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This Ain't No Disco

The first destroyer sent to fight in Vietnam, the John W. Thomason, was filled with music fans. Supply Division was dominated by soul music fanatics; hard core rockers were concentrated among the helmsmen and lookouts; psychedelic heads came from the ship’s office. Country & western was strongest among the radiomen and jazz with the stewards who waited on the officers, while the guys slaving away in the engine room were mostly into Top 40.


Wherever we worked, we all had a big problem: How were we going to listen to our music? It’s easy to forget, in this era of Walkmans and wristwatch TVs, that our only means of entertainment back then were huge “portable” record players. We had to find ways to hide them because top brass had outlawed record players, supposedly because they were “electrically unsafe.” Few were willing to go to the trouble and risk of keeping a suitcase-sized stereo away from prying eyes.


But I was. Consequently I became a very popular guy. I took my music box wherever the records were: After supper up on the bow of the ship with the Stones, lunchtime with Buck Owens, weekends in the supply office with Aretha and Curtis Mayfield, after midnight in the officers mess with Jimmy Smith and Cannonball Adderly. And everybody took turns hiding “The Box,” the monstrous record player that made it through two Vietnam tours without being confiscated.


We went through all that hide-and-seek for the enjoyment of the music itself, for the memories it jogged, and the closeness of being with people you didn’t have to explain things to. But the most important reason we kept our underground railroad running was to keep from going insane. Keith Richard’s guitar and Aretha Franklin’s voice kept our minds from falling out of our heads and breaking open on the deck, spilling everything from football scores to the feel of a woman’s touch into the South China Sea.



Rock & Rap Confidential / 1991

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