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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Liberty at Last!

When we got our first liberty, I went ashore with the Olsen brother from Portland.  Dan, the older, was about Dick’s age and Bud was my age.  Our standard issue uniforms with the single cuff stripe of an apprentice seaman and the baggy blouses marked us for boots.  (One of the first things we would do later when we went to our assignments would be to get the uniforms tailored.)
We rode the bus to downtown San Diego and got off at Broadway, the heart of the tenderloin.  The wide street, ending at the Broadway Landing where all the liberty boats form the fleet came in, was lined with neon signs of bars, cheap jewelry stores where many boots bought their first wristwatch, and uniform stores specializing in tailor-made uniforms with tight fitting blouses and bell bottom trousers.
The street was also well lined with the girls we called “seagulls”—not prostitutes, but young girls out looking for a sailor or marine to show them a good time.  Many of the “seagulls” that hung around the Broadway Landing were obviously minors.  When approached by one of them, the sailor’s answer was to flip them a nickel and say, “No thanks, little girl.  Call me next cruise.!”
There were few streetwalker prostitutes on Broadway because San Diego was well policed by both Navy shore patrols and city policemen and detectives.  Prostitution was not legal, but it flourished in military towns because the authorities realized that it was a necessary evil for the men.  Without “camp followers” the incident of rape and unwanted pregnancies of city girls would undoubtedly go up.  I would find that the same was true of Honolulu, if anything, even more so.
The houses of prostitution were clustered in the waterfront area to the south of Broadway.  Red lights abounded, and there was a Navy prophylactic station in the vicinity for those who wished to participate in the delights of the tenderloin and have some protection against venereal disease.
The Olsen brothers and I were not looking for that kind of entertainment when we hit Broadway.  Bud wanted a few drinks.  Dan, a more sober type than his ebullient younger brother, had other ideas.  He had played the bass in a small combo in Portland before joining the Navy and he wanted to find some music.  We had heard of a ballroom at the top of Broadway so Da took his leave and headed up that way.
Bud was all for hitting the nearest bar.  We picked one with a neon sign of a palm tree and marched in boldly.  Inside the door was a far as we got.  A burly bouncer accosted us, “Hey, boots, let’s see the liberty cards!”
We were both only eighteen.  The bouncer disgustedly shoved the cards into our jumper breast pockets and prodded us toward the door.  “Want to bring the Shore Patrol down on us?  Come on, get lost!”
Back out on the street we paused trying to decide what to do.  While we discussed the problem, a slightly built young man dressed in grey slacks and a soft print shirt approached us.  “Hi, sailors!  Wouldn’t let you in would they?  How would you boys like to go to a gay party?”
Bud pulled back his fist to punch the man’s face, but it would have been a mistake as there were two shore patrolmen walking toward us.  Bud was saved.  From behind us an arm in a Navy blouse seized Bud’s wrist.
“Don’t do it, Mac,” a friendly voice said.  “Only land you in the brig for the night.”
It was a second class petty officer with the red hash mark of four years on his lower sleeve.  He looked us over.  “Still at boot camp, eh?  Tell you what, if you want a drink, there is a place a block down and a block south called McQuinn’s.  McQuinn won’t ask to see your liberty cards and the Shore Patrol never hassles him because everyone realizes that we all need a place to blow off some steam.  Just don’t give him any trouble or he will throw you out.  McQuinn used to be a Navy Pacific fleet welterweight champion in the old days.”
We thanked the man and he waved a hand at us.  “Us swabbies got to stick together, Mac.  Stay away from the queers and the seagulls and have a good time.”
McQuinn’s was as advertised, a well-kept saloon with McQuinn presiding behind the long bar.  We took stools and shoved back our white hats as the rocky-faced short man with a cauliflower ear and wearing a white apron approached.
“Well, now, and what might you two swabbies be wanting?”
Bid ordered a rum and coke.  I was at a momentary loss because I was not used to ordering drinks in a bar.  In fact, this was the first bar, other than taverns, that I had been into.  Finally, I thought of a drink I had heard about and said, “I’ll have a whiskey sour.”
McQuinn snorted and leaned his muscular arms on the bar.  “Look, Mac, I know you are not dry behind the ears yet so let me give you some advice.  Don’t start out with them fancy women’s drinks!  Bad for your stomach.  I don’t even like to make them.  Have an honest shot of booze instead, like a bourbon and water or something.”
Somewhat abashed, I settled for the bourbon and water.  Bud and I sipped our drinks slowly and sat there talking, sometimes joined by McQuinn because business was slow at that early hour.  He told us some sea stories, some of which we believed.  We each had a second drink.
Being totally unaccustomed to hard booze, we got pretty vociferous.  I noticed that I was beginning to have some difficulty in following the conversation and the tip of my nose was becoming unaccountably numb.  My eyes did not seem to focus on everything.
Bud ordered another round of drinks in a voice that was a bit slurred.  McQuinn refused.  “Look, you boots, why don’t you take a break.  Go to a movie or up to the Aragon Ballroom or something.  I got a good arrangement with the Shore Patrol.  I don’t let anyone overdo it and they don’t bother me.  Enjoy your liberty and come back some other time.  Always be glad to see you.”
We wandered outside a bit unsteadily.  It had gotten dark while we were in McQinn’s.  The bright lights of Broadway were a block north.  To the south was a darkened waterfront area where several red lights showed.  Bud looked around and pointed to a blue neon sign in the next block that read “Anchor Rooms”.  It fronted the stairway of a dingy red brick building. 
“Oh no,” Bud said, “that’s gotta be a cathouse!  Let’s amble over there and get laid.  Hear tell it’s only two bucks!”
I looked at the rundown building and felt a stirring of excitement but it occurred to me that we had not had evening chow and the drinks were making me queasy.  I shook my head.  “No thanks, Bud.  I need to go find a hamburger joint and get something to eat.”
We did that, then—sobered by some food—kinked up Broadway to the dance hall looking for Dan.  We did not find him, but spent the rest of the evening dancing with some girls and caught the bus back to the base.