The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Submarines

Your Tiny House is… nice

USS Shark, SSN-591

This is a photo of the USS Shark, taken as it was leaving Toulon, France sometime in the mid-80s.  

In the space of less than an hour from this photo, all the men you see here, plus another 95 or so already below, would disappear below the waves – on purpose.  

This boat would be their home – my home – for the next several weeks.  Everything we did: eat, sleep, work, clean, drill, study, clean, drill, dream – all of it was done within the confines of this 250ft long, 31ft wide waterproof chamber.  For weeks, sometimes months, we lived beyond the reach of the sun, alone with machinery and equipment that made this boat a deadly weapon of war.  Torpedomen watched over their “fish” in the bow, Reactor operators kept the water hot for the turbine engines aft, and in between, a maze of electronics and machinery was wrought together into a single, deadly organism.  

In the space of that 250ft, 100 men and countless valves, switches, controls and sensors disappeared together, operating unseen to the outside world, melding into a single, ominous threat to any and all those who threatened the freedom of our homeland.

In the space of that 250ft, we were fed.  In that 250ft, we slept in shifts, taking turns watching, and trusting.  We fought against the sea, and against an uncertain enemy.  We fought boredom and isolation from family – indeed from the world.  We receved little to no news of the outside world.  We searched for an enemy no one else could find.  We talked together in the idle moments, of love and hate, fear and joy, and we did it in an open and honest way normally reserved for a man‘s most intimate companion.  We spoke of plans for a world we could only hold in our memory by faith until the next port of call.

And Toulon, just another port city in France, called us what every other port called us – scallawags, bastards, drunkards, and worse.  They sent the Shore Patrol after us, and tried sometimes to push us out of their towns, back to the Sea, back to the hidden confines of our boat, as if that would teach us a lesson.  

But back in this boat, this small space with less than 3 feet of length for every man – we simply laughed at their fear, and went back to doing what no one else wanted to do.  We went to the dark places, scoured the deep to flush out enemies to the communities that didn‘t want us around too long.

Some of us watched the portents written on haunting green luminous screens, telling us what our natural senses could not – the sounds of sea creatures, of rain squalls over the horizon, of fishing boats winching their nets, tankers plodding along through the waves – and of the odd imbalanced beat of a single imbalanced blade in a hydraulic pump thousands of yards away.  And with the even-toned report of that almost-imperceptible pulse of another submarine made, we would smile a bit, slip into a profound, practiced, deadly silence, and turn together towards our intended prey.

This 250ft long submersible craft was our home, our refuge, and our weapon.  It could not, at any moment, be thought of alone as any one of those.  There were moments when the lines between individual and crew, of crew and boat, even of man and machine, seemed to blur.

And in ports like Toulon, with its naïveté of the dangers that lurked out there, with its names for us, its low opinion of our character…we found our purpose.

Fathers & Sons

Father and son

Riding partners for life.

As a kid, my first motorbike experiences were on the back of my dad‘s bike as we toodled around on a Saturday afternoon on the back roads of Southern California.  Those times became so engrained in my memory that it is almost impossible to separate what is purely my own experience now, and what I perceive through the filters of those memories.  I react to something, and sometimes it is my dad‘s reflex that responds.  I choose a wider approach to conditions remembering an accident of his.  I check things because I saw him check them decades ago, and when on the roadside I need it, I smile at the memory.

Whether I am riding with him – and we‘ve had some pretty epic road trips in the last several years – or whether my bike is the only one on the road, he‘s always there somewhere.

And so it is on this Memorial Day weekend.  We take some time to recognize who went before us, and what they did.  In my case with submarines in my blood, it was the courage of the remnants of the Pacific Fleet, nearly decimated by the Pearl Harbor attack.  The US Power in the Pacific was reduced almost entirely to Submarines.  Slower than warships, increasingly vulnerable to Japanese hunting tactics, beset with technical weapons problems, they hurled themselves into the breach anyway, and used what they had to give what they could.

And, against the odds, it was enough to hold off the enemy until the rest could recover, to win key victories whose impact turned the course of the war.  It was a nightmarish existence that I only experienced a fraction of.

But the evidence of their courage paced like ghosts up and down the passageways of every boat I served on.  It looked out through the eyes of old men.  It hung over equipment with design features that told the tale of engineering necessity.  Every backup valve had a history of another valve‘s failure.  Every weapon had safety features born from disaster.  From the cutting edge technology to the design of handrails and ladder treads, hatch latches, piping layout, all of it was designed from the experiences of battle-hardened men who knew – not just imagined but KNEW – what happened when things failed.  And when things worked.

