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A Gunner Aboard the Yankee"" By Russell Doubleday Characters: 15515

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

The hint of possible fun that night was sufficient to keep me alert. "All work and no play, etc.," was part of our code aboard the "Yankee," and goodness knows we had worked hard enough getting the ship ready for sailing to be permitted a little sport. Then, again, any badgering of young Potter would be innocent amusement, so I laid by and waited, keeping my eye on "Bill."

"Bill," by the way, was the captain of our mess, a jolly good fellow, popular, and always in evidence when there was any skylarking on foot.

Hammocks were piped down at seven bells (7:30 p.m.), and, as it was our first experience on board the "Yankee," there was some confusion. A number of new recruits had joined that afternoon, and their efforts to master the mysteries of the sailor's sleeping outfit were amusing. A naval hammock differs largely from those used ashore. A hammock aboard ship is of canvas, seven feet long, with holes a few inches apart at each end, through which are reeved pieces of strong cord. The latter are called clews, and they meet at an iron ring, which is attached to the hooks in the carline beams when the hammock is in position for use. When a hammock is properly slung it hangs almost straight, with very little sagging. To get in properly, one grasps two hoops near the head, and, with an agile spring, throws body and feet into the canvas bed. This requires a knack, and is learned only after a more or less painful experience. A three-inch mattress and two blankets go with each outfit. For sheets a bag-like mattress cover is used, and, in lieu of the downy pillows of home, the sailor must be content with his shoes rolled up inside his trousers or flannel shirt. With it all, however, the naval hammock is very comfortable. There is the advantage of being able to not only wash your blankets and sheets, but your bed as well. Once each month clean hammocks are issued and the old ones scrubbed.

While I was below, rigging up my clews, I saw a commotion on the other side of the deck. The master-at-arms was expostulating with one of the new recruits who had reported that afternoon. Suddenly the latter called out, angrily, "I'll see if I have to, durn you!" and bolted for the upper deck. The master-at-arms followed him at once, and several of us followed the master-at-arms to see the excitement. We reached the quarter-deck just as the recruit came to a stop in front of the officer on watch.


"What's the matter with you?" demanded the latter, curtly. "What's up?"

"Th-th-that m-m-man down in the-the cellar wants me to sleep in a bag, durn him," gasped the recruit, waving his lanky arms, "and I won't do it for him or no one else."

"Cellar?" Then the officer shouted with laughter.

The recruit was sent back to the "New Hampshire" next day, but it was long before the master-at-arms was known by any other name or title than "the man in the cellar."

A few minutes before tattoo, "Bill" and "Stump" came up and intimated by signs that I was to accompany them to the forward part of the berth deck. On reaching the extreme end, which was occupied by an immense hawser reel, "Bill" indicated a hammock which was swinging with the forward clews directly above the great spool, or reel.

"If young Potter doesn't think this old hooker is haunted I'll never play another joke," he chuckled. "Get in and show him, 'Stump.'"

The latter grasped two hooks, gave himself a swing, landed in the hammock, and in an instant struck the deck with a thump, the hammock under him. As he rolled out I rubbed my eyes. The hammock had swiftly returned to its former position!

"It isn't hoodooed," grinned "Bill." "Just look here."

He hauled up on the head clews and presently a five-inch shell appeared above the top of the reel. The shell was fastened to the end of the hammock lashing, at the other end of which was attached the ring. The lashing led over the hook, and the weight of the shell was just sufficient to keep the hammock in its place. As I finished inspecting the clever contrivance, the boatswain's mate piped tattoo.

We hurried away to watch from a distance. Laughing and singing, the fellows trooped down to prepare for turning in; the hard labor of the day had not dampened their spirits. The deck soon presented an animated scene. A number of us had slept long enough on board the "New Hampshire" to become accustomed to man-o'-war style, but the new recruits were like so many cats in a strange garret. They stood about, glancing doubtfully at their hammocks and then at their clothes. They did not know just what to do with either.

"How do you get into the thing, I wonder?" asked the fellow from Harlem, eyeing his suspended bed.

"Borrow the navigator's step-ladder," suggested the coxs'n of the gig. "He keeps it in the chart room."

