Bumper boats at sea and the lure of lusty men

“Anyone who can fathom the mysteries of celestial navigation must be a wizard.”

As Mills Lane IV explored the seas and stars in the Navy, he watched and learned in awe as he discovered lives of others in the intimacy of a small minesweeper.

Navigator, U.S. Navy, 1966-67

Always evaluating what different stations in life meant, perhaps a bit jealously, he writes with a sense of romance and exaggeration. Maybe being on a minesweeper will “rub off some of my Harvard arrogance.”

Many of his buddies from Harvard and OCS have married and started the baby making. He wrote to several and invited them to meet him in his little house in Savannah where he escaped from the Navy on weekends.

“If you have not been to Savannah before, we can offer a marvelously cultured old city, with a gentleman’s reading society, a very faded luncheon club, parks and squares all over.”

During the week, Mills settled happily into Charleston attending Mine Warfare Training Center and living with his first cousin, Howard Morrison, at the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters. “Though I’m of course a very temperate fellow, our room is only ten paces from the officers’ bar,” Mills wrote to friends and family.

“We have an aunt and uncle in Charleston, and they have given us keys to their home and promised to usher us into the MOST inaccessible crannies of Charleston society. … Savannah is only two hours away and there I have doting relations, my parents’ small apartment downtown, and my cousin’s farm out in the country.” That was before the city moved to surround Lebanon Plantation.

Mills marked occasions great and small with descriptions of food: “Usually I rush to Savannah.  The drive is good therapy after a tedious week of school, and it is pleasant to drive a narrow road overshadowed with Spanish moss and bordered with South Carolina fireworks vendors. … Aunt Mary (Morrison) dotes on me with Friday night fried chicken.”

He trades stories about Yucatan excursions and agrees “that the Mayas were an amazing, eccentric piece of cultural history. Palenque was really a highlight. … We crawled inside the temple to see the crypt burial chamber and then ate roast chickens on top of the temple, where we also could overlook the entire archaeological area.”

He is happy that he has been assigned to the minesweeper, USS STURDY. “Small ships, with only five officers, means that there will be a considerable burden on all of us, but the rewards of really knowing the crew and the ship and also the opportunity for lots of ship-handling. … The Caine Mutiny, was, of course, written about minesweeper problems.”

Correspondence with his father in Atlanta shows Mills IV shopping in Charleston for the Ships of the Sea Museum. “Here are photographs of two very handsome ship’s ornaments outrageously priced, and I do not recommend that you purchase them. However, they could make outstanding symbols for your museum.”

For good measure he comments to his father on a C&S Bank advertisement: “Here also is a copy of a bank ad from the most recent Time magazine. It seems to me that this is poor representation for the bank, especially in such a high-priced periodical.”

Mills continues his interest in publishing Georgia history in conversations with his father and talks about ways their family foundation could contribute.

“I spoke with Walter Hartridge this weekend, and by next weekend he will have a review of Forsyth Park’s history ready for us. I’ve asked him to outline the alterations to its original design and also tell us about some of the events that went on there in the good old days.

“If the Foundation does proceed with this project, it would be marvelous public relations for the friendly C&S to sponsor band concerts in the park from time to time throughout the warm months, perhaps adding free ice cream as well. I have visions of delighted children and parents gobbling ice cream on a warm Sunday and coming in to make deposits on Monday morning. Banks in New York have sponsored similar outdoor events in Central Park.”

His father agreed about the price of the wooden sailors in the antiques store: “The price was way yonder too high.” But he disagreed about the ad buy: “We buy only the regional issue of Time magazine so we don’t pay the price for advertising The C&S all over the world. We think it’s a pretty good buy for the money.”

The activity in Forsyth Park today has come full circle from its beginnings, but 1966 was a different story.

Mills Jr. wrote: “Tickled to death you’ve gotten Walter Hartridge to go to work on Forsyth Park. … There used to be a bandstand in the park and concerts were tried out on Sunday afternoons when I was a youngster. I like them, but they didn’t draw very much and were discontinued. Back in those days though the park was a very popular place. Children lived in the neighborhood and on Saturdays and Sundays the place was jammed with nurses and children. People have moved away and the park has become a very, very lonesome spot.”

After finishing his minesweeping studies, Mills IV would report aboard the STURDY. He could look forward to being home regularly at night, except during the cruises to Caribbean and Mediterranean waters and six weeks in drydock for overhaul every two years.

