The below crime fiction short story originally appeared in American Crime Magazine.
The 30-Day Detail
By Paul Davis
An aircraft carrier has been described as a floating small city due to her size and large crew. Small cites have crime, so it should not be a surprise that one will encounter crime aboard an aircraft carrier. There are assaults, thefts, drug trafficking, and even the occasional murder.
I thought of this after I spoke to a former sailor that I served with on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam War.
James Green, who lives in North Philadelphia, emailed me and wrote that he read my crime column in the local newspaper. He wrote that he recognized my column photo, although I’ve aged somewhat since I was an 18-year-old sailor.
I remember Green well as we served together in the carrier’s vent shop when I was detailed there for 30 days after an altercation in the radio communication division. I responded to his email and gave him my phone number.
He called a day or so later and we spoke for an hour, laughing as we remembered our adventures on the aircraft carrier. Green said he had alcohol and drug issues after he got out of the Navy, but he married a good woman who eventually straightened him out. He worked as a car mechanic in a garage his older brother owned, and he had four great kids with his wife.
After Green hung up, I thought back to my time on the USS Kitty Hawk in 1971 when the 80,000-ton aircraft carrier was serving on “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea off the coast of North Vietnam.
I was assigned to the Radio Communications Division, and I had an admin job in the Message Processing Center. The center was a hectic place, as we handled fast-flowing and fast-action highly classified war traffic and maintained radio communications between the carrier and our pilots as they flew combat sorties against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.
The center job was grueling and never-ending, and we worked long hours receiving, sending and processing traffic, but we knew this was a good job. There were far more dirty and dangerous jobs on the aircraft carrier.
At one point, I was under the dubious supervision of Gerald Hobbs, a newly promoted 3rd class Radioman, which was the Navy equivalent to an Army buck sergeant. Hobbs, who hailed from Baltimore, was a pug ugly guy over six feet tall and on the hefty side. He was crude and obnoxious, and not very bright. He was disliked by most of the guys in the division.
His sour personality did not improve after he was promoted. With his new “crow” stitched on the left sleeve of his blue chambray uniform shirt, Hobbs became even more obnoxious.
One day while working in the message center, the pressure got to Hobbs and he screamed at me, ordering me to work faster. He puffed up his chest and acted tough as he was older, taller and had about fifty pounds on me. I was not impressed, and I suppose I gave him a dirty look.
“I’m a petty officer now and don’t you ever forget it,” Hobbs declared.
“I looked up petty in the dictionary and it’s defined as small and unimportant,” I said. “And your photo was next to the definition.”
This angered Hobbs and he shoved me.
Bad move on his part.
As I had been training as a boxer since I was 12 years old at the South Philly Boy’s Club, my instincts kicked in and I threw a straight right to his mouth. He dropped to the deck and laid semi-conscious next to the two teeth that I had knocked out of his head.
Bad move on my part.
I had punched out a petty officer in the message center in front of two officers, two chiefs and a number of assorted petty officers. Chief Helm rushed over and ordered me to go the division’s supply office and wait there for him.
As I waited for the chief, I knew I fucked up. I was worried that I would be sent to the carrier’s brig. The brig was run by Marines, and they had a reputation of being brutal to sailors. I recalled talking to a guy I met in Olongapo who had also struck a petty officer. He told me that he served 30 days in the brig. He said that on his first day in the brig, he was handcuffed behind his back and thrown in a cell. Two Marines entered the cell and asked him if he was a tough guy. Without waiting for a response, the Marines beat him severely.
As I was pondering my fate, Chief Helm came in.
“What’s the matter with you? You think I don’t want to punch one of those kid officers in the mouth every day? You just can’t do it.”
Chief Helm told me that he went to see the division commander. He explained to the commander that Hobbs had shoved me, although that was no excuse for me to punch him. We were both wrong. Chief Helm said he put in a good word for me.
“Who’s Davis?” the chief said the commander asked him. “Is he the kid who tells all those jokes?”
“Yes,” the chief replied.
“No charges or the brig for him,’ the commander ordered. “Get him a 30-day detail out of the division and give Hobbs a talking to. Tell him from me that he’s lucky that I don’t bust him back to a seaman.”
Although I was happy that I avoided a 30-day stretch in the carrier’s brig, I was not happy about being kicked out of the division. Although I was only a seaman, lower than whale shit, as the saying goes, I felt I was doing important work in the vital communications center.
Chief Helms told me he arranged for me to be detailed for 30 days to the ship’s vent shop. He knew the petty officer in charge. I packed my sea bag and reported to the vent shop. I was greeted by Roscoe Davis, the 1st class petty officer who ran the shop. He was a hulking, jovial black guy with an ample gut protruding over his belt.
“I’m Roscoe,” he said. “Welcome aboard.”
He gathered around the other guys in the shop and as we had the same last name, Roscoe introduced me as his “illegitimate white boy son.” I laughed.
I was asked by one of the guys where I was from.
“South Philly,” I replied.
James Green, a tall and lean black guy from North Philly, laughed.
“South Philly? Is you I-Talian?” he asked.
“I’m half Italian.”
“Shit,” he said to the other guys. “These I-Talian South Philly boys are bad-ass, motherfucking Mafia gangsters”
Rather than lecture this seaman on stereotyping Italians, I said nothing, allowing the guys in the shop to believe that I was a hoodlum. The fact that I was detailed to the vent shop because I punched out a petty officer added to that somewhat exaggerated image.
