SmagBoy's Mission Log, Sea Date: Late October, 2009

Hey all. The purpose of this section is to serve as a central hub for any regular blogs I undertake, but also for me to show you a little bit of the real me, not "The Submariner" me. I'm not really that guy. He's a character that I play on Thursdays (a character that I really enjoy--you can read more about him in my post below, titled "The Making of a Submariner"). So, on occasion, I'll publish a story or some pictures, or maybe just an anecdote or two that I hope will be fun or enlightening.

If you don't care for learning about the really-real SmagBoy and just want "The Submariner", no worries! He can always be reached here: Send in your questions, observations, concerns or rants. But be forewarned, as you know, that guy has very little patience for the stupids. You can send questions to me there, too, the non-fictional SmagBoy1 (or "Smaggie" as I'm affectionately known). Don't worry, I'm not nearly as tough as I pretend to be. Fair winds to you, shippers! And enjoy!

Friday, May 28, 2010

You Are All Heroes (Unless, You Know, You're Gay)...

For those of you who do not know, the US Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy allows homosexual men and women to serve in the US Armed Forces, but, requires that they do not divulge or allow to be divulged their sexual orientation to anyone in the military. Regardless of service history, if it is found out that a homosexual is serving, he or she is unceremoniously processed out of the military.  There is no waiver.

In support of one of President Obama's initiatives, our congress is currently considering arguments to repeal DADT. This would pave the way for homosexual servicemen and servicewomen to serve openly. As a result, Senator Maverick “John” McCain and the Republicans are planning to filibuster the entire defense budget bill to stop the repeal of DADT. That’s right, they’re willing to delay the funding of the entire Department of Defense so that our country won’t have to allow gays to serve openly in the military. And sadly, it is very likely they’ll be successful in causing the DADT repeal discussion to be pulled from the table.

Now, whether or not you believe homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or biological imperative, I ask you this: how can we allow a policy that desires and even encourages any and all able bodied young men and women to serve, honor and even die for their country, but tell them that, in order to do so, in order to lay down their lives for our freedom, they must not speak of their sexual orientation. Remember, DADT and its repeal is not about changing military operations, requirements or operational rules. It’s not about anything other than simple human dignity.

We have an interesting habit of calling all of our service men and women “heroes” and thanking them for their service. People frequently stop me in public when I wear one of my submarine command ball caps and thank me for my service.  This always makes me uncomfortable, but it always makes me smile, too.  What does it say, then, to lesbian Sgt. Jene Newsome that, even though she, too, served her country honorably, when police entered her home looking for someone else, and, upon seeing her marriage certificate, informed the Air Force of her sexual orientation (even though she was not being investigated?!), the Air Force discharged her, stripping her of her hero status? Based entirely on her sexual orientation?! Sadly, her story is not an anomaly. She will have no retirement from the military. She will not be allowed to wear her uniform with pride. Her service to our country as a hero is now erased. Why?

You may ask, “How can we have gay men and women openly serving in the military? Won’t that affect things somehow?” My answer is that sexual orientation deserves no less respect or empathy than skin color, religion, or national/cultural background. Can you imagine a military policy that allowed blacks to serve, but that required them to wear makeup at all times, or to undergo bleaching treatment, such that they looked white? “You can serve honorably, Sir, but you have to wear this makeup at all times, or, if you have the financial ability, you can undergo skin bleaching treatment.” How is DADT any different? The military currently stamps into dog tags a service member’s religion of choice. Can you imagine a military policy that forbade any and all religious practice, literature or even discussion of religious topics, and, if it was found out that a member attended church, even sneaking to do so in private, he/she was immediately processed out?

DADT, and any other policy forbidding the open service of homosexuals is no different than enacting a policy against membership in a religion or against any skin color but white. It is horrific, it is discriminatory, and it is wrong. Mavericky McCain and his Republican lambs? They ought to be ashamed of themselves. And if you count yourself among their party and have not voiced your dissent to them on this issue, so should you.

****Thoughts? Comments? Concerns? Leave them all in the comment section, below!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Language as a Toy, Language as a Weapon...

Language has always fascinated me. Well, I say “always”. I guess what I mean is that, from my very first realization that language was a national, cultural, societal, personal construct, it’s interested me. And though that doesn’t quite qualify as “always”, it really has been a long time that I’ve felt that way. In order to get to that point of fascination, though, one has to first understand a bit about nations and cultures, and, too, a little about what makes them different, one from the other. One must begin, also, to see how society is different still, how social expectations play on language, and, too, how even personal tastes can alter its use. It’s pretty heady stuff to really delve into. But I love it!

For example, my personal tastes would lean toward the making up of words, regardless of national identity, cultural or social background. Well, at least I hope that’s true. I’m not naïve enough to believe that my cavalier approach toward words would, with certainty, be the same had I grown up under a dictatorial regime, or worse, illiterate. So, I do understand the limitation of my hopes. That said, regardless of how I got here, I do like to play with language. I like to insert my own, made-up words into communications in such a way that the reader either instantly accept the word (with the definition I intended, I hope), or, even if they do not accept the word, that they at least understand the intended meaning. I see this as a challenge. For example, in a recent column, I admonished a frustrated letter writer to not get “huffity” with me. I like to talk about the “acronymous” (rhymes with “anonymous”) origins of words (like SCUBA and RADAR, or, scuba and radar, depending on your tastes in capitalization). It’s what I do. And if you get to know me well enough, this playfulness might even start to piss you off! Or make you laugh. Or both.

At any rate, that’s a little background to explain why I’m writing today. I want to encourage you all to participate in a plan that I’ve hatched!  See, I like it when language is, for the sake of fun, twisted in new and exciting ways. When the intent of the twisting is good-natured there’s not too much that thrills me more, actually. Oscar Wilde is an all-time favorite of mine for just that reason. However, over the last several years, I’ve noticed our friends from FOXNews and the far right using language as a weapon (I realize they’re not the first, nor are they the only ones currently doing it, but, I don’t like them, so, they’re where my interest is currently focused). Take, for example, the changing of the phrase “suicide bombers” to “homicide bombers”, a seemingly subtle, but very telling, change, or, the creation of the “War on Christmas”, or, “It’s not freedom from religion, it’s freedom of religion” and many others (I’m sure you can all think of several of their gems). These are frustrating, but, none of them have irked me so much as the following three: Obama as “The Chosen One” or “The Messiah” or “The Second Coming”, liberals as “sheeple”, and finally, any liberal idea that challenges the status quo or attempts to remove religion from politics as “political correctness run amok”. I hate those three examples with a passion. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps because they’re particularly vile? Perhaps because they’re very cleverly constructed in that to resist any of them in any way almost lends credence to the claims they make? Perhaps it’s because they’re typically delivered with such shit-eating grins that they get my goat.

So, what to do about it? Well, in a moment of lucidity last night, the solution occurred to me. I am going to co-opt those terms and use them in exactly the same way that our conservative friends have been using them. I’m not going to do it wildly, or at every opportunity. I’m going to wait until a wonderfully prime moment, perhaps one where a friend or colleague is going on and on about the greatness of Sarah Palin and I’m going to respond in as matter-of-fact a manner as I can muster, “You mean The Chosen One? Is there nothing she can’t do?” I may even call her “The Third Coming”, thereby co-opting and embracing even more the Obama as The Second? I’m going to start calling Bill O’Reily, Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, et. al, “The Apostles”. I will call Tea Partiers “sheeple”, and I will absolutely, positively, and without fail, point out the “political correctness run amok” whenever any of them talk about immigration reform, or drilling, baby, drilling. I’ll say of those topics, “Man, you guys just say that stuff like it’s from rote memory. Do you not even care about your country or engage your own brain? It’s just words with you, isn’t it? Some sort of politically correct speech, straight from The Chosen One right down to you, her sheeple!” Or something like that. I’m sure that I’ll be able to refine it to a nice pointy tip in due time. Practice makes perfect, right?

I want to stress that I’m not necessarily angry so much as just done with it. I’m not trying to piss off anyone. Per se.  It’s just that I’ve listened to those terms being used against liberals for long enough. I’ve heard the Tea Partiers, with my own ears, mind you, upon Obama’s election or any action that he takes, say with absolute certainty that “I can’t believe he wants to act in a way that’s not in line with the will of the people.” As if the man wasn’t elected by, oh, I don’t know, a majority of "the people"?! I’ve stood by and turned the other cheek. I’ve listened while Palin’s sheeple, in very well-meaning tones, tell me, “Well, I hope that you enjoy your ‘hope and change’!” Well, not only am I enjoying it, I’m about to give some of it back. So, my conservative friends, open wide and, as the French would say, "Bon appetite!"