The Submarine qualification process encompassed those same nightmares.  New Crew members rode with men who‘d met Davy Jones, and defied him in his own element.  They were taught what those men had to learn the hard way.

And sometimes, that knowledge was scoffed at.  Sometimes the lessons lost meaning in the absence of their mentors.  But always, the Sea was there to remind the Forgetful of her treacherous nature.

This Memorial Day, have yourself a celebration of our freedom.  Feast on burgers and dogs hot off the grill, and revel in what you can.  Have a beer.

But at some point in the festivities, turn aside from the company you have, and in a moment of solitude, remember.

Remember hard.

Sort out who YOU are, and how you got here.  Find the good, and trace it‘s source to your fathers.  Follow the memory‘s trail to the hard-won Sacrifice by which you could be who you are with less suffering.  On this one day, KNOW which Sacrifice has been yours, and which is borrowed from your Fathers.

It is only by this that we become something greater:  to remember what came before us.

The Smell of Life

It was dark that night, I recall that. And quiet – an odd combination of mechanical thrum and a subtle sense of quarry out there. We were all conscious of the sounds of the moment, but only two people were actually listening. It was so long ago.  

One listener was the sonar operator on watch. And the other? Me. The Sonar Supervisor for this watch. Both of us had only one ear of our headphones on, as is the habit of our craft. One ear listens for sounds from the hydrophones with the earpiece.. The other ear keeps track of the conversation between Sonar and Control. He switches ears every so often, to keep the listening ear fresh.

Speech in the Sonar shack was subdued, a tone reflective of the red lighting under which we worked. The air was a heady brew of diesel, hydraulics, the un-showered bodies of the crew ripened by weeks of submerged living, and things no one ever wanted to name, all filtered through an atmospheric control system specially designed to make every space on the boat smell equally bad. But no one could smell it, because we had been awash in it for so long.It was into this moment of focused tedium that the door quietly opened, and the Messenger of the Watch slipped into the Shack. He carried with him three cups of coffee, one for me, and one each for the operators. I wrapped my fingers around that cup and brought it close. Its waft spoke of deep things, rich, heady flavors that assaulted the senses in a way only a man acclimated to deprivation can appreciate. It smelled like Victory. It smelled like the ugly underside of Life itself. In that cramped, thrumming space alive with electronics, and the vague rocking of a submerged submarine, it smelled like Salvation. I nodded my gratitude to him as he slipped back out into the darkened passage, prompting him to reverse, stick his head back in the door to smile and say, “don‘t expect it to be a regular thing”. The same thing he had said 12 hours ago. And twelve hours before then. And so this quiet vessel slid silently through the depths of ink-black waters, far beneath the storm raging above over the North Atlantic.

A well-kept hospital is a clean place, devoid of smells except the scent of those chemicals that are busy killing something that’s busy trying to kill you. This visit was my turn to stay, as our son’s illnesses were recurrent, and his immune system vulnerable to people coming and going, so my wife and I had established a plan where one of us simply stayed, and the other stayed away.  

I sat in a dimly-lit room alive with monitors that tracked the life of my son, sick in yonder ICU bed while his body fought its battles within. The night outside was dark, but I could see through the rain the same lights of the town as I had for the last several nights. I had them memorized from this fourth-floor perch, and kept watch on both the town and the machines, a task I was oddly at ease with. The comparison to my previous life as a submarine sonarman hadn‘t fully dawned on my yet.

As I sat, not realizing all the things I wasn’t smelling, a Nurse came through and offered to bring me a cup of coffee. He had told me, earlier in the day, that he had been an Army Nurse for some years. He suddenly seemed to me that the blessed Saints had sent their own emissary. A weary smile took over my tired face, and not a word further was needed. He disappeared back out, and down the hall.

The coffee entered the room unobtrusively, and found itself sitting on the small table behind me while I was busy attending to some detail for Sean. I sat back down, and the scent of the darkened brew curled up around me sensuously, entwined itself in memories and lifted them to consciousness. The coffee, the memories of dark and dangerous places, of mission and mates, all came together in a swirling moment of satisfaction. I was back in familiar territory, a place where I knew what to do, where I knew those around me knew what to do. The weariness faded from my shoulders. And at that moment, I also became keenly aware of what I had not been smelling – anything. In this sterile hospital room – this empty crucible, the coffee‘s rarified savor was pure like God’s own Breath of Life.  

And I realized with a disturbed grin that God‘s Own Breath of Life smells eerily similar to underway coffee.

Not Quite Forgotten

Warm August air blows across my skin.  It blows its portents, and news, and I listen to it with all my senses.

But tonight, it blows not so much with news, but with memories.

Gather round, and I‘ll tell you a tale of long ago, of a night almost completely unlike this one.

Almost.  But not quite.

The sun was so far past the horizon as to have been forgotten.  It had been weeks since I‘d seen it anyway, sequestered as I was with my crew-mates beneath the sea, silently looking for trouble.

We had found it, of course.  And as submariners do, we had teased it, toyed with it, tempted it and Fate alongside.  Trouble did not like our kind.  And there was nothing that could make us happier.

The necessities of the boat eventually demanded, though, that we sail for open water, and under cover of darkness do the things we must to continue our mission.  And so it was on that night, so unlike the one here tonight, a silent steel hull broke the surface of the water, black against the black water of the Sea, and seven men in dark gear climbed out of a hatch, onto the deck, and back into the natural world.

Our eyes, already carefully acclimated to the darkness, still struggled to see.  In that first tenuous moment, other senses rushed in to fill the demand for information.  That was the moment I felt the hot sea breeze, the only evidence of the sun‘s passage hours before. It blew across us like a riderless horse, a shell of a memory of the day.

As if timed for theatrical effect, a giant billow of a cloud drew aside to slowly expose a half-moon.  The moon‘s delicate glow revealed more secrets than it exposed, shining only brightly enough to orient us in an edgeless Sea of eternal swells, out until we could see no more.  No horizon, no land, nothing but waves, and broken clouds, and a narrow ray of moonlight illuminating the black metal sail against which we  edged our way around to the aft deck.

The boat moved through the water soundlessly.  The steel hull demanded an accompanying thrum of an engine, the song of machinery, the bustle of a ship‘s crew.  But there was none.  The ship was built for silence, and the men bred to stillness, to defend its silence.  With no shore to crash upon, the wavelets slid wordlessly into the inky black East.

With our work done, we returned to the faint red glow of the open hatch, and one by one slipped below into that foreign realm to which we had become native.  I gulped one last draught of this night, of a world so big as to render this small sphere of humanity silent and insignificant. The secrecy of that night‘s work remains sacred even tonight, decades later.  Only this one thing, this one memory of a hot breeze on a summer‘s night remains to bear witness 

I left the night sky to its own, pulling away like a departing lover.  And I left that hot, breezy August night behind, turning again towards the sounds of trouble.

It would be from the lengthening shadows of post-equinox northern latitudes that I would draw my next breath of fresh air.  Forgotten was the squandering laze of equatorial summer.

But… not quite forgotten.  

Not tonight.  

That hot air will never be forgotten.

It‘s Been a Little While

It’s been a little while.

On 4th of July, someone popped one of those confetti thingies behind me – I didn’t know she was there. scared the bejeebus out of me, I was a shaky mess for quite a while. But…

That wasn’t The Thing. Not really.

I had a motorbike crash almost two months ago, broke my leg, surgery, hardware, etc. Could have been much worse. But you know, weirdly enough, except for the stress-relieving habit of cracking jokes left and right in the ER when I‘m jacked up, I was fine.

There have been a few things that have disturbed my basic groove. But…

It‘s been a little while since I’ve had to face The Thing. It‘s been a while since I‘ve been in That Place.

And then, was it yesterday? Maybe day before? I lose track sometimes…

I had just been reading something, somewhere, online, and came across a written account of the dialogue in the movie “Saving Private Ryan”, in the scene where the German Soldier is grappling with, and then killing one of the characters with a bayonet.

“Give up. It’ll be over soon”. Something like that. The German whispered it like a tempting demon.

There was more, but I don‘t need to go into the morbid details. Seamlessly, like the strobing wink of a lighthouse on its rounds, I was in That Place. It’s not a good place. And this world, the real world for better or worse, was faded out completely. I remembered That Place. I felt the atmosphere-controlled air of an underway boat. I heard the inherent, constant hum of a living submarine. The boat moved through its exercises. And I felt it all go still, remembered like I was still at sea, sitting in Sonar. The boat went still, and then a cacophony of men running past the shack, grabbing rehearsed damage control equipment. We rigged our compartment in brisk, practiced movements. Voices gave commands, and passed info! just as we practiced. And then no one running. Everyone who could run aft had gone there, just as we had practiced.

