Once a week Cathy Elkin has the unlikely task of educating 500 new sailors about the dangers of their first liberty. The Navy calls it “Liberty Lecture,” and Elkin, who is director of public affairs for the USO, is uniquely talented to deliver it. She can shout like a sailor’s company commander, scold like his mother, swear like his best friend, and tease like his wildest dream. Besides that, she looks like Jane Fonda,
“There was a time not so long ago when standing in front of a bunch of horny young men was not the easiest thing for me to do,’’ her lecture begins. “But now that I’m a little older, it’s the best part of my week."
The young sailors don’t know whether to laugh or blush. They aren’t the swaggering, foul-mouthed, tattooed swabbies that legends are made of. At least not yet. They haven’t torn up a Singapore bar at dawn, or knocked up a brown-skinned native girl, or spent a week in the brig for telling their CO where to stick it. If Elkin has her way, they never will.
After eight weeks of boot camp these sailors may have earned the right to call themselves “bluejackets,” but they’re still green as a new field of Nebraska wheat. For most of them, the closest they’ve ever been to a ship is watching The Love Boat on TV. When they say “drunk,” they mean the past tense of “drink,” as in: “I drunk a half-gallon of milk this mornin’.” And a tattoo was the last thing they promised their mothers they wouldn’t do.
They look tired and hungry and sunburned and bored senseless from having stocky little men with bull necks yelling at them for so long. But Elkin has a way of getting their attention and keeping it. “You guys don’t know it yet, but liberty weekend can cause you a lot of trouble,” she says. “I’m old enough to be your mother, and I’d like to give you a little advice. ...
"I've watched you guys leave here on Saturday morning in your packs of three and four with your identical haircuts and your unique tan lines, and I’ll be damned if you don’t march in step all the way downtown just like you’ve been doing here for eight weeks. I know you’re proud, and you want everybody to know — you’re Navy now, but you make it too easy for all the sleaze bags around town to pick you out. You’re easy marks! They come up to you on the street and say, ‘Hey, sailor! Where you from? . . . Texas! Me too! What town? . . . Galveston! Well, I grew up in Galveston!’And the next thing you know, you’ve got a social disease you couldn’t even spell until you started taking penicillin for it.”
Elkin isn’t joking when she tells them they are easy marks. The previous weekend a recruit who had just graduated from the Naval Training Center — just as these recruits are about to do — was lured into a dark alley outside the base on Rosecrans Street by a young woman using a ploy similar to the example Elkin gave. There were two men with baseball bats waiting for him.
Fortunately he escaped with his life and his money, but he might have easily been killed for the $150 or so he had in his wallet. There have been thirty-nine robberies committed against NTC personnel in the last year. If all 500 recruits left the base with $150 in their wallets, that would be $75,000 hitting the streets every weekend. There are people out there who make it their job to get some of it, one way or another.
Elkin's advice for the recruits is to stay off Broadway, stay out of the bars in National City, and don’t try to live up to the worst image of a sailor. And it’s good advice. Ninety-five percent of the recruits who were robbed were so intoxicated they had trouble walking. Sixty-five percent were robbed between the hours of ten and twelve o’clock at night. Eighty-five percent of them were alone.
But what’s a young sailor full of fire supposed to do on liberty weekend? Elkin suggests they come to the USO. “I want to do away with that image you all have of the USO as a bunch of fat old ladies, Bob Hope, and donuts.... Now, I can guarantee you that on liberty weekend the USO won’t have everything you’re looking for ...” She pauses to let the suggestion sink in, and some of the recruits begin cheering, whistling, and foot-stomping. “However, I can guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised if you come in and look around. If you don’t like what you see, we have seven doors in the building and they all go out.”
She talks about some of the services the USO can offer at their new building on the downtown comer of Fifth Avenue and Harbor Drive: game rooms, music rooms, TV, showers, free dinners every Tuesday — all of which have their appeal. But what young men really want, she realizes, is to meet young women. “We have the most extraordinary group of women volunteers in the world and we happen to have two of them in the back of the auditorium right now if you’d like to turn around and look.”
At first the two girls look shocked by all the whooping and clapping, like deer frozen in headlights, but then they relax, giggling and blushing, and they bask in the fervid attention of 500 men who haven’t seen a woman who wasn’t in uniform for the last eight weeks.