Like my ideas? No? Any other ideas? List ‘em in the comments section, below!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Women on Submarines? Say it isn't so, Abigail Adams!

Greetings All. Some folks asked me recently what I thought about the idea of women serving on submarines.  And fact is, having been a submariner for several years, it's something I've put quite a bit of thought into.  I believe that women should be allowed to serve on submarines.  No question.  I believe that they will prove to be no less capable than men, and, in fact, will prove to be indistinguishable in their abilities.  However, other people believe differently.

Women are weak, they say. Women will distract the men from their duties. Women are not wired to handle the kind of pressure that submariners face every day. Women will be a liability to the submarine force, and, as such, they’ll undermine the mission and the safety of our men.  These are all common arguments made against women serving.  It is not my intent to change the sexism inherent in those arguments with this piece.  Instead, I’ll simply address the objections and then explore some legitimate concerns about women serving aboard submarines (there are some).

Women are weak. Well, sure, some women are weak. So are some men. That’s just a fact of life. Some women are also very strong. Interestingly, on a submarine, strength is pretty much irrelevant. During my submarine days, one of the loudest, most obnoxious sailors that I knew, one who regularly stressed how important it was that women never serve aboard submarines, was so weak that there were several valves in the engine room that he simply could not operate. Further, he passed out not once, but twice, during drills that required moving around not-even-heavy equipment while using emergency air breathing apparatuses. In short, by his own standards, he should not have been allowed to serve aboard submarine. Yet, all you needed to do was ask him and he’d tell you that not only was he a top notch submariner, he was also an outstanding operator. And, fact is, all of his liabilities aside (personal and professional), he was a pretty decent operator. How is that possible?

Well, for the most part, brute strength is entirely uncalled for in the operation of a modern warship. And, it’s certainly no more called for on a submarine than it is on a surface ship, on which women have been serving alongside men for almost 20 years now. A modern war ship is about mental toughness (if it even requires any special brand of toughness at all, which is a subject I’ll address later), not, as you might expect, physical toughness. And I’ve never been given any indication in my years as a human being that women are inherently less mentally tough than men.

Women will distract men from their duties. That’s probably true. If the men are unprofessional and emotionally immature sailors who don’t know how to control themselves in a professional setting. And some don't, I'll admit, but, this is not a characteristic that's limited by gender or age.  And it's certainly not something that should keep professional, emotionally-mature adults from serving.  Nor is it something that a good supervisor can't immediately nip in the bud.  Otherwise, though, working alongside a woman on a submarine is no different than working alongside a woman in an office building, or on the President’s Cabinet, or (imagine this, it may sound familiar), on a surface ship, on which women have been serving alongside men for almost 20 years now. It’s not difficult to do. And, after duty hours? Distraction isn’t a bad thing--for either gender--in my humble opinion. It’s good for morale and keeps the blood pumping.  Now, I'm not talking about cheating on the spouse distraction here!  I'm not talking about a crew that goes out single and comes back coupled and pregnant.  I'm simply talking about professional adults in a tough but militarily-necessary environment making the best of a shitty working situation.

Women are not wired to handle the kind of pressure that submariners face every day. Those of you who are patriotic to a fault and who like to call every person who’s ever served our country a “hero” should probably skip the rest of the article. Seriously, it would do best to skip down to the very last paragraph because I don’t want to disillusion you.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Submarining is just a job. It’s not some heroic plunge into the unknown depths with danger at every corner wherein each and every submariner is a hero, cut from the same cloth as Charles Lindbergh or Chuck Yeager. Submariners come in every make and model. We do have some Lindberghs and Yeagers, sure. But we also have some Paul Reubenses, and, fact is, even some skanky, gross, actual real criminals! I once saw a guy taken off the boat in handcuffs for having molested a little girl at his church. He was a volunteer youth pastor there. See what I mean? My point here is that war movies and war lore and John Wayne and Chuck Norris like to paint military men as some sort of incorruptible hero. And they treat war and military service as the grandest of grand activities.  And while submariners have an extra layer of secrecy and mystique surrounding the job because it is, at its core, very secretive, submariners are no different than members of regular society. Nor are other sailors any different.  Nor airmen, nor marines nor soldiers.  If you recognize those who serve as real human beings, then you can understand them as humans, and accept their successes and failures as the actions of neighbors and friends and people, rather than as the mystical performances of demigods or demons.

Now, submariners, on average, are a little bit more intelligent than the average citizen (due to the testing and selection process), but, otherwise, save for not being claustrophobic, they come in every shape, size, color and make up that exists in every town and city in the country. So, the idea that submariners are some sort of rare breed of pressure-hungry, steely-eyed, incorruptibles-with-a-penis is an exaggerated myth. Further, that women, due to their lack of a super-penis, are any less capable than the men is worse than ridiculous. It’s sexist and ignorant of the facts, and the opinion begs the question of its holder, "Have you ever actually served aboard a submarine?  Or even in the Armed Forces?"

Fact is, women are already serving alongside men in most every facet of the military. There’s no legitimate reason why submarining should be an exception. Well, save for one. And it’s purely logistical, and, too, it’s one that can be overcome pretty easily with some minor construction and adult behavior. I’m talking about facilities. Unlike Ally McBeal’s office bathroom, which was harmoniously unisex, most American adults dislike the idea of being naked in front of one another. Since there are essentially only two bathrooms (two stalls, two sinks and two showers per bathroom) for all 120-ish enlisted men on a Trident submarine, dedicating one bathroom to ten or twenty females is not only impractical, it would legitimately cause an issue. As such, I think the solution is to rework the bathroom areas, making the stalls self-contained (no way to see in or out of them) and replacing the current shower curtains with opaque doors with sound dampeners to prevent noise. The sinks could continue as they are. That way, a sailor of either gender could wear a towel, robe, etc., and flip-flops to the head. They could take care of their showering needs and retire to their bunk room without worry of being peeked-in on. This plan would require professionalism, and it will certainly occasionally be abused by some enterprising punk or two, but, for the most part, this plan would work like a charm without limiting facilities to any single group of sailors (there’s another solution for those of you who know the Navy in general and submarines specifically: let the ladies have the goat locker until their numbers are sufficient to rate one of the two heads. But, if you know submarines and Navy tradition, you know how much grief that would cause, so, let’s go with my plan instead, okay?).

There’s another legitimate concern, too. But it’s not legitimate in the sense that it should be considered by the Pentagon when making decisions about the operation of its war machines. It’s a concern about the morale of the wives and husbands of the submariners. As it is, wives of submariners suffer a particularly nasty side effect of their husband’s work. Not only do their husbands deploy without the opportunity for cell phone conversations, video chat, or even e-mail (for boomer sailors), etc., during the entire deployment, but, even when in port, wives can’t visit and tour and engage in the boat nearly in the same way that other military units can allow (they can come aboard, but their movements are comparatively restricted). Submarines are, by their very mission, much more secretive. This means that even when home, the simple question of "how was your day?" can become a walk around national security issues.  And nearly a third of the crew, the “nukes”, can’t show their wives anything about their work, and can't talk too much about it, either, because no one without a secret security clearance is allowed past the engine room water tight door, and the subject in general is a matter of national security. So, taking what is already a secretive situation, one where spouses and significant others feel cut off from a large portion of their loved ones’ life, even when in-port, and then throwing in members of the opposite sex during deployments?! It’ll add some stress. There’s no doubt. And that’s real, and I’m sensitive to it. But, that’s also life. And life is not always easy. And in the end, that issue is certainly not reason enough to prevent women from serving aboard submarines.

Are there other concerns?  Probably.  What about the psychological health of being in such close quarters with members of the opposite gender for so long?  Truth is, though I believe that I've adequately addressed those concerns in a very professional and ideal-world way, long term, I'm not sure what the effects would be.  I'm not a psychiatrist.  Certainly the concern shouldn't prevent women from serving on submarines, but perhaps what it would lead to is segregated submarine crews?  An all-female submarine wouldn't operate any differently than current ones.  More studying should be done on this, but, in the meantime, don't limit a person's ability to serve based on their sexual organs.

I know this piece is cursory. I could write quite a bit of background about what goes into making a submariner in order to help provide perspective. You know, talking about what’s required of submariners, the training, the regimen, but, fact is, I already have. It’s here, titled “The Making of a Submariner”: . Now granted, I myself fall into the mysticism of submarining in that piece--just a little. I’ll ask that you forgive me that lapse in judgment. Even though its non-fiction, perspective is a powerful thing and it sometimes goes awry. I also have a piece about how not to be a submariner, written about someone who is a submariner. It’s titled “Remembering Charlie Hustle” and it’s here: . Hopefully put all together with what I’ve said here, my points will mean something to you. In the end, I have only this to say: submarining does not require a penis. Only a brain.

