Steve A. Stone
Sammy "Slimjim" Brooks was a Machinist Mate. Not a particularly dedicated one, but he generally knew his job and most people liked him. There wasn't much to differentiate him from most other men in the engine room of the nuclear submarine USS USTAFISH, other than the thing that got him his nickname. At the ripe age of 21, Sammy was just a half inch shorter than 6 feet tall, but weighed only 135 pounds. He wasn't just skinny; he looked like someone who just checked out of a concentration camp. But he was a happy kid; always with a smile on his face.
Sammy's best friend on the boat was Freddy "Fastfinger" Baggett. Freddy was an Electricians Mate and as unlike Sammy as you could find on that boat. He was 28, only about 5 feet 3 inches tall and had to weigh at least 250 pounds. No one really knew for sure. You never saw Freddy anywhere near the scales. Even the Doc couldn't seem to verify his actual heft. Freddy just loved food. He would eat seconds at most any meal, and seemed to think the boat chow was the most exceptional of cuisine. Even so, unlike his best buddy, Sammy, Freddy was seldom seen to crack a smile.
Sammy's "Slimjim" nickname came from more than his lack of girth. He had a talent that he displayed once in a while in foreign ports. He was a natural born car thief. Oh, he never stole a car for profit, but he was known to boost one now and then when under the influence of some of the more exotic beverages he sampled on liberty. Sammy always went out with a thin metal strip taped to his calf. The thing was almost two feet long and Sammy stuck the lower end in his sock and into his shoe. That was Sammy's slimjim. When Sammy felt the urge for speed, he would often stagger out into the streets and go "car shopping" until he found just the right machine. He could pop the lock on almost any car within 5 seconds. Starting his target was another matter. That's where his good friend Freddy came in.
Freddy owned what he claimed to be the best set of master keys in the world. He never revealed where or how he came by those keys, but he had them. And they worked! When Freddy wanted to get past a lock it was just a matter of flipping through the key ring to get the right master and, voila', he was in. It sounds easy, but wasn't when you consider the ring Freddy carried had over 50 keys on it. That's where the "Fastfinger" part comes in. Freddy had those rings color-coded somehow. He never explained his system to anyone, but he obviously had one. When he went out with Sammy, he would have his hand in his jacket pocket, feeling that key ring. Once Sammy indicated his target vehicle Freddy went to work, flicking keys. Usually by the time Sammy had the lock popped and the driver's door opened, Freddy had the right master key and was ready to leap in the car and jam it into the ignition. Then, it was off to the races!
Sammy and Freddy had incredible luck, too. In almost two years of running together and boosting cars for midnight joy rides, they'd never been busted. Oh, there was that time in Bermuda when they were chased by the local constable for almost 20 minutes, but that was also the only time they'd been foolish enough to boost a motorbike. They managed to get away after running the motorbike off a quay wall and swimming under a nearby yacht. Other than that minor incident, they'd never even seen a policeman in their travels. Such luck was a gift of some sort.
Their biggest coup was during a Mediterranean run. The USTAFISH pulled into Naples, Italy. Sammy, Freddy and about two dozen other stalwart Shipmates went ashore and found Jimmy Pistola's bar and began knocking back ouzo's and swapping lies about their nights with Humpty Dumpty and her daughters. After about three hours, Sammy started feeling itchy. He felt the urge to FLY! He signaled Freddy and they staggered out the door and up the steps to the street.
As ripped as they were, it took a moment or two before they realized the streets were virtually deserted. Sammy turned around about six times, then headed off in the direction his nose indicated. Sammy believed in his nose. He was certain it could smell Italian leather upholstery if he just concentrated hard enough.
The two drunk sailors had to hold onto each other as they made their way uphill. Neither had a clue as to where they were actually headed, but knew that there was an adventure up the road. They walked for what seemed like half an eternity. They walked until much of the most debilitating effects of their ouzo had worn off. They found themselves in a neighborhood of dilapidated villas. Of course, most of the villas in Naples were dilapidated, so they couldn't tell if they were in an upscale neighborhood of dilapidated villas or just another slum area made up of dilapidated villas. Naples was a hard town to figure.
