The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Archive for April, 2015

Midrats

Ah, Midrats!

You moment of freedom you, moment of choice, of living without the arbitrary rules of convention.

You culinary disaster cleanup crew of the mistakes of the day gone.
You sparker of imagination of the New Day Coming.

You don’t aspire to beautiful, but the way that you work, picking the best of what’s available, of what’s been cast off, left over, dreamed but never fulfilled – is beautiful.

Never fancy, or pretentious, you rejuvenate the mistakes of the day. You are culinary redemption, you see food for what it is, for what it could be if we didn’t hold back.

You are the salvation of the scrumptious, that was passed over for reasons that don’t matter, that shouldn’t have mattered.
Midrats, you are the gatherer of the downtrodden, the maligned food that is beautiful at its core, the giver of choices without the judgment of Breakfast, or Lunch, or Dinner.

Midnight Rations.

The gathering of leftovers, of re-creation.
The Dagwood Sandwich of meals.

How I love your style, your lack of style. The pajama party of meals, quietly conspiring with the rebels of the night shift. You revolution you.
You’re the guerrilla warfare assault on institutionalized culinary dysfunction, with bacon in places is shouldn’t be, with corned beef, or cheese and crackers, the birthplace of Cobb Salad.

The last chance to Carpe the bejeebus out of the closing Dium.
The last toast to the faded night.
The first cast of the new morning.

Midwatch on the River

Mid-watch on the River.

Topside.

My boat, the smallest on the river, looks at first diminutive at low tide, straining downward against its mooring lines, flowing silhouette disappearing beneath the water in a graceful, agile curve. The bigger boats up and down the river seem to feel like the bigger kids, but to my guardian eye, no other boat is so beautiful, so adept at what she does. My purpose tonight is to guard her brow, to defend her honor against any comers.

Tidewater flows upstream beneath the brow, pushing her close against the pier.
Floodlight shining feebly against the giant darkness, shrinking my visible world to a field of artificial yellow halos of visual prison. Other senses step in.

The weight of the side-arm, becomes more natural against me with every step along the expanded-steel ramp that connects the submarine’s deck to the concrete pier. Ten fat stumpy lead bullets and a semi-automatic pistol tug on one side of my dungarees, and with experience become part of the subtly uneven gait: step-clomp, step-clomp. Maybe it’s a burden, maybe it’s just a swagger. The green webbed belt holds it snug against the dungareed hip, half covered by a warm green jacket that is never worn anywhere else but in, on, and around this boat. The weighted cadence stops midway across the span of the brow, hand resting unconsciously on the leather holster.

Turning my attention to the small halo of illuminated water, the scene below me plays out. Tiny fish hug the surface in false security, while below them a layer of larger fish pick them off one by one. Further down, a layer of even larger fish yet can just be seen, occasionally striking upwards into the medium sized ranks. And once in a while, a shadow passes deep down, not quite seen, but rather felt. All the visible fish panic, hurling themselves upward and even airborne to escape this deep-water terror.

Waves slap unseen against the far-side darkened hull, and the pier pilings gurgle with the backwash. Their chorus echoes across the river and back again, measuring the width of the river with wind waves from a squall blowing up the river from the sea. A swirling breeze chills the night, grows into a squall, and then for ten minutes rain and wind become the Only Thing to every topside watch on the river. As suddenly as it came up, it is gone,replaced by a blank space of quiet where the hour drawls past in silent doldrums.

An uncomfortable intimacy grows in the limited circle. The distinct sounds of the far shore are drowned first in the cacophony of the squall as it passes over those unseen opposing rocks, then in silent whisper of a mischevious night breeze scurrying along in the trailing skirts of the rain. Uncomfortable because of the intruding random bursts of steam relief valves, and the street-lights that occasionally shut off without warning, constantly niggling the mind of the Watch. Uncomfortable as it becomes cold, as the evening turns into morning. Uncomfortable because as much as I don’t want to be up, I don’t want to miss anything either. Uncomfortable because I don’t want to love this time of day. Intimate, because I do.

The ubiquitous smell of diesel mixes with the tidal seawater to create a stench that will last for decades in the mind of the Watch. It seeps into the memory of every man who’s stood in it, re-emerging unexpectedly years later; in a walk in the dark, or through an industrial area. It bides unnoticed, never seen nor heard, but in its time bringing back with a rush the entire moment to its unsuspecting bearer, every little detail, a time bomb of scent. A stone remembrance that takes its victim away completely to a recollection of everything, the sound, the smell, the feel of the air, the sense of the unseen darkness, of the power of the boats on the river. It is a place that once stood amidst, owns my allegiance forever. IMGP0834

Baptism by Tempestuous Green Seawater.

So there I was, Green Water sweepin’ the bow.

Internal Turmoil

No wait…not yet, back up. That comes later in the story.  We begin when the line handlers had laid below, and only the STASS Handling party remained topside. (for the young’uns – on the
Shark (SSN591) we had to shove the towed array out a tube whose connection to the boat was on the after deck, topside, with a tube that ran down off the starboard side.) The whole contraption relied on two air motors that weighed 85# each, which were removed and carried below, as well as a bag of specialized tools for attaching things, working the air motors, etc.

On my first underway, my sonar chief hands me the burlap bag with a rope handle, and instructs me in the most serious tones, “Do NOT…I repeat DO NOT lose this bag or its contents under any circumstances whatsoever, Roesener. If you lose something over the side, I fully expect us to pick you up on the return trip where you will report to me personally, having retrieved the tools from the bottom of Long Island Sound, and having trod water for the duration of your mission.”

I believed him.

Of especial concern to him was a certain pin spanner wrench – a custom made wrench without which the array couldn’t be retrieved.This was my first time on the rounded deck of a modern nuclear-powered submarine. The sum of my experience walking on a rounded, wet deck of a submarine was precisely one trip aft, one line-handling evolution, and one trip back as far as the doghouse on the side of the sail, where the Tool Bag had come out seemingly of its own accord, like the sword from the Lady of the Lake.

I never did tell my chief (whose hand it had been, extended in celestial feminine majesty) of my immediate mental image of the Lady of the Lake. By the time I was convinced that the imagery fit, I had moved on to other insults. But I digress.

I returned aft with the natural apprehension of a person who cannot see the shore, is held on to the deck only by a strap he cannot see affixed to his back, to a deck that has no clear boundary between his shoes and the Sea. A man who had yet to learn to trust non-skid. A man who still was convinced that things that didn’t move as you walked along their surface was the norm. A latent Landlubber.

And so, I headed aft, towards the rest of the STASS handling party, who stood expectantly waiting on the bag I held. For the first time I grasped a little bit of what it meant to be a submariner – to be expected to succeed.

No one expected me to know anything more yet – but they did expect me to learn. I watched, I listened. This thing went here, that thing went there. This tool was used like this – and then went back in the bag. The deployment of the array went as well as I could have been expected to understand up to that point.

And then, as the “coffin” that housed the entire assembly was being buttoned up, the sea became rough. Swells began running at our feet down the sides of the boat. The boat itself began to roll, and the complex mathematics of swells and rolls brought one or two waves right up and into the STASS coffin. Work went through a shift into urgency, those no longer needed went below.

But I carried the bag, so I was the last, save for the chief. When the last tool clanked into the safety of the burlap, he gesticulated for me to put some speed on it, and get moving. The man who had dropped that last tool into my possession was already gone with a swiftness I wasn’t sure wasn’t supernatural. I began to shuffle along the deck, saddled as I was with my apprehension of the lack of clear separation between the sea and myself.

The hand in my back told me that what I was doing wasn’t right, and so I decided to try walking as swiftly as everyone else, even though it didn’t seem possible. And amazingly, it WAS possible. I remember thinking, “hey, this is great, I can DO this!”

Well, I thought most of it. But just as I reached the point directly beneath the fairwater planes, hand on the frame of the doghouse door, a giant swell reared up, and I was no longer on the boat.

Well, no, I was. Wait, I wasn’t. Nope. Yup. I’m standing on something.

No, I’m standing on the fairwaters.

Upside down.

That’s not “standing”.

I hung on desperately to the bag, which was now directly over my head. Or under, depending on how you want to look at it. The whole wave probably lasted two-three seconds at the outside, but it seemed an eternity. I saw underwater through clear, green. The bag had filled with water, anchoring me to the deck. I suppose technically I could have let go, but there was no chance in hell I was going to tread water for two months diving the floor of the Long Island Sound for tools. My feet floated up, but the safety lanyard on my harness – along with the water-filled tool bag – held me back.

As the wave receded I was unceremoniously dumped head first onto the rounded, non-skid-coated deck. My left hand clutched my lanyard, and my right, with the force of an army, gripped the rope handle of The Tool Bag. As soon as I was able to process the fact that I was still alive, not drowned, oriented once again into a world where right-side up was…well, rightside up, I pulled myself to my feet with the left hand and lanyard. Every move I made was gravitated around that bag, and its continued presence on the deck.

Carefully, almost reverently, I tipped as much water as I could out of the bag so I could carry it. It took that amount of time for the Chief to retrieve himself from the aft end of the safety track, and tell me to quit poking around and get the hell below. The next swell was coming, and nearly caught us out again.

I learned a lot in those few seconds – an awful lot. I learned how fast I could move on the rounded back of a submarine. I learned how much I was depended on to do the job I was given. I learned how far I would go to do it. I learned that even a nub bears more respect than a non-boat sailor. Until he fails, he is expected to succeed.