The greatest difficulty was the disposal of our clothes. There were no wardrobes nor closets nor convenient hooks, and it was strictly against the rule to leave anything lying around decks. The question was solved presently by an old naval sailor, who calmly made a neat roll of his duck jumper and trousers and another of his shoes and shirt. The latter he tucked into his clews at the foot, and the other he used as a pillow. We thanked our lucky stars we did not have creased trousers, smooth coats, vests, white shirts, collars, and neckties to dispose of.

In due time young Potter, who had stayed on deck viewing the scenery until chased by the corporal of the guard, came down and made for his hammock. Four dozen pairs of eyes watched him with delightful anticipation. Unconscious of the attention he was attracting, he doffed his clothes and brought out something from his black bag which proved to be a night-shirt! If there was any compunction in regard to the trick intended for him, it instantly vanished. A sailor with a night-shirt was legitimate prey.

Whistling softly, the victim prepared himself for the swing, grasped the hooks, and then, with good momentum, landed in the hammock. There was a swish, a distinct thud, and young Potter rolled out upon the deck with a gasp of amazement. Turning as quickly as he could, he looked up and saw the hammock swinging in its proper place. It was physical labor for us to keep from howling with glee at the expression on his face. He glanced sheepishly about to see if his catastrophe had been observed; then he made another attempt. This time a heave of the ship sent him even more quickly to the deck, and he landed with a bump that could have been heard in the cabin. He was fighting mad when he again scrambled to his feet.

"I can lick the lubber who threw me out," he shouted.

"Stop that talking," came from the master-at-arms' corner. "Turn in and keep quiet about the decks."

Potter grumbled something under his breath, then he made a careful search in the vicinity of his hammock. It was worth a dollar admission to see him poke about with, the end of a broom. He found nothing suspicious, and proceeded to try again. Very gingerly he grasped the hooks, and he experimented with one foot before trusting his whole weight to the hammock. The second he released his hold of the hooks he fell, and the fall was even greater than before.

"The blamed thing is spooky!" he howled, as he gathered himself together. He made a quick run for the ladder leading on deck, but was stopped by the master-at-arms, who demanded an explanation. While they were arguing, "Bill" and I quickly fixed the hammock, casting off the shell and concealing it behind a black bag. We had barely finished when the chief petty officer came up and examined the clews. He tested them by applying his own weight, then gave the

crestfallen and astounded Potter a few terse words of advice about eating too much supper. Five minutes later the deck was quiet.

The hard labor of the previous day-such labor as hauling and pulling, handling heavy boxes and casks, and bales and barrels of provisions and ammunition-had made me dead tired, and I slept like a log until reveille. This unpleasant function occurred at three bells (half-past five o'clock), and it consisted of an infernal hubbub of drums and bugles and boatswains' pipes, loud and discordant enough to awaken the seven sleepers. We roused in a hurry, and, with eyes scarcely open, began to lash up our hammocks.

"Seven turns, no more, no less," bawled the master-at-arms. "Get just seven turns of the lashing around your hammocks, and get 'em quick. If you can't pass your hammock through a foot ring, you'll go on the report. Shake a leg there!"

The rumor had gone about that it was the custom to "swat" the last man with a club, and there was a great scramble. We found the hammock stowers in the nettings, which were large boxes on the gun deck, and our queer canvas beds were soon stowed away for the day. As the reveille hour is too early for breakfast, coffee and hard-tack is served out by each mess cook. The coffee is minus milk, but it is hot and palatable, and really acts as a tonic.

The first order of the day is to scrub down decks and clean ship generally, but, as the "Yankee" was still in the throes of preparation, we were spared that disagreeable work and permitted to arrange our belongings for the long voyage before us. In the service each man is allowed a black bag about three feet six inches high, and twelve inches in diameter, and a small wooden box, eighteen inches square, known as a "ditty box," to keep his wardrobe in. All clothing is rolled, and careful sailors generally wrap each garment in a piece of muslin before consigning it to the black bag. In the ditty box are kept such articles as toothbrush, brush and comb, small hand glass, writing material, and odds and ends. Each bag and box is numbered, and must be kept in a certain place. At first we thought it wouldn't be possible to keep our clothing in such a small space, but experience taught us that we would have ample room.

