper bus fare at some point.

The cops, about 4 of them, I think, in two patrol cars, decided I was sober enough to drive.  They took my driver into their one car and told me to drive our vehicle, following them.  I wasn’t to try anything funny, for their second car would be right behind me.  We proceeded slowly to their station.  Desperate for them to not find my Navy ID, I tried to eat it but only managed to cut my gum on the hard, laminated plastic.  A flash of brilliance hit me at stop sign.  The car ahead pulled out and made a right turn.  As I turned right, the car behind would temporarily lose sight of the driver’s side of my car, so I took that advantage to toss the IC card onto the street.  It worked!  They were none the wiser.  During the drive I also managed to hide my $900 in my sock.

At the station, they placed the driver into a holding cell and explained my choices to me.  The fine was, I think, about $50 for having an open can in a moving vehicle.  I could wait in lockup a week or so to appear before a judge, a choice I declined; that would just give them more time to check me out.  I could also just post the $50 and mail back any additional court costs.  I excused myself for a bathroom break and, while in there, pulled the $50 from my sock.  (It wouldn’t do to have them spot my wad, for it was more than a college kid just bumming around was likely to carry.) Carrying through with my college story, I said, “Well, this pretty much puts an end to my plan.  Guess I’ll head back home.  When and where can I catch an eastbound bus?”  Judging that they’d be keeping an eye on me, I took a room at the local hotel and got on the bus the next morning.

On the bus, I met an attractive young lady who said she was a stripper.  Whoa!  I might get real lucky!  I got off with her in her hometown of West Lafayette, Indiana, home of Purdue University, and we made a date for that evening.  I holed up in a motel for the time being and then took a cab to her house.  Her dad wasn’t too thrilled to see his daughter had brought home a complete stranger and he gave me the evil eye.  We went to a movie but then she wasn’t interested in coming back to my motel.  Oh, well.

What next?  I’d gone West and then back East.  May as well try South.  Let the FBI figure out THAT trail!  Interstate 65 led me out of West Lafayette and I then jaunted a wee bit west to I-55, which would take me all the way to New Orleans.  Along about Jackson, Mississippi, I got a ride with a Marine lifer who tried to impress upon me the many advantages of military career.  I chortled to myself, silently, of course.  He simply would have DIED to know he’d picked up his complete antithesis – a deserter!!

New Orleans was way too hot and muggy for me on those summer days and LA was still on my mind.  (“California Dreamin’”, as the Mamas and the Papas were wont to sing.) “Sharon Tate Murdered In LA!” read the newsstand headline on August 10, 1969.  Nonetheless, I resolved to continue my original plan.  I couldn’t picture myself dying of thirst on a West Texas desert highway, so I decided to splurge and take the Southern Pacific train all the way to LA.  I’d now been AWOL for nearly two weeks and the FBI had probably already shown up in Sweet Valley, PA looking for me.  (In reality, they probably had way more deserters than they could find time to quickly chase.  After all, there WAS an unpopular war in ‘nam going on.  Still, one does get quite paranoid while on the lam.)  I called my brother Cliff in Sweet Valley before boarding the train.  “Have you heard anything bad about me lately?” I asked.  No, he hadn’t.  “Well, I went over the hill.”  “Where are you?”  “I ain’t a’gonna tell you.  Just tell Dad I’m OK.”  That was the last my family would hear from me for two months.

There were sleeper cars available on the train but, to save money, I decided that I could just cat-nap in my seat for two days.  In LA, I’d have all the time in the world to catch up on sleep.  I’d watch the scenery for a while, chat with the teenage girl riding with her two younger siblings in the seats ahead of me, and then head for the smoking\lounge car.  My paranoia was heightened considerably when I met a fellow traveler in the lounge car.  I’ve always been a gregarious sort, apt to strike up a conversation with most anyone I met.  This fellow told me he was a New Orleans police detective headed for LA to bring back a prisoner.  I responded quizzically but then he showed me his service revolver and I was convinced.  “Damn”,  I thought, “I know he’s really after ME!  Why doesn’t he just nab me and get it over?”  I’d chat with him a while, trying hard not to let slip any clues as to my true status, and then I’d head back to my seat to talk to Ruby some more.  She told me she was Ruby Randall from Vidor, Texas.  Her Dad or uncle, I forget which, worked for the railroad so she and her brother and sisters got to ride free.  They were going to San Francisco to visit family.  Later, I’d go back to the smoking\lounge car again and usually the detective was there.  I briefly considered trying to avoid him, but, no, that WOULD make him suspicious if he wasn’t already. 

