Worse than the average off-base dive
I spent two tours of duty in the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina during my career as an officer of Marines. The first started in early 1964…my first tour after The Basic School. I was assigned as a platoon leader in Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. In 1970 I was transferred from recruiting duty to 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines as the commanding officer of India Company. In any leadership billet as an officer of Marines in the Fleet Marine Forces, you will come into contact with the bizarre world that exists outside the gates of every Marine base. Back in my day there was always a conglomeration of sleazy bars, greasy spoon restaurants, clothing stores, pawn shops, massage parlors and bordellos in certain sections of the towns adjoining Marine bases seeking to separate the young enlisted Marine from his money. The action in these places ebbed and flowed with the dates of payday which happened twice a month. In those days Marines were paid in cash.
On paydays a lieutenant would be assigned as the company pay officer, and, armed with a .45 caliber ACP pistol and accompanied by a similarly armed NCO, would troop to the division disbursing office and draw a specific amount of cash and a pay roster for his company. This team would then repair to the company area and pay each Marine in the company as they came to the pay table one at a time. The pay officer and NCO would then go to the hospital, brig and anywhere else members of the company may be and pay them as well. When everyone was accounted for, the officer and NCO would return remaining funds to disbursing after accounting for every cent.
Then those Marines not on duty would head for town with pockets full of cash to be expended at the sometimes dubious establishments or on the various pleasures of Jacksonville, North Carolina, the town near Camp Lejeune, or Oceanside, California, outside Camp Pendleton, the west coast counterpart of Lejeune. The section of Jacksonville where this world existed was on or near Court Street in the downtown area of the city. But there was also "The Second Front". This was smaller than Court Street and was located across the river from mainside Camp Lejeune, and across U.S. Highway 17 from the Marine Corps Air Facility and Camp Geiger, a subsidiary outpost of Lejeune. If anything The Second Front was sleazier than Court Street.
As you can imagine young Marines could easily get into trouble on Court Street or The Second Front and sometimes would wind up in the city jail. Too much beer might ignite fights in the bars, or fights over the girls who plied their trade in these places. Sometimes unscrupulous merchants would try to cheat Marines and would get called on it resulting in the cops getting involved. The possibilities were endless, and many platoon leaders and company commanders found themselves visiting these areas get their troops out of jail, or to intervene on their behalf with merchants.
Thus many officers would check out these areas to see what their Marines were up to and/or up against. Enlisted Marines don’t like their officers sticking their noses into their off duty time, so these visits were sometimes surreptitious and usually few and far between. I personally checked out a number of these places both on Court Street and The Second Front. There was one place on The Second Front that stood out from the rest and deserves special treatment in this tale. Big Dot’s.
Big Dot’s was a small bar across the street from the Camp Geiger main gate. The proprietor did not try to cheat her Marine customers, and the atmosphere was pretty friendly the times I was there. What set Big Dot’s apart was that it was the cheapest, most run down, low rent place on the Second Front, and probably in all of Jacksonville. Dot, the proprietor, was properly named. She was…big. Not really fat, but…big. She stood well over six feet tall and must have weighed over 200 pounds with broad shoulders and a wide girth. You wouldn’t want to tangle with her. She probably was her own bouncer. She was a kind and considerate lady, and as mentioned before, treated her customers right.
The bar was constructed of stacked large wooden ammunition boxes; the kind that 105mm artillery shells or 90mm tank main gun shells came in. The rope handles were still intact on the boxes. Across the top of the ammo boxes were several rough wooden planks that gave the bar an almost smooth surface. The bar stools were chrome and plastic dinette stools found in some kitchens with eating areas on high kitchen counters. The furniture in the place consisted of those cheesy formica covered chrome kitchen tables that seated six or so with plastic covered pads on the chairs. There were two or three of these tables surrounded by chairs, but no two tables or chairs were from the same set…nor were any of the bar stools alike.
The head…at least the men’s room…contained a toilet, a sink, a bathtub and a Marine Corps wall locker. A bathtub? I can’t remember if the head was for both men and women or not. Maybe there was a ladies room. But it was clean.
Big Dot’s stood out not because it was a sleazy joint that tried to cheat Marines, but because it was so low rent, so cheap and trashy, that it had a certain charm of its own. It looked like something that you would put together in your garage with junk material you had laying around for a lawn party. I was so fascinated by the place that I took my buddy and fellow company commander Dan Phipps, who led Mike Company, 3/8, there one evening. We walked in, sailed to bar stools and ordered a beer. Sitting next to me was a gorgeous blonde. You didn’t see ladies this attractive in the bars of Jacksonville. They just didn’t seem to exist. She appeared to be in her mid to late twenties. I tried to strike up a conversation with her, but when she started talking she was virtually incoherent. She wasn’t drunk, just unable to string words into a coherent sentence…the prototypical dumb blonde. The place had such an unlikely charm that I even took my wife there once, and she was duly amazed.
So that was Big Dot’s. Things have changed in the Corps since those days and liberty conduct that was tolerated then is less so today. Drinking to the extent that we drank back then is frowned upon and can ruin careers. A greater effort is made aboard bases today to provide activities and entertainment for young single enlisted Marines. I suppose this is a good thing, but I still think that we had more fun. Political correctness with its deleterious effects was nonexistent back then. So I doubt that places like Big Dot’s exist anymore. Maybe The Second Front is gone. I haven’t been to Lejeune in over twenty years, so haven’t been able to check it out. But of all the bars in Jacksonville that I visited, the only one that I remember with any clarity is Big Dot’s…a dump without equal.
Dirck Praeger sends