The following days until the eighth of May were days of manual labor, which hardened our muscles and placed a fine edge on our appetites. To see the men who had been accustomed to a life of luxury toiling away with rope and scrubbing brush and paint pot, working like day laborers, and happy at that, was really a remarkable spectacle. For my part, I noticed with surprise that scratched and bruised hands-scratched so that the salt water caused positive pain-did not appeal to me. I tore off a corner of my right thumb trying to squeeze a large box through the forward hatch, and the only treatment I gave it was a fragment of rather soiled rag and a little vaseline borrowed from a mate. To quit work and apply for the first aid to injured never struck me. Ashore I would probably have called a doctor.

The day before we left the yard one of my mates sprained his back lifting a box of canned meat. In civil life he had been a lawyer with a promising practice, his office being with one of the best known men of the bar. He gave it up and joined the Naval Reserves because, as he expressed it, "To fight for one's country is a patriot's first duty." When the accident happened, he refused to go below to the sick bay until the doctor stated that rest for a few days at least was absolutely necessary.

"It isn't that I mind the hurt, boys," he said, with a smile, as he was assisted to the hatch, "but I hate to be knocked out in my first engagement, and that with a box of canned corned beef."

The monotony of work was broken on the ninth of May, when preparations were made to leave the yard. The destination was only Tompkinsville, but there was not a man on board but felt that, as the last hawser was cast off, we were fairly started on our cruise in search of action. As the "Yankee" was assisted away from the wharf by a Government tug, a number of friends gathered ashore cheered lustily and waved their hats and handkerchiefs. The scene had been repeated time without end, no doubt, but it went to our hearts all the same, and there was many a husky note in the cheers we gave in return.

There was also encouragement in the whistles we received as we dropped down the East River, and we felt as if our small share in the war would be appreciated by those compelled to stay at home. We steamed directly to the vicinity of Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, anchored off Tompkinsville, and then picked up a berth there for the night. Half way down the bay we met a tug carrying a committee from the "Sons of the Revolution" of New York State. The committee had been selected by the society to present us with a set of colors. The tug accompanied us to our anchorage, then the committee came on board. The ceremony of presentation was rather picturesque.

The visitors gathered on the bridge, the ship's bugler sounded the assembly, and in obedience to the call we lined up on the forward deck. We wore the white duck service uniform, including trousers, jumper, and cap. Some of the uniforms had suffered in contact with pitch, but the general effect was good. When everything was in readiness, the chairman of the committee presented the set of colors and said:

"Captain Brownson, officers and men of the 'Yankee,' I have the honor, on behalf of the Society of the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, to present these colors to the members of the Naval Reserve of the State of New York, who have enlisted for service under your command."

He continued by hoping that the colors would ever float victorious, and said that he did not doubt it, and then our skipper made a little speech in reply. The affair wound up with a round of cheers and general congratulations. The flags were handsome, and, as it came to pass, they flaunted amid battle smoke before many weeks.

Our stay off Tompkinsville was to be short, but we had time to become acquainted with a characteristic naval oddity known as the bumboat. Diligent inquiries among the old sailors on board the "Yankee" failed to enlighten me as to the derivation of the name, but the consensus of opinion was that these floating peddlers sold articles which, to use a slang phrase, were pretty "bum." Experience has given the opinion some color of truth. Our bumboat boarded us early and stayed with us until the corporal of the guard called "time."

She came laden with pies and doughnuts, pins and needles, tape and buttons and whisk brooms and shoe blacking, handkerchiefs, ties, scissors, soap, writing paper, envelopes, ink, pens, cakes, bread, jelly, pocket knives, and a schedule of prices that would have brought a blush of envy to the face of a Swiss inn-keeper. As the boys had not yet grown entirely accustomed to what is called "Government straight," i.e., salt meat and hard-tack, the bumboat did a thriving business. Young Potter's bill was tremendous, and Mrs. Bumboat bade him a regretful farewell when she visited us for the last time.

At three in the afternoon of the tenth we hoisted anchor on our way to sea. Our good friends had not deserted us, and a number of them, aboard several tugs, accompanied us as far as the Narrows. The "God-speed" given us as we steamed away would have been a fine object lesson to our future antagonists.

Up to the present we had been concerned simply with the preparations for war, but it was destined that before another twenty-four hours had passed we would have a taste of the actual realities.

The "Yankee" was to see service.

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