The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Submarines

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.

Must Not Remember.

I sat numbly against the concrete blocks rising up at an awkward, uncomfortable right angle to the concrete sidewalk.  I say, “sat”, but there was less energy than that in it.  My body was laying but my legs sat akimbo, situated by luck, gravity, and the curious fluidity a fifth of Rum gives the body.  And so the two halves of me argued themselves into a knot over the hours.

But there was nowhere else to be.  No hope to be found, no dream to pursue.  Sitting.  Breathing.  Thinking about the Dark Days when sobriety forced me to look, drinking the memory away when I could.

And then a man stopped in front of my inverted cap on the sidewalk beside me.  He squatted down, sympathetic yet sophisticated enough, and asks, “if I give you a Lincoln will you use it for a meal, or for rum?”, noting with a glance the bottle beside me.

I knew this routine. The man didn’t want to think himself party to the debasement of another alcoholic binge.  It seemed so unrighteous and wasteful to him, I’m sure.

I clutched, and clawed with unsteady hands a grip for myself on his scarf.  I pulled up and held myself until I could focus on his eyes.  He returned my tortured gaze squinting through a fog of still-liquored breath, bravely holding his righteous ground.

“Mister”, I croaked, the disuse of my voice from days of isolation in this sea of humanity covering my throat with a gravelly coating, “If you’d seen the horrors of the Deep that I’ve seen, if you’d crossed eyes with Davey Jones as have I, if you’d heard the screams of the men he carries below as their life force escaped their tortured, drowning bodies, you’d pray – not beg – pray, for your last meal to be of the strongest Rum.  A Happy Meal is of no use to me, it only fuels my mind – allows me to remember.  I must…not…remember!”

Much has been made in recent months of the plight of the homeless veteran, and of the suicide rates amongst them.  This post isn’t about rehashing the numbers, because to be honest, the numbers aren’t that helpful.  If I say, “there’s a lot”, I’ve said a little more than many people will ever process.  More to the point, there’s a reason these badly-dressed icons are there.  The guys that make jokes on their cardboard signs on the offramp of the freeway…you know, good for them, but there is more to it than those guys who are functional enough to create an effective marketing campaign.  The guys that I know who are or are very close to homelessness – if they could mount a campaign they would, but then they wouldn’t be homeless either.  If food were all they needed, they’d have figured that out by now.  If righteousness was their issue, well…by my beliefs, they stand forgiven already.

It is a dark place to be, someone who has seen and heard the weapons of war take a life, or many lives, and to look down and see your own hand on the trigger, or to have guided the targeting, to know it was YOU who killed.  It is darker still to walk among those whose existence will never come anywhere near that moment, to stand there on a street corner of sharp-dressed businessmen, elegant matrons, smart-dressed workers…and to see yourself in their midst with blood on your hands.   Many work through it a little worse for wear but still functional.  Why it affects some and not others in such violent spasms of insanity isn’t fully known yet.  Treatment exists, but many vets are so jaded they suspect everything – including the help given.  For different reasons, many reject the only interactions and relationships that will help heal them, and clutch desperately to the tree of forgetfulness.

And when that fails, they often commit suicide.  Numbers vary, and are explained differently by different groups.  But while they are busy counting, recounting, and sorting their numbers and working them around into logical order, another confused, paranoid, isolated, maybe homeless veteran dies in a place he doesn’t deserve to die.  So think about that one guy.  Just one.  Maybe you can find him.  Maybe someone you know can find him. Maybe instead of a $5-dollar bill you can sit there beside him, and listen.  Ask for a story.  Expect something crazy, something that doesn’t even seem real, something you doubt ever happened, and just listen anyway.  Hang with the craziness.

Because he never imagined it would happen to him either.

USS Thresher: Lost at Sea, April 10th, 1963

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Maybe this annual observance only makes sense to those who have heard the sound of the diving alarm. And felt the air system close as the hatch shuts. And felt the down-angle, and the shift of the side-to-side sway of the boat cease as the Sea closed it’s liquid gates above them.

