The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Posts Tagged ‘Submarine’

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.

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

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

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

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

And sometimes, those forces won.