The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey

Another Book?

[Letter to the Aurora Universe Writers' Group]

        I was 'on' the USS Forrestal 1972-73, some time after the famous fire. Actually, the damned thing caught fire twice a day, but usually just oily rags, not bombs and missiles. My unit was berthed next to 'R' Division, the principal fire response team, so whenever the alarm went off, they'd come storming through our little slice of Heaven to go put out the latest.
        Fortunately, we didn't actually spend much time on the old tub. I was in the Navy Rock Band (officially The Third Wire) and we spent most of the tour gigging around Europe. In ten months, we played more than 200 one-nighters, hauling huge mounds of equipment and luggage around on every conceivable mode of transportation. We once did consecutive performances in Lisbon, Athens, Copenhagen, Majorca, Munich, Naples and Istanbul. In that order. In one week. It wasn't just an adventure. It was a nightmare.
        Damned fine band, though. We rocked hard, and then some. Kicked some major ass wherever we played, from shithole e-clubs to fancy embassy parties to monster college concerts to gigs so strange they defy classification.
        Like the time the Sixth Fleet invaded Turkey — just for drill, of course. ComPhibLant beached a few thousand Marines, and when it was over, threw a giant party, complete with steaks and beer, the hookers that followed the fleet, and us. We were plunked into one of those John Wayne WWII landing craft, the idea being that we'd run up on the sand, the cox'un would drop the ramp and — ta-da! — instant Beach Boys.
        Well, nobody counted on the rough ride. Picture drums rolling around, amps falling over, water spraying over the top, major voltage surges through our tender bodies, barfing horn players, general chaos and confusion. The boat hit a sand bar about a hundred yards out, the cox'un dropped the ramp, a wave surged in and flushed us all out like so much soggy garbage, guitars and everything. 'Bout two hundred jugheads had to dive into the surf to rescue us. No concert. For which I was nearly court-martialled, since I was technically the band leader (I was the only petty officer, an E-5 [equivalent to sergeant] to everyone else's E-3). "That was a God-damned mission, sailor!" Well, fuck you very much. Sir.
        The band was the brainchild of the then Chief of Naval Operations, a four-star Admiral named (no shit) Elmo Zumwalt. He thought he could modernize the hidebound and tradition-loving Navy by imposing some fairly silly cosmetic changes by fiat, such as allowing sailors to wear civvies on liberty. Whoopee. When he turned his attention to the music department, he commanded, "Let there be Rock," where there previously was none. 'Hip' to these guys was Glenn Miller.
        Well, they didn't have to like it, so they went to the personnel jackets to find the worst possible screwups to man what they hoped to be a sinking ship. Which, oddly enough, may have been the best possible way to find a rock band. At this point in the Viet Nam War, the level of musicianship in the Navy was unbelievably high, since it was very competitive to get into a band through pre-enlistment auditions. Guys were coming off four years of student deferments out of Julliard and scrambling to play a horn rather than wind up in a rice paddy.
        I got in because I was a tuba player, with three years of college as a music major. I was tired of it all and signed up with no preconditions, hoping to be a corpsman or combat photographer. But the Music Department had a rule that bassists (meaning string and electric) had to play tuba as well. Bass and tuba are not a natural double, so that's not as common as it might seem. So they were taking all the decent tuba players that showed up in Boot Camp and assigning them to the Navy School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia (where they also trained Seals) following basic training. With the proper motivation, you can teach someone who already knows music how to play the doublebass. That doesn't work the other way around, because a horn player's lip physically takes years to develop.
        I wound up in a room with several dozen other tuba players and an asshole. The asshole explained that the Needs of the Service required that six of us in the room would be chosen at the end of six months' training to become Navy musicians. The losers would be assigned to a river boat on the Mekong Delta. Life expectancy of about six weeks. Now, that's motivation. Somehow, I made the cut. My friend, Kilanowski, was seventh. Sure enough, he went to Nam and came home in a bag. Didn't even take six weeks.
        So I spent the next couple of years in a sixteen- piece Fleet band and served on the USS Pocono, the USS Mt. Whitney and the USS Shreveport. Life sucked, but at least I was breathing. Made rank quickly. One night at the Officer's Club, I hustled some drunk off the stage to keep him from damaging Navy property. Later, in the parking lot, I was forced to put the bastard down. Turned out to be the base Commanding Officer. The next day, he informed my Chief Petty Officer that I was outta there. When the Music Department heard that I'd beaten up a Captain, they put me in charge of the new Rock Band, no doubt chortling with glee the whole time.
