The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Lament for an Old Boat

USS Blueback SS-581-small 036

 

Am I the only one that dreams, sometimes

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

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

Who never thought of themselves brave

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

Stared it down

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

 

Am I the only one who sees an old boat,

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

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

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

and with the tide waning,

sliding silently into the murky river water,

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

And slip out of the river

And out of the harbour

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

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

bringing her senses back to her

 

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

The first burst of sooty smoke and then

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

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

 

Would we try to submerge it?

Damn straight we would!

 

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

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

But I am not here for the Sea

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

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

and the ones they loved

To ride once more in her belly

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

that a submariner knows best, swinging my way down,

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

Nothing of the open sea remains.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Remembering.

Memorizing.

Learning.

Knowing.

I knew this boat.

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

I Lived this boat.

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

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

 

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36 Responses to “Lament for an Old Boat”

  1. Glen Myers says:

    That brought back some memories. USS Blueback (SS581) was my initial quality boat in ’68

  2. Glenn after visiting one of my Old Boats HMCS/M Onondaga, S73 in Rimouski, P.Q. I stumble upon your jewel. BZ Shipmate. Regardless of the Navy it rings clear. We were all “Diesel smelling Studs” and loved it. D.B.F.

  3. robbie the brush says:

    pretty good.probably the reason i dont sleep much. most ofd the good folks who rread this wont have a clue. cheers m8.

  4. Tony Ficca MS2(SS) says:

    I would love to be putting out some great chow for the ole crew once again. coffee is hot and black .. food is hot n pleantiful shipmates lets roll

  5. rod huggins says:

    A really beautiful rememberance of Diesel Submarines of which I served my last 13 yrs in the Royal Navy. I will never forget my Brothers in Boats.

  6. rod huggins says:

    Thank you,thank you.As a retired Diesel Boat Submariner this was poingnant.I served for 23 yrs in the Royal Navy (13 in Subs) then I retired.I will NEVER forget my Brothers in Boats.

  7. buttons says:

    Spent Saturday night on the Ling with about 20 boy scouts and leaders. This is the second overnighter I’ve done. I enjoy my time on the old boat trying to show the scouts what it like to live and work on one of these antiques. You can’t explain it you have to live it. It will be 50 years next month since I left the Sea Robin and Navy but in ways it seems like yesterday. I think about my life on the old boat every day. I have been fortunate to have been able to spend time on the Ling and Torsk and bring some of the memories back. Glenn you have captured it far better than I could how us old sewer pipe sailors feel about our old boats. You can take the submariner out of the submarine but not the submarine out of the submariner.
    Buttons

  8. How very awsome and the memoriesmit brings back. I rode smoke boats, SSN,S, and SSBN,S eight in all in the span of 23 1/2 years.
    Could I have your permission to forward this to my old shipmates and to my SUBVETS at CHARLESTON BASE. It would be very much appreciated.
    Thanks for making my day.

    • gkeller says:

      Glenn, absolutely. I’d especially be honored if you can forward the credits and my contact info as well. it’s always nice to see where my writing has been to.

  9. Jodie says:

    Awesome Glenn, just awesome.

  10. Mike Siver says:

    Sounds, setting in the fwd room on the Robin (USS Sea Robin 407) 1963 – 1967 on watch you know every sound. The slightest sound will get your attention. That attention may also save the boat and our shipmates. That attention to sounds is still with me today. I seem to hear things no one else hears or they don’t pay attention too. I have saved several potential house floodings and cars by paying attention to changes in sounds. Love your article, Thanks Brother of the Phin .
    Mike TM3 SS DV

  11. Jim G. STS1(SS) (ret.) says:

    Thank you for posting this, Glenn, I’m a retired “nuke Boat baby”, but I can certainly appreciate the perspective. For us, it was not only the faint smell of Diesel, but also of Amine. I have numerous memories of going to sea – most of which I can never relate to anyone who wasn’t there, but that’s okay. The folks who CAN relate… they’re the ones who understand the most.

  12. Douglas Pitassi

    Lament for an Old Boat : : The Mighty Viking

  13. Sgt. B. says:

    I wasn’t a submariner, but Dad was. He was a diesel boat man (USS TUSK), and when he can off of patrol, he smelled like the Boat, and I equated that smell with safety and security, in the arms of my biggest hero. Forty years later, I toured USS REQUIN. When I went below, I smelled that distinctive smell again, and for a brief moment, I felt my Dad’s arms around me again. God bless the old diesel boats and their crews, and those that followed in their wake.

