A blog about whatever with lots of digressions

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Lost Art of the Signalman

First, I have 'good' news: I have reconciled with my chimp; we have worked out a new contract, whereby he cycles around in my head for no more than 35 hours per week, at 10 bananas per hour, and any more than that he is paid time and a half overtime. He is subject to a raise within the next three months. He also gets thirty days paid vacation per year, and full veterinarian benefits, including dental work. And as a bonus he will be given free hair replacement treatment, and a new electric-motor bicycle.


Here is a photo taken of us after the new contract was signed:

I sigh again.

Let us move on.

An old friend materialized out of the past on Facebook the other day, one Joe Vanover, with whom I served as a Signalman in the US Navy back when ships still had boiler rooms.

And back when Signalmen were still used, too, to send Morse Code messages with a flashing light, and semaphore messages with the hands, and flag hoist tactical signals, with colorful flags and pennants flying proudly from the ship's halyards, in much the same fashion that Nelson signaled, 'England expects...', to his fleet at Trafalgar.

The rating known as 'Signalman' no longer exists, however, as high technology has replaced esoteric signaling Knowledge forever. We keepers of the Old School Signaling Knowledge, like Jedi Warriors, must preserve the language of silent, visual communication, and we must continue to practice and hone our skills, for transmitting and receiving Morse Code, semaphore, and flag hoist signaling constitutes a True Art.

Communicating with a signal searchlight using Morse Code, for example, demands total focus, and enough practice so that the dots and dashes appear, first, as letters, and then later, with more experience, as entire words, in much the same way that data on a computer appeared as blondes and brunettes for that guy on 'The Matrix.'
And communicating by flashing light requires rhythm, so that the dots and dashes are the proper length of time, and the spaces between them the proper length of time, and the space between the words also the proper length of time, for a signalman without rhythm is as unreadable as a bad poet.
And there is the matter of 'training the light'-- a Signalman may have the Morse language in him, and the rhythm as well, but he must also be able to keep his light aimed at the ship he is transmitting to-- and such aiming is no easy matter in rough seas, when one must flow with the sea as it rolls and pitches the ship, and one must roll and pitch the signal light on it's stand, with the motions of the sea and ship; that is, the good Signalman must become One with the sea, the ship, the light-- let us go further-- the good Signalman must also be One with the receiver of the message, just as the Zen archer is One with the bow, and the arrow, and the target.

Here is Joe Vanover, Transmitting a Message, and Being One with the Sea, the Ship, the Light, and the Receiver of the Message:

 Ah, no, that is not Joe. That is Jack Nicholson, who plays a Signalman in the film, 'The Last Detail.' Though Jack has been given the unsavory and un-Signalmanly task of escorting a sailor to the Naval Prison, he does give an excellent lesson in the film on how to do semaphore while he is drunk in a hotel room, and in his underwear. Let's try Joe again:

Whoops! No, that is not Joe, that is a woman demonstrating the letter, 'P', in semaphore, and stylishly so. She appears to be an ancient Egyptian, which is intriguing. The ancient Egyptians were clearly even more advanced than previously thought. Meanwhile, it has recently snowed in Egypt, while here in Aldenhoven it is merely a bit nippy. Here are the snow-dusted pyramids, and the Sphinx, just a few days ago:

Jack demonstrates the letter 'B'

Nope! Sorry! That is Jack Nicholson giving his semaphore lesson in the film, 'The Last Detail'.

But let us get back to Joe being One with the Universe:

Joe Vanover, Signalman

Yes, that is Joe, Zen-like Signalman of Old.

Here are three of the Signalmen, members of the Signal Gang-- three of my Zen Signalman-monk shipmates, my brethren-- many years ago, when navy ships still had boiler rooms and Signalmen. Note their monastic, enlightened,  countenances:

Signalman Monks participating in the Zen Fanta Ceremony

This photo taken in the Signal Shack, on the Signal Bridge of the USS Tattnall, a guided missile destroyer of the 'Charles F Adams' class-- Jedi Warrior Signalmen-- Zen, Budo Signalmen, from a past age, a forgotten era.

Noble Signalmen.

From left to right: Signalman Third Class Vanover, a veteran from an even earlier era of Signalmen, an era lost in the mist of antiquity-- Signalman Second Class Bachman, from Shreveport, Louisiana; a True Southerner, and poker player-- and Signalman Seaman Tommy Midrano, from New Jersey, an aficionado of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and a True  Jersey Kid.