At least this neighborhood had lots of cars, but Sammy knew that cars on the street in Italy generally weren't worth boosting. He knew that the car he wanted would be behind a garage door. Still, the presence of so many cars was a promising sign.
Sammy spotted the remnants of a small Roman aquaduct ahead. He motioned to Freddy and then to the garage doors built into the arches of the ruins. Freddy nodded his comprehension, and the two split up. Sammy went toward the left end of the aquaduct, and Freddy struck out to the right. They rattled locks, hasps, latches, and all other door fastenings as fast as they could, moving down the line. At his fourteenth door, Freddy let out a low-pitched whoop. Sammy came scrambling back toward him. Both sailors were now breathing hard with excitement. They slowly eased the garage door open and found the prettiest yellow Maserati either had ever seen.
Sammy reached for the door handle. It was unlocked! He tried to jump in, but found out that jumping into a Maserati took a bit more finesse than he could muster. He wracked his knees and banged his tailbone trying to wedge his frame into the seat.
Freddy fared no better. He was almost as wide as the door opening. He twisted and grunted and finally managed to pop himself through and fell into the seat. He flicked quickly through his keys, but suddenly realized he didn't know what kind of master key a Maserati took. He was about to voice his frustration when he heard the motor emit a throaty growl. Sammy had figured out that the ignition on the car didn't need a key. It was much like boosting a '57 Chevy. If the owner didn't lock the ignition, anyone could start the engine.
Sammy and Freddy went for the ride of their lives that night. They cruised through the back streets of Naples, sometimes hitting over 150 kpm. Neither was sure how kpm actually translated to mph, but it certainly felt like they were flying. The exhilaration was too much! They wanted to really fly. Sammy made his way out of town and headed toward Pompeii. Now they could let it rip!
They did, too. That Maserati ripped the road to pieces! Sammy got it up to 185 kpm. At least that's what the speedometer said just before the sputtering started. Just as quickly as the car accelerated, it slowed down, sputtering all the while. As fuzzy-headed as he was, it took Sammy almost 30 seconds before he looked at the gas gauge and realized it was on "E." Sammy pulled the car to the side of the road and he and Freddy got out. It was to be a long walk back to the Molo that night, but what a great story to tell. How many guys could say they even rode in, much less stole and drove a Maserati? It was a major coup.
The day after that grand theft the USTAFISH set sail for a routine mooring observation run. The boat was due to be out for three weeks. Mooring observations were almost non-events as far as the engine room crew was concerned. Most of the time was spent at periscope depth and at slow speeds. The ship sped up when it left the area to do maintenance or if tasked to take on some collateral duty. Otherwise, it was the same old thing for hours and hours on end. That led to boredom. And boredom could be a dangerous thing when encountered by two ardent thrill-seekers like Sammy Slimjim and Freddy Fastfinger.
Sammy and Freddy always stood the same watch. No one really thought about it. It just seemed that the watch bills always turned out that way. Sammy would have one watch or another in the engine spaces, and Freddy would most often be the throttleman or have the electric plant panel duties. They didn't see each other much during their watches, but were in communication over the handsets. Of course, since they stood watch together, that meant they had all their off-watch time together as well. It gave them time to reflect on the topics of the day.
On this particular run their constant topic became Ensign Eric "Snuffy" Smith. The crew nicknamed Ensign Smith "Snuffy" because of a chronic sinus problem he seemed suffer from. He was constantly sniffing and snorting. "Snuffy" seemed to fit him. Besides, almost everyone had a nickname soon after coming aboard the boat. Ensign Smith was not to be the rare exception.