Note: I encourage feedback and discussion in the comment section below, or, directly at my e-mail address, listed on each of my blogs. I will honor your opinions on this matter and attempt to discuss all points with you in a rational and calm manner.  Also, I added Abigail Adams' name to the title because she is, to me, one of the nation's most heroic women.  Please understand that that does not mean to discredit other equally heroic women, but, her wit and intellect and feisty resolve, though not necessarily appreciated in her own time, inspires me to this day.  If only the founders had listened to her then, this entire blog entry would surely be moot...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Remembering Charlie Hustle...

Well guys, here's another bit of real submarine life.  None of the "Submariner" snark here.  Just my actual voice telling an actual story.  Please read my previous story/blog entry, "The Making of a Submariner", because I think it's an important starting point and will allow you to appreciate this entry even more.

So, without furhter ado:

Remembering Charlie Hustle

“Nothing could be finer than to be a submariner,” said my recruiter, making the word “submariner” rhyme with “finer” in the most annoying sing-songy fashion. According to the posters tacked to the walls in his office, I was going to learn all about “undersea warfare on the world’s most technically advanced warships.” My recruiter added that I was going to meet some “extremely interesting, intelligent and all-around great people.” “In short,” he tacked on, desperate to place me on his monthly list of successes, “submarine duty is the good life!”

Before I get too far, though, and in the interest of accuracy, I think that I should point out that what follows isn’t my story. Not really. What follows is Jim’s tale. He arrived onboard the U.S.S Ohio about four patrols after I departed and Reactor Gus, our mutual friend, relayed these events to me in point-for-point detail during several phone calls and face-to-face conversations. Reactor Gus is a reactor operator extraordinaire and former shipmate, and Jim is his current protégé. And because I know Reactor Gus to be a man of fine upstanding character, I’m confident that I can tell this tale, knowing that it’s all true and happened exactly this way…


Jim Creighton, newly-reported reactor operator, was on the Mess Decks, enjoying a break from his work. Reactor Gus had the floor. Gus was telling a story about a former sailor, Uncle Bob, and about what a stud-man electrician Uncle Bob had been. It was a wonderful chronicle, nearly mythological in genre and delivery, but with details about Uncle Bob “healing” deranged electrical equipment simply by laying his hands on the gear, the story was just a bit too grand and wonderful for Jim to imagine. He was on his first patrol, after all, and, to Jim, everything onboard either smelled like recycled farts, or tasted like and had the texture of half-day-old hominy grits. To Jim, there was nothing mythological about submarine living; patrols were just plain stinky. How veteran submariners like Reactor Gus, or his mystical Uncle Bob could survive this way of life was beyond Jim’s comprehension.

When Reactor Gus was nearly done with his story, Jim’s stomach began to knot up. You could tell that Gus was finishing when his voice took on a quality that seemed to single Jim out, saying, “Now hear this last part, this moralistic ending, ‘cause it’ll help you in submarine life, young grasshopper.” Gus was a bit of a ham, but his didactic tendencies were not why Jim’s bile was starting to slosh. That was brought on by the thought of going back to work, back to the shitty, smelly Engine Room. The Mess Decks were bad enough, what with their Naugahyde covered chairs and tables, dingy piping running all along the walls and in the ceiling and the smell of forty patrol’s worth of poorly cooked food infused into every pore of every surface in the place. There were fake plants hanging from the overhead, placed sporadically around the room, reminding Jim that he was not anywhere near a place where plants could actually grow. They were there as part of a morale-boosting program, likely devised by some psychologists who’d never been on a submarine and surely never on a patrol. The plants’ leaves were dusty and yellowing from the fluorescent lights and they served as ready targets for spitballs and used tooth picks.

For Jim, though, the Engine Room was worse. It was hot. Super-heated steam hot. It had to be perfectly clean at all times, yet every machine in the place leaked oil and water and goo and, as if that weren’t bad enough, Jim had to learn every single aspect of it within one year. Period. Jim, like any newly reporting Engine Room worker, needed a break.

The submarine gods must have been looking after him, because, as Reactor Gus finished his tale, Willie, the head Mess Specialist (an accurate description of what Willie did to the food every time he and most any of the other M.S.’s tried to cook it), piped up with a story of his own in a voice and manner that insinuated that Gus’ tale had been merely an appetizer.

Even being a new submariner, or nub (as he was often called) (submarine acronym for non-useful body), Jim already had a growing contempt for Willie. Jim was certain that Willie worked only about four hours a day to his twenty and Jim had quickly realized that Willie was the kind of person who believed in the saying “rank has its privilege.” He had observed many times that Willie was sure to throw his rank around whenever the opportunity presented itself. In the Engine Room, rank had much less to do with respect than demonstrated ability and this idea made a great deal of sense to Jim. After all, it didn’t matter what rank you held if you couldn’t do your job, right? Jim couldn’t help but be taken by Willie’s story telling, though, because, with so much free time on his hands, Willie had worked his delivery of the oral tradition into high art. Willie’s eyes nearly glazed over when he began to speak, transporting him back in space in time. Everyone there could tell, inherently, that he was about to tell a good one. Willie’s normally squeaky speaking voice mellowed and deepened a bit and all of the M.S.’s, even the grizzled, seasoned ones who’d obviously heard the story before (or perhaps even witnessed its events firsthand), leaned in a little closer to their boss. Willie acted as if he didn’t notice the attention as he began:

“About four patrols ago there was this guy called The Smag. What a nut-case this guy was.” When Willie called The Smag “a nut-case,” Reactor Gus shifted in his seat uncomfortably but didn’t interrupt Willie.

“He nearly hit the Captain in the face over a drink of Coke! That patrol changed The Smag, boys, you know what I’m sayin’? It was his last patrol and it turned him loony!

“See, he’d always been pretty normal. A quiet guy.” Willie slowly whispered the last sentence as if he were a prophet dispensing soul-saving information. One by one he was looking each listener in the eye as he spoke, and, though Jim knew that Willie was just hamming it up, the hair on his neck pricked up as Willie’s eyes met his.

“Anyways,” Willie continued, “what happened was we had been on patrol for about three weeks and we ran out of CO2 for the soda fountain. See, we bring five canisters of CO2 underway for each patrol and we usually only use about one a month. But there was a leak, I guess, and none of us knew it. We kept putting in new canisters and they kept running out in no time, and pretty soon we were all out.

“So, it’s dinner time and here comes The Smag, ready to go on watch, right? See, he always carried around this big, huge--I’m talking freaking humongous--thermos cup from Circle K, 52 ounces, you know the ones, and he’d always fill it up with Coke for watch. The damned thing was so big we took to calling it the P.P.W.T.: short for Portable Potable Water Tank. He’d scratched off the Circle K logo and had written stuff on the cup in magic marker, real fancy, like ‘Remembering Charlie Hustle’, that was around the top in big letters, and ‘Latitudinarianism is The Way’, and ‘No excuses, results!” and stuff like that. The messages changed each patrol, except for that Charlie Hustler one. God, you didn’t want to get The Smag started on that Charlie Hustler character. Sometimes the messages would even change during patrol.

“Anyway, I knew he was going to be pretty disappointed when he stuck the cup under there and nothing came out. I mean, I knew he’d be pissed, but then again, I thought it was sort of funny too, you know what I’m sayin’? I mean there he was, a guy addicted to his soda, and it’s only three weeks into a three-month patrol and we’re out of CO2. You can see the humor there, right?”

The M.S.’s nodded in agreement like dashboard figurines reacting to a sudden stop. Interestingly, Reactor Gus and some of the other senior Engine Room personnel allowed a somewhat knowing, reminiscent smile to cross their faces. Willie was oblivious to anyone’s reaction, though, and he had only asked the question rhetorically anyway, because he quickly continued.

“Well, he sticks the cup under there--the thing barely fit it was so damned big--and nothing comes out of the nozzle. He looks at the machine and moves his cup down to the Dr. Pepper slot and still nothing, of course. So he looks at me. Well, I’m trying not to laugh. I mean he looks wounded. Like a wiener dog after you step on its tail or yell at it or something. But I calmly explained to him that we’d run out of CO2. I said how it must have been a leak ‘cause it’d gone so fast, and that though we had plenty of the syrup, without CO2 there’d be no more Coke this patrol.

“He asked me when I first noticed the CO2 going faster than normal and I told him that I could tell even while we were still in port but that I didn’t think nothin’ of it. I mean what’s the big deal, five canisters always lasts for one patrol, right? So, the crazy bastard gets under the cabinet and starts inspecting all of the CO2 supply lines under there! Then, he slides down through the floor decking, in between the pipes into the Torpedo Room to where the canisters are stored. He looked like a sort of dingy baby tryin’ to return to the womb, you know what I’m sayin’, and he starts checking the lines there, too!

