At sea in Plattsburgh

If I ever have to divide humankind into two categories, it’d be those who can do math, and those who can’t.

And just FYI, I can’t.

Something else I can’t do is deal with government forms of any ilk. In fact, whenever faced with one, I go darn near cataleptic.

And this is why I have an accountant do my taxes.

His office is in Plattsburgh, and on Monday, April 17, when I picked up the completed paperwork, the secretary said she’d she’d done me a favor.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I addressed and stamped the envelopes, so all you have to do is get them to the post office before it closes, and they won’t be late.”

I thanked her profusely and then tore out of there. It was 3:45 so I had a lot of time to get to the post office, but I didn’t want to dawdle. Actually, when I mulled it over, I figured if I was a risk-taker, I had enough time to drive back to My Home Town and mail them there. But since I’m not a risk-taker, I was mailing them in Plattsburgh.

It was only common sense. Besides, how hard could it be? I knew where the Plattsburgh PO was, and since it was on my way out of town, it’d take me under five minutes to get there.

I got in my car and took off, and sure enough, I got to the PO in four minutes plus change. Or more exactly, I got to the building I’d thought was the post office. Instead, it was the Press Republican’s building.

The nerve!, I thought. How much chutzpah — and how little taste — they have to make a fine newspaper’s headquarters look like something slammed together by the WPA with hangovers.

All right, so now that I knew where the post office wasn’t, all I had to do was find where it was. And since Plattsburgh is hardly a megalopolis, I figured that’d only take minutes. All I had to do was drive around downtown P’burgh till I found it.


I’d never really driven around Plattsburgh before. Every other time I was there I was on a mission of some sort – go to the cobbler or the hobby shop or the co-op, etc. So it was always Get in, Get out, zip zip zip, tickety-boo.

But if I’d ever spent any time driving there, I would’ve realized the streets are laid out in a grid that, due to all sorts of one-way streets, is actually a maze. So just going from here to there is a lot more complicated than, well, just going from here to there.

After I’d again driven through downtown without spotting the post office, I headed out, turned down some street, and tried to get back whence I came. But of course there was another one-way street, this time in wrong direction. So I had to go up another street, turn here, turn there, then head back to downtown without being stopped by the Minotaur.

I made it back downtown from the opposite direction, drove around, and still couldn’t find the post office.

So I did the only thing I could, which was turn here, turn there, not turn here and turn there — oops, not there! — and so on, till I was going perpendicular to Cornelia Street. Suddenly my rearview mirror exploded in a riot of reds and blues.

“Mojee Tabernack!” I yelped in surprise.

Behind me was a Sheriff’s Deputy, and why he was doing pulling me over was beyond my ken. I never drive fast. I always signal. Everything about my car is legal and inspected.

I stopped and he stopped behind me.

Mere seconds later a face appeared at my door. It was a bright and cheery face and one that looked like it hadn’t yet met a razor.

“License and registration, please,” he said.

I handed them to him and while he was looking at them I said, “Why’d you pull me over anyway?”

“Your passenger side brake light’s out,” he said. “I just wanted to let you know.”

He handed me back my paperwork, and after I thanked him, I exhaled.

“So,” he said, “you were in the Navy?”

Obviously, he’d seen my bumper sticker.

“Yeah,” I said. “Nineteen sixty-nine till seventy-two.”

“I was in later,” he said. “What was your rating?”

“CT,” I said. “I was a Morse code operator. And you?”

“ABM,” he said. “I was on the Kennedy.”

“Friggin’ airdale,” I said, and we both laughed.

“Where were you stationed?” he asked.

“Believe it or not, on an army base in Germany.”

And then it went as I knew it would, with us swapping sea stories.

Spinning yarns

I told him about being in a briefing with the Secretary of the Navy; he told me about getting four sets of orders in a row canceled. I told him about a chief who was such a cigarette fiend, he always had one pack of cigarettes in each sock … and had a full carton back in his office. He told me about a guy who drank a case of Pepsi every eight-hour watch.

Then the tattoo stories.

“I knew a guy whose tattooist was even drunker than he was,” I said. “So when he woke up the next day, on his arm he had a big heart with two banners above it. One was his name, the other was his girlfriend’s. And they were both misspelled.”

Then it was his turn.

“When we had liberty in Hong Kong, a bunch of us went to a tattoo parlor. One of the guys, a first class machinist mate, got the USDA Prime stamp … on his butt.”

“Catch this one,” I said. “I knew a BT who had ‘Your name’ tattooed on his butt.”

“My name?” he said. “You don’t even know my name.”

“No,” I said. “He had ‘Your name’ tattooed on his butt.” And when I said “Your name,” I made the quotation mark sign with my fingers.

He frowned.

“Why’d he do that?” he said.

“Bets, of course.”

“Bets?” he said. “What kinda bets?”

“Bar bets,” I said. “What else?”

He was still frowning.

“He’d be in a bar, shootin’ the breeze with some guy and then he’d introduce himself,” I said. “And when the other guy introduced himself, the BT’d say, ‘Hey, I got your name tattooed on my butt.’ And of course the other guy’d say, ‘You got Eddie tattooed on your butt?’ And he’d say, ‘I just told you I got your name tattooed on my butt.’

“And as soon as he said that, the other guy’d say he didn’t believe it and the BT’d say, ‘Wanna bet a beer?’ And they were off to the races.”

“What some guys won’t do for a free beer,” said the deputy.

“A beer, hell,” I said. “He said he’d boozed his way halfway around the world and hardly every paid for any of it.”

We both laughed.

And when we stopped laughing I suddenly realized how long we’d been shmoozing about the Old News of Dress Blues.

“Hey,” I said, “I’ve gotta get to the post office before it closes. You know where it is?”

“Yeah,” he said. “On Miller Street.”

He gave directions, I thanked him for telling me about the brake light, we shook hands, and I was off to the PO, which I got to about three minutes before they closed.

But I’d been in such a hurry, I’d forgotten to lay my final bit of Navy wisdom on him. It would’ve been telling him the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story.

And if you don’t know the difference, here it is:

A fairy tale always begins, “Once upon a time … “

A sea story always begins, “Honest to God, guys, this really happened … “