December 03, 2008

Heads up on deck!

  The U. S. S. Bordelon (DDR-881) is on its way back to Norfolk, Virginia, after a three month cruise in the Mediterranean as part of the Navy's Sixth Fleet.

  On this morning the destroyer is at "general quarters," simulating battle conditions. During the drill, a deck-hand named "Hubert" staggers into sick-bay holding a handkerchief over his right hand.

  As the ship's hospital corpsman, I ask what's wrong.

  "Somebody dogged a hatch on me," Hubert says.

  When a hatch is closed with all six handles —"dogs" —locked down, the doorway is watertight.

  Hubert peels back his bloody handkerchief to reveal a very flat right index finger folded onto the palm of his hand. The finger is barely attached by what looks like a single ligament.

  I notify the bridge, and the captain comes down to sick-bay to assess the emergency. This is, of course, many years before micro-surgery and limb-reattachment.

  The captain quickly decides to transfer Hubert to the Fargo, the Sixth Fleet's flagship, where medical doctors will attend to Hubert's injury.

  An at-sea transfer is dicey, at best, requiring two ships to maneuver side-by-side in open seas. Heavy swells make maneuvering the Bordelon alongside the cruiser Fargo difficult.

  When both ships are alongside, a crewman aboard the Fargo threads a lightweight line through a brass rod, then loads the rod into a shotgun style "Lyle gun." The idea is to catapult the rod across the Bordelon's boat-deck. The light line is then used to drag a heavier line, which is pulley-rigged between the two ships. Finally, a boatswain's chair — a heavy canvas seat — is lashed to the rigging and the passenger is hoisted over the open water from ship-to-ship.

   As a Fargo boatswain's mate prepares to fire the Lyle gun, Hubert is placed in a protected area behind a ventilator on the Bordelon's boat-deck. The chief boatswain's mate yells, "Heads up," a warning for all to take cover in case the brass rod falls short.

  Hubert's unthinking response to "heads up" is to stand up. At that instant, a sea swell lifts the Bordelon like a high-speed elevator, until it's higher in the water than the cruiser alongside.

  These fateful circumstances place the speeding brass rod on a collision course with poor old Hubert. The "crack" I hear is the sound of the brass rod slamming into Hapless Hubert's hip bone (pelvis).

  The captain decides to wait out the heavy seas. By morning the water is calm and the transfer is made without incident, except this time the patient is laid out in a stretcher, not a boatswain's chair. Poor Hubert loses his trigger finger and gets a medical discharge. Today, far from the sea, Hubert enjoys dairy farming somewhere in Wisconsin.

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