The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Uncategorized

Worth Rescuing

The details of the phone call are fuzzy from 6 decades of recovering from it. I was at one end, in the background, explaining my position and opinion as only a distressed 6-month old can. My maternal grandmother spoke into the receiver. At the other end, most of the way across the country, was my father.

The essentials of the call were simple. I was in Denver with my grandparents, left there for keeping by my mother who was now somewhere in Texas, mostly incommunicado. My dad was in Ohio, still recovering from a head injury from an Air Force accident and an extended hospital stay, and wondering where I was. It had been like this for weeks. Information was hard to come by in the early 60s, and it had taken this long for my Grandmother to find him. But now she had found him, and well, he was a man of action.

Her message was relatively short: my mother had been telling Grandma she was coming to get me, but well, it hadn’t happened and still wasn’t happening. And in her opinion, my dad would be the better parent. Grandma wasn’t one to mince words or opinions.

If there had been fast-forward buttons back then, he would have mashed one to the precipice of its existence, but instead, he put on his best dress uniform, found himself a plane ticket, and flew to Denver. We flew back together to Indianapolis, where his own grandparents lived. My short and tumultuous life restarted.

A six-month-old infant doesn’t understand the ins and outs of complex relationships, the twisted pain of knowing, but not knowing why things go the way they do. But in some essential way, in an observation set down deep in what was then yet an empty pool for memories to be collected and sorted later, I knew in an unforgettable way who it was that came to rescue me.

Eventually, as we lived with my great-grandparents, I realized they too, were taking part in the operation. A year later my step-mom joined the mission and became forever after “Mom”.

But Dad has always been for me, in a mental landmark somewhere near the beginning of my memory, the point man of the mission. He was the one who first decided I was worth rescuing.

I felt this then, back in my infancy. What I knew was there was that one guy, who came back. I felt it subconsciously all through my childhood. Many things in life were complicated, painful, and out of place for me, but I always had that lighthouse to pilot by, when rejection was all around me, I knew one person had proven beyond all doubt that he thought I was worth rescuing.

Much of my life has been spent knowing that I am, in some unfathomable and difficult way, different than those around me. I’ve received well-deserved (I suppose) rejection from most people, people who don’t want to understand “different “, whose attitudes created a sarcastic, cynical humour, and then who found that even more offensive. But there remained that one point of light, that one person who knew how I was, and perhaps a bit about why.

Last week, that point of light fell and broke his hip. I understand the implications of a broken hip in an octogenarian, and that infant in me reacted in the way he had taught me, to want to rescue him back. But the rescue entailed skills I didn’t have, so my only course of action was to watch carefully for opportunity, while those with the skill did what they did. He’s now resting at home, still in pain but recovering, and I have time now to look at his face, to read it, and to examine my mind’s process over the last week.

At first, I was filled with the urge to act. Somehow, in some way, I had to act. When I realized there were more skilled people on the mission than I, I waited with hands wringing until the word came back that he had come through surgery still kicking (metaphorically, as he’s technically forbidden from kicking). My brother, whose opinion always comes to me as the quintessential pragmatist, put my mind at rest with positive reports.

And then, at some point, I looked back across my mind’s workings for these past days. Worry, perhaps even a little panic, grief at something not yet happened, had all paid me a visit. I looked across those thoughts, and behind them I saw an infant, squalling out his needs unaware of the dramatic events shaping the rest of his life, a mind who had yet to develop the skill of seeing needs beyond his own. I understand the loss of loved ones, but I didn’t understand the panic I had felt for myself early last week when it should have been for my dad himself. A child appeared – my junior self, in between that infant and me. His mind – from inside me, understood my present disgust at my own selfish thought, but he also understood the things of importance to that infant. A lost boy does not easily forget who it is who goes out to find him and bring him home, who rebuilt that home, rebuilt life brick by brick through his own sorrow, and stood up for a goofy kid who never seemed to find the right gear to mesh with the rest of the world. He didn’t rescue me for my talents. He didn’t rescue me for what I could give him. What I had to give him was my lunch on the flight from Denver, all over his dress uniform.

But a child -every child – is worth rescuing from the uncaring chaos of the world.

I am a lost boy, rescued. There will come a time when that rescuing light goes out, and I must navigate by other lights. But because of his sacrifices, I know what a harbour looks like. I can create one myself, and help others design their own. This is one thing I don’t know from books, theory, or popular psychology. I know it as surely as I understand the invisible workings of a clutch plate in a manual transmission, by his guidance.

And this morning, I can rest gratefully in the comfort I can tell him all this. I don’t think I should wait.

Neither should you.

Ballad of the Tall Submariner

People ask me often, upon learning I’m a submariner, “Aren’t you too tall for Submarines?”

My usual reply is to joke that I was 6’8” when I started (4” taller than my actual height)

Look, I’m not saying it wasn’t problematic at times. Heck, I even started an actual ballad once. Went like this:

(Ahem) “Ballad of the tall submariner
“Down the hatch, Down the ladder,
Bash the head and see brain cells scatter.”

And so it was, at the bottom of the main hatch of the USS Shark, SSN-591, I turned to see my new home. It left an impression.

On my right temporal lobe, specifically. It was the most solid thing I’d ever felt.

Being a nub, I had no idea what I’d just clocked my cranium on. And therein lay the beauty of the Submarine qualification program. I would soon be able to identify every single head trauma by ship’s frame, subsystem, associated components, function, and nomenclature. It would also teach me many new terms, some technical, some… well, some were just eloquent expressions developed in a climate ripe for salty diatribes. New words for new levels of pain.

It still hurt though.

My first destination was the ship’s office. Maybe 20 steps through control and the upper level passageway – past Sonar, past Supply, across from Radio. In those 20 steps, I found the following: two battle lanterns, two vents, two pipe mounting brackets (the hard way). There may have been more, the last few steps were getting a little fuzzy.

In somewhat of a boxer’s daze, I took a hard draft reading of the ship’s office door, height from the deck. It stood approximately 6’2”. I was 6’4”. My forehead remembers that reading precisely, to this day, and little else after.

The first underway was the next morning. I met what would become my defining nemesis shortly. But first, I hit the torpedo room/crews mess watertight door and softened up the back of my head. The opening was maybe 3’ tall, and I thought I’d try to fold forward and hope I was flexible enough to get my head and feet through at the same time. I would soon learn to go feet first whenever possible.

But immediate problems demanded immediate attention. Still rubbing the back of my skull, I discovered The Vent. It was in the crews mess – the one that protruded only an inch or so from the overhead, and painted to match (which is how everything gets painted on a submarine). It’s edge caught me well up into the hairline with absolutely no warning. I rocked back a bit, and re-adjusted. And sat down a moment on one of the benches.

Whereupon someone asked me where my qual card was, and why was I sitting and not working on it. I failed to notice the entire room’s attention suddenly focused on what my answer to this ungentle challenge would be.

I tried not to glare. I knew better. But the glaze in my eyes was misinterpreted as petulance. Ok, maybe it WAS petulance, but the attention was also a trap, set, coiled, and waiting for me. Sensing a tedious discussion, I stood back up, smug about having avoided an outburst, only to hit the same vent in the same spot.

I managed finally to stagger clear of the galley, only to bump-test a pipe at the top of the ladder to lower level. In my own head, the impact seemed to say, “Clang!” It would evolve into an entire battery of internal sound effects, some of which I would actually utter out loud at times. This would prove in a few moments to be a bad idea.

It happened again on returning to the torpedo room, this time on the starboard torpedo ram handle that sat waiting for someone just over 6’2” to duck through the watertight door NOT feet-first, and in a hurry. There really was a “clang” that time, and may have been a couple minutes downtime on my part. It happened again while avoiding the head valve in ops upper level. It happened in AMRLL. It happened in Shaft Alley. It happened in LL Berthing. Always, in my head, I heard and said, “Clang”. And I moved on.

In a couple short weeks of underway, I had memorized the overhead layout of the boat faster than anything else. I developed the skill of sensing impact with my hair, reflexively preventing the worst of impacts. As I would navigate a passage, my head would flop and bend like a curb feeler on a Chicago Cadillac. The first few days’ worth of damage had begun to heal, and my qual card began to fill out with signatures. I began to walk with a little confidence. I walked a little straighter, as it hurt to hunch constantly, letting my neck control my destiny. I’m sure it looked goofy, but it worked. Mostly.

And so it was that I came to be gliding through the crew’s mess again one fine day, intent on my task at hand. With a full head of steam, I spectacularly failed to duck for The Vent as I strode through towards the Torpedo room. What happened next is a little fuzzy, but there was a “clang” that wasn’t mine. I was busy holding my head from the gritty impact on the Vent of Despair, which had set me down on a bench again, so someone took the liberty of saying it for me. In my misery, I burst out with some sailor-ish vulgarity I had just recently mastered, signaling to the ever-attentive crew that I’d reached some sort of emotional limit. Suddenly the entire space erupted in enthusiastic chorus of “Clang!”

And thus for many weeks, I endured being known simply as “Clang”. The name lasted through my time of qualifying. As a Sonarman, I couldn’t think of a more ignominious nickname.

Eventually I managed to live the whole thing down. But to this day, when I whack something with my head, that little voice yells “CLANG” in my head. And it’s not my voice. It a chorus of shipmates, who understand. They are with me still.

Photo: USS Razorback, SS-394, 2022. ©️Glenn Roesener

The (continued) Evolution of Man


For all but a mere blip in human history, our species has been defined by what we can do with our hands. Mankind is known by our works.

Manual labor. It has brought us to this state of affairs. We work, and build, and tear down, and build anew and afresh. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but always different. We dig the earth, sow our seeds, harvest our sustenance, and prepare and eat it with our hands.

We have elevated our condition by the sweat of our brow, employing our hands to create ways to not have to use them anymore.

But now we hate our manual work. The very thing that brought us out from the state of all animals is the very thing we hate. We seek a better name for ourselves, and unabashedly, and have taken our conceit as our name.

Homo Sapiens:
Specifically, the name we call ourselves means “Wise”. After millennia of observation, we decided that would be our new name. We liked being wise, because manual things make us tired, and wisdom eases our burden. We think of ourselves as quite satisfied with this self-characterization. It soothes our anxiety to think ourselves as especially wise amongst the beasts of the earth.

But we are anything but satisfied. Calling ourselves wise hasn’t seemed to help much. Maybe we should have done it differently.

Homo Excogitatoris:
We cogitate. We think, and especially like to think that this is the essence of our being, because it directs our hands, without the necessary judgmental quality of wisdom. If we look across history, it might describe us better than being wise. But no. We want to think of our thinking as wise thinking, not mere cleverness, and to result in less manual labor. Indeed, most thinking is directed towards how to lessen our physical load.

Homo Anim:
We could have chosen a word like this from the Latin catalogue of descriptors. The word invokes the Spiritual. Our capacity for having a spirit metaphysically attached to our bodies is a notion we can’t shake. We can direct our minds to spiritual meanings when we want to. But every time we approach the cosmos spiritually, we become frightened by that which neither our hands nor minds can control. To define ourselves by something greater than us with no consideration for our primary tools – our hands – seems risky and incomplete. To align our will to something that is outside of our control defies our logos. We resist beliefs that take the reins out of our hands. Because push comes to shove, our hands are what got us here.

Homo Concordis:
Some of us, in observing our history, learned that with the right sort of thinking, we could lessen our manual work load by enlisting the help of others, and creating agreements for behaviour and effort that hold the alliances together. But the doing is fraught with the pitfalls of greed and dishonesty. We say we want an equitable accord, but what we strive for to attain is infested with everything but equality. To truly give ourselves to the collective means our fate is taken out of our own hands. And that has been, to most of us, an unacceptable condition. Concordance, with its implication of honest cooperation, is but a poor substitute for Spirit. It is a spirit we can still manipulate in our imagination, and dominate in our social life.

If we subscribe to the evolutionary progression of humans, the first distinction of Homo observed that we could do stuff, “Habilus”. Later when we could do it standing up, giving us more freedom to use our hands, we named ourselves “Erectus”. Only later did we learn to do it with some discernment beyond the immediacy of survival.

And now, we have come to loathe that which made us into what we are. We hate the sweat of our brow. We hate being just one in a sea of competing creatures, equal in both capability and vulnerability. We are afraid of the possibility that our existence depends and is meant to serve a greater cause than our own. Our hands hurt from overuse, and from that pain we suffer. Thus we cling fast to our independence, and thus create more suffering and pain.

In considering the coming ages, it would seem silly to posit that Sapiens are the pinnacle of development, that this unsettled state of being should define us forever after. Indeed, perhaps we have already evolved. Perhaps we have already branched out into these various species, and have yet to recognize it from such close and personal subjectivity.

But perhaps, as we strive with every fibre of our collective being to exchange our vulnerable bodies, twisted minds, wounded spirits, and physical suffering for intelligent machines drawn from the dust of the earth that we can design for our own use, and to manipulate for our immediate needs, we can be known for our most prominent trait. Homo Mechanimus. But then… we wouldn’t be human any longer, would we? It seems we just can’t figure out how to be happy with what we are.

Perhaps our next appellation in the parade of species will be accurately be called Homo Turbatus – Disgruntled Humans.

It seems likely that, in our self-induced turmoil, we will wind up replacing ourselves with something non-human. We loathe ourselves that much. We seem hell-bent on that goal, to replace ourselves with machines.

Then again, perhaps our nomenclature is driven by our aspirations. Perhaps Erectus stood up and walked because that was their goal, not their inherent quality. Perhaps Sapiens merely wish to be wise, and that informs both our purpose and our name. Perhaps we will grow into and through our current form, finally make use of this trademark wisdom we take such pride in, and find ourselves moving on to our next purpose. Perhaps the final state of Homo Sapiens, with guidance from those Creative Powers we are too afraid to give control to now, will become known throughout the universe as Homo Contentus.

Humans, Satisfied.

That would indeed be a new Creation.

What Color is your Horn?

Flamenco Sketches- Miles Davis:

“What are we lookin’ at here, Glenn?”, I can hear you ask.

You’ve heard me mention this music before. And here I am yammering on about it again. What makes it so important, in my opinion?

In early Spring of 1959, 7 men got together for a conversation. The subject was Jazz, a topic all of them were intimately familiar with. The mood was Blue.

The men assembled were Bill Evans with his Piano, Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane on saxophone, Paul Chambers playing bass, and Jimmy Cobb setting the rhythm for them to converse in on drums. Wynton Evans dropped in to play piano for a bit as well.

None except Miles and to some extent Bill Evans (since he wrote some of it) had actually seen the sheet music, and this was intentional. His goal was to have an improvised conversation, and to that end he outlined the modes and the scales, and then simply asked the musicians each in turn what they thought about it. You can hear the unspoken questions and answers in crisp clarity in “Flamenco Sketches”, arguably my favorite piece. It is neither crisply over-practiced nor careless. Skilled musicians challenged to speak their minds speak from the heart, one adding to the other.

What came out was possibly the most mundane, everyday kibbutz about the plainest, most inconsequential topics imaginable. With none but the most vague guidelines, these men rambled in turn as their minds invented thoughts, translated feelings, let intuition run rampant up and down the halls, and to an outsider, talked all day about nothing.

Six weeks later, they reconvened and did it again, wrapping up unfinished sentences, blurting out things they wished to say earlier or restate what they felt came out wrong earlier.

From these two sessions came the album “Kind of Blue”. They couldn’t even come away with a definitive statement in the title. And yet, when the recording as pressed into my vinyl record, plays to me on a Saturday morning 65 years later, the eloquence of their thoughts illuminates the most beautiful things about being human.

These recordings, with their technical skill but notable lack of commercialized glitter and attention-mongering, talks instead of yells at me. It talks in low-but-earnest tones, not convinced of anything but intensely curious, asking me my opinion and suggesting possibilities. It doesn’t clamor to be right, but it doesn’t expect to be wrong either. It enjoins me to the search for what might be right, without judgment.

This is the essence of the best human community. Each time I hear it, I hear a different world in which we can all afford to be humble, we can afford to be wrong, we can afford to pursue an elevated plane of existence whose map is still largely blank.

Miles Davis wasn’t a genius musician. He was a genius human, with a horn as his primary tool and a vision of faith in others to be equally serious with him in his pursuit of curiosity about us.

What he gave to his band was a set of modal scales, a rough idea of who plays when, latitude to go on as long as they had something to say, The scales he gave his band that day went as follows:

C ionian
Ab mixolydian
Bb ionian
D phrygian (or flamenco)
Gm dorian

That was it. Bill Evans set the mood, Jimmy Cobb set the pace, and the six men talked and listened amongst themselves.

Now, if you think I know what any of those scales means, you’d be mistaken. I intend to learn, someday, but so far well… there’s always something that seems more important on my mind in the moment. But I hope someday to devote some time to learning those scales, to set myself up in a room and learning what it feels like to improvise on them. But while musically I’ve never done this, I do understand, and have improvised in my own realms of skill and knowledge. It is a joyful thing, and even better when shared with others.

The joy of freedom is sometimes best experienced within strictures of our own design. We can build a house using modern-day code to guide us, that is a safe but in-human way to build such a personal structure. On the other end if the scale, just picking up a hammer, a saw, and going at it with no knowledge, skill, or plan is equally inhuman, in that the result is little more than scribbling with a crayon.

We have governments to save us from our own stupidity and ignorance. We have churches and other social organizations to hone our boundaries and responsibilities to God and others. But our intended existence only uses those constructs of society as a a grain of sand around which we create our own pearl of life. When we make adherence to or construction of life-formulae out to be our main work, we miss entirely the beautiful point of being not machines, but the apex of living organisms who can imbue biological function with meaning in tune with the universe we are born to.

And this is precisely what Miles Davis gave us – a glimpse of the humanity inside each of us, and a demonstration of a way to be that can, if chosen, sustain us.

5 months after recording this album – in fact only two weeks after its US release – Miles Davis was assaulted and beaten by a New York cop outside the club where he was playing. Apparently he had the audacity of escorting a white woman to a taxi cab while taking a break from performing outside a club in New York City. This sounds horrific, but that isn’t the half of the tragedy. To play in New York, a musician had to have a Cabaret Card, and since he was arrested and charged with a crime (assaulting an officer and disorderly conduct – charges eventually dropped since the cop’s actions were in fact unprovoked), that card was revoked until public outrage and demands for investigation eventually caused all the charges to be dropped months later. In the meantime, this meant he couldn’t ply his trade, and the band was subsequently forced to break up and go their own way. What’s more, it has been noted that he wrote no new music, stopped exploring his modal form, and essentially went on autopilot for the next five years.

We could dwell on the outrage at how easily one clumsy oaf with a mind filled with prejudices could so easily kill off not just the creative spirit of Davis himself, but that of the burgeoning band he formed, and its possible growth into something even bigger. But we cannot fight anger and fear with more anger and more fear.

Instead, we have his music. We have this recording. We know his story. We can re-create this at our own breakfast table, amongst people close to us. We can re-create this in any setting, with any of the intrinsic tools we use to develop our minds with. His example isn’t as an idol of Music, but rather a plain demonstration of what could be done -what perhaps we each SHOULD be doing – with our everyday life.

We improvise. We are in fact a species of improvisers. The dull-witted amongst us look for superstitious formulae to relieve us of either the need for internal discipline or on the contrary indeed any mental effort at all. The dull-witted cowards try to force all of us into identical mass-produced cages, and deluded dreamers attempt to build using no calculations at all , instead snatching constructs built of straw chaff that blows in from afar on the winds of social media, news, and superstitions – smelling of life but having no substance of its own. Both of these groups insist we must conform mindlessly to their ways. But this demand comes from being desperately afraid of the possibilities that small groups of such human qualities as exist in each of our breasts can create. The True Life is a quiet practice that asks questions, challenges and either confirms or rejects the answers, and in doing it together with a few trusted people, enmeshes itself between individuals to create a larger whole. That it can be beaten apart with fear and intimidation and yet resurrect somewhere else, in someone else, is merely evidence that it is a vibrant, living thing worthy of pursuit and nurture. In fact, that is exactly what we are given to nurture. It is not life that we seek to nurture, but the spirit within it.

That spirit is in you. It isn’t waiting to arrive, it came with you, and resides within you, somewhere, right now. I cannot tell you more. Only you can can give it life. Imbue it with too much passion, and it will burn out prematurely. Try to go it alone, and most often it will starve for lack of nutrition. Full-time naive happiness evaporates in the harsh sun, pessimism washes it away in floods of silt and debris. This life is neither all sunshine, storm, strict regimen nor feckless drifting. We are tempted always to look to the extremes for the secret of Life.

But it turns out that the sweet spot – the very essence of the human spirit – is Kind of Blue.

Untold Tales from The Diner

See, this is how stories get started:

It was early morning, so early the “Open” side of the open/closed sign hadn’t lost all of its warmth from having recently faced inward to the diner’s interior heat.   I found myself at the counter in my usual seat – one slot in from the far end of the row – where I began nursing my miracle coffee.  I call it “miracle coffee”, because I had no memory of it appearing before me.  It just suddenly… was.  From where I sat, all the smells of the menu as they were being started for the three early patrons reached my brain with delicious effect, bringing me into the world of waking, and possibilities.

Right about the time my ears started sorting the staff chatter into intelligible words, the second cook came in, a bit late and bustling.  Her energy was a fresh spark to the kitchen, an energy that had already drained from the early crew, succumbed to the dull mechanical plod through the morning tasks that follows the false vibrance of First of the Morning Energy.

And so there was coffee.  And smells.  And chatter.  And suddenly, I was awake.

As she donned her apron and slid into her work space with a double-tap of her spatula on the edge of the stove, she suddenly asked the early cook, “How did you get to work today?”  It seems his usual car wasn’t outside.

“Oh”, he said matter of factly, “I drove that little red car out there.”

“Who’s car is it?” She asked, as if on any given morning he might have brought just anybody’s car.

As he began to explain, he turned away, and in a mild panic I lost contact – couldn’t make out what he said.  I will never know whose car it was, nor how he came to be driving it.  

Another person might find this to be a loss of closure.  Another person may find themselves unacceptably dissatisfied and filled with a burning desire to ask, to know, to figure out all the juicy details of such casual handling of transportational  trauma.  Another person may languish in unrequited curiosity.

But not me.  