Roscoe teamed me with Green and called us “the Philly boys.”
Each day we went around the ship and pulled out the 4x4 air filters from the ventilation system and replaced them with clean ones. We took the dirty filters back to the shop and soaped them up and blasted them with a water hose. The removal and cleaning of the air filters was on a rotational system that Roscoe controlled.
Pulling out the filters and replacing them was a dirty job, but we worked an eight-hour day, unlike my eight on/eight off shift work in the radio division. I grew to like the job and I liked Roscoe, Green, and the other misfits in the vent shop.
I soon discovered that Roscoe ran illegal card games aboard the carrier. He also smuggled aboard cases of booze from Subic Bay and then sold the bottles at a good profit. He reminded me of the rascal military characters portrayed in movies and on TV series like Sergeant Bilko and McHale’s Navy. McHale’s Navy, in fact, was one of the reasons I joined the Navy.
I was a fair poker player and I sat in on Roscoe’s games. Many of the people I played against were poor poker players, so I made a few bucks on my down time. I always gave Roscoe a small cut of my winnings, as he ran the games, just as I used to give a small cut to the mob guys who ran the card games back in South Philly.
Roscoe took the money, shoved it into his dungaree pocket and said, “My man.”
On most days, Roscoe locked the shop’s door after working hours and we broke out the booze and partied.
Another seaman in the vent shop was Leman Knox, a skinny guy with a serious case of face acne, which he always picked at. He was also constantly scratching himself. Having known drug addicts from my old neighborhood, I knew he was a heroin addict.
Knox was one of those stupid white guys who spoke and acted like a black street guy. Knox thought this made him cool. He called the black guys “bros.” Most of the black guys did not consider his act an homage. They thought he was an ass and mostly ignored him.
Green, who possessed a great sense of humor, thought Knox was funny. He did a fine burlesque of Knox acting like a “brother.” He often performed his impression of Knox in front of the guys in the vent shop, and it always brought on great laughter. One day, Green did his impression in front of Knox himself. While everyone was laughing, Knox was clueless and asked what was so funny.
Green told me that Knox actually went to the “Jungle” in Olongapo during the carrier’s previous visit to Subic Bay in the Philippines. The “Jungle” was the section of the wide-open sin city that black sailors frequented. The black sailors preferred to be segregated and did not take kindly to white sailors intruding on their territory.
Knox, who must have thought he was an honorary black guy, visited a bar in the Jungle and was promptly beaten by several black sailors. Fortunately for Knox, the heavily armed shore patrol happened to enter the bar and disrupted the beating. Knox was bloodied and stunned as the shore patrol took him to the base hospital.
Green also told me that Knox sold heroin aboard the ship. He said Knox was working with a Filipino drug dealer in Olongapo. Knox supported his own habit by selling the drug to other sailors while we were at sea off the coast of Vietnam. Green said that if Roscoe found out, he would boot Knox out of the shop.
When two drug addicts overdosed on the heroin Knox sold them, the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) was called in to investigate. One of the sailors died from the overdose. The other recovered. The NIS civilian special agent stationed aboard the carrier interrogated the surviving sailor, who gave up Knox as his dealer.
Knox was arrested and told by the NIS agent that he would be charged with the murder of the drug addict. Knox then gave up his Filipino dealer in Olongapo and his many customers aboard the ship. He named Green among his customers, and he named me.
I was summoned to the NIS agent’s office. I sat down across from him, and he passed a sheet of paper across the desk to me. He ordered me to sign it.
“Do you mind if I read it first?”
The document was a confession that I was a drug user and addict.
“Sign it and you’ll get a general discharge.”
I pushed the paper back across the agent’s desk.
“I’m not a drug addict,” I told the agent. “I don’t do heroin and I won’t sign that.”
“Suit yourself,” the agent said. “But if we discover that you are using heroin, you will go to prison.”
I got up and left the office.
As I walked back to the vent shop, I thought of what my father, a WWII Navy chief and UDT frogman, would do if I came home with a drug users’ general discharge. I imagined he would break my neck.
Green told me that he signed the document, although he was not a drug addict. He was just happy to receive the general discharge and get out of the Navy and go home.
I tried to talk him out of it, calling him a non-hacker. I told him that an honorable discharge was far preferable. But Green wanted out of the Navy quick, and he saw this as his way.
Thankfully, there was no blow-back on Roscoe due to Knox being his subordinate. Like me, Knox had been a disciplinarian problem, and he was detailed to the vent shop. For some reason, Knox did not tell the NIS agent about Roscoe’s extracurricular criminal activities. Perhaps he was afraid that Roscoe would kill him.
After Green left the carrier, I was teamed up with another seaman as my 30-day detail was coming to an end. Returning to the vent shop one day with dirty filters, Roscoe handed me the phone. Chief Helm was on the line, and he asked me if I was ready to come back to the division. I hesitated, but then said yes.
Roscoe shook my hand.
“If you ever fuck up again, you’ll be welcome back here,” Roscoe said.
Upon my return to the radio communications division, I was greeted with handshakes and back slaps. Hobbs, I was told, was assigned to the other duty section, so we would no longer work together.
Hobbs was still disliked by most of the guys and some of them told me that they wished they had been there when I punched him out.
The event was summed up nicely by a sailor who hated Hobbs.
“Someone now has 30 Teeth and a different attitude.”
© 2022 By Paul Davis
Note: You can read my other crime fiction short stories via the below link: