The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

The Care Bear Movie

Dateline: 1987-ish
Location: undisclosed submerged area of operations, North Atlantic. …ish

You can mess with a lot of things in a submariner’s life, and he will simply gripe about it and move along. Extend a run by two weeks. We already expected it. Commence field day? Already have a cleaning spot picked out, a plan for a nap. Want to send me up topside in a blizzard? Set fire to the galley? Fry electronics by taking a wave over the sail on the surface? Clog the sanitary systems? Poison the air requiring all hands use emergency air breathing masks plugged into a plumbed network of air lines? That’s what they pay us for. Bring it on.

But there’s some things they don’t pay enough for. High up on that list is bad or no movies.

This is how the rules read: If you don’t have a genuine emergency, mission, or better idea (read: liberty port) don’t mess with movie night. Do not break the machine. Do not break the film (or tape). Do not turn the mess decks lights on in the middle of the movie.

And above all, do not mess with the movie storage locker or contents. There’d better be a full loadout, functionally watchable, and preferably entertaining.

Now of course, there is a wicked little paradox here: the only thing worse you can do to a submariner than mess with movie night is to make the rule that you can’t mess with movie night.

See, here’s the thing: behind the swagger, lack of decorum, and general sacrilege that oozes from each submariner, and freely flows when there’s a crew of them, their general disregard and heathenish ways only seem faithless to others. The submariner’s creed, “we are the crew, we are the ship” completely excludes reverence for the silly decorum of others. That irreverence isn’t a byproduct. It is a critically functional facet of a mindset formed in an environment unimaginable to most people. “Nothing is sacred” is a sacred codex.

And so the deadly game of survival underwater inevitably requires shenanigans, just to get the irreverence flowing and all warmed up…

The run to our undisclosed location was slow. The operation was mind-numbingly boring to 90% of the crew. And so, the movies began once shakedown, drills, field day, and all the stuff we do getting settled into a deployment is under control.

I remember the exact moment this transition took place. I was basking in the downtime of taking my turn as aux operator in Sonar. We rotated in on the main sonar stack (listening post) periodically, then out to take a little while to rest the eyes and ears. The aux operator was the spare man, the guy free to move about the cabin. The one guy available to fetch coffee while he’s out of the shack. And in this capacity, I had just exited the shack headed toward the ladder down toward the mess decks. The predictable but loud thrum of the inside of the submarine was suddenly punctuated by a peculiarly angry voice.

“The Care Bears Movie?!”

Now at this point I want to acknowledge and guide the two types of people still reading this far: the first type will assume I have reported what was actually said, and that was that.

Why, bless your little ol’ hearts.

The second group will understand, to varying degrees based on experience, that more was said, that it was vulgar, and therefore either needlessly confusing to the uninitiated or fully implied and understood to those who are wise in the ways of sailors.

I’m not saying the feelings being emoted were unholy. I’m just saying I suspect the ensuing Cosmic Blush caused the 400-cycle bus to dip a few hertz in shame, heaving an acoustically-detectable electronic sigh into the Deep.

See, before every deployment, some young buck gets awarded the privilege of anonymously accompanying the Supply Officer to Squadron, where he could help choose the movies we’d take to sea. What was chosen was chosen, there was no arguing the titles once the hatch closed and we submerged into the Darkness of the Big Bathtub. By some sort of cosmic law probably related to penance for our vocabulary, it was understood to be also forbidden to just “not watch” a movie taken onboard for deployment. If one movie were to get watched, they all had to get watched ( you see how that “one crew-one screw theme keeps coming back?).

The outcry I heard was not one of disgust from a qualified Submariner, but one of qualified horror.

Sure enough, our mystery sailor had put the Care Bear Movie into the box with the others. Now, please don’t try to wrap your head around why Squadron had stocked Care Bears in their library. I’m 35 years deep into this bizarre case, and still got nuthin’. It was just there, alright?

And of course, that meant it HAD to be watched.

This couldn’t have happened even two years previous. Up till then, we used the old 16mm film projectors. In the Eighties, this meant a harsh demarcation of available movie titles. On film, we got older movies, lots of B-grade material. On the new VHS Format, suddenly Care Bears was possible.

And now, by virtue of its malevolent presence, required.

Dear friend, we had a term for something tested to extremes, that came from the mechanical type rates. We would say we “Hydro’d” a thing to indicate it had endured extreme testing conditions. In the spirit of what can only be described as rhapsodic resignation, we embraced this Care Bears. It was screened at least twice a day for two weeks.

In recounting this tale, it is at this moment that I suddenly hesitate to bring you, dear reader, further into the ebullient cesspool of Submarine humour. But I can’t leave you hanging either, now can I. I’m just saying Let it now be known that you have been warned.