They say that to a writer, there are no bad experiences, only “new material”.  I embraced this principle, and in embracing it, was instantly flooded with with possible alternate endings to the tale.  In one, he was a kleptomaniac car thief who just used whoever’s car he could find in any given morning, quietly returning it at the end of the day.  In another, he worked nights as a repo man.  The scent of story endings rushed through my head like a flash flood in the desert, and I basked in it just as I had been doing just moments ago to the scent of the menu being cooked up.

My own breakfast arrived, pushing out the other olfactory possibilities.  Food must, in the end, be eaten.  And stories must eventually be told.  But this one… I think I’m going to hang on to this, like a surprise dinner, a snack I forgot I had on some dreary day when I find myself hankering for “a little something “.  Maybe, on some spiritless and lonely morning, it will be the only thing my mind finds when it reaches into itself for sustenance.  Maybe, as has happened before, the remembering will become in its own time part of the story.

Either way, I intend to be well-stocked for the lean times in my mind.  There’s a decent chance that you’ll hear about it.  But you’re just gonna have to wait, and in the meantime have only its scent to remind you of the possibilities.

When Words Will Just Have To Do

A short intro: My son Dustan came to us in his eighth year, by way of a children’s shelter, a stay in ICU, and before that, a lifetime of alternating neglect and abuse. Before he was born, his mother’s habits changed his brain. Afterwards, on more than one occasion, her boyfriends did the same through violence. I share this to give as much info as I can for you to understand the following. His has always been an uphill climb – for words, for motor skills, and for understanding the world around him. He’s now 26, and though small of stature and childlike in nature, there resides a man inside him that wishes to be heard sometimes.

We walk down to the river a couple hundred yards distant, through the woods as often as we can. He likes to chop up sticks, put them in his wagon, and when we get back home we build a fire in the firepit. Sometimes we roast marshmallow.

Yesterday, for reasons I’m not privy to, Dustan asked if I’d pull his wagon for him back up from the river. Normally, the deal is if he wants to pull it down there, he’s gotta be willing to pull it up. And normally, all I do is push for the uphill part using his axe handle sticking out the back. I take the extra load, and he pulls with the same strength as on the flat. If the snow is fresh and deep, I’ll advise him to leave it home, and if he gets into trouble pulling I assist minimally.

But yesterday’s request kinda came out of the blue , almost seemed like he had a specific reason. So I just grabbed the handle and started pulling.

I half-expected him to take on my usual role of pushing, but he didn’t. By the top of the hill I found myself feeling a bit miffed that he didn’t even attempt to help, but I reminded myself of the tone of his request, and didn’t say anything.

We got ourselves back home, he way out ahead. When I finally wheeled up to the firepit, I was sorely tempted to bring up his lack of participation. But he already had something to say.

When Dustan wants to say anything that’s more than a couple words long, he really struggles to connect the words right. We usually wind up playing guessing games when he gets stuck trying to get a word to come out. But he had something to say, and apparently he was determined to get it right. He held up a hand to silence my assistance.

He started out with the common stutter, being stuck on the first syllable. As is often the case, even when he said the word it was still not clear, and I waited for enough context to guess what he was going to say. He doesn’t say much, and often says the same phrases as a sort of representative shorthand for more difficult phrases.

After a couple moments, I gathered he was saying “Thank you”. I said this out loud so he could confirm and relax. But this time, instead of allowing me to help him through it, he said, “no, daddy”. He held up his hand, and continued, “wait”. He went back to working his statement. This was important, apparently.

The next part of the phrase involved the word “helping”. Now i was truly eager to hear what emotion inspired such effort. He wasn’t just dropping verbs and nouns, he was breaking out the good china. There were conjunctions. There were definite articles. This was a sentence on parade, to be dressed up and fit for company.

He started, again and again, getting further through the pile of words on his mind with each passing, until he finally emoted, in full if not roughly pronounced grammar, his Magnum Opus:

“Thank you for helping me pull my wagon”

That may not sound like much, but for Dustan, this was a stretch of epic proportions. It was a hard march through hostile ground, and he didn’t stop until it was complete.

And I stood there, realizing the depth of this moment. Clearly there were reasons he wanted to do this. I didn’t know what they were, nor did I need to. I just basked, with him, in the import of the accomplishment, and gave him a hug. We stood there leaning on one another for a moment or two.

Sometimes, words aren’t even enough to celebrate themselves. We are clearly much deeper than words. They are only the ripples on the surface, bearing witness to the greater import that cannot be expressed. At best, words can only draw us close enough to one another that we can see and feel the existence of the Universal Love.