“Anyway, he comes back up in a few minutes all greasy and sweaty and says that he found the problem and that it was, in fact, a leak. He says that he fixed it in about two minutes. He was looking pretty disgusted with me and then he had some smart words for me about how something that simple could have been fixed before we got underway and we’d not have had this problem, but whatever. I mean, screw him, you know what I’m sayin’?”

With the “screw him” statement, Reactor Gus rolled his eyes, looked at Jim and motioned with his head that it was time to get back to work. As Jim began to get up, however, Willie stopped his story and abruptly turned on Gus, “What the hell mate, you don’t want Gus Junior there to hear about real boat life or what?”

Gus’ right eye twitched slightly and he almost blurted out a quick, biting response, but, not wanting to find pubic hairs in his next omelet, he allowed, “Willie, you’re right, why don’t you just send Jim back to the Engine Room when you’ve taught him everything you know about submarines. That should be another half hour, at least.” He said the last sentence primarily under his breath, only loud enough for the Engine Room crowd, seated in a group in the back of the Mess Decks, to hear. Then he looked at Jim and whispered, “When Willie’s done with this altered version of reality, hustle on back to the Engine Room and bring some coffee and soda for the watch standers, okay?”

Before Gus was even done speaking, though, content that Jim was staying, Willie had resumed his tale, seemingly unfazed. “Okay, so anyway The Smag supposedly fixed this leak and is all pissed off about the fact that I don’t have any CO2, but there’s nothing that can be done, so I don’t give it a second thought. Like I said, screw him, you know what I’m sayin’?

“Well, since there’s no soda to drink, a lot of guys, including The Smag, take to drinking the instant tea with gobs of sugar in it. And all seems well. Well, this goes on for about two weeks, but, soon as shit, we run out of tea.

“Now see, normally four cases of instant tea is plenty for one patrol, but since everyone who normally drinks soda was drinking tea, well, you get the picture. So, next thing I know, The Smag is in the galley in my face again. He tells me that I’m a piece-of-shit dirt bag and worthless. He says how my only responsibility is to feed the crew, no watch standing, no duty days, just feed the crew, and he’s telling me how I can’t even get that right. How when I do cook something I may as well have just stayed in the rack. You know what a ‘rack’ is, right Reactor Gus Junior, or do you still call it a bed and keep your teddy-bear and pictures of your mom in there?” With that jab at Jim’s inexperience, most of Willie’s crony M.S.’s started to laugh and giggle (even though some of them were on their first patrol as well).

Like a seasoned stage actor, Willie waited until the giggling died a bit before continuing, “So, naturally, I started to get a little pissed off. I mean, they say this guy was a decent enough mechanic and stuff, but, after all, I did outrank him! I mean, I didn’t have to take his shit, you know what I’m sayin’? So I didn’t. I told him to listen up and I laid it on thick. I said how he didn’t appreciate how hard my job was and how ordering supplies and cooking for a crew of a-hunnert-fifty men, patrol-after-patrol, was not an easy job and how I outranked him and how if he had a problem with that then he could go see my Chief Petty Officer and then Chief’d shut his ass up. So he left. He was all pissed off and everything and telling me to ‘fuck off,’ but I told it to him right back, and in the end he stormed off and didn’t speak to me for days, you know what I’m sayin’?”

Willie’s voice lost its deep story-telling tone as he relayed the events of his argument with The Smag and by the point in the story when The Smag had stormed out, Willie’s voice reminded Jim of The Penguin from the Batman television show, nasally and high pitched. Jim’s impressions were unimportant, though, because by that point in the story, the M.S.’s were cheering Willie on, clapping and high-fiving in celebration of Willie’s telling off The Smag.

Jim had started to drift anyway. Willie’s defending his own work habits was a common occurrence onboard, even to someone new, and Jim had already heard Willie’s spiel about the “incredibly hard work” that he does many times over. Jim found himself thinking about Reactor Gus' story and the mystical Uncle Bob. He didn’t know Uncle Bob, had never met him, but he’d heard plenty of stories from other Engine Room guys. In all of the stories that Jim had heard prior to Willie’s, Uncle Bob, The Smag, most all of the former Engine Room guys, never came off as anything but motivated operators. Some of the Engine Room guys tell a story about a time when Uncle Bob was fighting a huge fire with one fire hose under each arm while simultaneously turning a valve with his foot. Then again, they tell similar stories about several former operators, so Jim wasn’t really sure what was truth and what was fiction. But that didn’t matter to Jim as he was lost in the mythology of it all.

What a scene that would’ve been, Jim thought, Uncle Bob’s blue coveralls unzipped to the waist, long sleeves tied around the front like a belt (as was necessary in the heat of the Engine Room), sweaty tee-shirt sticking to him like a second skin and a live fire hose under each arm. Jim found himself adding details like Uncle Bob wearing sunglasses as he fought the fire, deftly keeping them in place with an occasional, graceful flick of his head. Jim wasn’t sure if any of the Uncle Bob Stories had happened or not, or how much about them was truth and how much was fiction, but he did know that Uncle Bob and The Smag and many other former Engine Roomers that Willie liked to berate were universally liked in the Engine-Room (ed note:  Truth be known, Uncle Bob did actually give the appearance of healing electrical equipment just by touching it. I saw it with my own eyes, even if Jim never did, and I still can’t explain how he did it!).

Jim snapped out of his daydreaming as Willie was ending his well-polished, well-practiced job justification monologue. Willie then continued his Smag tale: “A week or so later,” Willie began, “after there was no Coke and now no tea, is when the good stuff really started to happen. See, some guy got his appendix ruptured and The Doc said he’d have to be transported off to a hospital. Well, within minutes the Captain radioed base and turned the boat toward land. The next day, we were supposed to meet up with a helicopter for the Appendix Guy to be airlifted to a hospital, but the seas were way too rough. Thirty-foot whitecaps, so there was no way he was gonna be lifted off in that. Well, after a bunch of hemming and hawing, they radioed and said that we were to proceed toward land and rendezvous with a tugboat off of Alaska late the next day.

“The Captain came on the announcing circuit and said that all divisions were to turn in any emergency supply orders within the hour and that they’d probably be able to deliver them on the tug. Now remember boys, this is an incredibly rare thing, you know what I’m sayin’? Boats just don’t get to come off of patrol every day to get supplies, so I figured I could order up some special stuff for the officers, you know, ‘cause a little brown nosing never hurt nobody. Plus, I was gonna get a few other things, like stuff we’d run out of like tea and sugar, you know what I’m sayin’?

“Well, not even thirty seconds after the Captain got off the speaker but The Smag is in the Galley, eyes all excited and crazed, telling me to order canisters of CO2. Like I didn’t know that already. I told him to cool his jets, and that I’d get to it, no problem.

“I wasn’t about to forget the CO2 ‘cause I’d heard rumors of some of the junior officers buying cans of Coke and Pepsi from enlisted guys’ private stashes for over a buck apiece. First thing you learn as an M.S. is to take care of the officers ‘cause they’re the ones who sign your evaluations. That’s Willie’s Free Advice, rule #1, you know what I’m sayin’? So, damn right I ordered the canisters! Easy enough, right?

“Well, everyone was kinda tense that night with the boat riding so close to the surface. Waves were tossing us like a toy, nubs puking everywhere, and we also knew we’d get to send off some letters to the honeys, so most of the guys was up and awake when they should have been sleeping, writing letters to home. When morning came, The Smag volunteered to be topside to receive the supply on-load. He said that he actually wanted to help Appendix Guy off the boat, but everyone onboard knew the truth. Anyway he’s up there and we’re waiting on the Mess Decks for him to come in carrying CO2 canisters all happy and shit, but that’s not what happened.

“See, somehow the shore guys messed up the order code that I sent and they shipped out CO2 fire extinguishers instead of the consumable CO2 for the soda fountain. Easy mistake on their part, right? I mean they probably saw ‘CO2 canister’ on the list, and didn’t even think about there being another kind of CO2 canister onboard. They’re not submariners like us. That’s a mistake anyone could make, though, you know what I’m sayin’?

