I was posted for my watch-keeping certificate on INS Himgiri. Within three weeks of my joining, we sailed for a lovely foreign cruise to Russia (the beautiful port of Odessa, the port city having been designed like a ladies’ hand-fan. Legend says that when Queen Catherine was asked about what the city should look like, she just opened her fan to give herself some air and they (the city architects) thought that it should be designed like a fan!), Split (in erstwhile Yugoslavia) and Athens (in Greece; the seat of modern civilization and democracy).
USS Mitscher (named to honour Admiral Marc A. Mitscher (1887–1947), famed naval aviator and World War II aircraft carrier task group commander) was the name of the American ship that berthed not too far from Himgiri. The year was 1975 and we didn’t have too many restrictions that time about seeing, talking to and being with foreigners. The only terror that India had seen was its Prime Minister who declared Emergency in order to protect her position that was challenged by a ruling of the Allahabad High Court.
We were lucky to be away from the country after the Emergency was declared. Billoo (my course-mate) and I just ambled across to Mitscher to say “hi” to the yanks. They received us on board without much ado and many of them, at our invitation, joined us for drinks in our wardroom (the US Ships unlike the British from whom we have derived our customs and traditions, do not have hard drinks on their ships).
We were much impressed by the latest in missiles, gunnery and torpedoes on their destroyer. But, more than that we were amused by the carefree atmosphere on board rather than the “ji Sir ji” stiffness in our own armed forces.
We insisted on seeing everything on board. They even demonstrated the loading of the Tartar missile launcher. And then we came to the door of the compartment called Ops Room. Billoo and my eagerness to see the inside of their Ops Room was in sharp contrast to their eagerness to whisk us away. Billoo is more British than the British and more Yank than the Yanks. He uttered blithely, “Ah, you won’t want us to see your Ops Room because it would give away all your secrets”.
Lieutenant John who was taking us around admitted that it was really SECRET that he was protecting and we better not see it. Billoo is Chauhan and I am a Singh; the only way to arouse our curiosity totally is to bar us from seeing something. We were determined like the soldiers in the armies of Prithviraj Chauhan and Maharaja Ranjit Singh and declared with solemnity that the only reason why we had stepped on board was to see their Ops Room.
John cracked open the Ops Room door, put his head inside, took it out and declared, “No, it is too much of a SECRET to share with Indians”. Billoo, always quick on the draw, shared a dirty one about their sharing many a thing with Red Indians and concluded that there won’t be any harm done to share with the Brown Indians.
Resignedly, John shrugged his shoulders and opened the Ops Room door. We stepped in and their SECRET was revealed in stark reality. Inside, a dozen sailors were busy leafing through and drooling at the center-spreads of ‘men’s only’ magazines: Playboy and Penthouse.
All this ‘knowledge’ cannot go un-shared. We ‘borrowed’ some. In the evening when they came on board, we gave them dog-eared copies of our own men’s magazines: Debonair and Gentlemen.
Navies are all about making bridges of friendship across the seas!
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