(What did I get Myself Into?)
There is a point in every young sailor's career when they arrive at their first ship. As the old saying goes: "First impressions are the most important". That being said, I have heard literally thousands of people looking at a submarine pier side and say things like "Wow, it looks like a shark" or "That is pure stealth". This was NOT the impression I was granted when arriving at the USS Darter (SS-576).
First let me explain that I was granted orders to this vessel out of Sonar 'C' school. The instructors (all hardcore lifers) told me what a great gift I had been given by the great Submarine God. I left Colorado Springs on December 31st 1981 for the trip to my boat. Doing as I was directed from some higher authority I never met, I was in dress blues, the appropriate and recognized travel attire for a young petty officer. I was headed for Subic Bay, Philippines. Oh how I wish the Internet was available then! After a gruesome 19-hour flight on a 747 from Oakland International Airport with my running mate Shawn Rowe (another story there), we arrived at Clark Air force Base in the Philippines. We went into the terminal, collected our fully loaded sea-bags and mustered in line to be checked by customs (2 air force personnel who seemed totally put upon having to do customs). After several military people had passed up the line, one of the airman announces that active duty military needed to form to the left. We shifted over and waited some more. As we finally arrived at the desk, the tired looking sergeant, says "orders" I handed him my packet, he eyeballs them, gives me a nasty look and stamps my orders for port arrival. "Next!". OK, now what? So I asked "Now what do I do?" he gestured off to his right and said, "There's a bus down to Subic." Being the good sailor I was, I moved to the left and waited for Shawn. We spent about twenty minutes wandering around trying to locate the bus. Finally we approached a counter with another Sergeant and asked the question "Where do we catch the bus to Subic?" He pointed us in the direction we needed to go and grunted something unintelligible. We picked up our sea bags and headed for the door indicated. There was no bus. So we continued in the direction indicated and eventually ended up at the main gate. Please remember, at this point that we are both in dress blues, the temperature is just shy of melting pure titanium and the humidity level is that of a swimming pool. We asked the gate guard for directions to the bus. He gave us directions that continued out into town. When we finally arrived at the bus station, we were 30 pounds lighter each and exhausted. We had walked about 3 miles fully loaded. We changed some 'Cano' (American Green Backs) money to pesos and purchased our bus tickets to Subic and waited patiently while consuming no less than 4 sodas each in less than 2 minutes.
The bus finally arrived and the terminal guy tells us in that funny little accent that this is our bus. Much trepidation was bestowed upon me. This bus was from around 1940, bright red with dents an scrapes down the sides, all the tires were bald and the majority of the riders were chickens. Wholly, only 3 out 25 or 30 windows actually operated and Shawn and I were introduced to the term "Rabbit Bus Line". If you are ever given the opportunity to ride one of these, cut your hand off in trade and walk to your destination. After a grueling sweat soaked chicken feathered ride of about 3 hours we arrived in Subic. We grabbed our gear and asked how to get to the base. We were directed to a bright yellow contraption with a myriad of horses on the hood, dingle balls around the entire inside, Christmas lights strategically strewn over the beast and called a "Jeep Knee". Cool! NEAT! Ah Crap. We paid our 60 centavos (had the driver pick it out, I didn't know what a centavo was), picked my seat on the bench and away we went for a fifteen-minute ride to the front of the gate. Finally! Americans! We grabbed our gear and rushed to the gate at which point we were met by one of the largest men I had ever laid eyes on. He was one of the Marines on duty. He asked for our orders, checked them over and told us to wait inside. We entered the building and discovered the greatest thing ever created by man .Air Conditioning!!!!. I had not realized that my body temperature had risen just under that of the exhaust of an F-14 with it's after burner cooking. After about twenty minutes our escort arrived.
Let it be said that my impressions of the Navy up to this point had involved boot camp and schools. The standard issue 4.0 sailor, clean neat uniform, well groomed Crackerjack material. There stood before us a real life dwarf. Not a midget. I am talking about a no sh*t, straight from a fantasy novel, dwarf. He was clad in a pair of the dirtiest dungarees I had ever seen. He had a full beard, a white hat (more yellow than anything) cocked to one side, a ring of keys hanging off his belt loop and a cigarette hanging out the right side of his mouth. All he needed was the horn hat and a large hammer.
