Due to the fact that Port Chicago was guarded and defended it had an amazing amount of undisturbed wildlife. Puma, possum, fox, owls, raccoons, coyote, Tule Elk, deer, jack rabbit, doves, squirrels, ducks, fat unhunted, unwary pheasant and bugs, lots of bugs. The bug man had a trick for every creature on the place that crawled or slid. Munitions don’t take kindly to slime and webs. They attract dust, grime and then moisture causing rust and decay so the exterminator’s job was endless. We had gone out to the bunkers to move a few pallets of something I can’t talk about when Gams stepped backwards past the open iron doors. “Come look at this thing,” he said. “Come look at this spider.” We both went back in with his flashlight on and in the corner was what I thought was a tarantula. As big as my palm it pulled back deeper into its messy nest and Gams hit it with a fast spit of poison. “I’ve been tryin’ to get rid of these bugs in this bunker for years. I guess they must of ate some of the stuff stored here cause they’re bigger than anywhere. He poked at the now dead Black Widow and rolled it out of its nest. It was clenched tight fisted now, as big as a small plum. Eerie big bug, glad it was dead.
I was counting mules on Pier 2 the next day. We had two inventories every day and the waterfront had to be watched carefully, Marines love trouble and if the aren’t worked hard enough they’ll find it. A more boisterous fun and outrageous group of people to hang out with is very hard to find. One recent Marine on guard had decided to drive acouple of forklifts into Suisun Bay for shits and giggles. It took us a week to find ‘em, well, it took the coast guard diver a week groping around in knee deep mud 60 feet down to find ‘em. As my boss said “Nothing here is ever lost, it’s just misplaced and we’ll find it, we always find it.” It was a quiet early evening just after sundown on the Sacramento Delta moment right after the evening breeze stalls down and the mosquitoes haven’t settled down on your hide yet perfect moment. I was listening to the huge swoowsh…swoowsh…swoowsh of the exposed prop tip of an empty auto carrier moving down the Carquinez Straits and looked down at my feet. A loose bit of two by four was lying on the deck and I reached down and picked it up to clear the deck. As I lifted it a Bombay Canary, as long as my hand, stood up from underneath and looked at me. Yes dammit, that bug was watching me closely as I decided whether I was going to stomp it or simply take a whack with the board. After a moment of quiet decision I decided that discretion was the better part of bug whacking that night because, well – because that bug was so big I was almost sure it could take that two by four back from me and that’s when I decided to wander off, the bug stood its ground and then turned and walked the other direction towards perhaps Mehitabel.
I had come aboard Port Chicago as a young man. Just out of the service and looking for a job the pay and location were what I’d always wanted. I’d done field work and labor as a kid and on fruit farms you could see toward Mt. Diablo and if you looked close you could just see ports docks. The word in our small bayside town was that if you got hired there you were set. The work was good, hard labor, dangerous if you didn’t stay focused. It payed better than anything else we knew and you could retire when you were forty years old. Retirement, while picking almonds or cutting apricots is also known as heaven. You could buy a house and a car and maybe even a boat, you could raise a family and live the dream. Then, when you were only forty years old you could kick back and live on the US gravy train until your maker recycled you. I was still thinking that way on my first evening shift after I got back from the evening count when I walked into the drivers break room. Kurt and his buddy were eating their evening beans. (1lb bacon, 1 lb beans, one large white onion, salt and pepper (lots of pepper) to taste. Soak beans all day, dump in chopped onion and bacon. Bring to boil ‘til the Bacon is done and serve, these beans are really good.) They asked me if I could play Tonk and I just couldn’t help myself, I prevaricated some and said “no, but I’ll give it a try.” They smelled fresh meat and told me it was only nickel and dime so I couldn’t lose much so I sat down and listened to their rules them took them out for a $7.30 cent walk. When we were done Kurt looked at me and said, “You all right, but I’m not playin’ any more cards with you. You sandbagged us, shame on you for takin’ money from old men like that.” I laughed and whistling Bach, punched out. Dollars richer and a bit more respected for my willingness to be a ruthless card shark. Kurt was simply amazing, he had learned to drive trucks with hard rubber wheels and mechanical brakes and could make a semi trailer go any direction, he taught me how to drift a flatbed semi trailer down the road sideways. A complete driving master he never touched the dock, he would just “come close” usually about ¼ inch. Square, every time, just awesome.