Ensign Smith was new aboard. He was issued his qualification card and assigned to Sammy and Freddy's section to stand training watches. That meant that both Sammy and Freddy would get a crack at him. Breaking a new guy in, whether officer or enlisted, was always the highlight of any qualified submarine sailor's day. Sammy and Freddy got together in the crew's mess one evening after the nightly flick and made plans for Snuffy's indoctrination.
The next morning Ensign Smith asked to stand watch on the electrical panel. He needed his qualifications signed off, and Freddy was going to be his mentor. Freddy plodded through the watch, explaining the basics of the panel operation and the theory behind shifting the power lineup from mode to mode. Along about the middle of the watch Freddy asked the Engineering Officer of the Watch, Lieutenant Moore, for permission to shift the plant for training. Freddy led Ensign Smith through the evolutions once, then turned the panel over. Ensign Smith did a credible job. He seemed to grasp the essentials and managed to mimic Freddy without much trouble. He had to ask a few questions, but generally he was O.K. Freddy was actually a bit impressed.
In the last hour of the watch, Freddy began to ask the Ensign a few general questions about his background and some of his college experiences. Ensign Smith was more than a bit eager to tell Freddy about his days as a basketball player at the Navy Academy. Freddy appeared interested, but began asking questions about…fun. Freddy wanted to know what Academy guys did for kicks. The Ensign told him about his trips "over the wall" and what a thrill it was to sneak in and out of the campus. Freddy asked if he liked to play "manly" games.
Of course, there's no more manly man than a fresh caught Academy Ensign. Snuffy was fairly adamant about liking all kinds of sailorly games. He told Freddy about several drinking games the upper class engaged in back in Annapolis. Freddy asked if Ensign Smith was familiar with boat games, knowing fully that he wasn't. To his credit, the Ensign admitted he didn't know any boat games, but wanted to learn. Freddy encouraged him by implying that the more boat games a new guy learned the faster he would be accepted by the crew. That remark did the trick. Ensign Snuffy Smith asked Freddy Fastfinger if he had a game in mind. Of course, he did!
Before we get too far into the particulars of the game, you need to know about another watch stander in the engine room of the USTAFISH. A guy affectionately known as "Yarg." The Chiefs and Officers referred to Yarg as Petty Officer Tarlton. They must have know Yarg's real first name, but it had been so long since anyone had actually used it that most on the boat didn't know what it was. The "Yarg" evolved from a sound the man made whenever he greeted a Shipmate. It was mostly an animal noise. Yarg bore a close resemblance to an animal – a Yeti. He was sometimes referred to as "Yarg the Yeti." Other times, it was "Yarg the Horrible." Once in a while, it was "The Abominable Yarg." He was that kind of guy. Huge, hairy, and downright scary.
Yarg was in the watch section after Sammy, Freddy, and Ensign Smith. Freddy had noticed that whenever Yarg was around the Ensign seemed very nervous. Freddy attributed that to abject fear, and fear was a useful emotion when playing boat games.
Freddy suggested that Ensign Smith and Sammy play the vise game. Of course the Ensign asked "What's the vise game, Petty Officer Baggett?" Freddy told him it was a game to test pain tolerance. The essence was that the players took turns putting their thumbs in a vise, while the other turned the screw. The winner was the one who allowed the most turns before quitting. Ensign Smith replied with something like "Couldn't you get hurt doing that?" Freddy assured him that any game could hurt, but that was all part of it. Besides, in Freddy's time aboard, he'd never heard a single complaint from playing the vise game. Everyone did it.
Just about that time, the men heard Chow Call over the 1MC announcing system. It was nearly time for watch relief. Freddy got busy taking log readings. He suggested that Ensign Smith go out into the engine room and find Sammy. The perfect time to play the vise game was right at the end of a watch. The Ensign agreed and exited the maneuvering room. As soon as he was gone, Freddy grabbed the engine room phone and paged Sammy. Sammy rang up and Freddy only said four words, then hung up, with a smile on his face.