Our uniform at sea is referred to as a “poopy-suit. A one-piece easy-in, easy-out garment with a single zipper from neck to the netherworld built especially to enable a sailor to quickly go from sleeping to fighting for survival, unhampered by the one thing he never had to begin with, modesty issues. It is equally conducive to the semi-conscious divestiture by an exhausted sailor who has spent the last 3 days in arduous testing, or nail-biting suspense. The last thing a bone-weary sailor needs is complicated clothing.

By the Official Manual of Uniform Regulations, beneath the poopy suit was to be worn a white tshirt and underwear. By the Eighties, the tshirt was often a printed shirt, a personal and as vulgar a message as the times allowed. Of course, no one knew whether you had a plain white tshirt or not unless you zipped down the poopy suit a bit.

As the hydro-testing of the Care Bears exuberantly continued, there came a point when things suddenly went from darkly hilarious to diabolically collaborative. And it all started with Pink Floyd.

As many qualified, off-duty submariners as could were lounging Conspiratorially on the mess decks for screening #45 of “A Care Bear Movie”, when someone up front suddenly had an epiphany. As behind him Care bears were glowing a rainbow beam at some evil-doer meany-doo-doo-head, he seductively unzipped his poopy suit in front of us down to his navel. He stretched it aside to reveal his Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” prism tshirt. It was perfect. How perfect? Well I’ll tell you. In two watches, a matter of 12 hours, we went from a boat-full of submariners obsessed with Care Bears to actually believing we WERE Care Bears.

We all had different names and powers though. In addition to “dark side of the moon” beam, there was AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”, Rolling Stone’s giant Tongue, Cuervo Gold, Jack Daniels, Triumph motorcycle on a highway way… you get the idea. Things with a hint of being worthy of becoming a “Stare” came out from the woodwork. These became our mythical superpowers. We would unzip and expose our tummies at hilariously awkward conversational moments. Passing each other in the passageways, which required the two parties turn sideways and slide past, became fodder for coy, often lewd insinuations based on our particular hidden “Stare”. It evolved into a friendly challenge – woe be to you if you were caught in a challenge with a plain white tshirt. Well, until one guy turned it into “Blinded by the Light”. That was a stroke of genius right there.

But as childishly silly as most of it was, there were other moments. One torpedo man had a flag shirt – just a simple one mind you, nothing garish. We would kazoo-choir our way through a shortened rendition of the star-spangled banner, suddenly a little awkward and maybe a little moved at the displayed patriotism. An ET had a print of John Holland, an iconic image of the inventor and founder of modern submarines. His “stare” was generally met with a respectful grunt of acknowledgment, as if his opponent was grudgingly acknowledging having been trumped.

Mine, or at least my favorite of what I had available that run, was a “Keep on Truckin’”shirt. Whenever space allowed, I’d always strike the pose, yaknow, one foot impossibly extended forward creating the illusion of a giant step being taken. That was my Stare, and it was used to convey reaching a little further than you thought you could. I didn’t mean it to be entirely serious, but the element of genuine encouragement stood fast. By the time we stationed the inbound maneuvering watch, I had it perfected.

And so it came to be on a cool September morning as we were bumped and nudged and coddled up towards the pier by the tug, all the aft line-handlers, yours truly included, greeted and encouraged our pier-side counterparts with our new communication skills, successively beaming them our particular “Stare”. I even struck my most dramatic “Keep on Truckin’ pose yet, what with not being inside the boat and all, but yaknow, they just weren’t pickin’ up what we were layin’ down.

We finally gave up, to attend to that which stood between us and getting off the boat and off to our families or, well, wherever the boat wasn’t. We reminded ourselves a little, but not terribly too late, that when in the sunshine, we had to at least try to act like the other sun-walkers. We ahemed and coughed our way back in juvenile seriosity to a modicum of decorum just in time for the colors to shift from the bridge to the aft deck where we stood, as the final act of transitioning from underway to officially in-port.

As we all snapped to salute the colors, wouldn’t you know it, there stood our torpedo man, giving his surreptitious stare with one hand exposing his Care-Bear Stare chest flag, eyes locked straight into the eyes of the Ship’s stars and stripes. It was in that beautiful moment that I realized that the warped, defiant, oppositional and sometimes arrogant mind of a US Submariner is a National Treasure, capable of Care-Bear Staring down the Enemy and the Sea he tries to hide in, armed with nothing but a tshirt and a poopy-suit to load it into for launching.

You cannot win against this.

Happy Veterans Day, ya cocky bastards.


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