“Mail Call—All divisional representatives lay to the post office to receive mail”
These words stirred up many an emotion as ships of the line impatiently and frustratedly waited for regular mail, sometimes weeks at a time. Moods of Sailors could swing on a dime with a good, or not-so-good, note from a loved one at home. “Making Waves” wrote about UNREPs a few columns ago and the question sailors always asked was whether or not the UNREP ship is delivering mail. If it is—the Sailors are elated. If not—they are disappointed. Homesickness is not just a disease of the weak and all pay grades suffer from it equally.
The Sailor-Spouse-progeny connection is the rock upon which our Sailor performance stands. That doesn’t mean control issues don’t crop up on a lengthy deployment. Comments like, “my wife opened a Sears Account without my permission last week to buy a new washer and dryer. How dare she! What was wrong with simply getting them repaired?” Car repairs loomed large in Sailor angst as did other household emergencies. “Oh my gosh, my son got his ear pierced! If I were home this would have never happened.” I think you get the point.
Nothing compared though with the soothing words of a loved one, or spouse, or child, as they shared how much they love or miss you. Mail call could render a Sailor a high- or low-quality sleep in just a few minutes over simple and or inelegantly expressed words.
Rules: It was, in the days of snail-mail, important to establish rules about mail. In my case, our rules were to number our envelopes. The rule was to never open number 37 if you haven’t read letters 34-36 (this often happened). Our Bull-Ensign, Dick “The Swick” Goldsworthy (not a great letter-writer himself) exhorted us newbies to invoke this rule as it could alleviate confusion and miscommunication. Example: If you opened letter 37 you might be shocked to learn than you have a new washer and dryer. “What???” If the Sailor had read letter #34, he or she might have learned that the washer was on the fritz. Number #35 would have revealed that the Maytag person suggested a $400.00 repair. Letter #36 might have revealed that your mother and father-in-law took care of the problem for you at no charge! See my point?
Cone of Silence: “What happens onboard stays onboard” is sound advice for writing home. No good comes from propagating gossip and innuendo, especially about a shipmate. Additionally, if a new shipmate reports aboard and appears green, firmly stating a negative opinion is flawed, because once you learn Seaman or Lieutenant Junior Grade Smith is a Green Bay Packer fan and grew up hating Ohio State, this opinion can change in a short minute. Ships morale can drop like a dime when inappropriate photos, stories, or other gossip are reported. Just stick with your business and your business alone and you will be fine.
Special Event Greeting Cards: There was a card shop in Horton’s Plaza in San Diego that catered to many Sailors like myself as they would load you up with tons of cards to carry with you in advance of Christmas, Birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Father/Mother’s Day, First communion, and the general “I love you a lot and miss you” type card. If you invested in about $75-$100 dollars a week before deployment, you were in good stead with a lot of loved ones over the course of your cruise. This especially earned you bonus points with your loved ones if they knew you’d been in the Persian Gulf the past 94 days and had no way to buy a greeting card without having planned ahead! Bonus points with the family are important when one is away for so long.
In these “old days”, some folks received (or sent) cassette tapes. My first Department Head, Bill Keating’s dad, regaled our wardroom on Christmas with his rendition of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service. How this great poem became a Christmas Classic is unknown, but we Sailors thought it was very cool. “Hey Jav (his nickname), can you play it again?”
Patty Burkett was our Ombudsman. She was the wife of our EMO Mike Burkett. She nearly got Mike thrown over the side by the crew over the 1980 Winter Olympics. Mike and Patty had one of the first Beta-Max players on the market and she cleverly and magnanimously taped the Olympics for us (the CPO Mess got them first, of course). The quality of the tapes was outstanding, but Patty really didn’t see the big picture of the Olympics. For example, she taped only the first two periods of the USA-Soviet Union Ice Hockey Game. You know the one, Al Michael’s famously asked the television audience if we “believed in miracles.” As the third period was about to begin, the tape switched to a “Dallas” episode. After Jock and Miss Elly and JR and Bobby left the screen, we saw all the preliminary runs of downhill skiing but not the medal runs as the tape ran out. Thank God for our CMC who saved Mike’s life.
Money Orders: As the postal audit officer (a very under-appreciated collateral duty), we had to count stamps, envelopes with stamps, money orders, and other items each month to adjudicate the books with the Disbursing Officer (known as “Lawrence of Disbursing, on our ship). Moving money through the mail was a very important service by the Postal Clerk (Petty Officer’s Devlin and Sensarino) and anytime a ship would drop a bag of mail into the water via a highline transfer during an underway replenishment, these two Sailors became very agitated as they had to account for the money orders with tons of paperwork. Fortunately, only a few mailbags got wet and were never lost.
Practical Jokes: A shipmate on a Cruiser never received mail and shared with someone in the berthing compartment that it bothered him. His shipmates quietly signed him up for magazine subscriptions, checking the “Bill Me Later” box, and for every free sample available, such as Preparation H., Gleem Toothpaste, and aluminum siding for his apartment in Lemon Grove.
Another practical joke was tossed to my Chief Engineer. He was very concerned about losing a JO who was an Electrical Engineer and a hot runner. “I sure hope this guy is an Engineer and good leader,” he said. Someone (his initials are E.M.) took the liberty to write a note from this Ensign to his new boss using every cliché the Engineer hated and generally ticking him off. “Dear CHENG” (he hated being called CHENG) I am XXXXX and am a proud graduate of XXXXXX (insert small and insignificant college name here) where I majored in music (not engineering). I was really glad to get an assignment in engineering as I have a model train hobby and like things technical. I sure am glad I finally passed the PRT to get commissioned. I really hope we can become friends. I like to bird-watch and listen to XXXXX music. It was about this time that the Engineer experienced his own personal High T54 (high turbine inlet temperature) and tripped off the line. We all had a good laugh over that one!
Sending fake orders to the Carrier Readiness Improvement Program was another good one I heard about from another ship. “Dear Lieutenant JG Schmaltz, Congratulations to you on your recent selection to become the Boiler’s officer/B-Division officer on the USS Coral Sea (CV 43) and the oldest Carrier (along with Midway) in the Navy. Have a nice day.” Yes—fun was had through mail call at shipmate’s expense (all meant in good humor).
Other mail call memories included my classmate getting a letter from home on the USS Doyle (FFG 39) advising him that his wife recently learned she would be delivering twins. LT Demartini (my classmate) choked on that one.
The days of old that I write about featured interior communications devices known as “growlers,” sound powered phones, and dial telephones. We used IBM-Selectra typewriters and had only three outside phone lines for the entire ship when in port. Nope… we didn’t have email. We had snail mail. The Mark-One-Mod-Zero method of communication. Funny. I have all the letters from my deployments from my marriage and from my Mother. I like the person I grew to become and am grateful for these experiences as we waited for our mail to understand just how much we loved and missed our families. Writing is a lost art without snail mail. The letters were private and personal and confidential. As our most important relationships should be.
What are your snail-mail-mail-call memories? Feel free to share!