“I would like to remind you that you will be getting paid before you go on liberty weekend,” Elkin says, “but try not to blow your wad all in one night, guys.... Keep your feet on the ground this weekend and take care of yourselves. I like my men to come to me all in one piece. See you tonight.”
The auditorium breaks up into a frenzy of two-fingered whistling, high-fiving, and raised-fist salutes. Even the grizzled company commander, who looks just the way a company commander is supposed to look, smiles in spite of himself.
Later, Cathy Elkin denies any knowledge of the liberty lecture. “That wasn’t me,” she laughs. “That was somebody else.... Sometimes guys come up to me two or three years later and say, ‘I recognize you, you’re the woman who spoke to us at boot camp,’ and I tell them, ‘Oh, no. I would never talk like that.’ We’ve tried so many different methods of getting through to those kids after they’ve been locked up inside the training center for so long, and that’s the one method that seems to work the best. But I get so embarrassed I have to deny it later.
“Nobody in my life is more important to me than active-duty military personnel. I’ve spent every holiday for the last twelve years with them. I’ve cooked their Thanksgiving turkey and their Christmas dinner; there’s nobody who knows them better than I do, and let me tell you, they’re a lot different than most people think,” she says.
“A lot of people expect sailors to be the swarthy, drunken, tattooed guys who are just looking to get laid. The truth is that in the younger age group there is a great deal of naivete. After the excitement of boot camp wears off, they begin to realize they have left everything familiar in their lives behind them.”
San Diego, Elkin says in a roundabout way, has not been particularly kind to servicemen, even though it is what she calls “the most heavily impacted military community in the country" and its economy is supported by servicemen’s dollars. Sailors are second-class citizens here, to be either exploited or ignored. They haven’t been invited to participate in the California dream because in a way they don’t live in California — they are only stationed here.
"Ask any sailor what it’s like to pull into Perth, Australia,” Elkin says, her voice trembling with emotion. “They’ll tell you how the people there come running down to the docks wanting to take them out to dinner or buy them a beer. They’ll tell you they’d rather be there than in an American port because the people love American servicemen there. They really care about them. We haven't cared about our servicemen in this country since before Vietnam. You should hear the snide remarks I get from the mothers of girls who want to volunteer for the USO: ‘No daughter of mine is going to date a serviceman!’ It breaks my heart to see people so critical of sailors and then not do a goddamn thing to give them an alternative. Nobody cares about servicemen in this country until we have to depend on them. Then we all tell them how much we’re counting on them. But if a sailor’s just lonely or depressed, everybody tells them, well, try calling home.”
Downtown on lower Broadway — everybody has something for a sailor: a cheap room, a greasy breakfast, a quick loan, a tattoo, a test of skill, drugs, salvation, flesh. The missionaries in black suits who roam the sidewalks in pairs handing out leaflets to anyone who will accept them call it “Hell’s Half Acre.” Nervous shop proprietors stand at their doorways watching the sailors stroll by as if they want to leap out and drag them inside their thresholds, where they can rifle their pockets for a fair share of that famous military budget that never knows a recession.
The Navy warns its younger sailors to stay off Broadway, that it’s a rough, tough neighborhood after the sun goes down. A lot of the sailors — maybe most of them — have never been in a city as large as San Diego before. They’re intimidated by it, and they take the Navy’s warnings seriously, by refusing to venture out into it. The other sailors call them “barracks rats” because they’re too timid to leave. They’re vulnerable, and they know it, so they confine themselves to the one place where they feel in control. You'll never see them out on the street.
But the young sailors out on Broadway aren't the timid type. They’re determined to live up to the legend of a sailor in port, even though most of them haven’t even been to sea yet. After the rigors of boot camp, their civilian clothes fit them poorly, being either too large or too small. Their first military haircuts haven't grown out yet. On their faces they wear a look of careless adventure, which is so close to the look of a sucker that you can hardly tell the two apart. They are too young to know what their older counterparts learned a long time ago — that there’s nothing on Broadway for a sailor, that it’s all cheap flash and illusion. But it seems to be one of those things they have to learn for themselves. A night on Broadway is one of many brutal rituals they must endure before they can truly call themselves sailors.