A Genuine Sea Story

Heres a tall tale to get you through the week. But first, some vocabulary words for the unitiated:

  • TLD: thermoluminescent dosimeter. A device about 2” square, worn on the belt, to measure received radiation. All submariners wore them on our belts, to monitor the amount of radiation received. Never, ever get caught without your TLD on. The ELT or Doc will larn you some new words if caught.
  • screw: ships propeller.
  • turn-count: rpm
  • Dunce-cap: a streamlined brass fairing covering the back of the hub of the screw
  • Squid: US Navy sailor

Alrighdythen, are we ready? On to the sea-story:

I was perusing teh Intarwebs last night, when before my eyes appeared a question in a group on the Book of Face, regarding the validity of a story he’d heard about special forces using our torpedo tubes for egress “back in the day”. He was concerned that he’d met up with what is infamously known as the “Sea Story”, a tale so wild no one can believe, told by a sailor who seemed convinced that the mere absence of proof that it DIDN’T happen should carry the day.

He’d undoubtedly met up with one of the “tough guys”.

Well, not to toot my own horn, but seeing he was a naive and believing lad, I laid upon him my own experience with torpedo tubes as just another of the many versatile weapons available to the Steely-Eyed killers of the deep. I hope it helped him confirm or deny his friend’s claims:

Arrrghh, Matey, there we were…

It was, as I recall, the winter of ‘85, (as many of the best sea stories were), while we skulked in frozen places forbidden to be mentioned aloud. At 6’4”, I was one of the tallest crew members. At 160#, I was by proportion the skinniest squid onboard. This point will show its importance momentarily.

The skipper came to me one day, and said, “Roesener, America needs you!”

To which I naturally replied, “Anything for my beloved country, sir”.

He smiled warmly, reassured. “Somehow, I knew I was asking the right man…”

20 minutes later, with nothing on but a pair of khaki shorts borrowed from the ship’s diver, a black web belt with my TLD, and a pair of ill-fitting wetsuit boots with a knife strapped to my ankle, they loaded me into #5 tube, flooded the tube and opened the outer door.

As I swam out into the ice-cold open sea, I immediately saw the problem for which my country’s future rested on my particular set of skills. Naturally, all this is classified, but as long as you promise not to tell anyone…

We had been trailing a Russian Typhoon-class boomer closely for days, but the time had come for us to initiate some shenanigans and take offensive action. Those twin screws, right there in front of me, churning the frigid waters of the Arctic Sea, were my primary enemy. The slow turn count of patrol speed allowed me to overcome the prop wash, and to creep right up on the “Dunce Cap”, which held the screw to the boat. After an epic and mighty struggle, I was able to pry it off with my diver’s knife, allowing the entire megaton port side screw to fall off and sink to the ocean floor hundreds of fathoms below. I watched it slither it’s way into the inky black Deep as the Typhoon, suddenly unable to stay on course due to unbalanced propulsion, had to react. I waited expectantly, until the helmsman, oblivious to the mere possibility of my deed, over-corrected with a fairly aggressive right rudder. I jammed my knife into the rudder mechanism, forcing them into an irreversible , eternal right-hand turn.

Yep, I had em doing circles.

I then came up for a breath of air, as there had been no room for tanks in the tube with me, and returned to my own vessel. I rapped out the secret code against the hull, (“Shave and a haircut, two bits”) and followed the inrush back to the safety and warmth of my own boat head-first. As the tubes inner door opened, I was greeted with a roomful of Huzzahs from teary-eyed grown-ass men. I swelled with pride at the acknowledgement of heroism from these steely-eyed Cold war-heroes that stood about me, clapping and hugging and cheering. I beamed, and when I say I beamed, I’m saying the room began to glow.

Some say the luminescence was the approval of Ye Gods of War.

I humbly thought it was my own irrepressible pride, which naturally I have since managed to stuff back into its proper place in my soul.

Doc spoke out in a loud shushing voice and said it was probably just radiation poisoning from getting so close to a critical Russian nuclear power plant, and demanded I hand over my TLD for a reading.

Regardless, it was in this way that I assured the safety of millions of Americans, and set about a series of events that went on to win the Cold War.

You’re welcome…

The Care Bear Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Care Bears Movie?!”

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

Why, bless your little ol’ hearts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You cannot win against this.

Happy Veterans Day, ya cocky bastards.

On A Personal Note

For the past year we planned. For the last two weeks, we’ve traveled across the country. Finally yesterday, we reached the Florida Keys, the location of a Dolphin encounter especially for our son. It was the highlight and purpose of our trip. We didn’t know entirely what to expect, whether he’d be overwhelmed and want to bail out, or if weather or other factors might get in the way… all sorts of possible spoilers lurked in my worrying mind. My wife and I talked as we traveled, and were prepared to just accept it, should something come up.