By the time the train pulled into LA, I’d chatted with the detective maybe 6 or 7 times, off and on, over the space of two days.  Just when I’d finally convinced myself that he wasn’t truly after me, he hit me up with one more mind game.  He asked where I was going to stay and I said “A YMCA if I can find one.”  Sure enough, he knew where one was and said he’d probably stay there, too!  He said “Let’s get together for dinner” and what could I say except “OK”?   My first few hours in the YMCA room were spent worrying, but then he never knocked on the door and I never saw him again.  Now, some 38 years later, I’m still not sure what his game was.  I reckon that he truly was what he said he was. He just suspected I wasn’t what I claimed to be, but had no true professional interest in me. He’d just messed with my mind for his own perverse enjoyment.  If so, I must have made his entire trip!

The YMCA proved to be another “A-ticket ride” into brief panic.  On my second day there, still resting up from my travels, I was taking in the air on a balcony.  A young Hispanic dude took a seat near me and we chatted briefly.  Within ten minutes, he asked if I was interested in making some money.  Of course I was, but all kinds of alarms went off in my head when he said it would be posing for “some pictures”.   I immediately knew he was talking about porn, given that the “Y” would be fertile ground for homosexual activity.  I could have ended up drugged, raped, and maybe even dead as the star of a “snuff film”.   I politely declined his offer and, the next day, I  decided to look for safer accommodations. 

I found what was, essentially, a flophouse inhabited by winos and the like.  The rent was only something like $25 a week and I spent the entire rest of my time in LA there.  The winos didn’t bother me.  From time to time, a cop would drop by to talk to the desk clerk and, each time, I would be on the alert, sure the cop was asking about me.  He never was, though, and I’d get to relax until the next time. 

I had set out from Norfolk with no real plan in mind other than that I HAD to escape the situation in which I’d found myself.  Having grown up in northeastern PA as a child, I’d been able to hear radio broadcasts of the games of the Philadelphia Phillies, the NY Yankees and Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  To a 6-year-old ear, the Dodgers had the best names, like Pee Wee, Campanella, and especially “Duke” Snider.  “Duke!” Now there’s a tough name. We would have killed to be named “Duke” LOL.  The Brooklyn team had deserted me when I was 12, moving to the Left Coast, so here I was, at age 23, still “following” them.  As long as I was free to go where I wanted to, why not go see my team?  Had the FBI known me better, LA would have been an obvious choice of where to look for me.

Money would, of course, be my major worry.  The $900 I’d started out with would eventually run out.  I was loathe to take any job that would require giving my social security number, for the FBI, undoubtedly, could easily trace from where my SS withholding taxes were coming.  (In my later career as an SBA Liquidation Loan Officer tracking “bad guys” who owed Uncle money, I found that, even in that capacity, I was NOT allowed to use SS records.   Even today, I’m not sure that the FBI could have used them, either, but I could only assume they could and, thus, operate under what the lawyers call an “abundance of caution.”)

What I needed was a job that paid in cash.  Selling newspapers on a street corner seemed a likely choice and I asked more than one newsstand operator about a job but none of them needed any help.  I answered one ad for a day-crew job and, for just one day, found myself going door-to-door near the LA Coliseum trying to sell children’s portraits to whoever would answer their door.  I’d show them samples and, if they bought, a photographer would come to their house.  At the end of the day, a crew leader picked us up. I hadn’t made one sale.  So much for that idea.

With no income in sight, all I could do was try to limit my expenses.  I’d eat, at most, twice a day and often only once.  Sometimes it’d be a few tacos from a street vendor but, more often, a cheeseburger and fries and a beer or two at a bar near the flophouse.  Dodger games, of course, were very near the top of my list, almost ahead of eating.  For home games, I’d take a city bus to Dodger Stadium in what was known as Chavez Ravine on Elysian Fields Avenue.  (The Elysian Fields were the ancient Greeks’ name for their heaven.)  I’d see mostly the same downtown folks on the bus each day and, as is human nature, we formed a chat group that would cheer the Bums’ victories and commiserate over the losses on our way back from the ballpark.  Most of us would even sit in the same section, the left-field stands, for they were the cheapest seats at only $1.50 per game.