In the early afternoon the hookers start to bloom, looking pale and puffy, already wilting in the bright sun, their skirts fluttering in the ocean breeze. “Kissing one of those girls down on Broadway is like kissing your whole company,” the company commanders tell the young sailors, but the warning never put a hooker out of business. Prostitution may be less visible on Broadway these days, but the experienced sailors just laugh at the notion that the police are running the hookers out of town. “They come and go in cycles,” one sailor says. “When I graduated from boot camp, the hookers pulled up right outside the gates of the training center in their convertibles. Now you have to play a little cat-and-mouse game with them to find out if they’re undercover police: ‘Are you a cop?’ ‘Do I look like a cop?’ That sort of thing. I guarantee you when the ships pull in, the hookers will be there. They read the papers just like everybody else.”
Outside one of the topless joints a sign flashes in yellow lights: “Nude Girls! Nude Girls! Nude Girls!” The bouncer at the door says there’s no cover charge, so a group of sailors wanders in to check it out. It’s dark inside, and they bump into each other helplessly before their eyes adjust. The music is so loud and raucous they can feel the bass line coming through the soles of their shoes. They sit down at the bar and order draft beer, each guy paying for his own; when they slap down two dollars they each get a quarter in change. They turn around and look at the woman dancing on the stage. She is nude, all right, but one glance is enough to make them wish she weren’t. Her days as a sailor's fantasy are long past. She bumps and grinds her way through a series of gyrations that can only be described as obscene, and when she notices the sailors' flagging attention, she steps up the tempo in a frantic attempt to regain what she has lost. She only succeeds in looking more desperate, more sad. It's a horrible vision, the kind of thing that can bring temporary impotency to even a young man. The sailors, visibly depressed, stare right through her until their eyes glaze over and they see nothing at all. When the music mercifully comes to an end, the woman slides down off the stage and shouts, to no one in particular, “Gimme a drink, I wanna get drunk. I’m sicka this shit!’’ Down the street at Master Tattoo, a young sailor, naked to the waist, slouches low in his chair and stares up dreamily into the eyes of his girlfriend, while Lefty Al, the tattooist, shaves the blond fuzz from the sailor’s chest with a straight razor and swabs the patch of smooth skin with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol. “This is going to hurt,” the boy says to his girlfriend, making sure his courage doesn’t go unnoticed. When the girl squeals and squirms on cue, the boy takes a long drag off his cigarette, leans his head back, and slowly exhales the smoke toward the ceiling, relishing his final moments of boyhood.
Lefty Al slaps a wet decal of a,Playboy bunny on the boy’s chest, then peels it back carefully, trying not to make it smear. He clicks on the electric needle and, using his left hand, begins tracing over the pattern, tilting his head artistically, stopping now and then to inspect his work and wipe away the bluish dribble of ink and blood. “What color eyes you want on the bunny?” he asks.
The boy looks toward his girlfriend for her opinion, but she just shakes her head. Whatever he wants is fine. “How would yellow look?” the boy asks Lefty Al.
“Yellow?” Lefty Al shrugs, “It’d look okay. ... It might fade faster than some other color. ...” But before the boy can change his mind, the bunny has yellow eyes. Lefty Al smears the tattoo with Vaseline to slow the bleeding, then turns to the girl, winks, and says, “Watch out, he’s a playboy now.”
The sailor slips on his white shirt, and almost instantly a patch of blood the size of a quarter oozes through. “That blood’s one thing that never comes out,” he says.
Later that night, after the sun goes down, Broadway begins to resemble a carnival more than anything else, with the restless crowds roaming back and forth, the gaudy neon colors, the noisy arcades, the clash of music coming from several different directions, the reckless pursuit of cheap thrills. It’s mostly sailors on the street — some of them from other countries — mixed with bikers, con artists, hookers and pimps, refugees from mental institutions, and anybody else desperate enough to ignore the obvious signs of danger.
The younger sailors stay away from the bars on Broadway and in National City — not so much because of the Navy’s warnings, but because they’re too young to get in. I.D.'s are checked for anybody who looks under forty, and at some of the places, the sailors say, the bouncers will confiscate phony I.D.’s, and will handcuff and hold young sailors until the shore patrol arrives to take them away. The only alternative for a young sailor looking for a raucous celebration is Tijuana, and there are plenty of them who choose to take that route.
“I'm old enough to die for my country, but not old enough to walk into a bar and order a beer,” Russ says, repeating the standard young sailor’s complaint. “You can drink at the club on base if you’re eighteen, but I went to a dance there once, and there were about 200 guys for eight girls. I was already drunk by the time it was my turn to dance with one of them.” Russ comes from a small tobacco town in North Carolina, and he had never been to the West Coast, or anywhere else, before he joined the Navy and was sent to San Diego for boot camp. The lean sailor is deeply tanned, smiles a lot, and looks as though he could be from California, until he opens his mouth and his thick Southern accent gives him away. “I never been in trouble in my life,” he says. “Never had the chance. Hell, I'm nineteen; I got to find out what getting into trouble is all about.”
