The 'Roman Coke' Incident
I arrived aboard the USS Belknap on September 21, 1994. (but my bags were still in Chicago) It was my first real duty station beyond Great Lakes. I was a real sailor! After a trip to the Navy Exchange to acquire some new working uniforms that would carry me over until my seabag arrived, I was good to go.
The things I remember most vividly were the walk down the long concrete pier and crossing the gangway onto the quarterdeck. The long walk down the pier was windy and there was a chill salty breeze on the air. The waters around Gaeta were absolutely rank, stinking of human waste and filth, but it was my first experience with the ocean and I didn’t know any different. Maybe the whole ocean smelled that way, how was I to know? I simply remember the crisp, cool salty breeze that carried with it the smell that I would grow to love-that briny smell of the ocean.
I was nervous as I crossed the gangway and approached the quarterdeck. The quarterdeck of a Navy ship is a sort of hallowed place that is treated with honor and respect. I knew, from my basic deck seamanship training, that when I reached the end of the gangway the Messenger of the Watch and the Officer of the Deck would be waiting. I also knew that I had to turn and salute the Ensign, then turn to face either the Messenger of the Watch or the Officer of the Deck and intone the words, “Request Permission to come aboard.” This was the first time I had ever really done this, and I was afraid I was going to screw it up royally. Upon reaching the end of the gangway, I saluted the Flag and turned to salute the Messenger of the Watch. He was standing near the gangway waiting for me to complete the ritual. “Request Permission to come aboard,” I said. The Messenger of the Watch gave me a half-hearted salute with a bored expression etched upon his face and motioned me on. I stepped on the rough non-skid deck of the ship thinking, What had I been nervous about? I could have been a purple alien sporting a ray-gun and he wouldn’t have cared. I approached the Officer of the Deck with my transfer orders in hand, “Seaman Sears reporting for duty, Sir” The Officer of the Deck looked at me with almost the same bored expression of the Messenger of the Watch, glanced at my transfer orders, and told me to go to the Personnel Office. I regretted asking where it was.
“You go down that ladder-well right there, cross over to the starboard side through the p-way and turn left. You’ll go almost up to the mess-decks, if you get to the mess decks then you’ve gone too far. It’s a gray non-watertight door on your right. It’s compartment number so and so.”
First off..what’s a P-way? For that matter, what’s a ladder-well? And where the hell are the mess decks? Do you know how many gray, non-watertight doors are on the starboard side of the main deck? I didn’t, but I soon found out that there were several --after figuring out the rest of the arcane instructions and getting lost several times along the way. It was a completely foreign environment to passageways, almost like tunnels, running throughout the ship, and a ladder-well was, well civilians call them stairs, but they’re much steeper than a common set of stairs. The compartment numbers are another set of arcane instructions that, to the initiated, allow one to find any compartment on any level of any ship. We’d had only the barest of instruction about the compartment numbering system while in boot camp, and regardless of the amount of instruction, the compartment numbering system is nothing more than gibberish until you really have to use it.
After checking in at the Personnel office, I was ushered up to my division and the rest became a blur as I got settled into my new home. I reveled in my new home, mainly because it was nothing like boot camp. There didn’t seem to be anybody running around with a stick up their ass telling people to drop and give them twenty, or fifty. It was the evening of my third day aboard the Belknap that I got my first real life lesson. We had just ‘knocked off’ work (i.e. quitting time) and the Boatswain’s Mate First Class (we’ll call him BM 1 Bowman for anonymity’s sake) I was working with, along with a few other seamen who had been there for some time it seemed, said they were going out to Vic’s bar for dinner and a few drinks. I was eighteen years old, and quite honestly had never had a drink of anything alcoholic in my short life, but food outside of Navy chow sounded fantastic. So I asked if I could tag along.
