The Slap Slap of Signal Light Shutters

--by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

I saw a piece in a popular magazine awhile ago. It said that the United States Coast Guard had ceased to teach Morse Code. With all the super techno whizbang communication equipment around these days, I guess 'dits' and 'dahs' are looked upon as primitive communication.

That's a damn pity because there is no more comforting sound than the rythmic slap of the signal light shutters. Watching a competent signalman operate a signal light, to me beats watching a concert violinist or an Olympic medal-winning ice skater.

There was something about nighttime steaming, transiting the open expanse of the world's oceans and exchanging seemingly meaningless flashes of light that in truth, were an exchange of clear, concise messages. The signalman and the gentle click of the signal light shutter louvers.

"Sir, that's the J. W. WEEKS, DD-701."

"Very well. Ask them if LT Al Timberlake is aboard. I went to the academy with Big Al."

"Aye sir."

"Yessir, he's aboard. LT CDR now."

"Very well. Tell them to relay my compliments and tell Big Al that 'Short Stack' passed him during the midwatch."

Little messages exchanged in darkness. Communication between members of America's great saltwater family. Those fingers of light always made me feel that I was a part of a big organization.

Things that were so much a part of our life, have gone out of existence in the ensuing years. They tell me that torpedomen and quartermasters have joined gunners mates in the lost ratings of yesteryear. I know nothing lasts forever and that there's nothing worse to subsequent generations than an old bastard reliving cherished memories of the past. But with the navy looking to boost its recruiting, it might be beneficial to revisit some of the things that were so meaningful to the bluejackets who manned our ships long ago.

Tradition is a valuable asset. Not that to honor tradition, you have to set aside technological advance. Not at all. But many of the 'sailor skills' are being discounted. Consider this. In battle, when you lose power and your computer-generated mo-jo is lost, or your batteries run out. Or the enemy detonates some hootenanny that scrubs your database. Will there be anyone who can take a legitimate sextant observation?

What happens if the bad guys find a way to negate satellite positioning? What happens to the poor bastards bobbing around in a lifeboat with a signalman and an operating flashlight?

How can you call a man an American bluejacket who can't tie a bowline or read flags? At some point, you stop being a bluejacket and become a technician. That's a sad fact, but a fact, nonetheless.

The navy used to sell salt water adventure. It used to fill its recruiting offices with posters of smiling bluejackets visiting exotic ports. Ships at sea. Extolling the qualities found in elite service like submarines. Now, you see posters promising monetary incentives, education benefits and pledges of high-level technical training. It is not an 'All for the Navy' navy, anymore. It's a 'What's in it for me?' navy. You can see the effect on the boatservice. Interchangeable crews. That's like a shared bride.

Somebody needs to reinitiate the concept of 'a lad and his boat'. I see nuclear power sailors with the names of a dozen boats embroidered on their vests. How can a lad develop love and loyalty to twelve boats? Simple answer. He can't.

We need to figure out some way of reconnecting men with ships. We need to develop, to reestablish the relationship between sailors and their ships. We need to shitcan the term, 'Get my ticket punched on such and such a ship.' I find the term 'ticket punched' repulsive. I rode with men who truly loved the ship. She has been ours for better than 45 years and will continue to be until the day we leave the planet. It is sad that with the 'interchangeable parts' commands of today, a boatsailor doesn't develop the love we were given.

But, as I said earlier, there's nothing worse than a nostalgic old coot who's out of step with the march of time. An old sonuvabitch whose era has come and gone.

But you can't fault a man who loved his service. The men. His wardroom. His boat. An old bastard who can still hear the gentle slap, slap, slap of the bridge signal light shutters.