- by Carol Standish
Just a Sailor - A Navy Diver’s Story of Photography, Salvage and Combat (Ballantine Books, 280pp, $6.99)
On New Year’s Eve 1963, Steve Waterman was arrested for being drunk and disorderly on the Main Street of his home town, Rockland, Maine. He was 17. But author Waterman, now in his fifties, wouldn’t think of giving us the routine police blotter stuff. He’s right out there from the first page to the last, sparing us no detail. In the case of seventeen year old Waterman, he got hammered on rot gut malt liquor and threw up all over a parking meter in front of a Rockland cop.
He polishes off the story this way: “The legal system wasn’t so understanding as it is now. I was fined thirty-five dollars, given a suspended fifteen day jail sentence and placed on one year’s probation for my heinous crime. And I had to visit my probation officer every week…I felt like a convict.” To get to his probation officer, he had to pass by the military recruiters’ offices. And that small fact provides us with the title of the first chapter of Waterman’s memoir, “Why Not Join the Navy?” The book is a no holds barred, deadly serious/dead-pan funny account of his thirteen year Navy career.
Waterman, it turns out, is anything but just a sailor. Being a savvy kid, natively bright and, surprising to himself, full of ambition, he learned more than push-ups at boot camp. By the time he arrived in Norfolk he had decided to specialize. That meant a GED, first, then on to photo school and underwater swimmers school. (He’d been diving in Maine since he was 13.)
Shuttling between Norfolk and duties in various near parts of the world, depending on the how his increasing skills fit the need, he was diving in the Virgin Islands when he volunteered for Vietnam as an Underwater Photographer serving with Underwater Demolition Team 13. “I was the adventurous type and thought it would be interesting to do some of the things that others would not do.” It was 1968.
Needless to say, Waterman survives to tell the tale and a lot more besides. In fact he does not concentrate on his activities in Southeast Asia. The memoir is full of accounts of all manner of adventures both on and off duty.(And apparently there is a lot of down time for sailors even in war time, a fact which Waterman and his enterprising buddies took full advantage of.) He is oddly discreet about booze and babes, waxes enthusiastically about booze and skydiving and has some pretty interesting technical comments on the mastery of photography. (The collection of pictures in the middle of the book, mostly taken by Waterman is impressive.)
Waterman warms his memoir with descriptions of the men he served with and how they became what they turned out to be. By no standard a mincer of words, he includes both affectionate and admiring vignettes of his buddies (including Portland-based photographer, Bill Curtsinger) as well as hotly expressed opinions about some of the “assholes” he encountered.
And that’s what is so good about this book—the way its written—without an iota of pretension or posturing. We could all be sitting around a table in a semi-murky bar listening to the real skinny, sometimes brutal (but never gratuitously) sometimes hilarious, told just as Waterman remembers—and Waterman is way more than just a sailor.
photographs are available at his website