A Bubblehead's Life - Volume 6 - The Final Chapter
Before we head underwater for the final time, I'd like to thank you for allowing me the indulgence of reminiscing about my Navy service.
I have a 12-year-old son, and these columns have allowed me to recall these wonderful experiences for his benefit. Many friends and even some strangers have expressed interest in this series, and that makes it even more fun.
My previous columns have made it sound tense, dangerous, and stressful. All true. Like life above the waves, submariners have their share of laughs and tears. I thought I'd share a few of these stories as a final chapter.
If the guys who volunteer to serve on boats didn't have a sense of humor, they'd probably be institutionalized! Don't leave with the impression that we're all nuts, though.
Submariners are scrutinized in minute detail, from the quality of their teeth to their overall emotional/mental well being. We spent as much time in psychological screening as we did in our other medical evaluations before being admitted to Basic Submarine School.
That said, I have always found these guys (present company included) to be a UNIQUE bunch. Submariners are fiercely loyal, quick to defend each other, and always looking for the perfect practical joke. To be blunt, they're also a little screwy!
I suppose you can attribute the closeness and loyalty to the fact that these guys depend on each other throughout the patrol cycle. Chalk up the screwy to the fact that these same guys volunteer to live underwater for 68 days!
As a demonstration of the loyalty factor, I offer the following. The crew of the Stoney J and one of our sister boats happened to be in port at the same time. There aren't many entertainment venues that welcome submariners with open arms, but New London, CT, has a few.
Members of both crews had assembled at one of these watering holes to let off a little steam. OK, let me be specific. Both crews were drinking as many $1 drafts as their stomachs would hold in as little time as possible.
Only the bartender understood the likely outcome. Within an hour, crewmembers from both boats had squared off, probably over an argument about which crew possessed the highest IQ (kidding, just kidding). After some shoving and shouting, a few punches were thrown and bodies were hurtled around.
About this time, some off-duty Marine (Semper Fi) security guys made some off color remarks about sub sailors and masculinity. The same submariners who had just been knocking each other's heads around turned together to engage the Marines. It didn't matter that these guys had been in the throws of full-fledged fistfight, what mattered was that someone outside the Service had denigrated a fellow submariner.
After order had been restored, the submariners from both boats pulled tables together and hoisted a few cold ones. Only in a Fellini film, or maybe a Three Stooges episode!
I spoke in an earlier column about sub veterans and their treatment of "new guys." I didn't explain what the initial welcome is like. These guys have turned rookie harassment into an art form, constantly trying to outdo one another.
Overconfident rookies were subjected to the search for the main seawater valve torque wrench. I talked about how important it was for new guys to learn the systems and procedures on the boat. If you didn't appear sufficiently humble, the veterans would assign you the task of identifying a non-existent component.
How, you ask? Well, you'd start out in Control, asking the Chief of the Watch a question. He'd say: "Go to the Torpedo Room and ask Petty Officer Smith to show you the main seawater valve wrench."
As soon as the rookie left Control, the Chief would call ahead to the Torpedo Room and tell Smith to expect the poor guy. Smith would be sitting on a torpedo rack reading a book when the rook arrived. "Sorry, man, but we loaned the wrench out to the Missile Technicians for an adjustment," Smith would say.
This process might be repeated five or 10 times, all over the boat, before some senior enlisted guy would take pity on the rookie and spill the beans that no such component existed. By this time the poor schmuck had spent hours climbing through hatches, up and down ladders, and generally looked like a fool in front of 30 or 40 shipmates.
Another routine welcome was extended to both enlisted and officer ranks. Lookouts were outfitted with binoculars, and new officers were given a turn at the periscope, both groups being given the chance to test their ability to detect distant contacts during surface transit.
Permanent magic marker, liberally applied to the eyepiece just before an unsuspecting victim puts it to the eye, leaves a wonderful ring on the face. The victim looks like Petey, the bull terrier from the Our Gang shorts.
You might think this sounds sophomoric, and that the joke might get old after a while. Not really, especially not when the victim is a pompous junior officer (not that any junior officer could EVER be pompous).
Practical jokes were a way of life, and probably helped to pass the time and to create a real bond between the crew. Those bonds were tested more than a few times.
I recall a patrol where we interrupted our routine to send off a member of our crew. He was a great guy, genuinely liked and respected by everyone on the crew. While we were away, his wife and two little children were killed in an automobile accident. Our patrol was abruptly ended, and he was airlifted (via a helicopter from an aircraft carrier) off our boat.
He never returned, although he did send us a letter a few months later thanking us for our prayers and friendship and wishing us well. I remember thinking about Amy and my family and how hard it would be to lose those you love the most and not even be able to be there.
Military service is a tough way to make a living, even tougher for those trying to raise a family. Missile boat sailors spend almost half the year away, missing birthdays, holidays, graduations, and other normal family functions.
Leaving for patrol was tough on the Dads among the crew. We hadn't had any of our children then, and I'm thankful for that. Watching those little boys and girls have to hug and kiss Daddy goodbye for several months was tough for me, much tougher for those Dads.
The divorce rate among ballistic missile submariners is one of the highest in the military service, and it's no wonder. These families endure incredible hardships and overcome difficult obstacles that most relationships couldn't survive.
So the next time you meet a sub veteran, or you watch a movie or read a book about life underwater, say a little prayer for those guys. Ask your God to cradle those sailors in His hands. Ask Him to watch over the families of submariners, to lighten their fears and worries.
Finally, and most importantly, ask that the number of surfaces exceed the number of dives, at least by one.