Beyond Dustan having a good time however, it never occurred to me there might be something deeper to experience for me. But, with my son beside me, when together our hands passed over that smooth, rubbery body and Santini the Dolphin looked up at me with that curious, expressive eye from out of her underwater world, I felt as though a master painter had added a subtle, finishing stroke to bring extraordinarily disparate experiences together to create a picture of such harmonious clarity of purpose it nearly overwhelmed me.

To explain, we have to go back to 1981.

My chosen major in College was Biology, specifically Marine Biology. Factors unrelated to the world of Science pushed and pulled me away from that goal, leading eventually to an accidental career as a submarine sonarman. My profession’s motto, as expressed in the US Navy Sonar School creed, was “Sagire, Classis, Destructum” – “Search, Classify, Destroy”. And I was a pretty good Sonarman.

But as fate would have it, a big part of my work was differentiating between enemy threats and the natural underwater world required knowing more than a little about sea creatures. And dolphins are ubiquitous in the sea. Over the years in and out of ports around the world, in remote corners of the deep, in wild storms and the tedious boredom of calm, the songs of dolphins were a near-constant companion. I’m not the first sailor to romanticize this relationship, nor will I be the last. I learned to recognize the call patterns of pods close to my home port, and when I heard them, I listened in private bliss while they seemed to welcome us home with their boisterous, untamed songs of joy at simply being.

At first I envied their dedication to “simply being”. As I learned more about them, that envy became by stages a yearning, an understanding, and eventually a deep respect for the philosophy their example described.

But that was decades ago. I settled into post- Navy terrestrial life, and left the singing of dolphins for others to hear.

Until today.

Being this close to these socialized dolphins, hearing them call and chitter, occasionally breaking out into exuberant squeals, I was transported back 30 years to my sonar shack. And then, in touching and being touched by one of them, actually being in their presence, I was drawn out through the pressure hull of my mind that always kept us apart. I was set free of the cage that had always protected me, from the weight of duties that had demanded – always demanded – a part of my attention. For a moment, all the walls were down, all the shields up, while an emissary of their world met with me, and we exchanged an understanding of gratitude in each other’s existence.

And when the moment passed, and I had a little time to reflect, I realized that the best times in human life come when we can share in equal measure gratitude for each other’s existence.

We knew

We didn’t come here to die. We didn’t go down to the Sea to be killed by it.

But we knew. And still we went.

We knew the enemy, who wished to kill us, and rule our people. We knew the Sea, and its penchant for imposing death on the careless, the nonchalant, the clumsy and inexperienced.

We knew. And yet we went.

We knew we were hated by the enemy, who feared our silence. Our strength was in surprise, and stealth. Our weapons destroyed whole ships. We knew the Sea, and its cruel impartiality. There was no mercy to be found in the dark waters of the deep.

We knew, And yet we went.

We knew that our vessel was only as good as its builders, as its officers, and its crew. We knew humans could be fickle, awkward, often mistaken. We knew that courage – that one element that could in the moment of peril make the difference – was hard. We knew that the training, and practice, and dedication to our craft was not always enough in this hostile world we entered.

We knew. And yet we went.

We went, and we met the enemy. Sometimes in peacetime, other times in war, we went and kept the line of freedom strong. We met those who would exploit our weakness, and matched them. We met other country’s enemies, and fought them. We met our own enemies, and demanded respect. We met the Sea, in all its terror and splendor. We engaged, and either vanquished all of these, or died trying.

We knew. And yet we went.

We went to the Sea silently, unknown to most of the world, knowing that our work was best done in the shadows, in silence, without glory. Our stories were short: “We were never there. It never happened” was the uncomplicated version of “I can’t tell you without endangering my shipmates”. The cramped, isolated, unnatural submerged life – sometimes for months at a time – tore at our minds. It wore on our bodies. And we replenished ourselves with little more than the knowledge that the crew we served with shared the privation, a poor explanation we clung to when rational thought insisted we were insane.

We knew. And yet, we went.

And crew by crew as one, many of us died. Sometimes it was our own failure. Sometimes it was misfortune, an act of the Sea, a failed component, a miscalculation. What it was didn’t matter to the water that poured in and crushed our bodies.

So many of us no longer have a place among the living. But our Living, those we left behind, have their freedom, and that will have to be enough. It has been preserved by our fight.

We knew it had to be this way. And that’s why we went.

-Painting by John Groth/US Navy, a dramatization of the sinking of USS Squalus, in 1939