Now, while being part of this first-reaction force may sound a bit hairy and Dr. Strangelove-esque to you, by 1988 glasnost and perestroika were in full swing in the Soviet Union. While the Western countries and Eastern Bloc weren't exactly bosom pals yet, the competitive tensions between the free and Communist worlds were considerably toned down. And accordingly, the formerly deadly serious nature of STANAVFORLANT was also ratcheted down. That is not to say that there wasn't serious work to do or a sense of purpose present during that deployment. There were still a lot of joint training exercises between the NATO participants, and on occasion we shadowed (or were shadowed by) Soviet ships coming out of the Baltic and traveling through the North Sea. And at one point early in the cruise, the group was diverted from its planned route to assist in the immediate aftermath of the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion, a horrific disaster that claimed 168 lives.
But for the most part, the deployment was pretty cruisey (so to speak). The ship I was on was the last one built in her destroyer class, relatively brand-spanking new, and as such it sort of served as a "showboat" for the US Navy with this group, showing the European countries what was then considered our maritime best. While the work at sea was intense, the frequent port visits were great, as the hosting port cities and the participating ships tried to outdo one another with the parties, dinners and functions (official and otherwise) they organized.
[Quick aside: Our ship was the only one in the force that was "dry", i.e., carrying no beer or liquor; the other nations' ships had no such restrictions regarding alcohol on board, which led to some wild times in port. Almost every participating ship (except for the US) had a signature booze they carried aboard to offer to visitors. The Norwegians, for example, kept iced aquavit in a locked safe in their officer's wardroom; one sip of that stuff would knock you flat on your ass, but those guys gargled it like it was water. The West German vessel carried the most outstanding beer I've ever tasted, served in big stoneware schooners specially made forI saw and did a lot of new and cool things during that cruise. I visited London, a place I'd always dreamed of seeing, for the first time on that voyage (met some great people, went to a couple of clubs and even made it to Brixton, homebase of my beloved Clash). In Germany, I checked out the nightlife in Kiel and took a tour through Hamburg's red light district; I was in Antwerp at the peak of the Belgian acid house wave, and danced until the sun came up at clubs all over that city; I partied all one July night in Narvik, Norway, a town above the Arctic Circle, and was completely thrown off when I emerged from the club at 3:30 am to find the sky as bright as noonday. And one calm, dark night, far out in the North Atlantic, I stood out on deck for hours watching the aurora borealis dancing like a weird curtain of light over my head. It was all quite an adventure, and the months away from home passed very quickly.
By late October, we had less than two months left in our deployment. We were making another transit across the North Sea from West Germany to Scotland, and one evening en route, the force was practicing refueling operations with a West German replenishment tanker. While that exercise was going on, I was down in my midships office, a couple of decks below topside, doing some paperwork. At one point, the ship took a hard and unexpected starboard turn, sending all of my paperwork crashing to the floor. I was like, "what the heck?", and reached for the nearby phone to call the bridge. The officer of the deck (OOD), the person guiding the ship at the time (as opposed to the ship's captain), was a buddy of mine, and I was going to call him up and give him some good-natured shit for making such a wild maneuver. Just as my hand touched the phone, there was a loud and violent CCCRRRAAASSHHH!!! which shook the ship from end to end, sending everything not bolted down flying and me and everyone else in the room sprawling on the floor. I looked up at the person next to me on the floor, and half-asked/half-exclaimed, "We ran aground?!?!" His response was, "No, I think we were just hit!"
His word "hit" was sort of floating in the air, like in a balloon in a comic strip, when at that very same moment, every alarm on the ship went off in sequence - Collision, General Quarters, Man Overboard - and the emergency lighting immediately kicked in, bathing everything in an eerie and ominous red glow.
In a nutshell, what had happened was, due to a conflict between the OOD and the captain, and some miscommunication on the bridge, our ship had somehow placed itself directly in the path of the tanker we were trying to take station around. The tanker couldn't swerve, because of its size and speed, so a collision was imminent. What SHOULD have happened was, the way we were positioned in front of the German ship, it should have come straight on and sliced us neatly in two right at amidships, exactly at the point where my office was and where I was working at the time, unaware of what was about to transpire. But in the last few seconds, the OOD made a desperation move, kicking the rudder over hard right in an attempt to swing the stern out away from the oncoming ship and hopefully avoid a collision by mere feet. That was the turn that knocked my stuff on the floor, that I was going to call to complain about. It was also the turn that probably saved my life . . . although it wasn't completely successful. Instead of whacking us right through the middle, the tanker delivered a heavy but glancing blow on the starboard side, about ten yards forward of the stern.
It put a hole in our ship you could have driven a minivan through, destroyed the after steering compartment and sheared off the starboard screw and rudder. And we started taking on water - a LOT of water.
Through the diligent efforts of every member of that crew, damage control stabilized the ship's wounds within the hour. It was still pretty bad; the ship's maneuverability was gone, and with the water we had taken on, the ship had developed a not-insignificant starboard list of about 7 or 8 degrees.
The Man Overboard call turned out to be a false alarm; the splash the lookouts heard was the sound of chunks of the ship falling into the water (thank God for that - no one could have survived for long that night in those icy North Sea waters). But the ship was a mess. We limped across the rest of the North Sea and made it to our intended destination, the shipyard in Rosyth, Scotland. But instead of the planned five-day stop there, our ship was immediately put into dry-dock for weeks of emergency repairs.
Although the long stay in Rosyth was unexpected, life there quickly settled into a routine. I still had plenty of work to do in port, so my days were pretty busy. The major city of Edinburgh was about 15-20 miles away from the shipyard. I planned to visit the city later during my stay, but in the meantime I spent many of my nights in the nearest town of any consequence, Dunfermline, about 3 miles up the road.