After graduating from boot camp, he and his buddies went to have a look at Broadway. They decided immediately that it wasn’t for them. “Our company commander told us to stay away from Tijuana, but he said it with a smile on his face. So of course that’s exactly where we went. We stopped off at the bus station in downtown San Diego, stashed our uniforms in a locker, and caught a bus going south. I heard there were a lot of muggings in TJ, and I had $300 on me, so I put twenty dollars in my pocket, twenty dollars in my wallet, and the rest in my shoe. There were a lot of sailors there that night, but it didn't take me long to find what I was looking for. She was a Mexican girl — real nice — who could only speak two words ot English: ‘Ten dollars.’ That was all she needed to know.”
He says that for him, liberty weekend in Tijuana was everything liberty weekend was supposed to be, but that he probably won’t go back. Since then he has looked around San Diego some, but figures it will be a while before he feels comfortable here. “Everybody seems to have some place to go, something to do. . . . Sometimes I feel like I’m at a party where everybody’s dancing except me. Does that make any sense?”
San Diego is situated where it is because San Diego Bay happens to be one of the finest natural harbors in the world. The U.S. Navy is here for exactly the same reason, and even though the interests of the two are sometimes conflicting, they are forever inseparable. It is a simple matter of geography. For better or for worse, San Diego County is the home of the largest military complex in the Western world.
Sometimes San Diego and the U.S. Navy act like two old married people who have been together for a long, long time, but never quite got used to each other’s annoying habits. The honeymoon was over a hundred years ago, so they quarrel and exchange insults, secure in the knowledge that neither party can leave.
If San Diego and the U.S. Navy are married, then National City is the bed they lie in. Driving south on Harbor Drive, you can see the gray ships — America’s muscle, one-fifth of the entire Naval fleet — docked at the Thirty-second Street installation, their jumbled network of towers silhouetted against the skyline. During World War II, the older sailors say, there weren’t enough docks in the harbor for all the Navy ships, and most of them had to anchor out in the bay and run smaller liberty ships back and forth to give the men their infrequent weekend on the town. Liberty became an exercise in indulgence, an orgiastic forty-eight hours of relief from all the pent-up cravings men can accumulate on board a cramped ship, and the sailors earned their famous reputation as being insatiable drunks with superhuman lusts. It didn’t matter that for the other eleven months and twenty-nine days they were at sea, they were as sober and celibate as priests.
Today life aboard ship isn’t quite the hardship it once was. Roomier accommodations, better food, more and varied forms of recreation, and even an occasional beer on extended cruises, have all helped to make ship life more tolerable. Now most of the ships dock at the pier when they are in port, and the men are free to come and go after hours, just like anybody else working at an eight-hour job.
Every evening you can see them strolling out the gates of the Thirty-second Street installation in packs of three or four. They walk along Harbor Drive to Eighth Street, where they turn inland, cross the railroad tracks, and duck under the freeway overpass, sometimes stopping to jot down the hookers’ phone numbers scribbled on the concrete abutments. When they reach National City Boulevard, they are in the middle of what is known as “the block.”
There are all the businesses you would expect -in a Navy town: the checks-cashed-fast, the rent-a-car-cheap, the pawnbroker who promises to buy “anything of value,” the credit furniture store where you can pick up a three-room group for $37.50 a month, the Pussycat Theatre featuring Dirty Dixie and Fever, the Filipino restaurants, the adult bookstores, and, of course, the bars.
It’s an ugly place, the block, about as seedy as a neighborhood can get. But if you talk to the sailors about it, a surprising number of them will tell you they love it for that very reason — not because it’s ugly, but because it’s a neighborhood, a place where you live and spend your time, a community with its own friends and enemies, a place where you feel comfortable and in control, where you can share the closeness of your own circle, have traditions, tell stories, and pass on the legends that were passed on to you; it’s a place where you don’t have to salute anybody, there is no chain of command, and everything isn’t painted navy gray or baby-shit brown.
The block was so ugly the sailors were sure nobody else would want it. It was theirs by default. It was the one corner in a strange town where they could go and almost feel as though they had a home. Until the bulldozers started knocking it all down.