After a while, we didn’t think about where we were, there beneath the sea, dependent on steel and tubes and tanks – valves and switches that gave us control over the physical properties of air, oil, water, and electricity. It didn’t knock at the back of our consciousness like a blinking light. But we knew that in every action we took – valves we touched – or didn’t touch, every switch we operated – or chose not to operate – there was the potential to mean life or death for all of us.

Making a mistake was only part of the danger. Forces beyond our control had to be considered, things that once set in action would prevail over our comparatively frail bodies. We learned to deal with fear and danger as a companion. Not a friend, but a companion nonetheless. It didn’t lurk somewhere out there in the dark. It sat with us, slept with us, worked with us.

And sometimes, those forces won.

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 ’82, 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 point 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.

 

I have no idea what became of the vacuum cleaner.

Explaining the Gizmos

I can neither confirm nor deny that I may…or may not…have been born with an mischievous streak.  I’ve heard the whisperings, but to date, little evidence exists.  Well, there are two bits of evidence.  The first is a rare photo:

Innocent and pure as the driven snow

Innocent and pure as the driven snow

The second is a bit of anecdotal evidence:

So there I was, Sonar Supervisor on watch, in an undisclosed zone somewhere in the Atlantic, hundreds of feet below the surface, when a tightly-wound and naive O-gang non-qual comes sniffing around for signatures. He’s been in before, and frankly, isn’t picking up stuff as fast as he thinks he is. He wants to know what the gizmos in the back of the shack do, and by golly, I’m the guy to teach him, apparently,  He plops himself down in front of the BQR-25 and awaits his lesson. Me, being the all-wise-aleck 2nd-class that I was, sense a victim.

I commence to explain to him that this is a top-secret listening device connected to the towed array. The little crank-knob dial (which is for steering a virtual listening beam) I explain “actually turns the end of the array around in the ocean like a snake’s head, and can stick to the side of a Commie submarine with a suction cup hydrophone on the end.”

I feel his sense of wonder, and it’s pure fuel to me. Being aware that we only have one distant merchant contact at the time and no expectations of anything remotely entertaining, I begin to explain to him that we can listen to soviet wardroom conversations in the right conditions, right through their hull, by steering and attaching it via this steering knob. I quickly add that of course any such actual contact would be HIGHLY classified, and that sonar would instantly become an exclusion area – only people with “need to know” allowed, regardless of security clearance level. I set him to training the listening beam around with the crank knob, and hand him a set of headphones from out of the patch panel to practice with. I neglected to tell him that the phones he has are actually the secondary set for the main broadband stack – the one with the big hydrophone array in the front of the boat.
 At this point I nudge my aux operator at the front of the shack, who growls the TMOW, a good friend of mine who happens to know a few words of Russian If he stands between the torpedo tubes and talks real loud, he can be faintly heard on broadband. My aux operator surreptitiously fills him in on the SitRep.

Two minutes later the hapless nub’s eyes fly open, he throws the ‘phones at me, says,”I’m not supposed to be here!”, and disappears.

20 seconds later the Weps Officer is standing in sonar, finding us nearly in tears laughing.

Another minute later, the skipper shows up, looking alarmed, and finds all of us – now including the Weps – still laughing. I’ll give him credit, he really, really tried to keep a straight face.

Ah…good times!

 

 

Getting Coffee, two minutes ago.

h70305

USS Scorpion, SSN-589

So there I was, in the back of the Sonar shack of the USS Shark, SSN 591, conducting a secret safe inventory prior to getting underway. I’ll never forget that day. I was waist-deep in inventory sheets and publications, pressed against the back wall because someone with a left-handed brain and a right-handed manual had put the safe up side against the back wall, so that the door opened outward, at knee height. Being on a submarine, I was well-accustomed to odd storage in odd places, but this just defied stupidity. I had to essentially stand on my head holding a flashlight in my teeth to see anything inside, and because it was a secret safe, just hauling everything out and laying it on the floor was more or less frowned upon.
My Senior Chief, who was normally a pretty mellow guy, had gotten irritated with our Sonar Officer trying to tell him how we should do something while talking in the passageway outside the shack, so he went and hauled him into Sonar for a little “private counseling”. Neither saw me, there in the back up against the bulkhead halfway upside-down. Senior Chief came in first, and spun around, JO started reiterating whatever it was he had said out in the passageway as he shut the door, which he apparently was doing too slowly. The senior chief held his hand up, leaned around and helped the JO finish shutting the door to the shack, stood himself back up straight and said, “Listen, lad. I’ve been doing it this way on this class of boat since I qualified on the Scorpion…”

