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Yates Briscoe and the Beauty of Britain
Of all the salty old sea dogs I’ve known, Yates Briscoe was the saltiest.
Yates was a tall, lean man who walked with a swagger. Some said that was only his sea legs, that he wasn’t used to walking on flat surfaces that didn’t roll and surge under his feet.
But I’d never seen Yates walk any other way, on land or sea, drunk or sober.
And he was the kind of guy who made the bell-bottom whites and the dixie cup on top look good. Even though the dixie cup was balanced on what could only be described as a cherry-red afro. Of course, he wore the dixie cup cocked to one side too.
Yates’ jaw was angular and solid. His chin was square and it protruded so much it reached every destination a second or two before he did. He was constantly leading with it, constantly sticking it out, figuratively and otherwise.
His eyebrows were thick, the same deep red as his hair, and perfectly matched. His nose looked as if he borrowed it from a very dignified hawk, and his eyes were sea-green. One eye stayed halfway closed all the time, and that gave him a thoughtful look. Or it would have if it hadn’t been for that sneer.
His full lips were fixed in a sneer as often as they weren’t, and the sneer slanted off to the left. The angle was just sharp enough that he got away with telling other sailors he’d won the look in a bar fight as a consolation prize at the Anchor in San Diego.
That was back in the early 1970s. Me, Yates and several other shipmates dropped in to kill some time and watch the brontosauruses do the bump with whoever was willing. There were Marines about, and as everybody knows, Marines are always willing.
I took up at a corner table, had the waitress bring me two beers to start, and settled back to watch.
The other guys filtered off, most of them to the far end of the bar to take part in a game of darts or put their quarter on the pool table to queue up for a game. Back then, the winner of the current game kept the table. The loser found something else to do, and a new fish sauntered up.
But Yates headed straight for the dance floor.
He watched the action for a few minutes, donning a look similar to that of a cat peering through the side of a fish tank. I assume he was making his selection.
Then he tried to cut in on a shave-tail Marine.
Now I have to admit, the kid looked good. He was in his dress blues, but no blood stripe—at least not yet—so he was young. His brain-housing group was shaved down to the white, the way they like to keep it. And apparently he was young enough to actually believe he was making time with the girl.
The first time Yates tapped on his shoulder, the Marine glanced at him, shook his head and turned back to the young lady.
The second time, Yates grabbed him, moved past him, and licked his lips lasciviously while eyeballing the sweet young thing in question. Like I said, the guy was salty.
In a jealous rage, the Marine swung from somewhere near the far end of the bar in an attempt to move Yates’ nose around to the side of his head. If he’d connected, he also would have moved Yates himself out of the immediate area of operation. Possibly into a hospital bed.
But maybe because the Marine’s depth perception was clouded by booze, or maybe by the cloying scent of the woman he intended to love, he missed Yates’ jaw by a good three inches.
But Yates had feinted several more inches backward to avoid the uninvited renovation of his mug. That feinting, maybe combined with the wind off the young Jarhead’s fist, cause Yates to fall flat on his back, and thwack! His head slapped against the hardwood floor.
Now again, for the record, the Marine never touched him.
But apparently that wasn’t how it looked from the rest of the room. And that tore it.
A couple of Navy guys saw Yates go down and they jumped the Marine. Then a few other Marines jumped the Navy guys. Then the entire other half of the room—all Navy—emptied in that general direction.
There were probably a squad of Marines—say ten or eleven—and half a shipload of sailors, say thirty, thirty-five. So all in all, it was a pretty even fight. At least that’s how the Marines would tell it tomorrow.
Suddenly the air was filled to overflowing with the crash of broken bottles, the thumps of chairs falling over or being broken over men’s backs, and the grunts and whoosh of those on the receiving end of punches to the gut. A girl or two screamed because that’s what they do, and all of that was wrapped in the scraping, scuffling, shuffling sounds of shoes and boots and occasionally bodies moving across the hardwood floor.
The floor hushed a lot of the sounds as it had been spread with sawdust, but it was still noisy. The sawdust was there to make cleaning up the blood and the beer a little easier later on.
And then sometime or other, a shrill whistle somewhere near the front door sliced through all that. It was so long and sharp you could almost hear the little ball flipping around in the little chrome whistle.
As it turned out, the whistle was blown to announce the arrival of a troop of Army MPs who happened to be passing on the sidewalk and heard the commotion. On the fading tail of the whistle, an even dozen of our nation’s finest charged through the door, batons raised. It was a freeze-frame from a Keystone Cops episode.
And they really should’ve saved those batons for something cleaner, something they could handle. Like beating on little old ladies who were trying to sneak into the PX after closing or something.
As is standard operating procedure among brothers of the sea, once the whistle sounded and the batwing doors thwacked against the walls as the MPs rushed in, the Navy guys and the Marines helped each other to their feet, wheeled, and attacked the army.
That skirmish took all of maybe a half-minute.
About the time the last MP landed atop his friends near the curb, Yates moved stealthily up behind a Marine.
It wasn’t the same Marine as before. This was the Marine who’d added to the heap of MPs outside only a moment ago. He was fully grown at around six-two with broad shoulders and only a suggestion of hips. He was in his dress blues too, only he did have a blood stripe down the side of his trousers. He also had a jaw that looked as if it could withstand the repeated impact of a wrecking ball, and a face that looked as if it had. His gold rank insignia consisted of three chevrons with two rockers underneath, and below that on his forearm were four slanted gold stripes.
Before the Marine could turn around, Yates tapped him on the shoulder, said, “Hey, nice toss, Mo-Ron,” and he clocked the Marine hard upside the head.
Well, everyone knows you can’t hurt a Marine by hitting him anywhere in the head. Especially a Marine that large.
But Yates’ effrontery, or maybe his ignorance of Marine anatomy, caused the Marine to see red. Well, he was a Marine, so he probably saw red and gold.
His shoulder twitched, and he let go with a punch from somewhere way down near the floor.
But even with all that warning, Yates couldn’t get out of the way.
The Marine’s fist contacted Yates’ chin absolutely “on the button,” as the boxing pundits like to say. Yates teeth clacked together, and he promptly went nighty night.
It was a pretty good brouhaha, but even that Jarhead wasn’t the one who gave Yates that crooked sneer. He got that from a source closer to home.
I saw a picture of Yates’ mother one time. He got that sneer directly from her. Or a copy of it, I guess. She still had hers, and a unibrow and a snaggletooth to boot.
Anyway, as he’d done almost every night when he was in any port anywhere, Yates eventually picked himself up and glanced at the woman. At least he thought she was the same one. He grinned, cocked his thumb up and pointed at her with his index finger, and silently mouthed “Next time, Baby.”
Then he and I gathered up what was left of our friends and headed back for the ship.
But that isn’t what this story is about. It’s about Yates being salty. The saltiest, as far as I’m concerned.
A girl in every port?
Yates had two, and he was usually engaged to both of them. Often, one or the other was pregnant. And somehow he always managed to keep one from knowing about the other, even when they were sisters. Or as it turned out in Barbados, even when they were mother and daughter.
He never had trouble with men, either, other than the occasional tussle with Marines. Well, and eventually the Brits. He was never chased or hunted by jealous husbands for example. Then again, he made it a rule never to go out with a woman who had a ring on her finger. Although for the right woman, he would give her time to take it off.
I can personally vouch for that. I’ve seen him wait for up to ten minutes as a woman raced frantically around the bar looking for something soapy enough so she could remove the ring more easily.
Still, Yates was never caught, much less tried and convicted in the mano-a-mano court that deals with matters of the heart.
How the women fared is not within my realm of knowledge or concern. They got what they got, that’s all, and it’s seldom as much as some might think they deserve. And that’s true both ways, in either benefits or consequences.
