The Raincoats of Cherbourg
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The Raincoats of Cherbourg

The most junior officer aboard ship inherits many of the small, unrelated assignments that are often regarded as nuisances. The position is known as SLJO, for “Lousy” Little Jobs Officer. One of the things that I had to do as SLJO was to hold the cash or the records of the boat's recreation fund. We were a small ship, and we did not carry a bonded Disbursing Officer, so it was technically illegal for us to have a rec fund, but every ship and boat had one, legal or not. So my introduction to shipboard life included my first illegal assignment.

The rec fund worked just like the legal ones, in that fund-raising events were held, and entertainment was purchased. The forms of entertainment varied. Most were fine activities that anyone would be happy to write home to Mother about. Others . . .

The most common fundraiser was the anchor pool, a raffle in which chances were sold based on the precise minute that we would put the first line to the pier upon arrival at the next port. The price of a chance depended roughly on how long we were out. If we went out in the morning and came back in the afternoon, a chance cost five dollars. When we returned home after five months one time, a chance sold for fifty dollars. Usually it was some price in between.

A casino night was a popular fundraiser. Usury was also quite profitable, the going interest rate being ten percent until the next payday, even if that was the next day. The Chief of the Boat kept the books on the rec fund, and I handled any large sums of money.

Once, after months away from home, we pulled into Cherbourg, France for a week. It would be our last port visit before a three-week NATO exercise from which we would return home to Charleston, South Carolina. The Chief of the Boat came to me as head of a delegation of Chief Petty Officers and asked me if we indeed had more than $900 in the fund.

We did.

It took them a while to come to the point. They wanted the $900 to go rent a brothel for the boat's use for our last night ashore. (Remember, that was 1970 dollars.) Yours truly, 22 years old, just out of school, naive in many ways, did not believe them at first. Finally, I decided to go ask for some advice from a thoughtful, responsible senior officer who I knew would not bust me. As soon as he figured out that the subject was the rec fund, he simply said, "I don't want to know about it, and you want to know as little as possible."

I talked to enough of the CPOs individually to figure out that it was a legitimate request from the majority of the crew. The plan was for the rec fund to rent the downstairs and the bar, but that each sailor who wanted to go upstairs had to pay for that from his own pocket.

Finally, I doled out the $900 to the two senior crewmen who had been designated to make the arrangements. We did not see them again for three days. When they finally did return, it was the day before we sailed.

The entire crew was thinking that these two guys had blown the money for their own carnal enjoyment. The crew was, of course, furious. When these two sailors returned, I feared for their physical safety. They called me topside as soon as they arrived, and they carefully counted out the $900 cash for me to put back in the fund. They said that they could not find a brothel. The reason that they did not come back earlier was that they were too embarrassed to admit to the crew, or to themselves, that they could not find a brothel, much less make the arrangements, even with $900 cash in their pockets.

That evening after dinner I went to the Officers' Club at the French naval shipyard to say goodbye to a West German lieutenant I had met. I told him this story, and he got a good laugh. He had been in Cherbourg for months while his ship was being overhauled. He told me that there were three brothels in Cherbourg. One was for officers, one was for enlisted, and one was for civilians. None of them served foreigners, American or German.

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