Dunfermline, with a population of about 40,000 people, was a former seat of the Scottish royal family, and as such was the de facto capital of Scotland from the 11th through 15th centuries. It is renowned for containing the historic ruins of the old Royal Palace of Dunfermline. and Dunfermline Abbey, one of the most important cultural sites in Scotland and the burial place of several Scottish kings. It was also the birthplace of 19th century industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who left the town as a boy, but never forgot where he came from and later in life donated large sums of money to his hometown. I, of course, didn't know any of this; the only thing I knew about Dunfermline at the time was that the band Big Country came from there.
For a relatively small town, Dunfermline had an OUTSTANDING nightlife. There were a number of bars and decent dance places, all of which were jam-packed every single night in the weeks we were in the city (although that may not normally have been the case; a local bloke told me that when the word came out that "the Americans" were going to be in town for a while, the women "came out of the woodwork in droves"). My favorite place in town was a gleaming dance palace called Lourenzo Marques on St. Margaret Street, directly across from the abbey. The place had great music (house and dance music ruled there back then) and an even better crowd, and I quickly became a regular.
Lourenzo's was the first place I ever heard D-Mob's tune "We Call It Acieed", released earlier that year on FFRR (Full Frequency Range Recordings), a subsidiary of London Records. I told this story in an earlier post, but will repeat it here:
"One of my most vivid memories from that time is sitting in a seemingly dead and half-empty disco in Dunfermline, Scotland one chilly October night, waiting for something to happen. The DJ there put on D-Mob's "We Call It Acieed", and it was like a bomb went off - people came from everywhere, and in an instant, the place was packed with wild, gyrating Scots shaking the dance floor with a frenetic, tribal stomp that left me sitting there with my mouth wide open . . ."And with all of the adventures and fun and danger I experienced during that deployment, in Dunfermline an additional wrinkle was added . . . a bit of romance.
I went to Lourenzo's one evening after a hard and frustrating day of work aboard ship. I was in a foul mood and it showed. I shouldn't really have gone out, but I was damned if I was going to sit on board and stew all evening. So the plan was to head out, alter my attitude with a drink or five, then stumble back to the shipyard in a different frame of mind. I was standing at the bar, clutching a glass of cider (the first and last time I drank any of that stuff in any quantity) and scowling to myself, when a female Scottish burr, full of smiles and promise, softly purred into my ear, "Why don't you smile more?"
I turned to look upon one of the most amazing girls I've ever laid eyes on - simply breathtaking in the best sense of the word, with long honey-blonde hair, a lovely face and an outstanding smile. And the voice - ah, that voice! All these years later, and I can still remember the way her Scottish accent surrounded and caressed every word. And not in a Groundskeeper Willy-sort of way, either. It was something altogether different - and vive la difference! That's what shook me out of my funk.
I quickly bought her a drink, and we stood at the bar and just talked for a while. I found that her name was Margaret, and she worked at the Royal Bank of Scotland branch in the center of town. Despite the noise, the people around us and the booze, we managed to carry on a lengthy and fairly serious conversation, touching on a variety of subjects - at one point, I recall we were discussing the IRA. The music and crowd just sort of faded into the background for me. I kept expecting her to walk away at any time, but she seemed to be enjoying my company as much as I was enjoying hers, and we remained together at that bar until last call.
I then made one of the stupidest, most lunkheaded moves I've ever made in my life. They flipped on the house lights, signifying closing time. I turned to Margaret, thanked her for a pleasant evening - then I whirled around and headed for the door, leaving her standing there. I know, I know . . . I don't know WHAT the fuck I was thinking - I'll use the excuse that I was half-drunk (God, I still cringe when I think about it . . .).
I was standing outside the place in the cold, queued up for a taxi, and somehow still oblivious to the humongous mistake I just made. But apparently, God smiles on idiots from time to time - I suddenly felt an arm slip into mine, and turned to find Margaret next to me, inviting me to her place for a nightcap . . . Thank goodness for small miracles.
I spent a lot of time with her over the next couple of weeks, both out at the clubs and at her place. She showed me the town, and I took her on a tour of the dry-docked ship. I had so much fun with her in Dunfermline, I never even bothered to go to Edinburgh. But we both sort of knew that time was short, and whatever we had probably wasn't built to last. The repairs on the ship went quicker than they anticipated, and just before Thanksgiving we were back in the water and ready to rejoin the rest of the STANAVFORLANT force in southern England.
I spent my last night in Scotland with Margaret at her house, saying goodbye. I gave her some pictures I had taken of us and our time together, some other mementoes and other stuff to remember me by. She gave me her picture and address, and promised to write. And that was that. It was a sad group of sailors that left Rosyth on that snowy November morning, myself included. I think that everyone enjoyed their extended time in Scotland, an unexpected silver lining to the near-tragedy that almost sank our boat.
I sent Margaret postcards from every remaining stop on our deployment: Portsmouth, England; Zeebrugge, Belgium; and the Azores. We returned home to Virginia just before Christmas, and I wrote her a couple more times in the months that followed. But I never heard from her again.
Later that winter, I found a vinyl copy of various mixes of "We Call It Acieed", along with three mixes of "Trance Dance", at 12 Inch Dance Records in Washington, DC. It took America a year longer than Europe to get into this song, but our country managed to catch on in the end - "We Call It Acieed" topped the US dance charts for several weeks during the spring of 1989. I still have this record, in its original sleeve and all, and once in a while I still do the "old school" thing and play it on my turntable. And every time I do, I think back on that cruise and on my time in Scotland so long ago . . . and wonder about Margaret, whatever became of her, and how her life turned out.
Such is life.
Here's the music, cooked off of my meticulously maintained vinyl copy. Enjoy, and let me know what you think:
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