"You the two nubs for the Darter?"
Nub? Nub? He must have meant sub.
"Yes we are. Are we glad to see you."
He rolled his eyes, looked us up and down, rolled his eyes again and waved us to follow him.
"Looks like two nerds that couldn't tell their ass from a hole. Why weren't you on the bus?"
Shawn and I stopped in our tracks.
"We were on the bus," I protested.
"Look, first, my name is Mike Pennel. I'm one of the Sonarman on duty today. I was here when the bus arrived and you two weren't on it. You f**cking Nubs are in deep already."
Shawn explained that we were in fact on the bus. This is the point where Mike busted loose with a huge laugh.
"You rode a Rabbit?!! Oh my Gawd! Why didn't you take the Air Force bus right in front of the terminal?"
A sick feeling fell over me. A real bus? No it couldn't be.
"Wait 'til the guys on the boat hear this. You two jackasses will never live this down. You two are a couple of real Nubs."
Okay. We probably deserved that.
"Hey Mike, what in hell is a Nub? You keep calling us that."
At this point we were introduced to what a fleet, diesel boat sailor perceived and my future: Part I (Parts II and on well that's a whole different story).
"Non Useful Body. Get used to it. You are just like me. A non-qual dink puke lower than whale sh*t, air-breathin' food-eatin' rack-stealin' sanitary-fillin' completely useless body (please note that all of that is said in one breath with no punctuation). Come on, get in the van."
We followed in shocked silence. Mike began a description of the boat and crew, none of it very pleasant, as we drove down to the boat. He was actually a pretty neat guy. He let us know the boat was in overhaul, gave us quick brief on how quals would work (another story), and let us know the crew was comprised of all hardcore boat sailors, most of which had not seen the U.S. in several years.
Now the impression.
We arrived outside the gate to the piers, unloaded our bags and followed Mike through the gate.
"She don't look like much right now, lot of stuff ripped out," He informed us.
As we rounded the corner of the last building and headed towards the dry-dock pier, I noticed a huge winged thing with a black tube in it. Mike pointed and said, "There she is."
Again I stopped with my chin on my chest. No shark look. No stealthy hunter. What I was looking at was best described as a person hit by a train that was undergoing a major operation with every manner of life support attached.
"THAT is our boat?!!"
"Yep. Come on, I'll help you get checked in."
We followed, feet dragging staring in disbelief at this monster under extreme surgery. From bow to stern, the pressure hull was stripped. There were no less than three holes cut into the boat that a Mac truck would have no problem driving into. Hoses ran across from the dry-dock at approximately 3 foot intervals down the entire length of the boat, ranging from very small to very large. There were what appeared to be sheds in three different places. There were pieces of metal everywhere inside the dry-dock basin. Very much like a giant sea monster had beached itself and swallowed a giant Alka-seltzer. It's innards had exploded into the dry-dock. This was almost exactly like Star Wars when Princess Leia saw the Millenium Falcon. Remember the question she asked Han Solo? "You came in that? You are braver than I thought." My very first thought was: "There is no way on God's Green Earth that this could possibly be MY boat. This was an erector set gone horribly bad."
By the time we got to the barge I was sick to my stomach. How could my instructors have done this to me? I was a good student. I even bought them beer! We partied together. They told me things about how to get along as a non-qual. 'Boat secrets'. This was just not right. First, an absolutely horrible bus ride on a condemned rattrap in searing heat, and now this.
NOT FAIR!!!! WHY ME GOD?!!
First impressions go a very long way. In this case, it lasted long enough to meet the finest group of men I have ever worked with. These were the men who took this contraption to sea. They loved her and respected her. Took life on the edge. That was when I realized that a 'boat' is a piece of metal with a bunch of equipment inside. Yes, they tend to have a personality, but the crew, the men who drive her, fight her, help her when she needs it, love her and most of all respect her, that is what gives her life. The name she earns is through the men and their accomplishments. I realized then and there that I had in fact joined the "Elite of the Fleet".
At nineteen, broke as hell and at loose ends, that was just about as good as it got.