“Well, as you can imagine, The Smag was unbelievably pissed off. In he comes, fire extinguisher on each shoulder, his eyes some deep shade of Hell, but he’s talking really calm. Too calm. He asks me where my Chief Petty Officer is, and I say that Chief’s in the galley and I follow The Smag in there. Boy did he blow a gasket! He jumps in Chief Matts’ face—you guys know Chief Matts, he’s one big motherfucker—and there’s The Smag, about half Chief’s height, all pissed off and holding these two extinguishers, unleashing on Chief Matts. He told Chief how I was worthless. He said how if I worked in his division he’d have had me kicked out of the Navy for Dereliction of Duty long ago. Then he whips out a requisition slip that he got off the tug and he shows Chief where it says that I ordered the wrong code number. Now see, I know that’s bullshit, you know what I’m sayin’? I been doin’ this job for ten years, and I know I didn’t make the mistake. But whatever. Anyway, he keeps rippin’ and rippin’ and rippin’ and Chief doesn’t say a thing. I kept waiting for Chief to rip him back, but instead he just listened and then he told The Smag that he was sorry, but that there was nothing he could do. He told The Smag that what’s done is done. See, basically, the way I see it, that was Chief’s way of telling The Smag to ‘eat shit and die’ and I added the finger too, from behind Chief’s back, as The Smag left. Crazy bastard.”

As before, when Willie told of a “successful” interaction with The Smag, the M.S.’s celebrated a shared round of smiles and laughs with one another and some even began flexing their muscles, emulating body builders in a pose-down. They looked at the few Engine Room personnel still on the Mess Decks with a sort of superiority, as if Willie’s story was a triumph for them. Jim looked around, avoiding the gaze of the triumphant M.S.’s and noticed that Reactor Gus hadn’t actually left, but was standing by the door rolling his eyes at the M.S.’s. “Sort of like a bullshit meter,” thought Jim. Gus’ rolling eyes were like level ten out of ten on the meter.

Willie sat back smiling contentedly, his tongue lolling in the space where his top front teeth should have been. As before, he waited for his cronies to settle down before continuing. Satisfied that all eyes had returned to him, Willie leaned forward, became even quieter than before, and told what happened next. “So anyway, The Smag is super-pissed, right? I mean he’s one angry dude. Well, the next thing you know he’s set up camp back aft on the Supply computer, just bangin’ away at the keys. He had operating manuals out, and tech guides all around, and no one knew for sure what he was up to. I do know that over the next forty-eight hours he didn’t eat a single bite and everyone says that he only left that computer to piss and to stand watch. So, there he is, looking stuff up, writing stuff, printing stuff out, paper scraps lying all around him. Then, he goes into the Torpedo Room and he starts taking really specific measurements with calipers and micrometers and stuff. Then when that was done, he was off to the Supply Shack where he started ordering connectors and tubing and all sorts of other weird stuff.

“Then, after all that, he went to Sickbay, arms full of all of these papers he’d printed out to see The Doc. I was standing there, shootin’ the shit with the Missile Techs, and saw him go in, you know what I’m sayin’? So I knew for sure he went in there. Anyway, Doc closed the door and it seemed like they were in there forever.

“See, apparently what was going on was that The Smag had found out the purity requirements for the CO2 in the fire extinguishers and for the consumable CO2 that we use in the soda machine. Then he traced the fire extinguishers’ origin using their control numbers and he checked the lot numbers and all sorts of crazy, stupid stuff, you know what I’m sayin’? Then he measured and figured out a way that he could cut off the hose of a fire extinguisher and connect an adapter that he’d made to marry it up to the soda machine’s lines. He figured out equations with gas pressure formulas and shit. He looked up the normal operating parameters for the soda machine and for fire extinguishers and on, and on, and on. Pretty much, that nut tried to think of everything

“Anyway, like I was saying, he was in there with Doc asking if he could plug in his creation. I could hear Led Zeppelin blaring, and occasionally The Doc and The Smag would bust out laughing. The Smag’s plan must have been doable because Doc seemed pretty damned impressed when they came out. He was all smiles and he told The Smag he’d have to ask the Captain’s permission, but he figured it’d work out and it was okay sanitation and health-wise as far as he was concerned.

“But here’s the thing, what do you figure the Captain’s gonna say?” Willie asked everyone, and yet no one in particular. Without giving time for an answer, he continued, louder, “I’ll tell you: first off, The Smag was loony, certifiable, you know what I’m sayin’? So considering that, you already know what the freakin’ Captain was going to say? Did he think for even a minute that the Captain was going to let him screw-up a perfectly good fire extinguisher just so that the crew could have Coke? No way! And that’s what the Captain said too, ‘No way!’ I mean he was probably impressed and all, but even he’s not allowed to destroy perfectly good damage control equipment, surplus or not, you know what I’m sayin’?

“So see all that waste of time and stuff and what’d it get him? Nothing.

“Anyway, the next day when The Smag comes through the chow line I act all sorry that his plan didn’t work out, right? And kinda like a peace treaty, I offer him a can of Pepsi from my own personal stash. The trick, though, is that I’d punched a little hole in the bottom of the can and had let all the soda run out. So you can’t tell it’s empty just by lookin’, you know what I’m sayin’? Well, anyway, his face brightens a little, like the last bit of faith he had left, you know, and his eyes get a little misty and he thanked me and reaches for the can. So I hand it to him. Oh God, it was choice! The Smag just smiled a little and handed back the empty can, but I got his ass good on that one, you know what I’m sayin’? I saw him lose all hope. I saw it die in his eyes right in front of me like I’d actually strangled it out of him with my bare hands.”

With this revelation, the M.S.’s instantaneously fell into a sort of hysterical victory celebration. In the hubbub, Willie began chuckling, shaking his head approvingly like a proud father. As the M.S.’s danced, Jim noticed, or maybe just imagined, that the two new M.S.’s were much less enthusiastic than before. They were still going through the motions, still whooping it up with the others, but their eyes were giving them away. They were as appalled as he was, or so Jim imagined.

Jim and Reactor Gus slipped out as the celebration continued and they headed back toward the Engine Room. Jim wasn’t happy to be going back to work, but he was thrilled to be leaving the Mess Decks and the M.S.’s celebration. It must have shown, too, because Gus stopped him and, smiling, he told Jim about a part of The Smag’s story that Willie had left out.

It turns out, according to Reactor Gus, that someone did not let Willie’s empty can prank go without retaliation. The other stuff, Willie’s running out of CO2 and tea, or ordering fire extinguishers instead of consumable CO2 was stupidity and, frankly, part of Willie’s lot in life, but the empty can of Pepsi was personal and mean. And the Smag, his excessive love of soda aside, would never have sought revenge himself. That just wasn’t his style.

Gus said that shortly after Willie’s prank, just before meal times, appliances in the Galley began shutting off for no reason. When Willie frantically called back to the Engine Room for a mechanic or an electrician, there would inevitably be none available. Within thirty to forty minutes, though, the gear would re-energize with seemingly no repair activity having taken place. Willie’s excuses to the officers for why their meals weren’t ready on time began to wear thin and that fact showed on Willie’s face. He insisted that the engineering crowd was out to get him, and he was certain that his gear was being sabotaged, but he had no proof and seemed to lose face with each additional accusation.

Gus also reported to Jim that, after the Empty Can Incident, someone began using Willie’s comment box on the Mess Decks to leave comments of a more direct nature than probably intended when the box was placed there. The index cards, which had been provided for convenience, were set aside and entire Monte Cristo sandwiches were inserted into the box’s slot. “That’s the kind of comment that is hard to ignore,” said Gus, allowing no hint of humor to cross to his face.

Gus’ stories made Jim feel a bit better. Jim thought that it was good to know that someone had knocked Willie down a peg, even if only for a little while. Jim’s only critique to Gus, considering the celebration on the Mess Decks, was that he wished it’d been more permanent. As the two reactor operators continued back to the Engine Room, Reactor Gus began to quiz Jim on his general submarine knowledge.

“So, where are the temperature control modules for the Bunk Rooms?” he asked. Jim knew that the modules were in The Missile Compartment, but couldn’t remember where, so Gus took him to them. Removing a cover plate, Gus asked Jim if he could remember which Bunk Room the M.S.’s slept in. Jim knew that they slept in Bunk Room #9 because they were always standing around outside talking and joking it up and never working, but Jim didn’t yet know what possible importance that information could hold.

“Good,” said Gus, “now, do you know how to operate the controls? For example, how would one increase the temperature in a bunk room to, say, ninety or so?” Again, Jim didn’t know, but Reactor Gus happily showed him the sequence of buttons to push in order to raise or lower room temperature. Jim, catching on, expressed a certainty that Willie would like nothing better than to sleep in his own sweat, so he pressed the correct buttons and turned the control knob all the way up. Gus raised an eyebrow and said, perfectly imitating Willie’s nasally voice, “Welcome to the good life, Jim, you know what I’m sayin’? Welcome to the good life!”


“All the way up?” I asked Gus in disbelief, during one of our most recent phone conversations, “That’s torture, and truth be known, unnecessary. Willie’s basically harmless, you know that.”

“Yeah, I agree,” said Gus. “But that’s okay, I caught Jim there the next day knocking it down to 40F, so it all averages out—temperature-wise anyway.”