For the uninitiated, you should know that the USS Scorpion sank in 1968. We were struggling our way through the last part of 1986, as I recall.

Apparently, at this particular moment the fleas of a thousand camels flew up my nose, and I sneezed. They both turned to look at me like I had just invaded the Holy of Holies. Then the Jnior Officer suddenly realized the gravity of what had just been said, and looked back at the Senior Chief with a bit of slack-jawed reverence. He drew a deep breath, looked at his feet, and said, very quietly, “I’m sorry”, and edged out the door.

Senior Chief was still glaring at me. The void through which the JO left gloomed at me, like the place I should have been two minutes ago. I smiled the wan smile of a man who is trying hard to recreate the historical facts of recent history. Senior Chief – still glaring. I stood up, turned to slide past him sideways in the narrow shack, and asked him if I could get him a cup of coffee two minutes ago. He didn’t exactly smile quite, but said, “and don’t come back for two minutes.”

We never spoke of it again. But once in a while, I would see Senior Chief talking to JO, and I’d smirk. And Senior Chief would glare the Glare of Doom. And I’d say, “Coffee, two minute ago, aye”.

Communication skills. I have them.

Coffee thief

Lament for an Old Boat

USS Blueback SS-581-small 036

 

Am I the only one that dreams, sometimes

of putting together a crew of men whose seabags, buried deep in a back closet

still smell of brine, and diesel, and the hearts and souls of men

Who never thought of themselves brave

But thought with foul mouths, and big hearts, whose courage looked straight into the insanity of sinking a ship on purpose

Stared it down

and returned from the deep with Neptune’s cup, filled with a salty draught.

 

Am I the only one who sees an old boat,

tied, welded to a pier, dreaming of her glory days

while tourists boggle at things they’d never dreamed possible?

and plots in my mind to set her free, loosening the lines of that old boat

and with the tide waning,

sliding silently into the murky river water,

letting the open current caress her dark, sleek lines once more

And slip out of the river

And out of the harbour

And out, across, and into the open, watery horizon

Where together we dash her face with the brine of open sea,

bringing her senses back to her

 

I can already feel it, the sudden shuddering, firing of the diesel

The first burst of sooty smoke and then

The surge of life – feeling the innards course with life again.

Am I the only one whose heart is already going on a cruise in an old smoke boat?

 

Would we try to submerge it?

Damn straight we would!

 

Riding the lookout stand in the sail, feeling the communion of the sea coming on,

Binoculars around my neck, the wind tugging at my face, and my hat, urging me like a Siren to leave the confines of the boat, and be free forever.

But I am not here for the Sea

I am here for one last ride, to honor this boat

whose engineers, and crew, and officers, used her strength to defend themselves

and the ones they loved

To ride once more in her belly

So I go down, hand over steely rungs, in the familiar sway

that a submariner knows best, swinging my way down,

into a different world.  From topside to below, I might as well have transported to the moon.

Nothing of the open sea remains.

 

This place was my life, it’s no good to simply stand here, as a separate thing from the boat. I have to move away from the trunk, and away from the idea of being something distinct, myself, and to become only a part. I am ready to snuggle in to this weapon we called home, and listen to her churn, dozens of mechanical wonders quietly, subtly moving, breathing, pulse flowing. Every step I take, around the conn, deeper into the boat, I shed a layer of individuality, and am absorbed into the boat.

