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Asbestos exposure is frightening

Over the past few months I’ve been devoting most of the space given to me to a look at Veterans Service Organizations, the Veterans Administration and a brief look at state services for veterans. In this month’s column I would like to digress somewhat and talk about death.

Yesterday afternoon I received a call from an attorney in Illinois. He was calling me in regards to my service onboard the USS Fiske (DDR-842) during the early 1960s. Specifically, he wanted to talk about that period of time that the Fiske spent in the Naval Shipyard at Charleston, South Carolina in the late winter and early spring of 1962.

Now, the Fiske was one of the hundreds of destroyers built just before and during World War II. [For those of you born after 1950 that was the period of time that the USA, with the help of the British Empire (England, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and India) were fighting the forces of fascism (led by Germany and Japan with the occasional and reluctant help of Italy and much of France)]. That means that in 1962 the Fiske was over 16 years past that day in November 1945 when she became a commissioned part of our Navy. She saw no action during the period of hostilities but made significant contributions to the ‘clean-up’ after the treaties were signed. She cleared mines from the harbor of Venice in 1946 and 1947. She also aided the Greek government in its overcoming the threat of a communist takeover orchestrated by Yugoslavia and the Kremlin.

The Fiske received two Battle Stars for her service during the Korean Conflict and completed her first ‘Around the World’ cruise during that period. In other words she was well-seasoned and needed a bevy of long overdue repairs and updates when she entered the shipyard early in 1961. Most of her previous times spent in shipyards were for conversions and updates to weapons and electronics. This time she would receive much needed maintenance on her engineering spaces.

It is a long held tradition in the Navy that the most junior crewmen do the most menial and dirtiest jobs regardless of the individual’s training. So, when it came time to strip the insulation off all of the steam lines in the engineering spaces each department and division was required to send at least two people to participate in this effort. I was one of those ‘shanghaied’ into this task. We were formed into ‘Tiger Teams’ of five or six and given a section of piping to strip, bag and cart off to dumpsters placed on the fantail. These dumpsters held about two to three cubic yards and were replaced frequently. It was hot, dirty work and the air was filled with dust all the time. It is the composition and quantity of this dust that is important and very germane to the subject at hand—death.

It is a well known fact that man-children in their late teens and early 20s are immortal and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We worked in our normal work dungarees—often shirtless and, most importantly, without dust masks. “Dust masks! We don’t need no stinking dust masks.” In fact I don’t recall they were ever even offered to us. The EPA—if it had existed in 1961—would have had a cow upon seeing this Dante’s Inferno of sweat and swirling dust being worked in without any breathing protection in sight. Those steam pipes had been wrapped in the best insulation known in the 1940s—asbestos—and sheathed with coarse canvas held in place with galvanized wire and huge staples.

The routine was this: Remove the wire and staples; unwrap the canvas (no easy task as much lead based paint had been applied over the course of 15 years); separate the molded sections of asbestos off the pipes; and place in bags for transport to the dumpsters. We followed this routine for about six or seven hours a day for a least a week. Most of us did wear cotton work gloves but none to the best of my memory ever wore a mask of any kind other than maybe a handkerchief over nose and mouth. That kerchief did cut down on the coughing from breathing that dust. We never gave a thought to the possible long term consequences of that job at the time. It took a phone call from a lawyer to get me to thinking about that period of time spent in the bowels of a ship that had been built to save the world for democracy.

The word he said that really got my attention was “Mesothelioma.” Now, everybody who has a TV set has probably heard that word spoken by some ambulance chasing lawyer trying to drum up business but when it was used in connection to the death of a shipmate of mine from that period in the early 1960s it got my attention. When I hung up the phone I ‘googled’ mesothelioma and what I found was scary. Whereas lung cancer has long been associated with years of smoking mesothelioma is associated with exposure to asbestos dust. Even a relatively brief exposure to asbestos dust can—years later—lead to a particularly virulent, fast-moving cancer. The truly insidious thing about mesothelioma is that there are almost no early symptoms. There may be a small, dry hacking cough that produces little phlegm but that usually occurs later on in the course of the disease. 

It can lay dormant for years and suddenly explode. There seems to be only one course of action to pursue if you feel that you may have been exposed to asbestos dust. That course is to have regular—annually if possible—chest x-rays and/or lung-function tests. Hopefully you can convince your doctor that these are necessary actions and—even more importantly—your health insurer covers the cost. With early detection there is hope. Unless detected early the survival rates are poorer than those of lung cancer associated with smoking—and we all know that is not very good.

More information on this subject can be found at the following links: www.asbestos.com/veterans/veterans-at-risk.php and www.asbestos.com/veterans/other-branches.php

Now that it is almost 40 years past that these events occurred I am fully aware of the fact that I am most assuredly not immortal and am currently unable to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Not even with a running start. We need to do the prudent things but not obsess over the things over which we have no control. To quote the great contemporary philosopher James Dean (1931-1955): Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.

This column is dedicated to the memory of Robert Chaffee, BT2, USS FISKE (DDR 842). Fair winds and following seas, shipmate.

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Gil  Beyer Gil Beyer A 21 year Navy veteran, lived in Bonner County for over 30 years, Past Commander of the Priest River DAV Chapter and admitted news junkie.

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