We changed into civilian clothes, the one set of civvies I had until my other clothing arrived, and walked off the ship. After reaching the end of the pier, we turned left and Vic’s was right there. I ate foods that night that I’d never heard of, things like calamari and octopus, just to name a few.
“Are you not gonna have anything to drink, Sears?” one of them asked.
“No, I’m only eighteen, I can’t drink,”
I remember them laughing at me for quite some time. “You’re in a foreign country, dumbass. If you’re tall enough to reach the damn bar, then you can drink here.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know what to drink anyway, I’ve never drank before.”
The gentleman sitting beside me at the bar overheard our conversation and spoke to me. “You’re new aren’t ya?”
“Yes, sir, I am,” I replied.
“Well, I’m an old salt and I’m retiring today, so let me give you a proper welcome to the Fleet and buy you a drink. What’ll it be?”
“I don’t’ know,” I shrugged, “I guess I’ll have what you’re having.” I was trying to be polite and not cost the man too much. I didn’t know this man was a Navy Commander, or I would have put the screws to him much harder. Ahh, the things we wish we could go back and tell our younger selves.
The retiring commander ordered a “Heineken,” which I had never heard of before, and the waitress placed it on the bar in front of me. I took a drink and nearly vomited all that new, expensive food I’d just eaten. It was the most god-awful shit on the planet. I remember thinking, how does anyone really drink this stuff? The old commander laughed at me, laughed long and hard now that I think about it, and took the bottle for himself. “Let’s try something else,” he said.
He waved the waitress down and ordered what I thought was a “Roman Coke.” Now, I had no idea what a 'Roman Coke' was, but I knew I liked Coke, so I figured what the hell. I watched the
I took a tentative drink. It was tart and bitter, but the sweet taste of the Coca-Cola off-set the bitterness nicely. This was something I could drink, I decided. I nodded, “Not bad. I think I can drink this.” After those words, I proceeded to tip the glass up and down about half of that VERY tall glass. The old commander laughed at me, “You’d better slow down there, sailor.”
Now, let me remind the reader that up to this point in my young life I had never had anything to drink, and therefore had no firsthand knowledge of the effects of alcohol upon the human body. I learned the hard way. I laughed with the old guy. He was a cool, old guy, and my face was getting flushed. I felt hot, and sweaty. It hadn’t seemed that hot in here before, but maybe they turned up the heat. Maybe I’ll have another drink to cool myself off. I took another big swig of the “Roman Coke” and laughed with the old guy some more. He told BM 1 Bowman and my other new friends a few old sea stories (a common pastime amongst sailors of any age) and I noticed it was still very warm, and getting warmer. And I had to pee. Oh My God, did I have to pee. I remember saying very, very loudly, “I have to pee!” This exclamation brought about another round of raucous laughter from my new colleagues, but they pointed the way to the bathroom out for me. I stood from my barstool, and my legs didn’t want to work, much to my chagrin. I fell flat on my ass in Vic’s bar with everybody watching me, and I couldn’t stop laughing. Now, normally I would have been completely horrified simply because I am a very self-conscious person, but for some reason, falling down in the middle of the bar with everyone watching me was the funniest thing in the whole world. I stumbled to my feet, using the barstool as an aide, and staggered into the bathroom on wobbly legs that seemed like they didn’t want to work anymore.
That was when I got scared. What had they done to me? What could they have done to make my legs fail like this? After relieving myself, I rejoined my new colleagues at the bar with these questions, which only prompted more laughter—and since they were laughing, well, I might as well
The headache that I had the next morning was not something that I would've cared to experience again, but nevertheless, I have experienced that very same headache, and much worse, over the years since then. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered what a ‘Roman Coke’ actually was. I came to this revelation at a bar here in the states when I asked for a ‘Roman Coke” and the bartender looked at me like I was insane.
“What’s a Roman Coke?” he asked.
“You know, just a mixture of Rum and Coke.”
The bartender laughed at me for a long time before saying, “You mean a Rum’n’Coke? Right?”