 

I can feel the machinery all around me, and the subtle roll of the boat at periscope depth. Can you sense the shift in the atmosphere when the hatch closes, and the boat becomes whole. A flurry of alarms, and activity gives way to a calm as the boat leaves the surface, suddenly still. The faint noise and subtle rocking of the surface are gone, and we are abandoned to the deep. I can still feel the gradual calming loss of dependence on the surface – facing that fear that has gripped sailors for centuries, is our purpose. We sink into the sea, no longer merely bobbing above it. The old familiar act of slipping on a set of headphones, of opening myself to the undersea world that few have ever experience, settles me in. I listen, for a time, to the whale’s call, the rain’s hiss, the distant fishermen’s boats churning against their load. And sometimes…every so often, sometimes, I still hear the whispers of other boats, the too-quiet silence in the midst of a pod of shrimp, the single metallic clink that has no reason to be in this chartless deep, and the sense of other men, straining to hear us, not knowing if we’re there, hunting, like us. Pursuing, like us. At home in the sea…like us.

 

The Big Game is long over for these old girls, They cannot compete with the modern boats – they are too loud, their equipment no longer superior. but couldn’t we just get one more ride out there, just to give her that one last run. I can see the familiar red-lit passageways. I can see familiar valves, the ones I had to memorize, whose handles taught me to trust – in myself, and in my shipmates who knew them as well or better than I did.

Some handles were cold, and jeweled with sweated condensation from the outside chill. Some were heated – water, air, oil all compressed, lifeblood pushed to its limit to make the ship’s systems function. The compartment hatches hung on thick, stout hardware, their weight enough to pinch off fingers. I can feel the unforgiving solidity of the hatchway, and the scar of the gash above my right eyebrow remembers – there is no give, at all, in a hatchway. Flesh gave way without question that day. The weight of the boat is immense.

 

The smells change going into the engine compartments. Oils, fluids, chemicals that aren’t of any use forward, but mark the territory of the heart of this boat, as surely as the musk of a bear marks its den. The thrum of the machinery beats against my head, and I can remember realizing long ago that talking to anyone was nearly pointless here, I sank into my own thoughts, accepting that outer thoughts were in vain. It was here, in nooks and corners of this cacophony of contained sound, nestled between pipes and cables, and bulkhead frames, that the shallow thoughts that battered my mind were drowned, and I could focus, memorizing diagrams, practicing valve line-ups, touching air outlets, finding fire hoses and flooding kits, remembering breakers, remembering valves, remembering.

Remembering.

Memorizing.

Learning.

Knowing.

I knew this boat.

And not just with my mind. My skin knew it. My bones knew it. My ears knew it. My nose could sense it. My heart knew it. Something that was beyond myself knew it – my crew knew it. No, I didn’t just know this boat.

I Lived this boat.

On the crews mess, we sat in predictable areas, the non-quals working through their learning, buzzing in and out of the crews mess with questions, and diagrams, searching for something they could feel but did not yet know. A couple of qualified guys always sat there, ready, either reading, or teaching the youngsters. Others among the qualified hung like a street gang in the torpedo room, sometimes plotting new mischief for the nubs, sometimes for each other. Always something was being plotted. And it was usually mischief. Or making fun of one another’s mothers. We waited for the next drill, or the next emergency, or the next exercise, or the next watch. Waiting to go back on battle-stations, and abandon our hope to the will of the gods. HA! No, never to the gods. The gods we knew there in the cold Deep could go to hell. And we’d send them ourselves if we had to. This boat was our turf, and no deity was going to tell us what we could or couldn’t do, because by Davy Jone’s locker, we had learned to take this boat deep into their turf, and wrest our own fate from their whim. It was in our hands now, in the hands of our knowledge, and practice, and memory, and in the unspeakably horrible weapons we carried. We spoke in the torpedo room of mischief, because we lived in such close company with it, it could not be left alone. We befriended it to keep a watchful eye, lest it try to scurry off and warn the gods of the deep of our coming.

This was what this boat was, an intricate lacework of steel, oil, cable, pipe, steam, electricity, and men. Each gave its identity to the boat. And in return, the boat became a single living being.