The sailors sulking in the shadows behind the P&L Club, staring into the pile of rubble that used to be Brandy’s and the Town Club, are in an angry mood. It’s Friday night, just past dusk, and somebody has already been over to the liquor store to pick up the traditional Friday-night bottle of peppermint schnapps. A smog-tinted moon rises over the Filipino restaurant across the sfreet, while the sailors squat on their haunches, or lean back against the cyclone fence, and pass their bottle around the darkening circle.
Nobody says much at first. These are men who are used to watching things happen to them, knowing there isn’t much they can do about it. That’s what military life is all about — you take whatever comes down and keep your mouth shut. At least until you get to the block. Then you can scoff at your officers, rail against the government in all its blind stupidity, mock the ignorant civilians, and by the time the schnapps is gone, you are about halfway toward finding some kind of peace.
Now National City has more ambitious plans for these three square blocks of dilapidated buildings. The city’s redevelopment plan has been approved by the voters, funded by municipal bonds, and supported by the courts. The waterfront honky-tonks, once a sailor’s only refuge, will soon be motels, restaurants, and banks; and even though the sailors huddled behind the P&L Club knew it was coming, they can’t quite get over the shock of seeing the bulldozers standing where their favorite hangouts used to be.
“I don’t understand this shit,” John Gallgher says. “I feel bad. I feel sorry. They wanna tear down a piece of my life and put up a high-rise motel.” The lean bosun’s mate in baseball cap and cowboy boots is a leader of sorts, and his comments bring grunts of approval from the other sailors. Gallgher is a nine-year veteran of the block, and met his wife when she was tending bar at the P&L Club. Originally from a small town in Ohio that has one church, one bank, one store, and nine bars, he understands and appreciates the people on the block. “They call it a ‘blighted’ area,” he says. “What’s blight? Look around, we’re a family here on the block. We got no hookers, no hypes. When I walk down the street, I know everybody. They're good people, the kind of people who are there when you need help.... Blight? That’s just an opinion. The opinion of somebody who doesn’t understand.
“The trouble is that National City is having an identity crisis,” a sailor with a gruff voice says bitterly, stroking his blond beard. “They don’t wanna be National City. They wanna be San Diego. They wanna push out all the locals and bring in outsiders. They think they’re gonna attract tourists. Christ, if you were a tourist, would you come to National City?”
He gets a round of obscenities in response.
“We got a petting zoo behind the police station here,” another sailor says with a tone of wonder in his voice. “I guess that’s about it. . . . The only tourist dollars that get this far south are on their way to Mexico. Sometimes people like to drive by and look at all the ships in the harbor ... but then they keep right on driving.”
“Sailors don’t get paid enough to go to the kind of places they wanna put up here,” the sailor with the beard complains. “They wanna put in restaurants where I can afford to eat once every time I re-enlist. ... I’ll be goddamned if I’ll come to some cocktail lounge in National City and pay four dollars for a drink.”
“The old-time sailors used to say that National City was one of the best places in the world to pull liberty.” Gallgher says. “Look at it now. The only places left are the Westerner and the P&L Club. See that grocery store?” he says, pointing south down National City Boulevard. “They’re going to tear it down clear to there.” He picks his way across the rubble of bricks and glass, growing more and more angry by what he sees. Then, inspired by his memories, and perhaps a little by the liquor in his belly, he delivers a moonlight eulogy to the neighborhood he loves: “Where I’m standing right now is where Brandy’s used to be. It was a topless bar, and it had the ugliest broads you ever saw. I don’t know why they were so ugly, but there's no use denying it; they were. Right next to Brandy’s there was a passageway that went behind the P&L Club, where we always drink our bottie of schnapps. There was a crack in the wall of Brandy’s where the light would shine through, and when the bottle of schnapps was empty, whoever finished it off would throw it against the wall and try to hit that crack. It was a tradition. I know it sounds silly now, but that’s what we did.
“Where that bulldozer is standing right now is where the Town Club used to be,’’ he continues. “It was owned by Mama Boat. We called her that because she was retired Navy — a bosun’s mate, like me. Mama Boat was like a mother to us, and if you were a sailor, you could do no wrong in her bar. She had a knot board that she made in the Navy hanging on her wall, and when you walked in and saw it, you knew you were in a sailor’s bar. If a fight broke out. Mama Boat could turn her back and walk away from it because she knew the rest of us would take care of it for her. When you got hungry at Mama Boat’s place you could order a sandwich from Mario’s across the street, and they’d bring it over to you because they knew if you were in the Town Club you had to be a sailor. You didn’t even have to go get it. . . . That’s how it was here on the block; people were so used to dealing with sailors that we were accepted.