The muddy delta’s swampish summer heat wove creosote stink off the tar covered dock as I watched in admiration as the winchman’s intertwined cables flexed and lifted another pallet of liquid fire off the deck and dropped it neatly, deep into the unseen hold of another so called independently flagged rustbucket. Lunch was over and a second ship was due to start unloading cruise missiles, a clever unloading method most of us loved to watch. The missile was brought out from inside the ship on an overhead light rail system. It simply popped up out of a hole in the ship’s deck, a pretty little bomb in the box appearance and then would gently slip level and slide out to a sudden stop. Sailors would lift up a mechanical cradle, disconnect the bird and move it to the dock for delivery to repair. It was timed like a clock and fun to observe.
The second bird made it pop-up debut and slid out to the open air. As it slipped level it yawed suddenly, falling off its front clip. It slapped the deck hard with that might be the last thing you ever hear sound. Everyone around stopped and stared. As the nose hit the body bent in the middle like a cartoon rocket. Accordion folded inner elbowed and broken nosed the (thank god it’s empty) warhead housing came free and rocked a bit on the suddenly quiet dock. Everything had gone to a quiet stop, the hot pier and swamp stink rose up as we stared in wonder and irritation at the instant multi-million-dollar wreck of one of the world’s then most feared death machines.
There’s something about the smell of the waterfront that grounds us all. We watch during a unifying moment of oops while standing right the middle of a thousand tons of explosive on a dock at a port known for ships blowing up as someone makes a possible death dealing error for an entire surrounding countryside. We watch because it makes no sense to run, the philosophy of, “You simply can’t run fast enough to get away so you might as well watch, ‘cause it’ll be the last thing you see.” bonds us as explosive and munitions folk. You can only know that if you’ve lived it. The ever focused winchman started back up, moving his hook back to the dock for another load of hell from above and our clocks started again. The ship’s klaxons rang as fire crews were running for gear and the deck crew wandered over to gather around the now dead bird in a ghoulish mirror of respect. I consciously lost interest quickly and went back to cleaning the dock, I didn’t want to be asked as a witness. Witnesses at that particular waterfront were not well treated by Uncle Sugar, just ask the plankholders. Witnesses knew things about this hard world that you really don’t want to know about. I ran my fork tines under a skip and picked it up to deliver to the dunnage trailer. The dockmaster’s horn began a now expected squall and we all slowed to another sweating halt as the investigation began. The Port Commander’s car pulled right up to the loading ramp, he exited the sedan at a proper formal military walk and moved toward the gangway. The ship’s C.O. was at the top of the gangway saluting his second in command as the port captain came up the plank without a fare thee well, ignoring protocol, and them. He walked forward his heels a slow, solo tattoo dirge on the deck as the crew came to. He stopped next to the broken nosed bird and looked about, taking the overhead track, the now-loosed clip, the wrecked missile and the Sacramento’s Delta’s largest bay view into solemn regard. He looked to the northern distance, across Suisun Bay at the Mothball Fleet at anchor on the north side. Ships waiting for him to load on a moments notice, ships of all kinds, covered in cosmoline, waiting for their last deadly runs. Suisun Bay was his to control, his baby to sit and when a cruise missile fell in his waters it was his problem to fix. The ships captain approached and saluted, waiting for the attention of Port Commander. The Port Commander turned and sketched a salute, as they talked the look on the young captain’s face became one of true resignation, he’d been relieved of duty, a mark on his record that might ruin his hopes of ships command. He left that day to either push a desk or leave the service. The responsibility of a ship’s captain is harsh, unforgiving of errors. The life of sailors is harsh also and, like chess, it is thus that even the lowest sailor can remove a captain. Whether the error was a sailor’s or the Captain’s no one but them will really ever know. The crew paid by more hard work and the captain paid with his job.
We went back to work, loading the rust bucket until she touched bottom. She had to wait for a high tide to wallow out the Carquinez Straight to open ocean and sell to all comers. She’d drift in quiet water outside the 200 mile limit and open her holds to other ships, a camp whore for Mars, the god of war. On an open ocean, beyond all law this method of discounting for your closely held enemies is one of our greatest assets. We sell arms, that’s how your favorite Uncle stays alive. How else would South American and Middle East traders move their drugs for ammunition? And if the ship was swallowed by the ocean and disappeared who would know? Her rusty sister ship would appear some other day and remove more bullets, mines and hand grenades. More poison gas and shoulder held missiles for the endless corporate battle of the wealthy. More RPG’s for a father who just wanted to protect his village and his children from the bad guys.