The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

How on earth”, people have been asking me for years, “did you wind up on submarines?”

Well, lads and lasses, I’m glad you asked. Pull alongside, and I’ll tell you the tale. Parts have been bandied about, heard, repeated, and re-heard by friends, family, birds of the field and fish of the Sea. But few, if any, have heard the whole story.

Early fall of ’83, I was driving north along McLoughlin Blvd through Portland, Oregon. It was a typical October day in the Pacific Northwest – crisp, clear – the kind of autumn day one basks in, as the summer bustle comes to a close and winter starts to hint that it has designs on your well-tended garden. But I was not in a basking mood. Oh, I was in a mood, but it was the kind of mood that you only describe by saying, simply, “I’m in a mood”, and people instantly know what you mean.

And step back a pace or two.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself already.

I was only a few short weeks past the point where I couldn’t just couldn’t work as a CNA in a nursing home one more day. I had seen an ad in the newspaper for people to sell vacuum cleaners, and I had signed myself right up for that, expecting to be raking in the dough any time now. On my first day, we sat in training, learning how to demonstrate the equipment. On the second day, we sat in the basement of the shop, and sang rousing sales songs, which I could only mumble through in shamed sub-audible mortification. On the third day, after singing/mumbling songs, I and my trainer visited homes, and he showed me how “easy it was”. The man was smooth. I’d have bought two bags of ice from him to cool down my igloo. For the 4th through 10th day, I attempted to sell vacuum cleaners.

Let me reiterate that: Attempted…to sell.

On “The Fateful Day Minus One” day, I finally sold my first vacuum cleaner – to a young woman in North Portland who, for reasons beyond my naiveté of the time had a huge round bed with a red crushed velvet cover on it in the front room of her 1930’s house. She had wanted to buy the machine on credit. I helped her fill out the paperwork, and left the vacuum cleaner in an outburst of wanton optimism.

On the Fateful Day, the first call I got was from my boss, wanting to know why the heck I’d left the vacuum cleaner with a Woman of Ill-Repute(not his exact words, but you get the idea) having received no cash, and whose credit was no good and who would undoubtedly never pay for the machine. I had no idea what he was talking about. So stunned was I that it was another month, in a quiet moment of hard, sober reflection after another cold, arduous day of boot camp in the sub-arctic midwest, that I realized that for every one of those 30 days I had subconsciously carried with me a vision of him frothing at the mouth, as he told me to go pick the dang thing up and come in to the shop. It wasn’t until I could see it in humour that I could let it go. But I digress and once again am ahead of myself.

So it came to be that I found myself traveling along McLoughlin Blvd on a crisp, clear October morning, beauty that was completely lost to me. I got about halfway across the city; peeved, un-caffeinated, depressed, vociferously berating myself for dropping out of college, for taking this job, and for just about everything I’d ever done in my short span upon this earth. I was half-way through muttering a freshly-turned phrase under my breath when I passed a military recruiter’s station.

The U-turn was abrupt, fast, noisy, and undoubtedly illegal, though I couldn’t have cared less at the moment. I still don’t. Best use of unsafe and illegal street driving ever.

I entered the building, and saw four areas, one each for the 4 branches of the military. I knew virtually nothing about any branch of the service, except that my dad had been in the Air Force. I stepped up to that window.

The blue-uniformed Air Force recruiter nearly took his feet off his civilian desk, but…not quite. He was smug, smirky, and a little too nonchalant. He told me that to enter the Air Force, I had to choose a rate, and then wait for an opening in that rate. I didn’t even know what a rate was, let alone what I wanted. This would take patience. I had a wife, new baby, and no job. Patience was not on the menu.

The Marine almost spoke an intelligible word of English. Whatever it was he said, he was very, very enthusiastic about. To be honest, I had no idea what language he was speaking, but he spoke with the clarity of a door-gunner, which meant you didn’t have to understand a single word to know you had to hurry up and/or get down. I like words. I don’t think the Marines would have appreciated my dedication to enunciation.

The army guy asked me a few oddly specific questions, and then all but had me signed up to become a helicopter pilot. Heck, it sounded fun, and he was excited to get me, I was excited to get paid…

Oh yeah, about that. All of the sudden we were back to the “wait a couple years to get into that program” thing. Apparently it’s a popular modality in the military. In the meantime I saw myself living on an army base in some godfersaken land that not even the natives want, doing virtually nothing, expending a lot of sweat doing it – waiting, hoping, sweating…suddenly this guy’s enthusiasm seemed a little needy.

