Shell Game

“luck is what you stumble upon in life. Providence is what God plans for you, and planning is how you thread your way between the two without getting crushed.” The speaker of these words was the rather infamous first class petty officer John O’Toole. Destined never to become a chief, he was swimming towards a retirement. Along the way, he offered bits of sage advice to drifty shit misfits in uniform like me. After the second pitcher of beer at the Harvard Gardens, he’d offer tips on all and sundry items of life aboard a ship. Everything that is except how he ran his racket as a ship’s bootlegger. Onboard, it was John who, according to legend, had three barrels from which he rendered scotch, bourbon, and rye. The ship was built in the Second World War but was still serving through the sixties. Along the way, so many renovations and rebuilds had occurred that there were supposedly compartments that appeared on no known plan and were complete mysteries to the Master At Arms. In the interstices, John’s barrels brewed up the best hooch available outside of a base with a Seabee battalion running the still.
We, of course, did not know if any of this was true. But none dared doubt it publically; it was the stuff of nautical and Naval mythology. Sailors love the mythological; it makes up for the otherwise dull life they live at sea.
Sailors also like to place small bets on almost anything; they are called pools. An anchor pool would be to predict the date and time the ship anchored. Pools were organized based on when a sailor’s wife had their baby, the baby’s eye color, or if the weather was going to blow up. In my day, the pools were for dimes and quarters- If kept quiet nobody minded. But John’s barrels were legendary. Every deployment, there was a pool on whether or not the Masters at Arms would discover them. Every voyage, nothing was found. The Master at Arms uncovered lots of activity, but not the infamous barrels.

I want to say that the night John blessed me with the formula for success, he also clued me in on his secret, but that did not happen. Years later, I ran into a former shipmate who told me the secret. There were no barrels. They were just a distraction. The hooch was snuck aboard before each deployment in sealed cruise chests by confederates who shared equally in the take. How the whole thing was secret so long I have no idea. But, the barrels eventually became so famous that they became the absolute focus of the racket and the search. A shell game. Where are the barrels?

Over the years, I’ve discovered that John’s formula pretty much had it right. Luck was fickle and could run hot or cold. Providence could get you in a lot of trouble while intending on “saving” you, but planning could ease the berth between the two.
I understand that there was a pool among the former crew when the ship went to the shipbreakers. The pool was for finding the barrels.

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