He was standing in front of my desk, my newly assigned sailor. But he was more of a caricature of a sailor, than a real sailor. I needed a real sailor, but they’d sent me Popeye instead.
I was not sure if he was standing at a laid back “attention,” or an uptight “at ease.” So I ordered him “at ease” to find out. I noticed a slightly more laid back, salty appearance that told me that he was previously at “attention.” All my instincts were telling me that this was not going to work out. But it was too late. He was there in front of my desk, and I was welcoming him aboard.
“Aboard” was Sangley Point, a small Navy base in the Philippines during the late 1960’s. I was the Officer-in-Charge of the Black Market Control Office, Pass Control Office, Shore Patrol, and other minor collateral functions that made for busy days and sleepless nights. The reason I needed a new senior petty officer was that the one that I had in charge of the Pass Control Office was transferred the month before. I desperately needed a replacement to take charge of the five young sailors in the office. I was calling the administrative chief for a replacement every other day to no avail. The young, teenage sailors were getting themselves in all sorts of trouble. A year ago, the only trouble they’d had was asking a girl to the prom. Now they were in the Navy, in a foreign country, and away from Mom, home, and apple pie. Oh, yes, nearby there was also a war going on. Under these conditions, trouble was easy to find.
The latest trouble occurred when we caught one of the teenage sailors selling American cigarettes to Filipinos through the Pass Control window. This was not exactly the professional image we were looking for in our fight against black marketeering. However, this latest breakdown of discipline did bring action from the administrative chief and Popeye to the front of my desk. The chief called that morning to tell me that he was sending a First Class Petty Office who was “perfect for the job.”
I know you should not tell a book by its cover, nor a sailor by his tattoos, but book covers and tattoos do make a definite impression. Let me describe this sailor by his tattoos. He had a small star tattooed on one of his ear lobes. On the back of each hand were dice: one had the roll of seven; the other was eleven. Tattooed just below his knuckles were the words “LOVE” and “HATE.” One word tattooed on each set of knuckles. On each arm was a snake slithering upward toward the elbow. On each elbow were hinges. Later, when I watch him walking, it appeared the hinges actually worked; without them, he never would be able to swing his arms. Of course we all know that hinges get rusty and must be oiled. On his biceps, over each hinge, was an inverted oilcan lubricating the hinge. The reason I know they were lubricating the hinges was because there were drops of oil dripping down on the hinges. My new sailor may be salty, but he was not going to be rusty.
Yes, my instincts were telling me that I was getting more problems than I was solving. Visions of my wayward teenage sailors, their bodies covered with snakes, hinges, and dice, flashed before me. Popeye was not the senior petty officer I had in mind. He was not the role model that young sailors could look up to. But now he was mine and hopefully the book was much better than the cover.
In the middle of my “Welcome Aboard” speech, my new petty officer told me that he had an appointment with the chaplain. I knew that the administrative procedures for checking unto a new base required making the rounds of the various facilities such as the hospital, library, and chapel. I told him that he could take the rest of the day to finish checking in. I added that if he needed more time, he could call me. He expressed his appreciation and left my office. The minute he did, I called the chief and thanked him for the “perfect” petty officer he sent me. Before he could respond, I hung up. I knew, and the chief knew, that he owed me more than a few beers at our next office party.
Within twenty minutes Popeye was back to see me. He informed me that he had just seen the base chaplain and the chaplain told him that he needed to speak to his division officer. Of course I was his division officer; I had been for almost an hour now. One of the first things you learn as division officer is that if any of your men have personal problems, you tell them to go see the chaplain. But now the chaplain was sending Popeye back to me. I knew instantly he had problems, big problems. I also knew I now had problems, big problems.
I asked him what his problem was. He began to tell his tale. He said he had just gotten married to a Filipino in the Philippines without permission. At the time, regulations required military personnel to officially request permission to marry in the Philippines. Now, I know many civilians would question the necessity for these regulations. But believe me, they were needed. If the Navy had not had these regulations, every unattached sailor would have gotten married after his first weekend liberty pass. Somehow a sailor found it easier to ask a girl to marry him in the Philippines than to ask one to a dance back in the states.
However, marrying without permission was a relatively minor infraction of Navy regulations. With a stern face of an officer in charge of men, I told Popeye that as a senior petty officer he should have known better. I added that a background check on his bride would still be needed. He then informed me that his blushing bride was pregnant, and the baby was due within six weeks. I said, “I guess we’re going to have to speed up the background investigation.”
So far the problems he related were no big deal. But by the expression on his face, I could tell there was more. He finally got around to telling me his real problem. He apparently got married in the Philippines to his pregnant girlfriend before he got a divorce from his wife back in the states. I’m not a lawyer, but I believe bigamy is not only a violation of Navy regulations, but also American and Filipino laws.
An hour ago, the only problems I had involved a few undisciplined young sailors. Now I had a senior petty officer about to be charged with bigamy. Somehow, a problem with a sailor selling cigarettes to Filipinos seemed so uncomplicated, so simple.
I told Popeye that we had to see the base legal staff to work through this mess. For the next few weeks I was a very busy division officer. We were able to get his marriage in the Philippines annulled. Then Popeye was divorced from his stateside wife, and remarried to his wife in the Philippines – all before the baby was born! I should note, however, that the background check of his bride did reveal that the pregnant lady was still seeing her Filipino boyfriend. However, I was just interested in seeing him legally married; happily married was beyond my control.
I also got to go to two captain’s masts: one for my young sailor, the black marketeer, and the other for Popeye, the bigamist. As their division officer I had to describe their transgressions and any mitigating factors to the base captain. Both sailors were duly disciplined and reassigned to the base’s fire department. Since I had to go to two captain's masts, I always thought that I was more severely punished than the two miscreants.
There is an epilogue to this story. I did find out from the sailors at the fire station that Popeye had many more tattoos that his uniform covered. He had “Mother” tattooed on his chest, and a battleship on his back. I do not remember some of the other, more minor tattoos. I also forget exactly how many times he was married or how many wives he had. I believe he was married six times but only had five wives since he married one wife twice, but not consecutively. One wife left him for another woman. And of course, I’m counting only his legal marriages. I did not count his first marriage in the Philippines, the one without Navy permission.
There is also a happy ending. I went to the baby’s christening, along with the young sailors from my office. In addition, I did get my fair share of beers from the Admin. Chief. Finally, Popeye’s bride did break up with her Filipino boyfriend.