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WE WERE sitting in the shade, leaning against a building and looking out across the waters of the Tompkinsville Navy Yard to a ferry that was coming to Staten Island from Manhattan. We weren't talking much because it was too hot to talk. It was almost too hot to live on a day like that.

A one-and-a-half striper came walking down the dock to some PC's that were tied up near us. I'd seen him before and knew he was the skipper of the nearest of those PC's. I watched him go aboard, the way he turned aft to flick a salute to the ensign, and he'd taken no more than three steps on deck when a rating came over and hauled down that repeater they fly to show the skipper's ashore. I felt sorry for that rating having to get up in that heat and pull a flag down and for what?

"For what?" I asked this guy who was with me.

"What for what?" he asked me.

"That poor guy," I told him.

"Stretched out having a fine time until his old man showed up. Makes me glad I'm station duty."

"What are you talking about?" he asked me.

"Tradition," I said. "Tradition in this man's navy. Now why should they haul the repeater up and down all day just to show the old man's gone for an ice cream cone or he's playing gin in the wardroom? For what? Even them little PC's. They got so much tradition stowed aboard it's a wonder it don't drag 'em down to the bottom."

"You're against traditions?" he asked me.

"Not all of 'em," I said. "Not payday and liberty. But you can have the rest of them. What are you making faces for?"

"I'm for 'em," he said. "All of 'em."

"You just for 'em or you got a reason?" I asked.

"I got the best reason in the world," he said.

"I'm listening," I said.

"I can see that by the way your ears is quivering," he said. "I'm for traditions because one of 'em once saved my life. And I know two more guys feel just the same way for the same reason."

"Convince me," I said.

"Sure," he said, and he told me a story.

FOR reasons of security, he said, I will not identify the exact location of this action I am about to relate. I will merely indicate that it took place somewhere between the Carolines and the Solomons, west of both of them, and at that time deep in Jap waters.

We were a little convoy trying to sneak through to one of our advance bases. We had a few four-stacker destroyers and a light cruiser to protect maybe twenty freighters. I was just a few weeks out of boot camp and I was aboard one of those freighters, part of a seven-man gun crew.

The gun we had would've sunk our ship if we'd ever got to fire it. I figured we'd captured it from the British in the war of 1812 and it still wasn't friendly to Americans. Anyway, in those days we didn't have to know much. They taught us only three commands: Ready, Aim, and Abandon Ship. It was a rugged life.

It got more rugged pretty fast. Our fourth day out, just before sundown, a flight of twenty-one Jap bombers spotted us. The next thing we knew they started coming down. The convoy scattered and it was every ship for itself. The destroyers started zig-zag-ging and they had the speed to make it work, but this tub I was on could do maybe seven knots running downhill. She had an old skipper who'd come back to the sea from some cabbage farm, and what does this old seadog think he can do? He thinks he can learn new tricks. He sees the way the destroyers are going and he decides to do a little zig-zaggery himself.

Well, maybe we should have zagged when we zigged. The next thing we knew we had two heavy bombs aboard. One took the bow and the other sliced off the stern and the middle went for the bottom like an anchor.

When I looked around again, I was floating. A few hundred yards away I saw two guys climbing aboard a raft, so I decided to pay them a visit even though they weren't Navy, but a couple of deck hands from this freighter. I made it just before dark and there I was, safe in body and mind, but very lonely except for these two guys. What was left of the convoy scattered and was out of sight before I got to the raft. There wasn't even smoke on the horizon in an hour. If the destroyers came back later to hunt for survivors, they never came out our way. We were orphans right from the start.

And we stayed orphans. We had some food and water aboard and some gadgets like fishing tackle and flash-lights and we figured we'd be picked up pretty soon. But we weren't picked up. The days went by and the raft went wherever it wanted to go. Sometimes it went so fast it looked like it had an appointment some place, and after the first week we didn't any of us know what ocean we were in.

It kept getting worse. These two guys with me hadn't ever shipped out before and they didn't even know the sea was salty. We ran into some rough weather one night and most of our food went overboard because I trusted them to make the stuff fast, and fast was the way it disappeared. What was left didn't last much longer and then the water gave out.

IT WAS desperate, I mean to say. We had some poles aboard they wanted to use for oars, if they knew where to go and cared to row five hundred miles, and I used those poles to knock down an albatross and once we stunned a little shark and ate its belly while the tail was still kicking. About every fourth or fifth night there'd be a squall and we'd catch rain water in our shirts and pour it into the cans we had. And every day that South Pacific sun would rise and bake us crisp before noon, and every night we'd shake with chills and fever.

We had blisters the size of coffee cups all over our bodies and barnacles started growing in our beards. Then, the fourth week we were out we had another blow and the raft started breaking up and we kept it together by using our clothes for line.