“He took this whole thing pretty seriously didn’t he?”

“Well, yeah. But he’s heard a lot about the ol’ Smag and believes him to be a pretty good guy. Little does he know, eh?” ribbed Gus.

“I like young Jim already! Sounds like a good kid.” I replied.

“Yeah, I bet he’d like to meet you too, but don’t you think he’d be just a bit disappointed?” returned Gus.

“Does the term ‘eat shit’ many anything to you, there, Mister?”

“After eating Willie’s cooking for five years, why yes, you know it does!”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More Pics...

Above, left, are two fellows during field day, fighting over the use of the power washer.  They look awfully friendly, but the fight ended up with one man blind and the other with the loss of his hand, a la Luke Skywalker.  Well, okay, not really.

The other, above right, shows a couple of fellows on the mess decks during what we like to affectionately term "angles and dangles".  This pic shows the effects of a pretty significant down angle.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Making of a Submariner...

Hey All!  How in the heck are you?  I hope that you're well, that the week is going fabulously for you and that your future is full of nothing but good news!  :-)  I wanted to use my first post here to share a story that I wrote awhile back because I think it'll explain a lot.  It explains the name "Smag" and talks, oh, just bit about submarines.  ;-)  I've changed the names to protect the innocent, but I think it'll still work just fine even without the real-life names.  I'm going to put some pictures in it, too, to try to help with the descriptions.  If you have any questions about any of the story, just let me know.  That's why we're here at "The Fly", you know, for you guys (and, too, so that we don't get edited)!  Finally, just so you know, I'm pretty much nothing like "The Submariner" in the really-real world.  But, if you look hard enough at this story, you might find out after whom, exactly, I model him.  He is in the story.  Happy reading!

P.S.  If you right-click on the pics and go to properties, the file names are pretty descriptive (if you're into that sort of thing).

The Making of a Submariner

Petty Officer Todd Jeffries had not slept in over two days and it showed. He smelled particularly ripe but didn’t seem to notice or care. He was very busy. You could see that fact in his eyes as plainly as if he’d grabbed you and said it straight to your face. They were bloodshot from the welding dust in the air and from the lack of sleep. There was something else there too, in his eyes, some sense of what seemed to me to be incredible calm, though, I wasn’t sure if that was exactly what it was. I was instantly petrified of him. He looked like a kind enough man, maybe even gentle, but his eyes were just plain otherworldly. I got the immediate and distinct feeling that they saw right through me.

It was my first morning aboard the USS Ohio, the “first and the finest” of the Trident class submarines, and she was only three days away from getting underway for a three-month patrol. In the florescent brightness of the Engine Room, I remembered that it was still dark outside. My furniture and clothing had yet to arrive in town from my previous duty station. My wife was back in our new apartment with our three-week-old baby girl. We had a phone there, some fast food leftovers and a couple of sleeping bags, but little else. The Ohio, on the other hand, was crammed wall-to-wall with machinery and piping and people. Fast moving, intent people. She smelled, too, the Ohio, of engine oil and fresh paint and human body odor.

“Petty Officer Jeffries?” I asked, though I could clearly see his last name stenciled above the right-hand pocket of his wrinkled, greasy dungaree shirt.

“I am,” he said.

“I’m new onboard and I was told to report to you.”

“Yep, I’m the guy,” he said, “I’ve been waiting for you. Listen, I’m really busy right now. I know that you’ve got a lot on your mind, a lot of questions, but I don’t have time to answer them just yet. Until then, I’ll get someone to show you around.” He looked over my shoulder and called out to another man, “Yo! Fuck stick! You aren’t doing anything important, show our new smag around the Engine Room and get him his qualification cards.” He looked back at me, his eyes, with that same look, boring right into my brain, “Find me when you’re done,” he said. His eyes never dropped from mine as he disappeared down a ladder into God-knows-where.

By the time that I met Petty Officer Jeffries that morning, I’d been training to be a nuclear reactor plant operator and Engineering Laboratory Technician (E.L.T.) for nearly two years. E.L.T.’s are affectionately known as “smags” onboard submarines, though the origin of the word (and its connotation) is widely disputed. Simple-Minded Ass Grabber is the acronymous origin believed by most non-smag sailors. I don’t subscribe to that version, however. I think that the word speaks for itself. Smag. To some it may sound like the gooey product of a sneeze, but to me it has come to sound like the name of an amazingly capable super hero. Smag Boy to the rescue!

In general terms, my job as an E.L.T., or smag, was to maintain the chemistry of the water in the Ohio’s reactor and steam plants, as well as to administer all radiological controls aboard the ship. Other than an eight-week boot camp, my first full year in the Navy was spent at the Naval Nuclear Training Center in Orlando, Florida. While there, I was taught nuclear physics, mechanical and Naval engineering, chemistry, advanced mathematics, the works. The schedule was forty hours a week of instruction with twenty to thirty hours a week of homework and study. Because the material was classified, “homework” was done in a supervised setting in our classroom, on base, after school hours--decidedly not at home.

Following my time in Orlando, I was sent to the Nuclear Prototype Training Unit in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Training there is for six months. While there, I learned to operate an actual nuclear power plant under the instruction of veteran submariners who were stationed there on shore duty. The schedule in Idaho was not any more desirable than in Orlando, averaging fourteen hours a day, six to seven days a week. Finally after becoming “nuclear qualified,” I was lucky enough to be selected into the E.L.T. program (an additional three months at the prototype).

Though all of this training left me with an incredible amount of knowledge about nuclear power theory and reactor plant operation, it taught me very little about actual life aboard submarines. Consequently, I felt somewhat ill-prepared on that morning when I first met Petty Officer Jeffries. It was quite unnerving being aboard an actual submarine, real-life “Secret Security Clearance” badge clipped to my too clean, too pressed dungaree shirt, feeling like I was in a movie. But I wasn’t. It was very real.


The man given the task of showing me the Engine Room introduced himself as Kevin Slater. He seemed much less serious than Petty Officer Jeffries. He chain-smoked Generic 100's, was perpetually smiling, and his friendly, outgoing personality would normally have immediately put me at ease. His eyes, though, had that same look. Like Petty Officer Jeffries, it was almost as if he could see through me. As we walked around the Engine Room, he quizzed me. “What’s this?” he asked over and over, pointing to various pieces of equipment and machinery. In most instances I could answer him with some glimmer of competence. I knew the function of many pumps and valves, and usually, with a little prompting from Kevin, I was able to name many of their specifics. There was a lot that I didn’t know as the Ohio’s reactor plant and Engine Room are over twice as big as the prototype unit that I trained on, but I was starting to feel a little better, a bit more comfortable, because I certainly knew more that I imagined I would. We stopped at a locker labeled “Smag Stuff” and Kevin shuffled around inside a bit, eventually producing several booklets that, stacked together, looked as thick as a phone book. My qualification cards and support documentation.

Qual cards are booklets, which list, item after item, certain areas of knowledge that must be obtained before a person can stand watch on a particular watch station. For example, one item on any given card might be, “Discuss the location, proper use and maintenance of all Damage Control Equipment on your watch station.” To signify that the knowledge has been obtained, each item on the list has a signature block that must be signed and dated by a qualified watchstander. That watchstander will only sign the block after conducting, and being fully satisfied with, an informal interview with the person wishing to qualify the watch station. After all of the informal signatures have been earned, the senior Engineering Department Officer performs a comprehensive formal interview and once he is satisfied, he signs the final signature block which authorizes the technician to stand watch in the space that the particular card covers.

I took a quick count and there were six qual cards, a dozen or more pages of signatures apiece, each with several chapters of support documentation. The first one was titled “Engine Room Forward” which is the most junior E.L.T. watch station in the Engine Room. The last one was “Engine Room Supervisor.” On that morning, I couldn’t even begin to imagine standing watch in Engine Room Forward or anywhere in the Engine Room by myself, much less supervising the whole thing. “Well,” Kevin said, “I’ve got to get back to work, Todd should be back up in the lab by now. Do you remember where it is?”

By that time in my Naval career I had already developed an immense amount of respect for submariners. All of the ones that I’d met in Nuclear Power School and at prototype were brutally honest and straight talking. I never had to guess where I stood with a submariner, it was always quite obvious. We had been taught from the very first day of Nuclear Power School that honesty and integrity were of paramount importance in our line of work. “If you ever fuck up, if you blow it, you must admit it and admit it quickly. It may not keep you out of trouble, but you’ll be in a lot less trouble than if you lie.” Those were roughly the first words of every submarine qualified instructor that I ever had.

