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  • 1979, San Diego, California. Pier 11. I'm walking down the pier to get to the U.S.S. Dixie, a destroyer tender commissioned in 1940. I've already been told she is to be decommissioned after her last cruise.

    I'm coming from the U.S.S. Enterprise, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier which is often refitted with modern equipment. The Dixie has not been refitted in at least ten years. At least. The culture shock is almost staggering.

    Destroyer tenders are large floating machine shops intended to make repairs to warships near the site of battles in a war. They are not combat ships, and have very little armament. They do, however, have a very diverse crew.

    In addition to enough machinists to satisfy most civilian machine shop needs, there are a crew of divers to examine hulls, welders, electricians skilled in motor rewind and other repair functions, and a foundry. If a part has to be molded to do its job, it's made in the foundry and then sent up for machining.

    Additionally, the Dixie was equipped with over-sized generators capable of supplying electrical power to the ships alongside. As the lead electrician, I oversaw the men who ran these generators, and also maintained the shipboard electrical systems. Since most of the equipment we had to maintain was also built in 1940, it was a constant challenge to keep the ship running. If we needed parts, most of the time we had to have them made. Luckily, we had a machine shop nearby.

    Being a ship from 1940, the Dixie had one other thing most Naval vessels had long since abandoned. Wooden Decks. The main deck of the Dixie was covered in wood, and it was a great source of pride to the Captain that the ship be well maintained in appearance. So every Sunday there as a 'party' equipped with holystones, buckets, and mops. How did you become a part of the party? Simple. Make the mistake of scuffing the deck. Or be one of the lower ranked men in the Deck division. Either way, you already knew how your Sunday mornings would be occupied.

    I was a First Class Petty Officer at the time, and knew enough not to step off the mats when crossing the Quarterdeck, so I managed to avoid that particular 'party'. Some of my subordinates were not as fortunate. Officially, the practice of holystoning was banned in the Navy in 1931. However, since ships still had wooden decks, the practice went on.

    A holystone is a soft sandstone used to remove dirt and grime from the wood without scarring it. When they first began, holystoning was done on one's knees. By the time I observed it, they were using a mop handle inserted into a hole on the top of the holystone. The stone was scraped back and forth along the grain of the wood several strokes, then a crew would come from behind them with mops and buckets of seawater to rinse off the grit. It was laborious work, none the less, and crew assigned to the task would begin inboard, and work their way outboard one plank at a time. Each man would stone an area about five feet long, working fore and aft for several passes to the cadence set by their supervisor, usually a Third Class Petty Officer from the Deck division. "One and two and three and four and five and six and move another plank."

    Like I said, the culture shock was staggering.


    [photo above taken at the atoll of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean during the last cruise of the Dixie.]
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