Early in April of 1946, soon after USS BURLEIGH (APA-95) arrived at the Norfolk Naval Operating Base an order to decommission was received. At the same time my brother Augie, who had just received orders to inactive duty, was on terminal leave from the Navy. That is, he had his orders in hand and at the end of his accumulated leave, he would be on inactive duty without having to further report to any command.
Augie drove our father’s 1939 six-cylinder Packard sedan from Brooklyn to Norfolk so that we could visit restored historic Williamsburg, call on the Bureau of Personnel detail officer in Washington, D.C. in order to inquire about my next orders, and drive to Brooklyn. My last visit home was just over a year before.
Our tour was memorable both from our prospective and, I’m sure, from the prospective of the others whom we encountered. Augie was a full lieutenant and I was a lieutenant junior grade; we were wearing our blue uniforms.
The first event worth recording happened at dusk when we were concluding a visit to restored Colonial Williamsburg. Most of the other tourists had already departed and there didn’t seem to be anyone else about when Augie and I entered an upstairs prisoner’s cell of the Publik Gaol.
The cell was furnished only with a pile of straw in one corner and the single unglazed window was fitted with a wrought-iron flat-bar lattice. That’s all that was needed to trigger Augie. Since he was in character, I was not at all surprised when he grabbed the window bars and with his face contorted, let out a blood-curdling scream followed by, “Let me out of here!”
Then we saw two slightly overweight women who had been taking a break from a guided tour of the jail that we didn’t know was in progress, frantically running from just beneath the cell’s window. Augie and I were hysterically laughing and bent doubled over when the dumfounded tour guide and his group, one by one looked in on the two wacky naval officers, shrugged their shoulders and moved on. The episode was like a scene from a Marx Brothers comedy.
The second event was not as funny to me, not then anyway. At the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel when we entered the office of the detailer, an affable three-stripe commander, he addressed my brother first, “What can I do for you lieutenant?
Augie, never one to be shy, responded as if he owned the place, “I’m on terminal leave. I know the Navy is short of qualified engineering officers. I’m here to find out what’s in it for me if I stay on active duty!”
The Commander, still affable, replied more than a decade before President John F. Kennedy’s pertinent quote, “You shouldn’t be asking what the Navy can do for me. You should be asking, ˜What can I do for the Navy?”
Augie in his best Brooklyn style and made bold by the orders to inactive duty that he already had, replied, “If that’s the way it is, you know what you can do with the Navy!”
To say the least, the Commander was stunned and then showed a flash of anger before I quickly interrupted, “Sir. He’s not talking for me!”
The Commander seemed to appreciate the diversion. When I told him that I planned to stay on in the Navy subject to getting assigned to another auxiliary-type ship as the engineering officer, he gave me a list of such ships and said pick anyone you want. That’s how I got orders, despite my brother, to USS MATHEWS (AKA-96).
Both the Commander and I were glad to get Augie out of there.
The third memorable event was managed by a couple of unknown characters. We had diverted from Route 1 during the drive to New York City and at dusk were about five-miles south on a two-lane approach to New Brunswick, New Jersey with me at the wheel. We needed gas and ahead I spotted a small one-pump station. The place was not lighted, but since there was a bit of daylight I assumed that the station lights would come on soon. I cut the ignition switch and then we found that the station was not open for business. When I attempted to restart the engine nothing happened; the starter was jammed.
We knew what to do: loosen two bolts and shake the starter until the Bendix spring snapped back into place. Just as I lifted the hood a car containing two guys veered off the road, stopped about ten-feet behind and the driver shouted, “Do you want a push to the next gas station?”
Augie and I were delighted. Since we weren’t dressed for grease-monkey work, we quickly accepted the offer, and jumped back in the Packard with me again at the wheel. We were momentarily happy because of our luck; then the speedometer pointer quickly passed forty, fifty, and sixty! At that speed the light Packard was weaving almost uncontrollably across both lanes.
Augie turned in order to signal them to slow down, and discovered that they were passing a bottle back and forth and were laughing uproariously. We were being pushed at high speed by a pair of drunks who might have been recently discharged enlisted men bent on settling a score with officers in general! Fortunately, there were few cars traveling in both directions that I barely managed to avoid.
When we entered the huge turning circle astride Route 1 in New Brunswick, our speed was nearly seventy miles per hour! The drunks veered north toward New York. I spotted a large gas station directly across the circle and headed for it while managing to weave between the increased traffic. When we crossed the curb of the station the Packard was doing about forty. I braked as hard as I could and the Packard came to a screeching stop just ten-feet in front of the service area.
A grizzled mechanic bearing a stern frown sauntered over suspiciously and asked, “What do you want?”
I replied, “The starter is jammed.”
He shouted, “Who the hell are you kidding? I just saw you drive in here like a couple of maniacs!”
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo