Pierhead Jump

What follows is a story written by "Scratcher" J D Perkins a RCN submariner and respected historian of the RCN after he left the service. Scratcher, who sadly, recently left us on his last patrol, was one of the Canadians who served on RN Boats in the 50's and 60's. This story has been circulated before but I think it derserves another publication.


By “Scratcherâ€

It was thirty-two minutes past midnight on one of those utterly still, almost warm, early winter nights that sometimes happen in Nova Scotia. The sky was completely overcast, the blackness relieved only by the deck lights of ships and the Halifax waterfront street lights. A lone MCDV lay at berth N-North, her lines creaking quietly as she surged gently like a restless sleeper. The steam vents on the jetty spouted small clouds of vapour that periodically blotted out sections of the roadway. Nothing stirred except for the two figures lounging at the top of the gangway in the light spilling from the doorway leading to the ship’s interior.

“Hey Mason†growled Leading Seaman Keith Butler to his boatswain’s mate, “Get your little ass down on the jetty and check that the brow is free. The way this thing is moving it might get caught on something.â€
“Shit†he thought to himself, “I gotta give her something to do.â€
“Yes leading seaman Butler, anything you say sir†mocked Able Seaman Tiffany Mason to herself as she made her way carefully down the steeply sloping, slightly twisted, brow.

The group of reserves had only been aboard a week but the two already had the measure of one another. She knew he was essentially an easy going, good natured type and all he wanted was to get this watch over with so he could get his head down. She knew too that they both felt the same about standing middle watches alongside in Slackers. It was no way to spend the night, especially as they were to sail in the morning.
As he watched her make her way to the jetty he thought to himself that she wasn’t half bad. Might even be a prospect for a little fun when they reached Shelburne for a weekend of R and R in a couple of days. He decided he’d have to give that one a little more thought. It was then that he noticed the headlights of a car stopped at the shore end of the jetty. He could just make out something white fluttering from the front fender. “Oh shit†he thought, “Not a bloody VIP at this time of night. Could be an exercise of some kind too, just to keep poor sailors awake in the middle of the night.â€

In the weak light given off by the opening of a door he could see that someone was getting out, someone who was moving very awkwardly, as if their joints weren’t working right. It was too far for voices or recognition, but by the way the person hung around the barely visible car he surmised they were talking to somebody inside—the driver maybe.

His attention was abruptly brought back to the ship by a scrape and a clatter from the jetty as the brow straightened itself. Tiffany, giving a final tug on the guardrail said “Hey Butler. The brow’s OK, I’m going aft. Alright? There’s a funny noise at the end of the jetty. I think I better check it out.â€
Leaning over the guardrail he could see that she was walking slowly toward the seaward end of the jetty. “OK†he said in quiet voice, “But watch your step. Fall in and I’ll leave you there.â€
“Take a hike Butler†she quipped back just loud enough for him to hear. “I can look after myself.†But she was a little apprehensive about that noise, she just couldn’t pin it down. It sounded like a big engine but it was muffled somehow and coming from the darkness out in the harbour. “A tugboat or harbour craft maybe,†she wondered.

It was then that Butler caught sight of the person from the car. The figure was just emerging from the shadows under the big travelling crane parked at the end of the jetty and into the loom of one of the lights on the building wall. It was a man alright, but if it was the same guy he seemed to have lost his stiffness, and he was in uniform. It was too dark to make out what his rank was, or even what service, but there was definitely a glint of gold at the ends of his sleeves and on the peak of his cap. He was coming toward them.

“Hey Butler there’s a weird looking ship out there and it’s coming in†said the breathless girl in a low voice from half way up the gangway. “What d’ya want me to do?â€
“That’s all I need†thought Butler to himself. “Complications, from two directions at once.â€
He had to make a decision and quickly as to whether or not to call the duty officer. He didn’t want to, but if there was a ship coming in he knew he should. “Go see what they want while I get subby Gagnon up here†he growled back, not relishing what was about to take place.
“Nobody had told him about no ship coming in†he complained to himself. Reaching for the phone he put it to his ear before punching-in the number for Gagnon’s cabin only to realize the receiver was dead. Depressing several buttons in succession didn’t help either. Reaching for the intercom microphone he pressed the button and tapped the face of the mic only to discover it too was dead.

“Oh **** it†he groaned to himself, “I’ll have to get her back up here to go get the subbie and that means there’ll be no one on the jetty for the ship. â€As he moved back toward the gangway a movement on the jetty made him look down again and he could see that the stranger was almost abreast the bows. The man was fairly tall and lean and the green uniform he was wearing had lieutenant’s stripes. In a sense he was relieved, “At least he wasn’t a friggin’ VIPâ€.

On the jetty Tiffany could just about make out the strange vessel. It was all wet and glistening and painted black making it hard to see details. One thing she was sure of, it was a submarine of some kind. She was almost bows-on. The ship’s steaming lights glowed like little jewels in the darkness and someone on the low bridge was shining a light onto the end of the jetty below her. There were four or five heads wearing white caps peeking over the windbreak around the bridge and some men moving around on the upper deck. The men on deck were dressed in white sweaters and wore round white hats like the British sailors she’d seen once. She could hear their voices but couldn’t make out what they were saying. The rumbling noise was getting louder and she could see a cloud of exhaust mixed with water spraying out of the side of the deck back aft. One of the men was standing on the high bows holding a coiled heaving line and was swinging his arm back to throw it.

The sudden pressure of a hand on his shoulder startled him. Keith Butler spun round to face whoever it was, his adrenaline pumping and his mind searching for appropriate expletives. He was both startled and relieved to see the familiar face of Petty Officer Chapman. “What was he doing on board?†Before he could figure it out or even ask his question an eerie calmness descended on his mind as Chapman said “You go ahead down and take charge. I’ll keep an eye out hereâ€. Striding down the brow Keith Butler had no doubt whatever that he was doing the right thing.
As the figure walking up the jetty passed the brow he was enveloped in a cloud of steam that drifted slowly to seaward along the surface of the roadway.

The heaving line whistled past her head causing her to duck. Tiffany grabbed a handful of the light coloured rope as it stretched itself on the ground then lifted her head to find out what was next. The white sweatered submariner waved his arm and someone behind him started paying out a head rope. Instinctively she began hauling in the heaving line and in no time at all had looped the eye of the hawser over the bollard on the jetty. As soon as the line was secure the men on the boat started heaving in and the submarine slowly swung broadside-on across the end of the jetty. Another man standing midway along the fore deck heaved another line and to her surprise Butler grunted from the vicinity of her right elbow “I got it†and grabbed the slender rope in mid air. As he hauled it in they could see it was fastened to the end of a long slender plank lying across the deck.

“Leave the lines on so’s you can pass ‘em back m’ luvley,†said someone on the deck, “we’ll be off in a tick.†His accent was unmistakably English.
They could make out the submarine a lot better now. It was very old fashioned, nothing like the sleek fat Vics that often occupied the special berth ahead of them on the same jetty. This one was long and narrow and except for the raised bows was very low in the water. There was a gun too, mounted in front of the bridge in a sort of tub with a curved shield on the front of it. The bridge was very low and rising from the centre were three tall posts, one with a small radar aerial spinning around on top. Hanging limply from a short pole on the back of the bridge was a British white ensign. On the side of the windbreak that ran around the top edge of the bridge they could make out a maple leaf cut out of sheet metal. It was split vertically in two colours, red on one half, blue on the other. Painted in white on the side of the bridge was a large letter “S†and a number which they couldn’t make out because of the shadows. There was no name that they could see.

The faint tinkle of telegraph bells echoed from somewhere inside the bridge and a disjointed voice could be heard saying “Both main motors stopped. Ready group up, sir†and another responded “Very good coxswain. We’ll only be a few minutes so stand-by below.â€

“Tyke it away m’lovlies†said a voice from the deck and Tiffany and Keith hauled away together as the weight of the plank came on the rope. When the end landed on the edge of the jetty the same man said “That’s good. leave it for now.†It was then they both turned to see what was going on behind them.

The man who emerged from the cloud of steam looked nothing like the one who had been walking up the jetty. “Well, he was but he wasn’t†thought Keith, confused and wondering just what was going on here. Tiffany hadn’t seen him before so she wasn’t aware of anything particularly unusual. “This whole thing is weird†she thought to herself.
The man, and it was the same man decided Keith, was dressed in an old fashioned sailor’s outfit. Bell bottom trousers, a skin-tight navy jumper with a deep vee front which showed off his crisp white front with its blue piping at the top framed on either side by a shiny black band of silk, overlaid by a white lanyard and behind his shoulders a pale blue sailor’s collar with three white stripes running around it. He was wearing the same round cap as the men on deck and it was pulled down close to his right eyebrow giving it a jaunty angle. The tally on the cap band said simply HM SUBMARINES and the bow over his left ear had big spiky ends that almost reached the top edge. In his hand he was carrying a light brown canvas zippered bag. Butler could plainly make out the gold coloured propeller on the right sleeve and when the man stretched out his left arm to steady himself while mounting the gangway he noticed a gold anchor with a two chevrons under it on the other sleeve. At the top of the shoulder nearest him was a small badge with gold letters that spelled the word CANADA.
Butler tried to catch the man’s eye. For some inexplicable reason he had a feeling he might know him. From below someone said quietly “C’mon Canader, get on down here, we got a schedule to keep.†But the man paused and turned his head and when their eyes met Keith Butler knew instantly that this guy knew him—knew everything about him and had probably always known him. He wanted to put a name to this stranger who wasn’t, but he felt somehow that that really wasn’t important. The man grinned, turned and was off down the thin bouncy plank, arms outstretched for balance, and then he was on the deck of the submarine, his footsteps echoing on the hollow steel casing.

Keith and Tiffany watched as he made his way along the deck, stopping briefly at each man in turn to exchanged a handshake or a mock punch, and heard short quips like "Where've you been oppo? We got watches to stand and places to go you know.†It was obvious to both observers that he was well known to this crew. He reached the bridge after climbing up the hand holds cut in the plating and tossed his bag to waiting hands, one of the officers shook hands with him and said “Welcome back. We’ve fixed you up with the forenoon watch in the donk shop and we’ve a defect list as long as your arm and there’s shit?on?a-raft for breakfast. Now get your gear below and we’ll get out of here.â€

The man on the casing beckoned. Keith and Tiffany manned the heaving line and passed the plank back onto the submarine. Leaving Butler to pass the heaving line back, Tiffany went to the bollard, waited for it to go slack then slipped the eye of the hawser off and eased it back with the heaving line to the waiting men below. She was proud of the fact that it didn’t get wet. Even as they worked they heard the telegraph bells tinkling and indistinct orders passing back and forth on the bridge. The water astern of the submarine suddenly churned into froth as the screws began their work. While the ship turned towards the open water one of the men in the bridge waved, and they waved back, it seemed the natural thing to do. In what seemed like seconds the submarine was passing into the night, the white sweatered men clambering over the bridge rail having stowed their gear and clanged the hatches shut as she swung away from the jetty. The big engine that had been rumbling away all this time suddenly stopped, leaving an eerie silence. Soon all they could see was the overtaking light on the back of the bridge twinkling in the distance moving towards Georges Island and an occasional white feather of bow wave.

And then she was gone. Except for the lingering odour of diesel exhaust everything seemed to have returned to normal. A steam relief hissed briefly releasing a small cloud of vapour into the night, and their own brow gave a little scrape as it adjusted to the movement of their ship in the current set up by the departing submarine. The brief glow of a pair of red brake lights far down the jetty marked the departure of the car. Keith could see the figure of someone at the top of the gangway and he still felt the confidence he had experienced when he came down to secure the boat. As they turned to return aboard Keith and Tiffany faintly heard a strange alarm hooter far off in the direction the old submarine had taken. It squawked only twice.

As he reached the deck Keith looked for the PO who had relieved him and was reassured by the sight of a back disappearing into the doorway followed by the clatter of booted feet descending the ladder into the interior of the ship. “Fair enough†he thought to himself, “No sense hanging about, is there?†“Double double?†Tiffany enquired pointing herself in the direction of the same doorway. “Black with two sugars†replied Butler “I need something strong.†While the girl was getting their coffee Keith checked out the telephone and intercom. He was relieved, and not particularly surprised to discover that everything was back on line.
They stood the remainder of their watch with hardly a word between them except for a tacit agreement that they had better keep the whole thing to themselves. For some inexplicable reason they frequently caught themselves gazing off in the direction of George’s Island as if looking for something.

On his way to his own mess at the end of the watch Keith stuck his head into the PO’s mess. There was only one silent body in a bunk, and it wasn’t Chapman. “Figures†he concluded almost cynically to himself, “What a way to earn a day’s pay.†Keith didn’t see Tiffany again until the ship was well under way and the crew had secured from harbour stations. Grabbing the few moments they knew they could count on between major events in the day’s routine they sat down together on opposite sides of the same table in the cafeteria. Lying on the table between them someone had left a newspaper folded with an obituary notice uppermost. There was a modest headline that began “Well known submariner dies after long battle …†For some reason Keith and Tiffany both felt compelled to read it. Some of the short phrases were like little electric shocks. “Joined submarines in 1955 as a leading seaman—Served in the 6th Squadron in Halifax and in the UK—retired from the CAF as a lieutenant commander.†Somehow it seemed like they should know all about it, but the events of the night before were rapidly fading from memory. With a brief “See ya.†they parted company.

Taking the paper Butler hed aft where he knew he was expected. On the way he met Petty Officer Chapman in the passageway. Taking a chance Butler said “Hey PO. You ever know this guy?†and passed him the paper. “Son of a bitch†said Chapman slowly. “I knew him years ago when I was reg force. Had to get out because he got sick or something. He was my divisional officer when I was an AB at the old ship repair unit. Funny thing, I was thinking about him just last night. Small world, ain’t it?â€



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