I told Kevin that I knew where the lab was, but in truth I didn’t. I had no idea how to get back there. I was standing on a steel deck with color-coded piping and gray machinery within arm’s reach in every direction. It all looked exactly the same to me. Why had I lied? I had wanted to impress Kevin, I guess, to show him that I knew my stuff. The fact is that I didn’t have a clue where on the boat I was. We’d been through the tiniest of crawl spaces, over machinery, under machinery, up and down ladders and through watertight doors. There were pipes and people running everywhere. As I stood there trying to get my bearings, I could have kicked myself. Why hadn’t I just asked him for help back to the lab? I noticed that most of the sailors that hurriedly squeezed by me had that same now-familiar look in their eyes. They were all cordial, they all made a point of quickly introducing themselves and welcoming me aboard, and yet most every one of them was sizing me up with those looks. It was subtle, but I was starting to see that that was what they were doing. And there I stood, lost, because of my own pride. I asked a man how to get to the lab and was thankful that he didn’t make fun of me as he took me there. I should have known that he was far too busy to be so childish.


Before I arrived onboard the Ohio that morning, I knew many facts about her. I knew that she was nearly two football fields long. I knew that she could carry 24 Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles or I.C.B.M.’s. I knew that her crew consisted of about 150 men. I didn’t know, though, any of the nuances. How was I to conduct myself? How was I to know where to go and when? Would I make any friends? The first thing that I was learning, though, was that I should stand tall and be honest, “shoot straight.” If they were all going to size me up, I was going to let them know that I could take it and that when I said something, from that point on at least, that they could bank on it.

“Lunchtime,” said Petty Officer Jeffries, later that day, “What are we having?” I had no idea. “Look at the Plan of the Day, the P.O.D.” he said. “It’s hanging there on the bulkhead--the wall, SmagBoy1, the wall.” I had seen many pieces of legal-sized paper identical to the one that he was referring to hanging all throughout the Engine Room. As I looked at it closely, I found it to be a schedule of the day’s events for the entire crew. It started with an “Inspirational Quote of the Day” (today’s was, “If only the strong survive then weakness is not an option.”) and went on to list everything from divisional training and muster times to meal times. Each meal had the main course listed beside it in parenthesis. I looked at the “lunch” entry and saw that we were having “delectable veal parmesan and vegetable-sautéed Italian sausages.” I reported that fact to Petty Officer Jeffries. “Elephant scabs and puss rockets,” he mused. “I think it’s a puss rocket kind of day, don’t you?”

Just three days after I reported aboard, we were underway. As the tugboats released us into the channel, the Ohio began slowly rocking back and forth. We were traveling on the surface in the Straight of Juan de Fuca, an area known affectionately to the crew as “Juan de Puke-a,” on our way to the dive point. As we progressed, and the rocking became more and more violent, I couldn’t help but marvel at how something like the Ohio, nearly 600 feet long, could be tossed so effortlessly by the sea. Petty Officer Jeffries was explaining to me that modern submarines aren’t shaped to be on the surface. Their round hulls make them very susceptible to rocking even in only slightly choppy seas. He suggested that I tie a trash bag around my belt and put some paper towels inside the bag in case I needed to throw up. I did this, but what I needed, desperately, was for the boat to quit rocking.

Lunch that day was a moot point for me, but I went to the Mess Decks with Petty Officer Jeffries anyway. He had actually gotten several hours of sleep the night before, so he was full of energy. “Here’s the deal,” he said, “Right now you’re a N.U.B., a Non-Useful Body. Understand? I want you to get qualified to stand watch in Engine Room Forward in two days. That way you will be contributing to the team. You will think that’s impossible, but there will be no excuses. Don’t let me catch you sleeping in your rack until you’re qualified. Period. Wanna pickle?” He was eating while simultaneously keeping his food from sliding off of the table. His skill and appetite under such conditions was admirable.

“No thank you,” I said. “Petty Officer Jeffries, I was wondering, why does everyone size me up? Why does everyone look at me the way they do?”

“SmagBoy1, I don’t know what you mean by how people ‘look at you,’ but I do know this: my life is in your hands when I’m asleep and you’re on watch. Understand? Once you’re qualified to stand watch, if you fuck up, we could all die. So, if that’s what you’re seeing, then why do you think people ‘size you up’? It’s because they’re determining if you’re going to kill them or not while they’re in the rack. They’re just trying to figure out if they can trust you, if it’s safe for them go to sleep, you know?”


“And, SmagBoy1, one other thing. If you call me ‘Petty Officer’ one more time, I’m going to cut off your nuts. It’s Todd. Got it?” With that, he rose to leave, and, slapping my shoulder firmly, he said something like, “imagine tuna fish milk shakes,” in a nearly successful attempt to unhinge my stomach.

Petty Officer Jeffries’ departure signaled that lunch was over, but I was exhausted. I couldn’t believe that he wanted me to get qualified in just two days. He was right, it did seem impossible. The qualification card for Engine Room Forward that Kevin had given me had about 120 spaces for signatures. I opened it and the first item that caught my eye, Number 17, read, “Recite and explain the procedures for diving the ship in Engine Room Forward.” In order to demonstrate those procedures, or any in the qual card, I would have to read, take notes on and memorize the Ship’s Operating Manuals. These manuals outlined exactly how each and every evolution onboard was to be accomplished. These procedures existed for things as important and detailed as diving and surfacing the ship to ones as mundane and trivial as flushing the toilets. In addition to this memorization and studying, I was going to need to spend a great deal of time in the Engine Room with qualified watchstanders, learning as much from them as I could. I walked back to Engine Room Forward and asked Kevin, who was on watch at the time, if I could station myself as his Under Instruction Watch or U.I. He was willing, so I took the watch, ready to learn but growing increasingly nauseous. The rocking seemed to be worsening. I braced myself on some nearby piping and tried not to think about the rocking, but the water sloshing in bilges, just inches below the deck plates, made the attempt impossible. Kevin warned me that we were about to dive and that I should review my procedures. Even though he had quizzed me on the requirements for diving the boat about a hundred times since we’d met, I looked in the manual to review each one, just to make sure.

Soon after, the loud speakers blared, “Dive! Dive!” followed by two loud wails, like the
“a-ooga” that I’d heard so many times in movies. “Dive! Dive!” said the voice over the speakers again. And then silence. I looked for the huge rush of people, the extreme excitement that I’d seen in the movies so many times. It didn’t come. It never came. Instead, the boat very gently began to quit rocking. It didn’t take on a steep downward angle. There were no flashing lights or sirens, no steam bellowing into the spaces. Just a noticeable, graceful steadying. Kevin seemed unfazed. The evolution, to him, was as natural and routine as driving a car.

Movies and T.V. had lead me to believe that diving a submarine was going to be an action-packed event, a thrilling, bumpy, creaky ride into the depths unknown. Nothing was further from the truth. To the contrary, as I began to learn, diving a submarine should always be slow and controlled and above all else, it should be quiet. The goal of a submarine is to hide, not draw attention to itself. If the crew clanked around for minutes on end every time the ship dived, the whole purpose of diving would be defeated.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” prompted Kevin. Other than a few simple items like donning a set of sound powered phones to be in contact with Maneuvering (the control center of the Engine Room) and making sure that no seawater was flooding into my space, I had little to do. Kevin quizzed me on how I expected certain mechanical parameters to change with the dive. “As the seawater injection temperature gets cooler the deeper we go, how will the temperature of your machinery change? Will you have to throttle down on the cooling flow to your pumps?” he asked. My reading over the previous few days paid off, because I had a pretty good idea of what should happen and the few adjustments that I would need to make. Toward the end of the watch and after hours of discussion and taking many sets of logs under his watchful gaze, Kevin signed off a few of the spaces on my qual card. He said that he was impressed with my performance, but he warned me not to let up. “Until you’re qualified to stand watch,” he said, his phrasing nearly identical to Petty Officer Jeffries’, “You’re viewed as a ‘nothing’ by many people onboard. The trick is to not give them the satisfaction. Just keep working hard, get qualified, and they won’t be able to say a thing to you. I know you can do it.”

My stomach had calmed considerably with the steadying of the boat. Once we were relieved from the watch, I went to the mess decks with Kevin and tried to eat dinner. It was going to be a long two days if I was actually going to get qualified and I reasoned that I was going to need my strength.

I qualified Engine Room Forward on the fourth day. This was late by Todd’s mandate, but I got no flack about it from him. After having not slept for nearly a day and a half, and even then only going down for about four hours before returning to the Engine Room completely exhausted, I expected no flack. It was his job to push me, to get me qualified, but he didn’t want to break me. He was just after good, efficient results, and, after he and the senior Engineering Department Officer complimented me on the speed of my qualification, I began to realize that he never expected me to get qualified in just two days anyway.