Everywhere else, sailors are only tolerated.’’
One of the sailors heaves the empty schnapps bottle against the side of the bulldozer and it shatters and falls among the other debris. “If they tear down the rest of the block,’’ Gallgher swears, “I’ll never set foot in National City again.’’
Every Friday, Saturday, or military payday, there’s a white shore patrol van parked across the street from the Westerner bar, and inside are two MPs slumped down in their seats, looking tired and bored by the tedious job of watching other sailors having fun. At first it would seem as though their presence would be intimidating to the sailors who frequent the bars on the block, but that isn’t the case. The sailors even say they like having them there, for two reasons: one, the most violent crimes in the area have been committed not by sailors, but against sailors, and the shore patrol’s presence helps prevent that; and, two, the shore patrol’s primary duty is to take “courtesy turnovers” — intoxicated sailors picked up by the local police — back to their military stations, which prevents the sailors from being punished twice, once by civil, and once by military law.
The owner of the Westerner, which is the largest and most popular bar on the block, is Harold Dodds. Besides the Westerner, which he has owned since 1958, he also owns Harold’s Club, the Golden Barrel, the Western Steak House, and part of the E-Z 8 Motel — all of them on the block. Dodds is a scrappy little guy with the moxie of a street fighter who is being rat-packed by two bigger street fighters: National City and the U.S. Navy,
In September of 1983 the Navy placed the Westerner off-limits to Navy personnel, and placed several other establishments on the block under probationary status. It was the Navy’s way of notifying business owners in the area that they wouldn’t tolerate the increasing number of violent assaults and muggings that had been taking place against sailors on the block.
For eight weeks business at the Westerner dropped to almost nothing. During that time, Dodds met with the Navy on several occasions, and finally agreed to install better lighting in the parking lot, to trim the shrubbery around the bar where muggers had been hiding, to improve security inside the bar by using bouncers and uniformed guards, and to refuse to serve alcohol to sailors who are intoxicated. The Navy then asked National City to provide better lighting on the streets leading back to the Thirty-second Street installation, which it did; and the Navy began providing free transportation from the block back to the base between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m.
To Dodds’s relief the Westerner was then removed from the off-limits category. But he still had to deal with National City and their redevelopment plans for the block. “Kile Morgan [the mayor of National City] says he’s gonna take a big bulldozer and shove me off into the bay,” Dodds says. “Hell, I’m a respected citizen. I work hard, and run a good place. I don’t run any dope places, no prostitutes, or anything like that. But he says he’s gonna push me right into the bay.”
Dodds says the redevelopment plans can only hurt the area. “It’ll take dollars away from National City. The sailors will just end up in Tijuana. That’s what’s happening right now. They’re going down there getting into fights, crime, bringing back diseases. If we got them up here in this area, we can at least take care of them. They like being close to their base. We built motels for them to stay in, and they spend their weekends here. The city sees how lucrative the motels are, and they want to tear all this down and put up more motels; but what they don’t understand is that the sailors staying in the motels are going to these nightclubs.”
Dodds thinks National City won’t be satisfied until it changes its image as a sailor’s town, and he considers that a mistake. “Sailors are great spenders,” he says. “They don’t bother nobody. They don’t get in no trouble. Oh, I’ve seen them getting into fights out in the parking lot, but you’re gonna have that. Kile Morgan says he don’t like them. Says he don’t want the trash. He calls them troublemakers and says they’re what’s caused all the blight in National City. Once a year he’ll hold a Navy Day . . . then the other 364 days he hates them.”
Even though Dodds thinks the redevelopment plans are a bad idea, he says he won’t be the one to stand in their way. “To this day nobody from the city has come down to talk to me about acquiring this place. I’m not against redevelopment. All you have to do with old Harold is bring your checkbook and come on down. I’ll sell to anybody for fair market value. But they’re not going to take it away from me.”
Inside, the Westerner is dark and smoky, big as a warehouse, with a crowded dance floor and a rock band that can be heard blocks away. Sailors roam restlessly among the tables where women huddle together, pretending they don’t want to be bothered.