But then… something was wrong. Time dangled with indecision, waiting to know what, why, something – anything. Only the depth gauge moved. I stood on a bulkhead, because our angle meant that was easier than the floor. Just when the tension of knowing nothing reached its apex, the Chief of the Watch started chanting. We could hear his words, and little else, on the open mike saying, “oh shit we’re gonna die” over and over again. The aux operator looked over at me, looking for something like confidence.

I didn’t have it to give.

And that moment, right there, where as a qualified submariner I didnt have an answer… that is where I stay, endlessly repeating. Why did I go blank? What look, what words, what action could I have taken to reassure the sonar crew?

We in Sonar couldn’t fight the casualty – we‘re on watch, the problem is back aft, and there’s as many as can be back there already. I can tell myself that a million times. But yet…

Over, and over.

So, we were! just waiting to die. Hope faded as we passed well into that zone beyond which sunlight never reaches.

It was a sick feeling, and I felt that sick feeling as keenly as the day I was there. The floor seemed to tip forward to the down angle we took that day. I could hear everything I heard then, all the sounds the boat made to agree with the COW, that we were indeed doomed.

I don’t know how long I stood there. I don‘t even recall standing up. When I bestirred myself the dogs had come to my side. I was weary from standing on one leg, and from the imagined stress of remaining upright in a tipped-over world.

And no one else in the room seemed to notice.

There are a fair number of people whom I love. There’s a lot of people who say they have my back. There are very, very few who seem to actually understood what they offered with that phrase when the moment comes. I guess I don’t really hold the grudge, I understand…well, how hard it is to understand That Place. It took me a couple decades and I‘m inside this head.

But when I absolutely, positively can‘t take the chance on being ok myself!

I‘ll be outside with my dogs for a while.

It gets better, I guess, in the sense while it still happens, between the right meds and counseling and some dedicated work – and the loyalty of two dogs – it’s gotten less frequent.  I‘ll figure it out.

But it‘s been a little while.

Rolling Thunder 2018

In the center of the village we call America, there stands a Smithy.  In it, there are several blacksmiths of varying skill and experience.  Most are employed making the tools of trades: plows, craftsmen tools, etc.

But in a corner of the shop, there works a Master Blacksmith.  He speaks very little.  But his hammer rings with a clear peel that is recognized by all.  And his work is different than the others.  He forges the weapons of war.

His work is grim.  He makes things he himself hopes need never be used.  The village works in the daylight, using their tools for life and prosperity in the several occupations we employ as Free Men.  But the Thief and the Marauders are always waiting, to steal from us our freedom, and shackle us for their own gain.  So he works – shaping and heating, purifying, and tempering the weapons of war.  His hammer works iron into the strongest steel.  The very structure of the metal is forever changed.  The Sword, the Axe, and the War-hammer all are forged on his anvil to the highest quality.  

And when the clouds of war loom, the distant storm sending thunder and lightning, his hammer answers with a thunder of its own.  The weapons are imbued with it, they will echo it to the battlefield, and to the watch posts.  They will answer and defend us.

When the battle is over, those of us who remain return to our homes and families, but the unique hardness to which we‘ve been shaped will fit poorly in everyday life.  And so the sword will be sheathed, and the hammer fitted with leather pads, and the axe masked.  The echoes of the forge, the thunder of the master‘s hammer and anvil is muted, and sometimes nearly forgotten.

But the thief and the marauder don‘t sleep.  Their strength comes in waiting for signs of weakness.

They wait for us to forget.

And so, on this weekend, we come together.  We come in from the mountains, and from the Plains.  We ride from the high country, the Deltas, from out of the cities and fields – from every part of this country, those of us who are still able will gather on this field, in this place, to remember.  We remember our fallen.  Their sacrifice – to become forged weapons, to stand to die while fighting for life for others, reminds us of what makes this country strong.  It reminds us to carry the watchfulness onward. 

It must be remembered.

When we meet here, we unsheathed the sword,  unclasp the padded hammer, and the axe is freed from its mask.  In the open air, the thunder of the forge they were born in rings out again. We ride together so that all may remember.

On this day, we let the thunder roll.




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 should never 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.

Midrats.   You Rogue Pirate Gastronomique.
Like it  or not, you are beautiful.

Midwatch on the River

Mid-watch on the River.


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, “Ah, 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?”

“Bay, 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.