And between you and I, I learned that my chief could squeal like a girl. Just before getting doused, I thought I heard the sailplane door squeak, but I realized it was my chief, behind me, anticipating getting dunked.  We all have our “foxhole” prayers and baptisms by fire and seawater. And sometimes they are voiced with the squeal of a little girl. I’m not in a position to judge.

An aging codger perched, close with his ale and quick with his eyes, guarding the assets and territory of the second stool from the end of the bar of the Fin & Fiddle Saloon. By virtue of what remained of the bulk his large frame had once supported, the last stool’s flank was defended as well, remaining unoccupied by opposing forces.

I had watched him nurse his ale and his mind through the afternoon. It had seemed at first that his attention was focused inward, as many a solitary old geezer would do – avoiding contact with the raucous carelessness of the younger men. But the codger’s quick eyes betrayed him. It became clear that he was listening keenly, following sounds and voices through the day.

When the slow lull of the afternoon had fully settled, between the daily drunks that staggered off to nap and the working men who still toiled at the docks, my eye had the time to catch sight of the tattoos on the old man’s arms. Upon one sinewy forearm was of an image of Poseidon, his triton raised in fury, angry waves flanking him, awaiting the command of destruction from their master. The other portrayed a curious pair of fish with an odd-shaped boat between them. I slid a fresh pint home, nodded at the old mans arms, and mused aloud, “Navy. You must have seen some things.”

The Codger’s bright eyes caught, then held me fast. His fingers clamped around his glass, and those eyes held me like a cat. The sudden presence took me by surprise. Unable to prevent the spell of The Story, I listened to his breath draw deeply in an unpracticed but gentle hiss. It seemed to have been a long time since he’d spoken.

“Seen, you say?”, and he swiveled round on me with his stool, sweeping the empty room from his vantage point for unwanted listeners, “Seen?”

“Nay, lad, heard. It’s what’s been heard that will have you calling for your God.” He adjusted his posture for the telling, and began as if invoking a secret war council.

“I’ve spent my best years as a submariner. Prided myself as a Sonarman of the highest caliber”, he confided. “Your stools are all empty, and my time grows thin. Allow me to tell you a tale of the sounds of the sea.”

I pulled a glass from the washer, and began working it with my rag, unconsciously.

“It was the lapping of the river against the hull of steel that marked my first acoustic analysis”, he basked in the memory. “An odd note of peace in a symphony of industry. As I stood for those first moments on the deck of that submarine, Water was the first sound. It is where everything began. And it seemed out of place, a gentle sound against such a terrible war machine.”

He drew a silent draft of his ale, and continued with new life, the memory breathing back life from its store, “I ducked my head into the sail access, and began the ladder-climb that carried me below. The moment my head emerged from the access trunk into the control room of that submarine, I entered as alien a space as anywhere on earth.”

“The hum of the 400hz electrical bus greeted me as if I were a newly pledged subject of its domain. It started up vigorous conversation, and it’s endless inanity would follow me night and day. Nothing was ever spoken, but that must be spoken over the yammer of 400 hz electrical.”

“In one corner, men spoke over equipment, in another over papers, charts, and manuals. A half-dozen separate pairs of men spoke, verified, and listened back between themselves in separate conversations. The cacophony of preparation filled the space. Cases, boxes, men’s seabags moved in a marvelous ballet of close-quartered confusion. Bodies instinctively turned, their cargo choreographed to move past one another in the low, narrow passageways. From somewhere impossible A voice boomed “Up-ladder!” And the expectant owner of the voice shot up from below. Barely had I time to recover from my dodge when another body came from behind me, “Down-ladder!” And flew past me, hands sliding on the stairway rails with feet extended to the waiting tile below.”

“Within an hour, I had heard enough sound to fill a library with description. I had heard that boats were quiet. This was nothing like that. As I boggled at the chaos, an announcement came that changed the tone of the entire boat, “Station the Maneuvering Watch”. Impossibly, the cacophony grew louder.”

“I found myself adorned with life-jacket, safety harness, and was followed by the clinking of hardware whenever I stepped. “Surely”, I thought, “This must be what Jacob Marley sounded like to Ebenezer Scrooge.” I haunted my way back through and up the access hatch, shaking these chains I’d forged in life as a warning to others, and found myself with the opportunity to fare my earthly domain well for my departure.”

I contemplated his allusions to the afterworld, but he left me little time to dally with them. He had already said his goodbyes to the world of light when my pondering thoughts caught up with him, midway through another pint of ale.