I bought a cheap transistor radio to listen to away games.  I found there was one big time advantage to being in LA.  Back in PA, a Dodger 7:30 PM home game wouldn’t start until 10:30 PM, EDT and last long into the night.  On the other hand, a Dodger away game on the East Coast would start at 5:50 PM, PDT.  I’d sometimes take my radio in hand and grab a bus to Santa Monica where I could listen to the game while lying on the beach.  The bus traveled along Wilshire Boulevard and, along that itinerary, I learned some geography.  Richard Harris had sung the Jimmy Webb-written “MacArthur Park” in 1968 and, for well over a year, I’d always been under the impression that the park was in San Francisco.  Nope!  It was right there along the route from downtown LA to Santa Monica.  I recall it as being on the left side of Wilshire Boulevard but a search at http://www.mapquest.com/ now shows that it lies on both sides of the street.  On the other hand, my memory of the La Brea Tar Pits, which I’d seen at, age 12, the last time I’d been in LA, is correct.  They ARE on the right side of Wilshire Boulevard while headed west.

The Dodgers’ 1969 season had looked promising for most of the year.  They spent 36 days in first place, hitting a high of 16 games above .500 on July 1.  Despite that record, their largest lead was only ever 1.5 games, on July 16.  The National League, previously an 8-team and then 10-team league, had expanded to 12 that year, with the creation of the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos franchises.  The 12 teams were split into East and West divisions.  The Dodgers’ season started its downhill slide with an early-September  trip down the coast to San Diego, where they lost all 4 games to the lowly Padres.  A disastrous 8-game losing streak ensued, from September 19 through 26, at San Francisco and then Cincinnati.  They finished in fourth place, 8 full games behind the division-winning Atlanta Braves.

Despite that eventual bad result, I have several fond memories of that 1969 season in the left-field bleachers.  The Giants and Dodgers had been bitter rivals since their days in the Bronx and Brooklyn.  Four years earlier in SF’s Candlestick Park, Giants’ pitcher Juan Marichal had taken offense when Dodger catcher John Roseboro’s return throw to the mound had whizzed uncomfortably close to his ear in the batter’s box.  Juan smacked John in the helmet with his bat, sparking a 14-minute brawl.  Now, 4 years later, we fans hadn’t forgotten.  It was “Don Drysdale Day” in LA, honoring our Hall Of Fame-bound pitcher who had retired following the 1966 season.   Many of my childhood heroes had shown up for the celebration.  As Marichall took his pre-game-warm-up laps in the outfield, we leaned over the railing to shout “Hey, Juan, did you bring your bat?  Johnny’s here!”

The summer of ’69 was a time when the Dodger’s featured what has since become known as “small ball.”  Home-run and RBI leader Tommy Davis had retired after the ’66 season and they were left with “manufacturing” runs as best they could.  Quite often, shortstop Maury Wills would either single or walk and then steal second, and sometimes third as well.  Outfielder Manny Mota (later in his career to be an all-time pinch hit leader for years) would either single him in or hit a sacrifice fly to score Maury.  If Manny failed, third-place hitter, center fielder Willie Davis, would get the job done and then the opposition would still be in trouble, for Willie was fleet of foot and a danger to steal, too.

With the downturn in the Dodgers’ season, I had no real reason to stay in LA, for there would be no playoff or World Series there.  I still had no overall plan as to what to do with my future but I sure wasn’t ready to turn myself in.  Canada seemed like a good destination, for many anti-war protesters had headed there to avoid the draft.  I had no plan whatsoever to renounce my US citizenship but maybe they’d let me stay there anyway.  I made it nearly 200 miles north on US 101, to San Luis Obispo, where a lack of warm clothes and ever-chilling nights caused me to go back to LA.

What next?  Well, I may as well head back East.  If I ever DID decide to give up, at least maybe I could visit my Dad before I did.  The poor soul must have been worried out of his mind with no word from me in two months.  In the meantime, I’d at least be in the same time zone as the World Series: the “Amazing Mets” (in just their seventh season of existence) had won the NL East and would face the West winners, the Atlanta Braves, in the playoffs.

Stay tuned for “Navy 4: On the Road Again”.

Written in December, 2007 by

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com

 

 

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