As a brief aside, I don’t mean to sound cold-hearted or brash regarding the so-called fairer gender, but they aren’t as innocent as they make out. They know almost from birth precisely why men are attracted to them, yet they spend their entire lives attempting to convince us that they haven’t a clue.
Yates, of course, was never convinced, but he was more than happy to let them believe he was.
And that brings us to what some of us have dubbed The Battle of Britain. It was a battle that resulted from the beauty of Britain.
There was little to do on board the ship during the crossing from Norfolk to England. I spent most of my free time in my rack with a good book. Yates spent most of his taking money from the Marine contingent on board during games of poker or acey-deucy.
But in Yates’ estimation, the crossing took an untenably long time.
When we made port in England, we—meaning the ship and ship’s crew—had only two major goals.
One was to take on a few supplies, though not many as we hadn’t expended many on our way from Norfolk. The second was to pick up a VIP, whom we were assigned to transport to Turkey.
The captain announced there would be a brief liberty call, no more than a few hours. And as luck would have it, our section was included. I had hoped it wouldn’t be.
Yates, on the other hand, was more than ready. And in my experience, that meant trouble.
Anticipating liberty call, he opened both doors of his wall locker and latched them in that position. On the back of the right door was a half-length, polished stainless-steel mirror. On the back of the left door was a picture of a nude, strikingly beautiful woman he’d torn from a Penthouse centerfold.
Never one to let anything grow stale, Yates had embellished the picture by adding a couple of sentences from a Camel cigarette ad he’d found in the same magazine.
Above the woman’s head, in bold black letters, a taped-on slip of paper read, “Today a man needs a good reason to walk a mile.” He’d strategically taped the other sentence below the woman’s torso, but very near the top of her thighs. It read, “Start walking.”
He gave only a cursory glance at the picture, then turned his attention to the mirror and his true source of admiration. He tugged lightly on his tie and said, “Whaddya think, eh? I still got it, or what?”
I looked from the picture to him, then back to the picture. I’d never seen it before. “Yeah, yeah. You got it, Yates.” As I forced the fantasy playing through my mind to fade, I turned my attention back to him. “Listen, Yates, go easy, eh? When we go ashore, I mean. It ain’t the same as San Diego, or even Norfolk. Let’s not start any international incidents, all right?”
He dragged his attention from the mirror and his eyebrows arched. “What?” He touched himself on the chest. “Moi? Of course not, bunky.” He grinned broadly and spread his hands as if in disbelief. “Hey, you know me.”
Yes. Well, I did know him. That’s why I was worried.
I said, “I’m just sayin’, this won’t be a very long liberty call anyway. Probably only a few hours. But after we drop the guy in Turkey, we got a whole Med Cruise to look forward to. And you know what that means, right? Six ports of call? Maybe eight? And all of ‘em will be brand new to us.”
I tapped him lightly on the abdomen with the back of my hand and grinned. “Maybe you ought’a save your strength.”
He frowned. “Hey, you’re really concerned, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, well, you know.” I shrugged. “I just wouldn’t want to see you miss the Med Cruise, that’s all.”
“Miss the—” His frown deepened. “Bunky, there is zero chance I’m gonna miss that cruise. Zero, y’got me?”
“Sure, Yates. Sure.”
He turned back to the mirror and adjusted his dixie cup to a slightly different angle. “It’s gonna be fine, bunky. Just fine.”
Only it wasn’t.
We had just stepped off the bottom of the gangplank when Yates grabbed my arm, stopping me in my tracks. His head and eyes were locked on a target several yards away on the pier. Without looking around, he released my sleeve, tapped me on the chest with the back of his hand, and said, “Don’t wait up, bunky.” He moved off toward his quarry.
She was short, pert and drop-the-hell-dead gorgeous, with silky blond hair that fell a few inches below her shoulders. It glowed against her deep tan. She wore a frilly pink blouse, and very short white shorts. Everything fit her like it was spray painted on, and that was all right. She had the figure for it.