The fifth week was the hungriest, and that was when these two guys started to break up worse than the raft. I hardly got any sleep at first because I was afraid of the skinny one. He used to look at me all day and ask me how much I weighed. After awhile I figured I was safe because I didn't weigh enough any more. So I slept a little until the other one tried to slide overboard, and after that I had to watch him pretty close.

When the sixth week started I finally got ready to tell myself I wasn't going to get saved. I might have dived over myself but I didn't have the strength to stand up and I didn't like the idea of just rolling off. After that I lost track of the days and nights, and when I could think a little I tried to figure out just where we might be, just for the sake of thinking about something. I knew we were finished but I wanted to know where. They'd taught me a little something about stars in the Boy Scouts and I'd try to work them out, but every time I looked at the big dipper I'd think how nice it would be if it was full of beef stew, and it almost drove me crazy.

Then came the day we spotted the sub. It was late afternoon and I saw it laying way off against the horizon, running due south on the surface and heading towards us at an angle. I'd learned my lessons and I knew from its silhouette that it was an American sub, and a big one at that.

The closer it came, the crazier we went. We were half blind from the sun and more than half deaf from the sea pounding our raft, but we were sure they'd spotted us and we thought we'd heard the guy in the conning tower yelling at us.

It was that close when it submerged.

That's what it did. It submerged when it was no more than a mile or so away, and that was the last we saw of it. Did I say we'd gone crazy just seeing it? You can imagine how it was with us when that sub just nosed under and vanished. At first we thought it would come back, that it had ducked under for a good reason, but when it started to get dark and that sub still hadn't showed up again, we knew what the score was. It hadn't seen or heard us, and it had been close enough to have smelled us.

SO THERE it was, the end. Finished. I lay on my back and looked at the stars and wondered if I would be alive the next morning. I was crying like a baby half the time and cursing myself for having asked for the Navy when I went for induction, the rest of the time. The Navy, I kept yelling, the blankety-blank Navy with its blankety-blank sea and its blankety-blank tradition and chicory in the java and thirteen buttons on the pants and piping the admiral aboard. I really spoke my mind that night, what I mean.

And then it hit me—the big idea, I mean. Why had that sub gone under? Why in the blankety-blank-blank had it picked just that time to go under? There was only one answer I could figure out. It was based on a Navy tradition about subs. The tradition was that no sub crossed the equator on the surface!

You hear that? You understand what I'm saying? I figured that sub had submerged because of the Navy tradition about submerging when it crossed the equator. And that meant that we were sitting right smack on the equator. I kept looking up at the stars and thinking about the equator and suddenly I let out a yell that was louder than any of the yells I'd let out that day, and some of 'em had been loud enough to kill fish in a radius of half a mile.

I figured I knew where we were, by looking at the stars and placing us at the equator. I got on my knees and shook those two guys with me and yelled at them until they understood what I was saying. I was telling them I'd figured out a group of islands we were near, and I grabbed one of those poles and used the flat ends for oars and made them take the others.

And then we rowed. I don't know how fast we rowed but we had a wake, and I don't know how far we rowed, but by morning we saw land. We hadn't had the strength to raise our eyelids the night before, but hope is what did for us, and prayer didn't hinder any, I guess. When I said I knew there was land just ahead, they didn't know enough not to believe me, and that's what saved us.

"SO DON'T go knocking down tradition when I'm around," he said to me. "There's a bona fide case where tradition saved three lives."

I shook my head and made a clicking noise with my teeth and I asked, "And it was really land—American land?"

"Nah," he said. "It was just a lost little island nobody cared about, but it had trees and coconuts and birds and turtles and we lived there six weeks more before a Catalina spotted up and took us off."

"If it was a lost island," I said, "how did you know about it?"

"I didn't," he said. "I was crazy. I went so nuts when that sub disappeared I just couldn't think straight anymore. but I didn't know that. I really thought I could navigate lying on my back on a raft and reading the stars. But if it hadn't been for that sub. I'd never have thought of the tradition and I'd never have thought we were at the equator and I'd never have made them row. We'd be fish-food in the fifteenth generation by now."

"But," I said, "if it wasn't for tradition that sub wouldn't have submerged and you'd have been saved right then and there, without that wild piece of luck."

"Nah," he said. "We found out about that later. When we told our story to Naval Intelligence, they checked their subs and the place we'd been at and the time. We weren't anywhere near the equator, not any nearer than two hundred miles."

"What?" I said. "Then what made that sub submerge just then?"

"They told us that later," he said, "after they checked. It seems they'd spotted three Jap planes way up and they crash-dived before the planes could come down to take a poke at the sub. We were so blind and so deaf we never even knew those Jap planes were around."

I tried to say something but I couldn't make it.

"So don't go knocking tradition to me," he said. "I'm the living proof of the value of tradition. Got anything to say now?"

"You convinced me," I said.