There are almost always a lot of women at the Westerner, which seems surprising, considering the area’s dangerous reputation. But Gina and Debbie, two blond cherubs from Lemon Grove who go to the Westerner so often the Navy should offer them a pension, say it isn’t as bad as it seems, that the bouncers on the block are very protective, and other than being mistaken for prostitutes from time to time, they never have any trouble.
They both say they come to the Westerner because they have a genuine fondness for sailors. “If you go to some of the nightclubs around San Diego, all you get are a bunch of snobs, a bunch of pretty surfer boys,” Gina says. “But swabbies are different. They’re nice. They’ll spend their paycheck. They’ll buy you a drink and ask you to dance. They're good-time boys.”
“Yeah, but they’re one-night stands,” her friend Debbie warns. “And they’ll never tell you if they’re married.”
The girls are avid pool players and usually show up with their own custom cues, ready to challenge a sailor at a sailor’s game. Gina, the more experienced of the two, slides a quarter into the table’s money slot and racks up the balls with a confidence that shows she has racked up more than a few before. She enjoys baiting the sailors by calling them “swabbies,” or “squids,” knowing it makes them mad. “I can tell the difference between a sailor and a marine from across the room by the length of his hair,” she says proudly.
Debbie, who is divorced and has a young son to support, says she envies a sailor’s freedom. “They don’t pay rent. They don’t buy food. They don’t buy gas. They live on a ship two blocks away and all their expenses are taken care of,” she says. “They got it made.”
“Yeah,” Gina adds, “but they all say they hate the Navy, anyway. Most of them joined up to get away from their parents, or the law, or both. Out of all the swabbies I’ve known, only one re-enlisted.”
A sailor comes up to ask Gina to dance, and watching her friend and the sailor walk away, Debbie says, "They are just a bunch of lonely boys a long way from home.”
Back at the USO in San Diego a group of six or seven sailors is playing cards. These guys have already served their time on Broadway and in the smoke-filled waterfront bars. They already have their tattoos. Most of them are married men now, lifers, for whom San Diego has become more like a home than a place where you spend a liberty weekend. They say that things have changed since they went through boot camp, but not that much. “There’s still a lot of ways for a young sailor to go wrong,” one of them says, “especially if he's trying to live up to the ‘image’ of a sailor.”
They tell about the sailors who get invited to a “closed” card game — a setup — and lose their whole paycheck without even knowing they’ve been had. Or the sailors who get invited up to a prostitute’s room and find three guys there waiting to beat him up and take his money. Or about the undercover cops on Broadway who will go after a sailor because they know he has money in his pocket and is looking for action, while they won’t even bother one of the street characters. Or the car dealers and loan sharks who prey on the kids who arc too green to know what they’re doing.
“This kid wanted me to see a Camaro he'd just bought down on the Mile of Cars,” one of the old-timers says. “I took one look at it and could see it had been in a wreck. It was a piece of junk. It was the first car he’d ever bought, and he didn’t know what he was doing. I asked him to show me the papers he’d signed, and I figured out he was paying 22.5% interest on the loan.”
They say there are lots of ways the local community makes them feel unwelcome. They talk about walking down the street in their whites and having teenagers yell at them, “Where’s your ice cream truck?” One of them tells about the time he had a date with a local girl, and the first time he showed up at her door her father thought he was just a clean-cut kid and shook his hand; the second time he went to her house, the father knew he was a sailor, and told him he wasn’t welcome there.
Some of them are bitter about their experiences here. “People are always talking about how great San Diego is,” one of them says. “I’ve been all over the world and seen how other people live, and I don’t think it’s so great in San Diego. If this is the California dream, you can have it. I think it’s a nightmare. People in this town live off of military money, but they don't give a damn about a sailor unless he’s going to drop a dollar.”
“Ah,” one of his buddies scoffs, “you won’t find too many sailors who don’t like San Diego. What the young guys have to do is get away from downtown, get away from the rip-offs, go inland, go to the college communities — college students and sailors have similar financial problems.” “Get away from the beaches, too,” another one adds. “It’s easy for sailors to get girls if they don’t have to compete with the guys with the fancy hairdos who live off of daddy’s money and don’t have anything better to do than pump iron all day.”
“A sailor has to take advantage of all the good things there are to do around San Diego,” another sailor says. “The USO can help him do that. This place was a godsend for me — I don’t smoke or drink, and never got into the bar scene. It took me four months to find out about the USO, and I haven’t left since.” □