On her feet were white thong sandals. On her blouse, the top two buttons and the bottom two buttons were open. The V at the top showed off an unbelievable cleavage. The triangle at the bottom and the space between it and the top of her shorts revealed a flat, tanned, well-toned midriff.
I followed along a few feet behind Yates. He’d meant for me to go away, but that wasn’t going to happen.
He grinned broadly, bringing that slashed sneer into play. I could tell because his ears moved just so when he did that. “Well, Missy Miss! What do we have here? Listen, I know you’ve been waiting for me. I got here as fast as I could, and all the way from Norfolk. That’s in America. So what say we grab a bite right quick? Then maybe back to your place for an extra nibble or two?”
The girl looked at him. She met his eyes, then allowed her gaze to drift slowly down to his shoes, then back up.
I was close enough now to tell she was probably in her mid-30s. But seriously, she looked every day of 23.
The breeze shifted and for a moment the scent of her perfume wafted over to us.
She smiled slightly at Yates. Her teeth were even, and glowing white.
With a crisp London accent and no little reserve, she said, “Oh I am sorry, sailor, really. I quite understand your confusion, given the way I’m dressed at the moment. But we won’t make a thing of it. In the meantime, I think you’ll find what you’re looking for in town.” She pointed across herself with her right arm and looked in that direction. “Right. You can procure a taxicab right over there.”
As she looked away, Yates raked her hungrily with his gaze.
She turned to face him again. “Or the double-decker will be by in about a half-hour.”
Yates grin persisted. “How’s about you and me make our own double decker?”
She looked around sharply at him. “What?”
Yates jerked his attention back to her face. “I just—I mean, I’ve never been here before. And I’m not sure what you think I’m looking for, but really, I’d just like to have a local, namely you, show me around a bit.”
She laughed. “Show you around? Haven’t you seen enough already, then?”
He was caught, and he knew it. But he continued to play his role. He dipped his head. “I really am sorry, Miss. It’s just that, well, you’re so beautiful and—”
She laughed again, allowing her head to rock back a little this time. “Does that really work for you in America?” When she’d gathered herself, she said, “No, really, you and your friend should go on into town. I suspect you’ll find a great many beautiful women who are more than happy to give you—well, shall we say, temporary companionship?”
Yates frowned. He wasn’t used to be shut down, at least not this quickly. And by a Brit, no less. His face was flushed. “Lady, I don’t know who you think you are, but—”
A voice came from behind us. “Is this gentleman being a bother, ma’am?”
Yates continued to stare daggers at the woman.
“Unfortunately, he is. I’ve asked him twice to go along his way, but he simply won’t take a hint. Could you persuade him for me?”
I glanced over my left shoulder.
The man was six-four if he was an inch. Well, a centimeter. He looked like he weighed a bunch of stones or whatever they call them, and he was dressed in a crisply pressed uniform of the Royal Navy. He was what we would call Shore Patrol on our side of the pond. I’m not sure what the Brits call them. I know MP is taken for Member of Parliament, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. But I didn’t see an SP anywhere on his uniform either.
Anyway, on his belt was a nightstick, a pistol in a holster and a couple of magazines in pouches. There was some other stuff too. Probably mace, and almost definitely handcuffs, though those were probably at the small of his back.
I averted my gaze back to my friend and cleared my throat. “Uh, Yates, maybe we’d better—”
But I was too late.
The man reached for Yates’ left wrist. No doubt the plan was to put a handcuff on it, then cuff the other one and transport him to another location. Probably one with striped sunshine.
That might’ve been all right. At the worst, they would have detained him—well, probably us—for a few hours at the most. They’d have been all too happy to escort us back to the ship before it pulled out, and that would have been that.
But Yates felt something. Maybe a fingertip brushed a hair on Yates’ arm, or maybe he felt the guy’s intent. Something.
