The dumbest, most exhilarating, most death-defying experience I’ve ever had. (Near-death experience #3)

My squadron, VA-56, flew from Lemoore Naval Air Station, on the West Coast, to Norfolk, Virginia, where I actually saw a couple of the infamous signs, posted in people’s front yards, which read, “Sailors and Dogs Keep Off The Grass,” a nice welcome to our brave lads.  We boarded the U.S.S. Constellation (CVA-64) and prepared to get underway to SOUTH AMERICA!!

Jacksonville, Florida; Port of Spain, Trinidad; one of the greatest ass-whippings in history, when 3,000 Polliwogs were “initiated” into the mysteries of the deep by having their butts pounded with rock-hard canvas paddles; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; then CAPE HORN.

When we were on the Constellation (Summer of ’62 [Dead of Winter in the Southern Hemisphere]), she was the second biggest ship in the world, and the number one biggest conventionally-powered ship in the world.  We were second only to the nuclear-powered Enterprise (CVA-65) which was, it was alleged, just ONE FOOT longer than the Connie. Notwithstanding that, she was a monster.  Over 1,000 feet long, over 250 feet wide, 85 feet from the water-line to the flight deck, and displacing  a cool 75,000 tons.  For several days, right at the bottom of South America, we were treated like an inflatable raft by Mother Nature.  60 to 100 foot waves, a 100 mph wind coming straight down the flight deck, with snow being blown horizontally, while the air temperature varied between minus 30 degrees F. and minus 40 degrees F., making the Wind-chill Factor about 130 degrees below zero.

We could go out onto the fantail anytime we pleased, but there wasn’t much to be seen.  As we were heading directly into the wind and waves, there wasn’t any wind, spray, or snow, back there.  What was back there, was just a mountain of battleship gray water, going up and down.  Up and down.  Back in the OLD Disneyland days, it wouldn’t have rated even an “A” coupon.  Frankly, it sucked.  I have two really big beefs with the assholes who could have made that voyage even more memorable than it was.

Beef #1:  No one, except those on duty in the island, were allowed to go up into the island. Beef #2:   Nobody showed us the Southern Sky.

Both of these travesties could have been ameliorated by the use of our extensive CCTV network.  All the dicks had to do, in Beef #1, was to point one stinking camera out a forward-facing window, and let everybody see the fucking ocean, breaking over the bow of the ship and, indeed, taking green water over the FLIGHT DECK.  That would have been thrilling to watch.

Beef #2 could have been dealt with by some officers with celestial-navigation experience, who could have given the blue-jackets a tutorial on the Southern Sky.  Then, they could have allowed hundreds of guys up on the flight deck, in nice weather, of course, and let us see what we had learned on the TV.  What a wasted opportunity.

Every crew’s berthing space had a big TV and a ship’s radio, which played different music on different stations.  Damned good thing I had a couple of the latest Playboy magazines to read.  I got to thinking; which is a good way to get into trouble.  I decided that, shit, here I was, on a 75,000 ton aircraft carrier, in monster seas, and I couldn’t see any of it.  I decided that I was going up there, and “Hang Ten” on the forward edge of the flight deck. SURFING AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER, YEAH.  

It took me about two days to find six fools to accompany me up there.  I named a time and place to meet, and we were set to go.  We rendezvoused and discussed our clothing.  All but one guy had 7 layers of clothes on; the odd man had but 6 layers, and he reported, later, that he felt cold, but it wasn’t life-threatening, like our mere presence up there WAS.  The rest of us were toasty warm.  We all had watch caps, hoodies, and flight deck helmets on, with goggles to protect our eyes.  We opened a water-tight door, and stepped out into a wind chill of 130 degrees below zero.  We were a few days past the actual Horn, so the waves had gone down to 30 or 40 feet, but the wind and snow was still coming straight down the deck at 100 mph.

With that much wind, we had to lean way forward, at close to a 45 degree angle, with our arms spread in the “stable position” of a sky-diver.  That was so much fun, and I was looking forward to hanging ten.  Nobody had thought about the absolute certainty that someone, in the island, would spot us, and were disappointed when the PA system announced, “You people get back down below.”  We all waved at the disembodied voice and turned around, intending to walk back to where we had come out.  With the wind now at our backs, we were pushed forward, toward the aft part of the ship, at what, at first, was an exhilarating pace.  WE WERE FLYING.  In just a few steps, we were taking 20 foot strides, touching down, with 1 foot, and going another 20 feet before the other foot touched down.  All of us, at virtually the same time, discovered that we couldn’t stop, or even slow down.  If this continued, we would all take a flying leap off the aft end of the flight deck, falling 85 feet to a certain death.  There is no way that we could have been rescued, even if we survived the fall.  Death in 5 minutes, from the frigid water.  One guy yelled, “I can’t stop.”  Another guy yelled, “I can’t either.”  I yelled, “Hit the deck and grab a pad-eye.”  A pad-eye is an indentation in the steel deck, with a steel bar affixed stoutly thereto.  Tie-down chains are hooked to a plane and the other end of the chain is hooked on the pad-eye.  There are hundreds of pad-eyes on both the flight and hangar decks.  We all belly-flopped in unison.  We were now sliding on our bellies, going at least 20 mph.  If we hadn’t grabbed the bar, in a pad-eye, we would have flown over the edge of the deck, flying like Superman.  As I was the instigator of this caper, I felt that it was my responsibility to make sure that all of my shipmates were OK before I tried to save myself. If just one guy had gone overboard, I would have intentionally followed him, and that’s no shit.  I looked left and right, seeing a couple of guys had already gotten stopped and a couple more had tried to stop, but their momentum had jerked their hands away from their grip on the bar.  I saw that my “order” to flop-and-grab was working, and turned my attention to my buddy to my immediate right.  He had “frozen,” and hadn’t even tried to grab a pad-eye.  I yelled at him, “Get ready, there’s a pad-eye coming up, one foot to your right, 20 feet, grab it.”  By this time, the two of us were only about 50 feet from the rear edge of the deck.  He became alert and grabbed the bar, but he lost his grip when his weight pulled on his hand.  Me, “There’s another one coming up, one foot to your right, 20 feet, grab that motherfucker in a death grip.”  He did, and he stopped, getting jerked around so that he was facing forward.  Now it was my turn to try to stop, and I was getting closer to the edge of the deck.  I grabbed a bar, and the sucker was pulled out of my hand, not slowing me down a whit.  I saw another, and grabbed it as if my life depended on it, which it most certainly did.  I was jerked around, almost dislocating my shoulder.  We were all OK, and I discovered that there was only one more pad-eye between me and certain death and, if I hadn’t caught the one I did, I wouldn’t have been able to even try for that last one.  I had stopped less than 20 feet from the edge of the deck.  More evidence of predestination.




7 thoughts on “The dumbest, most exhilarating, most death-defying experience I’ve ever had. (Near-death experience #3)

    1. I talked to a man who watched his 70,000 pound semi-truck, which was parked on the side of U.S. Highway 395, in the Washoe Valley, just north of Carson City, Nevada, get blown over onto its side, by the incredibly strong wind called the “Washoe Zephyr.”

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