Southern Life

When I tell people that I served in the Navy, their eyebrows go up when they hear that I was stationed in Oklahoma.  For the geography-challenged, Oklahoma is landlocked. For the vocabulary challenged, “landlocked” means “cut off from the sea.” For the connections challenged, think “sailors,” then “ships,” then “oceans,” and then “Oklahoma.”

Sound suspicious?

It did to me, too.

And I grew even more suspicious when my next duty station was in Jacksonville, Florida – and I still hadn’t seen a ship.

Long story short, I was in the Navy for two years – and never saw a ship!

Let me repeat that: I was in the United States Navy for two years and never saw a ship.

Talk about embarrassing! People see you wearing a sailor suit and just naturally assume that you are a sailor and that sailors sail, and that sailing requires a flotation device of some kind, and that the device is probably a ship. Anchors aweigh, ship ahoy, and all that – remember?

Bottom line, I came to believe that the Navy had no ships.




But once I got over the shock, I began to think: Sonofagun! How clever! How economical, too!”

After all, how many times have you read in the newspaper, or heard on TV, something like this: “The Seventh Fleet steamed into the Mediterranean today”?

Didn’t you naturally assume that it was true, that it in fact happened?

Didn’t you picture this great flotilla of battleships and destroyers and aircraft carriers and various other vessels gliding east through the Straits of Gibraltar, flags flying, sea water spraying, radar scanners fairly bristling with alertness, checking out anything and everything that moved on land, sea, or in the sky.

But how could any of this happen without ships?

Note also that these news stories are never eye-witness reports. They never say, for instance, “I saw the Seventh Fleet steam into the Mediterranean today.”

They don’t even say “I know a guy who knows a guy whose cousin saw the Seventh Fleet steam into the Mediterranean today.”

No. It’s always a simple announcement. A flat-out, take-it-or-leave-it announcement. And it never comes with attribution. Or if it does, the attribution is something vague, like “Naval officials said.”

So there you have it, and you heard it here first: The Navy has no ships. Doesn’t need any ships. Simple news reports do the job. It’s a phantom navy, is what it is. Like the Emperor’s clothes, it simply isn’t there – but doesn’t need to be because everybody believes it is there. Brilliant!

But try as I might, I could not get our executive officer, ol’ Blood and Guts Richards, to understand it.

This was after Captain Richards called me into his office to “discuss” the “unusual theory” I had been “spreading among the men.”

But I spoke right up. “It’s not a theory, sir.”


“It’s all a big mind game. Smoke and mirrors.


“And I believe the Navy owes me an apology.”

“A what?”

“Apology.  You people got me into this uniform on false pretenses.”

He looked at me hard for a minute. “Well, Sailor, tell you what I’m going to do.”

“Yes, sir?”

“I’m going to get you out of that uniform, pronto, and there’s nothing false about my intentions.”

With that, he called for his clerk, Chief Somethingorother, who only a microsecond later stood in the exec’s doorway, eager to do his bidding. Pointing at me, Richards demanded, “Has this sailor ever been up to 650?”

Six-Fifty was the number on the building that housed the base’s mental cases.  The number had become a shorthand way of saying someone was crazy: “Oh, he’s 650.” Or “Oh, he went 650; didn’t you hear?”

The chief smiled. “No, sir. He’s what we call a 325.”

I knew that one, too. It meant only half crazy.

“He’s from Georgia, sir,” the chief added, as if my being Southern explained everything.

Capt. Richards did not crack a smile. He said, “Well, Chief, this is Seaman Lamb’s last day in uniform. We’re going to ship him back —” He caught himself and began anew.  “We’re going to send him back to Georgia. Draw up his discharge papers for my signature within the hour.”

“Aye, aye, sir. What kind of discharge, sir?”

“What do we have that’s just shy of Nutty as a Fruitcake?” the captain asked.

The chief smiled again. “Sir, that’d be a general discharge.”

“Then write him up as a general.”

“Aye, aye, sir. A general it is.” He went back to his desk just outside the door. Soon I heard typing.

I have to say that it kinda hurt my feelings to be given the heave-ho just for telling the dang truth. But I figured I’d better quit while I was ahead. Not many people go into the Navy as a seaman recruit and get promoted to general on their way out after only two years in uniform.

Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb

I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After service in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English, and then began a (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and ended years later in Atlanta at The (great) Atlanta Constitution, which I left in late 1982 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. My second novel, Atlanta Blues, spent a few minutes on the best-seller list in (at least) Columbia, S.C., and was described in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the three best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer.” My third novel won no honors but at least didn’t get me hanged; titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in the high school of a Georgia town. For my next novel, And Tell Tchaikovsky the News, I returned to an Atlanta setting for a story about the redemptive powers of, in this case anyhow, “that good rock ’n’ roll.” I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. One of its stories, “R.I.P.,” was a winner in the S.C. Fiction Project in 2009. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.comand I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.