remember your first dive?
i was a nuke machinist mate, and had gone to engineering lab tech school after qualifying at prototype. for the uninitiated, what that means is i had to prove to the navy i could learn and operate a nuclear power plant, before they would let me loose on the fleet, with one of their multi-gazillion dollar vessels. i suppose they figured that if the trainees that cycled through prototype really really messed things up, it was way the hell out in the idaho desert, and nobody would notice when they brought in the big plows, and covered the area with 20 feet of fill. so i spent 2 years in the navy, without ever stepping onboard a naval vessel as a crew member, unless you count the 6 days i spent on the Sperry between prototype and the boat.
2 years in the naval nuclear power pipeline, learning everything from what kind of fibers make the best packing glands for high pressure steam valves, to what the crystalline phase transformation from face centered cubic to body center cubic in stainless steel meant, and why i cared. i was subjected to scrutiny, harassment, pressure, and whatever other types of torture you can do without physically touching a human. it was all part of the program. if you can't take the pressure of studying for a test, just how much pressure will you take when the valve bonnet on that high pressure air valve carries away right next to your head. nothing dramatic, nothing physical, other than the grinding hours of studying and testing and studying and qualifying and studying and.... i'm sure the navy SEALs would all cry crocodile tears "oh boohoo, did widdle nookie pooh have to study in a clean well lit carrel, with fresh coffee?" nah, it was just the constant psychological pressure to perform, constant for two years. will he make it? i was surprised at just how many didn't, that couldn't take the never ending demands for perfection.
so i'd been tested by the navy. nothing overt, nothing you could put your finger on, but by the time a nuke enlisted made it to a submarine, he'd already shown the navy he had a much better than even chance of handling the pressures of living and working onboard a nuclear submarine. we were smart, well trained, and as full of ourselves as any young men in the military can be, by the time we were sent out of the fold into the wild world of "the fleet".
you have to actually go into a submarine, and look around to get the impact of what a maze of gear it is. words are a poor substitute for experience. i met my boat in alameda, as she was offloading torpedoes prior to returning to her home port at mare island. i'd been sitting at squadron for a couple of weeks, typing security clearance paperwork for another boat in the detachment. i might have been a nuke, but i was also a warm body that knew a little about typing, and that's all that counted to the master chief. so i typed and learned more about the guys on that boat than their mothers knew. or what they wanted their mothers to know.
walking onboard my boat for the first time filled me with the most amazing sense of wonder. well, wondering how the hell i'm going to learn all these pipes and valves and machines, actually. the boat had a stink that can't be described other than using brownie's "fart in an oilcan", one of his favorite phrases.
i got the chance to get some time on the boat before getting underway for real. we did an evolution requiring drydocking the boat, and the very first day in drydock, i watched a shipyard worker slip on the seaslime along the hull as he was setting up the scaffolding. watched him twist and claw at the hull as he fell the 40 or so feet into the basin, crumbling like a rag doll on the piled gear staged on the dock floor. i was the topside phonetalker, and believe me when i say i did not approach the lifelines any closer than necessary.
3 1/2 weeks after reporting on board, the seawolf set sail for points unknown. when leaving from the san francisco bay area, specifically mare island, you sail down the mare island channel, into san pablo bay, under the richmond-san rafael bridge, and to alameda for weapons. we were not allowed to load at mare island. don't know why, didn't care. it meant a break before actually heading out to sea. once the weapon loadout was done, it was past alcatraz island, under the golden gate bridge, along the marin headlands, through the potato patch, past the farallon islands to the 100 fathom curve. during the transit, i heard "RIG SHIP FOR DIVE".
the crew was checking the systems were lined up for dive, and then an officer walked through the compartment reperforming the checks. it was a ritualistic dance, coordinated to insure all the systems and components the boat needed to get back to the surface were working, and would work if needed. it also checked to see if the systems were lined up to allow the boat to dive. ballast tank valves were cycled, backup valves run in and out, so much to do and check i was afraid someone would miss a step. i knew i'd never learn all that stuff, and marveled at the ease the watchstanders had in finding and checking everything off. even if they had the compartment bill in hand, it still amazed me. oh please, oh please, don't mess anything up. pleeeeeeze. AOOOGGGAAA AOOOOGA DIVE DIVE
nothing happens. well, that's not true. you hear what sounds like air escaping the ballast tanks (not that you know what the sound is, you just hear it). and nothing. then, the deck starts to tilt forward a little bit, and the constant side to side rocking since leaving the golden gate smooths out. how the hell can that guy be so nonchalant? and the deck tilts a little more. tinkling sounds of wrenches shifting in their drawer. the crash of the watch's coffee cup hitting the deck, because he forgot to put it in the cup holder. a leveling out. the skipper comes on the speakers, giving us his obligatory pep talk about the upcoming mission, and how we are going to be blah blah blah. ever see the Peanut's television shows? where charlie brown and gang can all converse between themselves and the audience understands, but when an adult speaks, it's whawhawhawhawha, incomprehensible to the audience? that's the ships PA system for a while, until you get so used to hearing announcements that you no longer look to see if someone else heard it, so you can ask WTF was just said. it didn't matter if the skipper had been standing right next to me though. i wouldn't have heard him. i was listening for the sounds of rushing water so intently i could hear the blood rushing around inside my body.
after a while, i noticed that that i was the only one staring down into the bilge area. well, me and the other new guy. the salts were all looking in the overhead for leaks. that didn't make any sense to me. hell, everyone knew that if you had a leak, you would see it in the bilges. not quite. submarine hulls are curved, and if we had a bad leak, the first place you would probably see it would be in the overhead, not the bilge. once i learned that, it was easy to see if a new guy had ever been to sea on a submarine. if he looked into the bilges on the dive, he was a newbie, regardless of his rank or rate.
as we leveled off, the lack of motion struck me. here we'd been on the surface rocking and rolling, and yet, after diving the boat, the deck was as steady as a sidewalk. ok, a sidewalk in earthquake land, but still, markedly different than on the surface. and quiet. until the sound of the boat cutting through the water while surfaced is gone, you don't notice just how noisy the waves and wake were. once you dove the boat, your universe was defined by a pipe stuffed with rotating machinery and pipes, valves and switchboards, motors and wiring. nothing was really noisy. the deck vibrated with a hum in sync with the gear next to it. i felt light, light enough to float if i didn't grab something to hold on to. my blood was effervescent, the skin tingling as i tried to keep the hair on my arms from standing so straight it would pull itself out of the roots. i was hyperventillating. nothing dramatic, no gasping for air bent over trying to keep from passing out hyperventillating. i was breathing fast from elation, not fear. i was here! i was on a united states by god damned friggin' submarine, and i was UNDERWATER and UNDERWAY.
this wasn't just the culmination of two years of navy schools. this was the realization of a dream i'd had since i was a young teenager. when i was asked what academic series i wanted to take going into high school, i told the councilor "whatever i need to do to be a nuclear submariner". this was it! i was really really on a submarine. i had done it. man, i remember that day like it was yesterday. i remember the stark terror and pure elation. i remember the wonderment of actually punching holes in the ocean from inside that boat. i remember the way all the skin on my body tightened and tingled, how the noise went from a standard engineroom to quiet, and back to a standard engineroom, as if someone had taken my ears' volume control knob and cycled it between 10 and 1 and back to 10. i remember the pride i felt at finally achieving this goal i'd been striving towards for at least 7 years. for a 20 year old, that was over a third of my life i'd been working for and looking forward to this day.
i never lost the thrill of the dive. after the first one, i lost the fear, but never the thrill. there was nothing mundane about diving a submarine below the surface of the ocean.