And so finally I came to the last office, the Navy.

The Navy guy…offered me a cup of coffee, had me take a quick version of the ASVAB test, and said that if I could pass the real ASVAB half as well as that one I could be employed by my government and on my way to an exotic land (Great Lakes, Illinois) next week.

As long as being a submariner was what I wanted.

I looked at him funny. He reclined in his steel folding chair, gestured towards me magnanimously with his cup and said, “it pays more”, reached behind him for the pot, and refilled my coffee. I asked him how he knew about subs, he pointed at his chest, at a marine-gargoyle-looking insignia he wore on his chest. He told me that out of everything he wore on his chest he was – and would always be – most proud of that pin, the submarine insignia.

Dolphins. That was the moment. Right there, while he talked of being a submariner, I knew what I had been looking for all along. Something kindled inside me. I slowly began to feel like I was on fire. I was going to wear those fish. I was going to wear them well.

He refilled my coffee cup. We talked some more. We drank more coffee. The fire in me warmed. My blood flowed faster. Or maybe it was the caffeine, I’m not sure.

“You’re sure you want to leave now? There are programs I think you’d do well…”

I interrupted, “I have a daughter to feed, a wife to shelter, and a vacuum cleaner hell-hound on my trail. I haven’t got time to be that special.”

Ok then. You leave in two weeks.”

Two weeks later, a jet-plane carried me aloft from Portland in the late afternoon, and flew into the deepening gloom towards Chicago. The blanket of darkness rolled in from the eastern horizon, like a doom coming to pass. I stared hard at the approaching darkness, and something in me awoke.

I feared no darkness.

That hell-hound Kirby Classic would never track me here, and if it did… I‘d be ready.

I never heard what became of the vacuum cleaner.


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15 Responses to “As long as being a submariner was what I wanted”

  1. Chuck says:

    It was April of 1964, I was coming back from unsuccessfully trying to visit my sister in drug rehab and I flicked a cigarette out the window of my dad’s prized red Mercury convertible. The cigarette came back in the zipped-open back window and landed inside. Fifteen minutes later I was standing by the highway watching the car go up in smoke.

    Needless to say, dad was pissed. I don’t know that he knew I was flunking out of junior college because of my penchant for cards instead of books, but that mattered not to him. “It’s time you joined the military.” Said he, who had never served a day because he was vital to the war effort. He also didn’t seem to care that Vietnam was heating up and that there was a really good chance I’d wind up there.

    I first went to the Air Force because I figured they’d have good schools and I wouldn’t be on the ground in Vietnam. I took their battery of tests and scored well, but not well enough for them to want me. There was no way I was going to consider the Army.

    The Marines and the Navy shared an office. I talked to the Navy recruiter first. Took their tests and scored well. I had no idea, but when the recruiter said, “How would you like to learn how to operate a nuclear reactor on a submarine?” I was hooked. I didn’t care when he said I’d have to sign up for six years. I was a science fiction junkie and scuba diving enthusiast and this fit the bill on all counts.

    Apparently I had scored very well on the tests because when the Navy recruiter stepped out for a few minutes the Marine recruiter said, “We can teach you how to fly a helicopter!” And I knew just where I’d be flying that whirlybird too. I told him, “No thanks.” And two weeks later I was stepping off the bus in San Diego.

    The six years I spent as a nuc MM on subs were, on further reflection, some of the best years of my life. That adventure gave me the experience to get out, go back to college, graduate with honors and have a long and successful career. There are times when I wish I had stayed in.

  2. Shannon Saxon says:

    I begin my story with a regression. I was recruited by a very large burley type BT. I mention this because it undoubtedly was the most protracted recruitment, although I had decided to join the Navy before I stepped through the recruiting office doors. You see I worked at a golf resort in Pine Mountain, Ga. Yes you guessed it. This BT recruiter played golf. So he proceeded to “recruit” me for atleast two months. And even after I signed the papers to join he continued to “recruit” me until I left for boot camp.
    Let’s move on to The boring part, which by the way said recruiter was convinced I was to become a BT. But I had other plans without even knowing it. My MEPS trip finally arrived. You guys know the drill all day down doing a physical, not to be forgotten the old finger in the rectum and cough drill. After which you have your sit down with the detailer type. Now keeping in mind I had electronics’s on the brain. The desk jockey recommended, based on my ASVAB scores I should try the Nuke exam andnseenifnI had enough juice in the noggin for the Nuke program. As they say thank God for small miracles I believe I answered 5 questions. So we were back to basic electronic schools. He finally ask me what I knew of subs. And I said nothing. Which was probably a good thing. It sounded interesting and adventuresome. Why else do you join the Navy. In for a dime….you know? So the school I decided on was pipeline for a SSBN. Fate sealed. Fate decided.
    Now let’s not forget the BTwho, oh so wrongly assumed I would follow in his size 13 golf shoes, was waiting for me to get ive me a ride back to Columbus, Ga from Atlanta, Ga was bursting with excitement until I informed him of my decision to choose a rating that didn’t require my knuckles to drag and to continue the insult I wasn’t even going to be on a surface ship. Fortunately for me we drove straight through home and he did not drop me off at the bus station!

  3. Jeff Davis says:

    In 1969 I was a high school senior in a small town in Idaho. I had grown up on a farm, spent lots of time hunting and fishing to put food on our family table. I was one of 6 kids, my oldest sister had married a local man who joined the Navy and lived in Hawaii. I didn’t have the grades for college, nor the money, and the Selective Service was going to be sending me a welcome letter soon. I hated the idea of the Vietnam War, but didn’t want to flee to Canada. When a couple of friends said they were joining the Navy, it didn’t take long for me to decide to come along. Off to San Diego we went to be part of Company 542. The day after we arrived and got our heads shaved, the Company Commander decided I would be a good squad leader, and we became shavetails. Sometime later, during a day of testing, an officer approached me and asked if I had ever thought about submarines. Since the idea of the Navy was to avoid being cannon fodder in Vietnam, I in my infinite wisdom thought being under the surface of the ocean made that even more unlikely said yes. It didn’t hurt that the officer explained that I would make more money, ie. hazardous duty pay at the unforseen rate of $55 per month, that we would eat the best food in the armed services, but most importantly I would be serving with the top 10% of the people in the Navy. I signed up that very day and never once regretted it. The four years I spent in the Navy and submarines are very precious to me.

  4. Jerry says:

    Let’s see you skirt wearing Vikings have a knack for photography and writing. Is all that lack of skill on my part because I was wearing my tighty whiteys too tight for years ? Boxers forever and anything but white for me my talented brother. Very well written. Enjoyed this as much as the third eye would allow ! The best days of my life were in the Pacific Northwest and at Pearl. God speed my fellow steelie eyed killer of the deep.

  5. Ed Shreve says:

    Thanks so much, very interesting…I needed this….. USS TROUT _SS566 —66/70 YES… a proud QUALIFIED SUBMARINE SAILOR….. Still have my original set of Dolphins……..

  6. Bob McDonald says:

    I couldn’t find a job, draft status too high,next stop beep school in great mistakes, chic in my class talked me into going nuke( she was shagging nuke recruiter) . At nuke school, guy was looking for sub volunteers,said if you wear glasses, they won’t take you, but we’ll give you a prize for trying. turns out, if your seeing eye dog didn’t have arthritis, they took you.Only 2 kinds of watercraft, subs and targets

  7. I too ended up on the road to Kirby. I bailed after three hours. Less than a year later I was in Great Mistakes, headed for subs. Thanks for making me cry, @ssh0le.

  8. Rob Lewis says:

    I am like you. Ran out of money and places to sleep, and read everything Tom Clancy had written up to that point. The sub guys were by far the baddest ass people he wrote about because they were for real, and I could be one. I joined in Lacey Washington after 11 days in DEP. Spent my first Christmas in NTC San Dog, Valentines in Rotton Groton sub school, then two years ping jockey schooling and the fleet for four years. Worst job I ever loved. True story.

  9. Jan says:

    Ah, very much like a prologue to a Clancy-esque best-selling thriller….. keep at it, I want to read more.

  10. marty rice says:

    My experience mimics yours to a tee or should I say the coffee. My route to the Silent Service was a little more circuitous than yours but the end result was I served on 5 diesels, three fast attacks and was the best decision of my life…

    Btw, you have a penchant for writing, crisp and interesting style….thanks for sharing!

  11. Karen Runner says:

    I’m so glad to read the full story! In fact, I would gladly ready any story you write 🙂 But I enjoy getting to know more about you, dad.

  12. Kent Keller says:

    First Chapter. So are now going to take Clancy’s place in the pages of literature or that of Erma Bombeck?

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