        They were a sweet collection of fuckups, but God how they could play. We were eight pieces, with four lead vocalists (two white and two black), horns, keys, the drummer from Hell and a screaming guitar god. Jesus Fucking Christ we were loud. Though I had a little rank, I was not really the leader. Classically trained, I had never even listened to Rock before. But I learned. We found an abandoned building at the end of the runway at the Norfolk Naval Air Station and, between takeoffs, practiced sixteen hours a day.
        When we were ready, lacking any 'official' Navy gigs, we set up for a concert at Virginia Beach during spring break. It was a sensation. It was also a riot, involving thousands of students, and we wound up in the brig. Not for the last time. A picture of me wearing a Superman t-shirt, surrounded by horny college babes, wound up on the front page of the local newspaper. The Navy lifer community was appalled and outraged. The Music Department guys triumphantly dropped a copy on Zumwalt's desk and said something to the effect, "See, we told you so."
        Zumwalt was delighted. He bailed us out and put us on a destroyer, the USS Mullinix, for a little jaunt around the Caribbean to see what we could do to promote goodwill for the US at a time when we needed it. In Veracruz, we played two concerts on the City Plaza. The first one was to the pigeons. Somehow, word got around about the Norte Americanos, and the second concert was beyond huge. Another riot, actually. Have you ever been loved by thirty-thousand Mexicans? With really good weed? I mean, I never touched the stuff, myself. But, a few months later, the entire crew of the USS Mullinix was busted, Captain and all, for smuggling dope. Our leftovers.
        We weaved our way unsteadily to Costa Rica, Panama, Curaçao, Puerto Rico and Guantanamo Bay. Leaving a trail of broken hearts, not to mention broken eardrums. And a haze of, uh, goodwill amongst the natives.
        Back in the US of A, the now frantic Music Department boys hustled us onto the USS Forrestal, leaving for a ten-month Mediterranean deployment. The two-star admiral we were assigned to had no use for musicians. As far as he was concerned, we were just fodder for his 'flag plot', the bridge where admirals get to play with their fleet.
        Little known fact: admirals don't actually have a very large staff of enlisted personnel. A driver, a photographer, some Phillipino stewards, a couple of yeomen — and a band. So every musician — who invariably winds up assigned to some admiral's staff — has to go to Radar School and learn how to man the various consoles that control our fighting forces at sea. That's right, the nerve centers of our forward defenses around the world are manned by musicians. I know you'll sleep more soundly tonight knowing that some tuba player is defending our sacred shores. (And I'll bet you used to make fun of him in high school.)
        We had no band room. In fact, our equipment was locked up. We were informed in no uncertain terms that our playing days were over. All we could do is try to poison the son-of-a-bitch, but there wasn't anything we could get our hands on that was worse than his coffee, anyway. Desperate messages sent through channels to our patron, Adm. Zumwalt, mysteriously disappeared. In Barcelona, our first port, we were not even allowed liberty. This was bad.
        So, when we got to Istanbul, we broke into the equipment locker, jumped ship, stole a bus and headed off to Incirlik Airbase on the Black Sea. We'd heard that Armed Forces Radio was doing a live broadcast of some stateside band that was playing there. When we arrived, they were just finishing up their first set, prior to starting the radio show. We locked them in their dressing room and took their place, too late to stop the show. We were our usual sensational selves for about forty minutes until the other band broke out and stormed the stage. There was a beauty of a fight, all on the air.
        In addition to about a million servicemen worldwide listening to the broadcast (it was repeated in its entirely a lot), the Admiral's people heard it and came after us. They caught us trying to get back on the ship like nothing had happened, and we wound up in irons. I don't recommend it. Stayed in the brig until we got to Athens, where three-star Admiral Miller (who outranked our guy) couldn't wait to book the now-famous Navy Rock Band for his next party. Turned out he played a little piano, so — in an astoundingly astute move — we got him to sit in with us. Out fortunes were made.
        There is a whole lot more to this story. Like how we wound up with an entourage of spooks for 'roadies' who only seemed to move the thirty-some-odd tom-tom cases we suddenly acquired as we toured all over Europe. How we were helicoptered onto another aircraft carrier that had been taken over by mutinous blacks, the (harebrained) idea being that we would somehow restore peace and love and magically quell the uprising through music. How I was stranded on a desert isle for three days with all the equipment and then almost court-martialled for desertion. How we won the All-Europe Battle of the Bands. How we played protest and antiwar songs to 15,000 college students in Thessaloniki. How we survived the brawl at Cadillac Sam's in Naples, the world's toughest sailor bar. How we were practically worshipped by every enlisted soldier, sailor and airman in half of Europe for getting away with all the things they wished they could get away with. Oh, and much, much more.
        Every bit of it is true. I've got pictures.
        Someday, I should write a book…

Proper Waffles
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© Patrick Hill, 2000