  14. Hertzberg MM3/SS says:

    It warms my heart to be with my shipmates aboard the USS RAZORBACK SS394 for work parties and reunions.

  15. James McEvoy says:

    Thanks Brother……MM3(SS) A-Ganger….USS Scamp

  16. STS3 says:

    Love this!!!! Thanks for the memories put into words.

  17. Becky Torgerson says:

    I feel so honored that you have given me a detailed look and understanding into what my son has lived while he has been a Submariner. I want to thank you all for giving him the confidence, and teaching him to become a man. I truly thank you for writing this. It has given me the window to see what I have not understood, for you are all one of a kind. May God Bless

    • gkeller says:

      You’re welcome, and to be honest, thank YOU – for commenting, but more importantly sticking with the young man. If you go to the “Submarine” category over there on the left of the screen, there are two other stories that, taken all three together, kind of tie different aspects of the experience together. “The Qualification of a Submariner” looks at the professional demands. “As long as being a submariner was what I wanted” tells about how I got to the point of choosing.

      Thanks again, Becky.

  18. Tthomkatt says:

    Aye, brings a tear to me eye..

  19. Berkhead STS2/SS says:

    Shiver me timbers….You are too damned eloquent to be a bubble head. Permission to repost? You sent me back in time Harry.

  20. This is amazing–you’ve captured something us non-submariners will never experience, and you’ve done it in the sort of universal terms that are accessible to all. This reminds me of Browning’s poem “Ulysses,” which is very much the same theme.

  21. Charles says:

    You must have a really sad life…

  22. Ron "SHOE" Schumacher says:

    WOW, Brings back many memories of my 3 1/2 years aboard her, USS Blueback SS-581, who now lives @ OMSI in Portland, Oregon.
    I’ve visited her 3 times~!

  23. Mongo says:

    Your post carries the sentiment this old Phantom Phixer has about his old steeds. Give them to us for a quick turn through a Phase inspection, and they’ll be right as rain in a cuppla days.
    Ships seem to fare better than aircraft as they age, if they’re kept up, and I imagine a crew of old hands could make them seaworthy in no time.
    Great post. Thanks for rekindling the old memories.

  24. David Ballot, Sr says:

    Last year I went for a week with my son on his submarine. He’s an EM, like his pop was. You’ve written about my cruise; every emotion, every sensation. It’s a nuke boat, a newer fast attack, at least for me, with a hull number almost 100 ships later than my old home. I loved being there. I fell into the old rhythms in moments. I prowled the boat on mid watch while the other riders slept. I marveled at the advances, the new technology. I rejoices in the old skills still taught in case the new magic broke. I sat at the planes again after 30 years, and the old skills, first terrifying, and later boring, came right back. And my son was the throttle man while I maintained heading and depth and angle and spat out the repeat-backs just like before. Then came breakfast at the end of the mid watch, and my son joined me at the dive, and we both relieved the planes men, and we drove the boat together. The COB and the XO and a few of the Goats watched, and shared my joy, my pride. I’ll probably never get to go again; but I didn’t expect to go on that cruise, so who knows?

  25. Laura says:

    Love this.. what a detailed, expressive way to describe a voyage!!

    • Ron Sagaert says:

      You really brought me up short on this. So many writers try to convey the deep feelings of taking a submarine to sea and fall way short. I lived on and knew the USS Razorback for 3 1/2 years in the early 60’s and felt the same way about her. The smells are the first this you notice, and the familiar way the passageways wind and angle through the compartments. The sounds are both constant and abrupt and you get to know each one, what they mean and how to respond. To stand on the barge now and look at her form is breathtaking – you think: “Couldn’t she just slip those cables and edge out to sea one more time”? To have my old shipmates there and sense the same as they are feeling is an unbelievable sensation. If you don’t understand that, nobody can explain it to you. You had to be there and I am thankful to have served in the DBF Navy!
      Ron S
      EN2(SS)

      • gkeller says:

        When I write, Ron, I try to write from my own perspective in a way that will be the same for someone else. Of course, its always hard to tell if it worked or not. Glad it worked for you, thanks for the comment.

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