After the second week of patrol, I was well on my way to completing the qual card for my second watch station, Engine Room Lower Level, and I was very tired. I was averaging only about four hours of sleep in every twenty-four. My body was not yet used to that schedule. But even when I did sleep, I felt guilty, as if I was cheating my shipmates by not working on more quals or helping more with maintenance. I had noticed that Todd only slept about once every other day and that Kevin, too, seemed to be perpetually awake. The two of them were always working or on watch, always doing something that needed to be done. Really, that was the case with most everyone on board. I had no idea how they did it, how they kept going.

Along with standing watch and qualifying, each day consisted of several drills. The timing of each drill was random and it was a sure bet that if you’d just gone to sleep a drill would be initiated that would require your immediate response. Virtually every drill aboard a submarine requires every member of the crew to perform some specific duty. That duty varies on whether you are part of the “off-going” or “on-coming” watch team. Drill duty for each circumstance was another part of each watch station’s qual card and knowing your drill responsibility was just as important as knowing how to stand the watch. In the previous two weeks, I had seen fires, flooding, air leaks, reactor casualties and radioactive spills, to name a few. They were all drills, of course, but serious business just the same. All were treated as the real thing. Sometimes, during these drills, I would be patching a hole in a ruptured seawater pipe. Sometimes I was required to don fire-fighting gear and fight a fire. Many times, after the “casualty” was under control, the senior personnel would hold impromptu training sessions at the scene on exactly what actions had been taken and why. Though I had yet to be involved in a real casualty, all of the drilling and training had given me a sense of confidence and preparedness for the real thing were it to occur. Also, since I was standing watch six hours in every 18, participating in drills, performing maintenance and qualifying further watch stations, I started to feel more and more like I was contributing something to the boat’s community. I knew that I still had a long way to go, though, and a lot more yet to learn.

During the next week, I was on watch in Engine Room Forward when a voice on the loud speaker announced that the electrical operator was about to perform a routine electrical plant shift. In this case, the shift simply involved energizing a large electrical generator and securing another. I had already been on watch for a few of these shifts. There were two new electricians onboard who were trying to get qualified to stand their various electrical watch stations and demonstrating a proficiency in shifting the electric plant was a prerequisite for their qualifying to stand those watches.

Moments after the announcement, I heard a huge explosion and a wall of fire entered my watch station from the level above. Holy Fuck! I knew that one of the electrical generators had just been seriously damaged because all of the equipment on my watch station that was powered by that generator had just turned off. The sound of machines, which had been running since my first day aboard, winding down to a stop was quite unsettling. I grabbed the phone to call away a fire, but I could tell from the yelling coming from the earpiece that someone else was already passing that information along. I donned an emergency air-breathing mask and quickly began to pull out the fire hose on my watch station. Emergency air masks had always been uncomfortable, burdensome and annoying during drills. They are made of a heavy black rubber, much like a SCUBA diving mask, but they are much larger and thicker, encompassing your whole face and, since you’re not swimming under water when wearing them, they’re much hotter. Within seconds, there were scores of people in the Engine Room each doing exactly what he was assigned, exactly what we had practiced. I passed two fire extinguishers and my watch station’s fire hose up the ladder to the level where the generator had caught fire. Next, I began to restore all of the vital equipment in my space that had lost power. When restarting this equipment, though, I had to be careful to use only the machines that were not powered by the damaged generator. Knowing the power source of every piece of equipment on a watch station is an item on every qual card. When I was qualifying Engine Room Forward, this item had given me a great deal of problems because there were so many pieces of equipment to memorize. I had privately scoffed at the importance of the item, but now I was infinitely thankful that I had been forced to learn it. After restoring my equipment, I ended up fighting what remained of the fire from beneath with hand-held extinguishers. Perhaps five minutes after it had started, the fire was out and the Engine Room machinery had been stabilized. But that was only the beginning.

When a large fire starts onboard a submarine, the smoky air must be evacuated from the affected compartment in order to make the environment breathable again. This process may take hours because it requires taking the boat near the surface and sucking in fresh air through the mast while expelling the bad air. Sometimes, though, for strategic reasons, it is not prudent to take the boat near the surface and the process may have to wait. Fortunately, with this fire, we were able to come near the surface and evacuate the bad air in less than an hour. I was trembling with pride and exhaustion by the time that the air had been announced clean and I was able to remove my mask.

After I was relieved from watch, I couldn’t wait to go to the Mess Decks and talk about the fire. I had been there! I had helped fight it and we’d won! I now had a sea story to tell. Interestingly, though, most of the people on the Decks weren’t even talking about the generator fire. That conversation had apparently already passed and sea stories were now being told about real fires. As it turned out, according to many of the senior technicians on the mess decks that day, the generator fire was nothing when compared to the many that had been fought in the past on other boats or during other patrols of the Ohio.

Within about two patrols (about one year), though, I found that the generator fire, too, became a “helluva fire” and that it “could’ve killed us all.”

That may make the generator fire seem like a fish story, the kind that grows with every telling. Actually, though, that would be a false conclusion. The reason that the sailors on the Decks that day dismissed the fire as “nothing” was that it had really been quite something. At that time it was still too close and too real for them to think about and so reflecting back on casualties past, ones where the outcomes had already been decided, provided comfort and reassurance that everything was fine and that they, and not fate or chance, were still in charge. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the first time that I had seen these hard, tireless men vulnerable.

During the sixth week of the patrol, I attended my first halfway night. Halfway night celebrates exactly what it sounds like, the patrol’s half way mark, and it is marked with a huge party. For one evening, drills and work are suspended and the Mess Decks are transformed into a carnival. There are Jell-O eating contests where the contestants suck Jell-O through straws in hopes of winning a “free day of liberty” pass upon return to port. There are arm wrestling contests. There are raffles called “Pie in the Eye” in which pies are raffled and the highest bidders can call upon any man, up to and including the Captain (depending on the Captain), to sit at the front of the Mess Decks and have the pie slammed into his face. But, if the pie contains a cherry, and two random pies of the eight sold that night do, then the victim is given a free pie with which to retaliate. Skits are performed. Songs are sung. Invariably men dress in drag and parade around the Mess Decks to the raucous approval of the crew. During this time, the drab blue coveralls and sneakers that are the constant underway attire of the crew are replaced with bright, festive civilian clothing (Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops are very popular for this occasion). For a few hours, right in the middle of a tiring, lonely-for-family hell, it becomes possible to imagine that you are actually somewhere else.

A patrol on a submarine, save for the occasional casualty or celebration, is a long, tiring existence. The days turn into weeks, broken up only by between-watch trips to the Mess Decks and infrequent restless sleep. I continued to qualify watch stations as my experience and knowledge of the boat and Engine Room increased. I also began to notice that, though my body was tired, I no longer felt exhausted. I began to find that work took on a spiritual importance for me as I found that each hour of work represented another hour closer to home. Contrary to popular belief, most submariners do not revel in their time at sea. They dream of home the entire time that they are underway and yet, once home, they do feel a dull ache, a longing to feel as if they were on patrol. This longing is not as romantic as the call of the sea or even a call to defend one’s country. It is motivated by a desire to be in a place where no one lies. Where a person is exactly as he seems. Where everyone, by tradition and necessity, shoulders his share of the load and takes complete responsibility for his own actions.

Eleven weeks and two days after leaving, we were about to pull into port. We had surfaced in preparation for the transit in and I was assigned to the topside crew for the evolution. My specific duty was to perform a survey to ensure that there was no radioactive contamination of the hull. The seas were calm, and as the hatch opened I saw the sun for the first time in months. I smelled the fresh air. Seagulls flew overhead and squawked and the ocean was a deep purple and it reflected the beautiful Olympic Mountains, their peaks adorned with fresh snow that was so white that I had to look away. The boat was still wet and so very shiny and I paused there for a moment, alone, consumed by the beauty.

The reunion with my family was bittersweet. My wife and daughter were more beautiful than I dared remember, but my daughter didn’t know me at all. She wailed when I held her and, after only a short hug and a kiss on her forehead, I felt obliged to hand her back to my wife. I had duty that night, which meant that I had to stay overnight on the boat to stand watch. My wife had not expected this, and, after having waited for me to return for so long, having arranged and taken care of our apartment and daughter completely by herself, this one extra night seemed like a personal insult to her. But someone had to take care of the boat and this time I was among the group that was assigned to do so.

After the reactor was shut down, I went to the Mess Decks. I was the only smag aboard, a fact that made me nervous and yet proud. Had Todd not trusted my ability, he or Kevin would have had to stay as well. As I cut noisily into a puss rocket, splattering grease onto my dingy dungaree shirt, a very clean, scared looking sailor nervously approached me and said, ”Petty Officer SmagBoy1, I’m the new E.L.T. and I was told to report to you.” I looked up, smiled, and fancied that I could see right through him.