“I reentered that control room for the second time of my life, and it was as different from the first as could possibly be imagined. Gone were the jabbers of a half-dozen conversations, and the choreographed traffic. Terse, muted commands were given, received, and executed by men occupying well-rehearsed stations. Periodic data was given, received, logged, and efficiently calculated with. The 400hz bus yowled for someone to talk with, but only silence met her cries for attention. I had entered a new world – the world of a Navy Submarine at sea. These men were calculating, efficient professionals taking to the sea as masters. And I…was about to become one of them.”

I answered the call for beer at the other end of the bar to a stranger, and returned to my affable sailor. I asked him about that first time to sea, and his gaze grew vague and dim.

“To be honest”, he confided, “I don’t recall the details after that first day. I remember the subdued but heartfelt laughter on the mess decks, from those same earnest professionals when they were off watch. I remember the creaks and groans of the first dive, and the crash of dry goods and plates in the galley as we took steep angles to test our sea readiness. My first time with headphones on in Sonar, listening to the ocean sounds that could not be seen was a moment of wonderment. But mostly times and places run together. It is the moments of sounds that hark me back”

His next pull on his pint seemed a bit more earnest. I thought to draw another, but his story deepened.

“A hurricane topside doesn’t sound like much when heard from 400 feet down”, he spoke with the voice of a harried sage. “Unless you know what you’re hearing. The long rip of a wild, unchecked monster of a wave that could flip a boat without a struggle, the struggle of sea foam to regain the surface after being plunged 200 feet into the churning waters. The creak and groan of pack ice up north, giant floes of frozen seawater grinding together overhead driven by arctic winds and heaving seas – that’ll stay with a man. You don’t forget the feeling that sound sends through your body.”

“The sudden change in tone of the crew’s voices when they hear the rushing water that tells them the flooding is real. It is not one of fear, but anger and determination, doubled down in the face of death. God help any force that can bring the threat of death to a submarine crew. That force will find itself up against a rare breed of men who are only truly alive when Death’s breath is on their neck.”

The old codger paused here, the story still playing silently behind his eyes. It continued this way for half a minute, before he brought himself back with a start.

“But enough of that! Have you ever heard the boing-fish?”, a sudden mirth curled the edges of his lips upward in impish delight. “You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the boing-fish”. He went on to utterly fail to describe an odd, deep water fish that apparently sounded for all the world like a fish yelling, “boing” in a dramatic, open-ocean theater sort of way. “And carpenter fish. Sounds just like a group of carpenters frantically nailing a house together. They’re actually Sperm Whales, you know, hunting in the Deep”

I didn’t know, nor did I fully understand the sound of snapping shrimp, until he told me to imagine a million people snapping their fingers randomly in an auditorium. He gathered his lungs to mimic the plaintive call of the humpback, and the Orca, how their songs reverberated, illuminating the vastness of this ocean realm and bringing the sense of smallness home.

Then his mood shifted. His eyes darkened as unnatural sounds came to his mind.

“Young man”, he warned, “be these sounds as filled with joy and life as they are, this is not why we go to sea. Everything in the sea has an enemy. A submarine is no exception”

“The quietest sound is often the most dangerous. The click of hull popping. It can mean you’ve found your quarry. Or it can mean they’ve now found you. The drop of a wrench on a steel deck. The squeaking sound of a screw turning too fast in the water, the collapsing turbulence bubbles creating a telltale signature of a submarine. The unexpected ping of sonar from another sub, or worse the sound like wooden blocks being clicked together, revealing your location, and their suspicion. It is the submarine version of looking up to see a barrel of a gun pointed right at your face. The clunk and creak of torpedo tube doors being opened. That crazed spin of a launched torpedo’s screws. The splash behind a military surface ship that signifies depth charges hitting the water – and that blank space of sound after, where everything else seems to fall silent while you wait for the drum to reach its depth and explode. The only thing you hear at those times your own soundless prayer.”

“These are sounds of death. They come upon you without warning. And they never, ever go away, not even in your sleep. Not at your children’s weddings, or in your back yard where your grandchildren laugh and frolic. They come to you in business meetings, at lunch with friends. These sounds follow you everywhere. They possess you. They own you.”

A sudden chill seemed to descend over the bar, a shadow conjured by a thought, called from Hell itself. It settled over the empty seats, daring the evening crowd that had not yet arrived to toy with it. I shuddered a bit against the icy fingers of imagination. The old Codger, wrapped in thought deep in his pint, looked up, as if recognizing the demon moving through the room.

“What is heard, that cannot be seen. That is where the scars come from” he said, and turned his forearm over, inspecting those Dolphins as if for some portent. Then suddenly, as if feeling alive for the first time, he knocked back the last of his pint, slapped some coins on the counter, and spewed the words “death’s breath” out like a challenge. The spell broke and shadow retreated. He smiled broadly, and with the lubricated shamble of a deckhand, he relinquished the defense of the second stool from the end at the bar of the Fin & Fiddle.