A Bubblehead's Life - Vol. 3
We last left our boat and crew at the point they were slipping beneath the waves, ready to begin a 68-day deterrent patrol.
I should note that this is where submariners deviate from the rest of the blue water Navy.
The rigors of life aboard a surface ship are very different from the life aboard a boat.
A surface sailor can go "topside" to watch the stars. A missile boat submariner says goodbye to the sun, moon, and stars at the first dive, and won't see them again for 68 days.
A surface sailor can walk out on the fantail (the back end) for a smoke. The submariner is dependent on equipment that burns carbon dioxide and generates oxygen in order to breathe.
A surface sailor has ship-to-ship re-supply to look forward to. These logistics missions include fresh produce, new movies, books and magazines. Best of all, these re-supply missions bring mail - that most precious connection to loved ones and life back home.
A submariner leaves the dock with everything he'll have for the entire patrol. No underway re-supply, no exotic ports of call. The movies, books, magazines, music and games will be there until the patrol is done.
There is one nod to the lifeline, one small accommodation. Each submariner on a fleet ballistic boat was allowed 10 "FAMILY-GRAMS", 20-word messages that could be sent over the course of a patrol.
Family Grams were not allowed to include any inappropriate references (why would you want to, since they'd be read by the radiomen anyway), they weren't allowed to contain any bad news (no "Dear Joe, I've taken the kids, dog, and run off with the mailman. Best wishes, Your Wife"), and no phrases that appeared to be a coded signal.
This last one still causes me to smile. While the Navy was worried about Gramma speaking in code to her grandson on a sub, John Walker was selling all of our cryptology secrets to the Russians.
Fortunately for me, my Mom and wife-to-be were excellent at saying a lot with a few words. Those 10 messages, spaced out very carefully, helped me get through three deterrent patrols.
I talked earlier about qualification, and the serious attention paid to getting new submarine crewmembers to complete their qualifications.
For my first patrol, the other rookies and I were assigned duties in locations where we couldn't damage anything or hurt anyone. Most guys were sent to the galley, specializing in such glamorous jobs as dishwasher or assisting the cooks.
Yours truly was assigned to the laundry, a tiny space with a large washer and dryer. A crew of 150 can generate some SERIOUS laundry, so I never had a workload shortage.
I never complained about the task, though. First of all, no one bothered me. I had a tape deck and a copy of Hotel California by the Eagles. To this day, I know the words to every one of those songs.
I was a dedicated laundry operator, and like other jobs I've done, I paid attention to the little details. If someone needed stuff quickly, I'd put in more time to get it done.
I quickly learned a lesson in Navy life that continues to pay dividends in politics. When you do something above and beyond the call, the good deed is often repaid generously.
As I started the process of learning the systems and capabilities of the boat, the senior guys would go out of their way to help. I got more technical help than most, but then again, I probably needed the extra help.
A typical day was spent with a shower (quick, as we had to make the fresh water we used), a wake up meal (depending on the time of day, which doesn't really matter when you never see the sun), a shift in the Control Room, operating the stern planes, and then several hours in the laundry.
Life aboard ship is divided by watchstanding shifts, not by the rise and setting of the sun. Under normal conditions (oxymoronic?), we served an eight-hour shift, with 16 hours off. In that off watch time, you needed to eat, sleep, work (the laundry), and study for qualification.
The qualified sailors were able to watch movies (shown every day after evening meal in the crews mess), play cards, chess, or the most popular games, cribbage and backgammon.
The boat was also well stocked with paperback books in the library. I remember being surprised at how many titles were jammed into a room not much larger than a large bathroom in a modern home. The library also had two tables and chairs, as well as a large cushioned seating area.
I stayed away from the library and crews mess during off watch hours. The penalty for an unqualified guy getting caught doing something other than studying for "quals" was constant harassment.
My pleasure reading was restricted to my bunk with the curtain drawn. That was the only private time, the only peace and solace in an otherwise tense and hectic lifestyle.
The qualification process was equal parts grueling and rewarding. Each compartment on the boat was listed on the "qual card", a three-page checklist. Each compartment had a point of contact listed; the person who was authorized to sign off after you had demonstrated the necessary competencies.
I cannot imagine anyone signing a qual card just to help someone get through the process. With the lives and safety of the whole crew at stake, I never saw a corner cut in this process.
It took me my whole first patrol, and a small part of the second, before I was ready to face the "qual board". It turns out that the qual card is merely proof that you have done the necessary investigations and research to go to the next phase.
That phase was a two-and-a-half-hour inquiry, staffed with three senior crewmates. One commissioned officer, one chief petty officer, and one other enlisted sailor served on my board.
They made absolutely no pretense that this would be fun. The first question was: "Do you really believe you're ready for this board?" The implication was clear. They were warning me not to waste their time. What followed was over two hours of questions like: "What are the main seawater connections in the engine room, and where are the isolation valves?"
Two and half hours flew by like 10 minutes. I wasn't perfect, in fact I missed several questions by answering truthfully that I had no idea what the answer was. On one question, the Chief laughed and said if I had known the answer, he'd assume it was because someone had been asked it before and was helping me cheat.
After the final question, the officer stood, shook my hand, and welcomed me to the ranks of those who wear the Dolphins. Not letting my head get too big, the Chief told me to go find the answers to the questions I'd missed, and report back to him.
During this time, I also had chosen another watch station (the Sonar shack), and had been accepted into the Stores Division as a Storekeeper, with a focus on the ship's accounting system.
Next up: Life as a member of the Club.