Drydock could be near Charleston or Savannah. “So I’m hoping that I’ll be stationed at Savannah Machine and Foundry for my first two months on board!” The Savannah Machine and Foundry built minesweepers for the U.S. Navy. (Started in 1912 and sold in 1968 to Aegis Corp., it has moved through many owners since, including Intermarine, and Palmer Johnson and Colonial Terminals.)

With great detail Mills outlined his specialized responsibilities as a Mine Countermeasures Officer. A partial list includes Communications Officer, Censorship Officer, Electronics Officer, Intelligence Officer, Photographic Officer (“When your ship cruises the Caribbean you will photograph Russian vessels going to Cuba”), Postal Officer, Underwater Search Officer, Administrative Assistant for the XO, Assistant Training Officer, Assistant Legal Officer, Assistant Personnel Officer, Public Information Officer, Lookout and Recognition Officer, and Crypto Security Officer.

“We had some excitement leaving Charleston harbor for a sealab on another minesweeper. As we tried to pull away from the pier the tide took us and we banged into another ship, bending stanchions all along one side of our ship. (Incidentally, my ship, the STURDY, apparently had a steering casualty two days ago and really hit another ship in mid-channel.)

“Then, a little later, as we cruised out of the harbor, we had a fire in the engine room and sounded general quarters, ready to abandon ship – which we did not have to do. (Fire is really feared aboard minesweepers, since they are made of wood: twenty percent of the ships in our class have been seriously burned during the last eighteen months and one, STALWART, sister ship of the STURDY, burned to a crisp shell in San Juan last summer.) Ah, the excitement of the rigorous, vigorous military life!”

Interspersed with the sailing experiences, he was a salesman for Savannah to friends up north: “The family has just purchased another small block of houses down near the River in Savannah and we are just about to begin restoring them. They are quite small and just right for you. Please come down to Savannah for a visit soon, eye these little palaces, and decide that you want to move in and take a hand in refurbishing them with us. Incidentally, rent would be reasonable, $100 monthly.”

Eventually he had a change of Navy orders: “I reported aboard SKILL, another minesweeper out of Charleston, early in December. SKILL is a small ship, dirty, disorganized, undisciplined and rough-riding even in calm weather; but she is small enough for junior officers to have much more responsibility than they could have on larger ships and much more than they deserve, I’m afraid.

“By far the best things is the crew, men who are utterly straight-forward, uninhibited, and naturally lusty. Most OCS types have grown up in a rather protected little world of well-mannered, carefully-behaved people, who are cautious about what they say and do. Sailors, however, have little to gain or lose during four years in the navy, so they are almost completely natural.

“It has been a rewarding thing to deal honestly, face-to-face with people for the first time. Even though white hats must salute you and say “sir” with proper deference, you must earn their respect for yourself aboard ship. OCS didn’t teach me that.

“Sailors like nothing more than an officer with a willing, patient ear – perhaps because no work can be done while talking is going on. … Whether you were a wild or a chaste young man, I’m sure you were touched by the humanity of people who must depend on you.

“There is no opportunity to be remote and isolated on a small ship when you hear the troubles of a man who has finally married the mother of his year-old son and must now try to support her on $125 a month or of another man who got drunk aboard ship because his fiancé had written to tell him that she was marrying another man who had fathered a secret child by her. In the civilian world of genteel people, these things are hidden; aboard ship, we must deal with them.”

Mills loved the sea stories and gossip: drunken officers in charge; the first lieutenant who liked his first-class boatswain’s mate too much; the illegal bowling team shirts and posy-covered toilet paper on the subs; petty criminals forced into the service rather than court; the Filipino bartender who knows more about Naval operations than the officers aboard ship.

He was happy “to escape the little world of C&S banks and the recognition of the name Lane.” And he felt lucky about his upcoming adventures:

“The Navy can be an exotic, exhilarating experience … first opportunity to command the respect and admiration of men … glamorous service, with its lure of the ships and the sea. Many people justify their time in the service by saying that they are serving their country and the cause of Democracy. I doubt that my efforts will really make much difference, but I’m glad to spend three years of good education and good experience.

“Meanwhile, with salt on my brass bars, and with corrosive, authoritative façade, I remain your very own, Ensign Lane.”

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.

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