And then there was semaphore-- mentioned already in reference to Jack Nicholson in a hotel room in his underwear while drunk-- semaphore, I say, the art reserved for the operation known as Underway Replenishment, or, UnRep, or refueling at sea, when the Navy oiler would keep steady on a course, and her pups would approach, two at time, to suckle from her oily breasts. The Tattnall and the oiler would be only 30 meters apart, moving along at 20 knots, connected by a fuel hose and phone line and other lines for passing this or that back and forth, including movies, or personnel seated in a precarious, dangling chair-- and we Signalmen would communicate with our arms and hands, and the uninitiated would stand by in awe, yes, in awe-- even the high tech electronics people, even the engineers, yea, even decorated Chief Petty Officers and Naval-Academy-educated officers would look on with envy as we spoke our secret language, arms and hands darting and circling in mysterious fashion.

"What'd you just say to him, Schroeder?" a Sonar Technician might ask.
"Classified message, Need to Know Basis," I might say back to him, with a look on my face as if to say, "Sorry."
Yet, more likely, we would have been chatting about a bar in Genoa, Italy.

Zen, Esoteric, Mysterious, Beyond the Ken of the Ordinary... these are a few ways to describe the Art of the Signalman.

Here Tommy Midrano and I are in the bar that a Signalman on a ship leaving Genoa told me about, via flashing light rather than semaphore, as our ship was approaching Genoa:

Midrano and I in the bar in Genoa, Italy, where we practiced the Zen Wine ceremony

The bar was called, unceremoniously, 'The Bullshit Bar', and the former Lady-of-the-Night owner was very motherly towards us, and cooked us spaghetti on New Years Eve, to eat with our vino rosso.

And then, to go on, there was signaling by flag hoist, which was physical, and required precision teamwork. One Signalman, usually a Signalman Second Class, would, while looking through the mounted, ship's binoculars, call out the flag signal from the command ship of the Battle Group. Two other Signalmen would put the corrresponding flags up-- perhaps a Signalman Third Class to quick snap the flags from the 'flag bag' to the halyard, and a lower rate signalman to hoist the signal 3/4 of the way up-- all this to be done smoothly and rapidly, which was no easy task in a stiff breeze, which there almost always was. Then, when the signal was understood by the officers on the bridge, the signal would be hoisted to the top, then pulled down to execute, and the flags stowed as quickly as possible to be ready for the next signal. In the Art of Flag Hoist, the Signalmen from different naval vessels competed with one another. A poor show of flag hoist from another ship's signal gang would evoke winces and contemptuous comments from our signalmen. Flag Hoist Signaling, done well, on the other hand, would evoke 'High Fives' and huzza's from Signal Gang members.

But let us return to Vanover, who appeared on Facebook to bring back these memories. He still resides in the Jacksonville, Florida area, where the USS Tattnall was home-ported. He is retired, and he is a member of the noble Shriners. What a grand thing, to have once been a Signalman, and now a Shriner.

Here is young Joe, working the flag bag back in the mid-sixties, when I was still a wee lad dreaming of ships and adventure:

Flagbag Joe, coolest Signalman ever, smoking in one of the ship's few non-smoking areas, ie, near the flag bag.

The last I heard of Bachman, he was an insurance man in Shreveport, and had got religion. And the last I heard of Tommy Midrano, he passed away at age 55, having gone from being a 100 percent Biker, Sailor, and Wild Man, to a man devoted to helping orphaned kids.

The USS Tattnall, the last I heard, had been turned into scrap metal, which I believe all warships of all nations should become as soon as possible. Here is the USS Tattnall when it was still a warship:

No, no, those are the snow-dusted pyramids of Giza, and the Sphinx, more ancient even than the ancient mariner's I've written about in this post. I walked to those pyramids recently, from Port Said, when it was very hot, and not at all likely to snow. But as we are talking about Egypt now, here is the USS Tattnall passing through the Suez Canal, a long time ago, back when there were Signalmen:

Yes, there it is. I was on the Tattnall when it went through the Suez Canal, on the way to the Persian Gulf. Thirty years later, I walked along the Suez Canal, from Port said to Ismailia, for peace-- though not long after my walk for peace in Egypt, the violence began again.


And now for the Few Initiated Ones, a message to be passed on to All:

.--.  .  .-  -.-.  .     ---  -.     .  .-  .-.  -  ....


  1. Great write up Schro. Sorry to read about Midrano's passing. Stay safe bud.

    1. I never understood why you weren't a Signalman. Your name...

  2. Great story. Served as SM3 aboard USS Johnston (DD821) from 1969-1971. Med cruise a great way to become an adult. Bravo Zulu.

  3. Retired SM1(SW). We light the night! USS Jesse L. Brown (DE/FF/FFT-1089) and USS Sampson DDG-10 were my boiler ships. Tattnall will not be scrapped. The Tattnall will be going to Jacksonville FL as a museum in 2017.