Whatever it was, Yates twitched and disappeared. There’s no other way to describe it. I’d never seen him move that fast. I’d never seen anyone move that fast.
When he came back to this dimension, he was standing on the man’s left side. His fist was coming up, then landing just behind the man’s left ear.
The fist connected, and the man dropped like a pole-axed steer. Straight down, like his uniform was suddenly empty.
The woman gasped and took a step back, her eyebrows arched.
As I watched, in slow motion her hand came out of her pocket, a whistle appeared at her luscious, sensual, full lips and— What? She was beautiful, okay? And the next thing I knew there were seven more men racing toward us, a group of three from one direction and a four more from another direction. Each man wore a uniform that looked exactly like the one worn by the guy on the ground.
I never realized Yates practiced karate or ju-jitsu or any of those things. The guy was a regular whirling dervish.
Just like that, his leg moved past me in a white flash and another man was on the ground, his body gone slack. Off the kick, Yates spun and connected with an elbow to the chest of another man. He stopped, stooped and swept the legs of another one. That one’s head thwacked hard on the ground when he hit.
As he shook his head groggily, the reinforcements arrived.
Yates was still in his crouch from sweeping the third guy’s legs. He rose and brought an uppercut with him to send another one to the ground.
Another SP anticipated his next move but grabbed a double armful of air when Yates twisted the opposite way, then followed the same arc around to plant a rabbit punch on the back of the guy’s head.
That one wasn’t as effective as the first punch had been. The guy only bent and staggered a few steps.
Yates followed, his fist raised, and the woman yelled, “Enough!”
That voice, even in its fervor, was just sweet enough to pull Yates from whatever zone he was in. He glanced at the woman just as he swung a second time at the man—and he missed.
That threw him off balance, and he stumbled.
Before he could right himself, the two remaining SPs, or whatever they were, had him in an arm lock, one on each side.
Breathing heavily, one growled, “It’s off to the brig with you then, Yank!”
The other one said, “We’re allies, boy! Don’t you bloody well know enough not to attack a rear admiral?”
“I didn’t attack no rear admiral!”
I looked down at the first man Yates had laid out. He was still sleeping peacefully. I couldn’t make out his rank insignia, but it was on his sleeves, not pinned to his shoulders, so he wasn’t any kind of commissioned officer.
Then the sweet voice penetrated again. “He means me.”
I twisted my head up and around, disbelieving.
Yates gawked at the woman, his mouth gaping open. “You?”
She nodded. “Rear Admiral Wright-Pence, at your service.” She paused, and the slightest bit of color crept into her cheeks. “So to speak.”
“To the brig, Admiral?”
She looked at Yates for a moment. “No. No real harm done, and it was quite a show. Escort these gentlemen back to their ship.” She pointed. “It’s a short walk up that gangway.” Then she looked at Yates. “Sorry for all the trouble. If you ever get out of the service and travel back to England... well, I’m sure that won’t happen.”
And somehow, Yates worked up that grinning sneer again. “It would be my pleasure, ma’am. I mean Rear Admiral Wright-Pence. And the name’s Briscoe. Yates Briscoe.”
She nodded almost imperceptibly and flicked her index finger toward the ship.
The two men turned Yates away, guiding him back to the ship. I followed, free as a bird.
At the top of the gangplank, the officer of the deck asked if there’d been a problem.
The two SPs looked at each other, and the older one said, “No sir. From what we could tell, this one was temporarily incapacitated by the beauty of England. It might be better if he remains aboard for the duration.”
The OD nodded, and the two men released Yates into my custody, albeit without verbalizing it.
Yates and I saluted the OD and moved past him to the right.
The two SPs saluted, did an about face and moved back down the gangplank to gather up their friends.
I glanced to the right just before I steered Yates toward a ladder well on our left.
She was still there, her right hand shading her brow as she looked up at the ship.
The beauty of Britain indeed.
* * * * * *