"Snuffy wants to play!" Sammy could hardly wait. In a few minutes, he saw Snuffy coming around the end of the main turbine. They exchanged greetings, then Ensign Smith offered to play the vise game "If you have time, Petty Officer Brooks."
Sammy thought, "If I have time? Jeez, this is gonna be good." He looked the Ensign up and down slowly, then nodded, "Yessir, I have the time. Always time for a vise game. I love that game!"
They proceeded to the engine room work bench. The blue 12" vise attached to the bench was a very large piece of equipment. Ensign Smith looked at it with concern. "Whaddo I do first?" he asked.
Sammy told him he would go first. "Just start turning that screw slowly until I tell you to stop. Be sure and count the turns, though." Eric "Snuffy" Smith complied. He turned the screw. Ever so slowly. When he had counted "Six!", Sammy yelled "STOP!" Ensign Smith panicked, but Sammy shook his head, indicating that he didn't want the screw backed off. Sammy was breathing hard, but through gritted teeth said, "Gimme another quarter turn."
Ensign Smith slowly twisted that handle on the screw another quarter turn. Sammy groaned and appeared to writhe in pain. His breathing was hoarse and raspy. "Another quarter!" Ensign Smith was visibly upset at the request and hesitated. "C'mon, man. I can take it," Sammy wheezed. The Ensign slowly complied. Sammy groaned even louder. He began swearing and went down on one knee. After a few moments he said "That's enough, that's enough!" Ensign Smith quickly spun the vise open.
"Whew!" Sammy said. "That was almost my record. I did six and three quarters once. Not bad! Now your turn, sir."
Ensign Smith squared himself in front of the vise and gamely stuck his thumbs in. Sammy slowly turned the screw and said, "Now you tell me when it starts to hurt, sir. I don't want to hurt you just so you can prove officers are tougher than us enlisted pukes." The Ensign just nodded.
At six turns, the Ensign appeared to turn pale. Sammy stopped turning the screw and asked how things were going. Ensign Smith nodded and said he thought he could take another quarter turn with no problem. Sammy turned the screw slowly, stopping at the quarter.
Now the Ensign seemed to break a sweat. Sammy told him he was doing remarkably well for an Ensign. "I think if you can last another half turn, you'll break the all-time record for Ensigns on this boat, sir," Sammy declared. Ensign Smith nodded and said, "Gimme that half-turn, Petty Officer Brooks."
Sammy looked over the Ensign's shoulder and nodded. Almost simultaneously, he gave the screw a full turn. Ensign Eric "Snuffy" Smith let out a very loud howl, just as Yarg appeared in the passageway from the forward end of the engine room. Yarg had a big smile on his face. "YARG, Sammy! Vise game! Oh, goody! Yarg LOVES vise game!"
As he continued to howl in pain, Ensign Smith felt a hand grab his belt buckle and spring it open. Then he felt his trousers and underwear move as Yarg yanked them down to his ankles. The Ensign had heard enough prison stories to immediately begin to blubber and beg, but when he frantically looked around he found himself to be alone. Alone and trapped in a vise with his pants around his ankles.
It was at least 15 minutes later before the Engineering Officer of the Watch began his tour of the engine room. It was at least another 15 minutes before he happened upon the Ensign, who was now beside himself with pain, fright, and embarrassment. Lieutenant Moore stood next to Ensign Smith for a couple of moments, shaking his head from side to side. "Ensigns! Don't they teach you guys anything about enlisted men at the academy anymore?" With that, Moore reached out and gave the vise screw a full counter-clockwise turn and then walked off as if he hadn't seen a thing.
After watch, Lieutenant Moore happened on Sammy and Freddy as they were standing in the chow line. "You guys are a trip!" was all he said as he made his way forward.
Sammy Slimjim and Freddy Fastfinger. Two sailors doing what sailors do. They looked at each other and shrugged. Now they had to figure out how to make it through tomorrow.© Steve A. Stone
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