A Journey of Yesterdays

by Dave Eberhart

 
The old man leaned back in his chair and stared at the wall looking at, but not really seeing, the photos of the boats that had been his home in his youth. Unfamiliar emotions raged through his mind. He’d just watched his son pack a marine corps regulation 70 lb studio apartment suite (God only knows why they call it a pack) into the back of his car and head for the base. Four in the morning - the military always swings into action while the rest of the world slumbers on in peaceful dreams - times have not changed.

The hardest thing he’d ever done - watching his son go off to war. Be proud. Don’t show fear - only his wife is allowed to shed tears. Proud - obviously, worried - absolutely. It is one thing to be young, dumb and bullet proof when you are young, but quite another when it’s your son’s turn. What an amazing young man his son had become. Always looking for the toughest nut to crack, the highest mountain to climb and the biggest obstacle to overcome and a thirst for knowledge that seemed unquenchable. He’d excelled in sports and gotten straight 'As' all the way through graduate school. He’d joined the Corps while in graduate school. He’d wanted something to do with his summers. Gah dammit - why couldn’t he have just played baseball all summer.

Without realizing it, he caught himself staring at a photo of his first boat. It suddenly occurred to him that he needed to see and feel a real one. He poured a thermos of coffee, kissed his wife goodbye (not a good time to leave but something he had to do) and hit the highway.

He arrived at the museum and paid his fare, went out to the pier and gazed at the beautiful old girl as he waited the 30 minutes for the next tour start. In his mind he watched the fuel gang taking on diesel and the working party loading stores. She was getting ready for her next great adventure.

He gradually became aware of others gathering near him and he moved away as he waited. He wanted the boat and it’s ghostly crew to himself and his memories.

The tour guide came out, formed up the group and started the herd headed on deck. He waited to be last.

What’s this? A stairway going down into the forward room? It makes sense, but he had been looking forward to climbing down the ladder through the escape trunk one more time. After a disappointing arrival in the forward room via the stairway, he moved to the after end of the room as the guide discussed the fwd tubes. He looked around at the array of valves, switches and gear and realized that he still remembered what each and every one of them did. He also saw all of the gear that was missing. He glanced at the skids and watched the torpedoemen muscling the 4000 lb 'skimmer killers' around the room. Shoving them out and in the tubes for maintenance and hanging the brass 'TUBE LOADED' sign on the door. He glanced at one of the few remaining bunks and thought about the times he had casually sat on one with a .45 tucked under the pillow, guarding a tube-loaded Mk 45 while the boat suffered through another day of visiting ship. He looked up at the overhead where the top of the ladder should have been and remembered the lucky torpedomen that were assigned the fwd ladder watch during visiting ship. Their sole purpose being to assist any shapely young ladies with thigh length skirts, making sure no well-turned ankle missed a ladder rung and both feet landed firmly on the deck plates. Yeah right. He remembered the Northern Runs with the sterilized milk cans frozen in the bilges. Only the room watch occupied the room and he was wrapped in a goose down comforter with fog coming from each breath. He remembered his first dive as a student. He’d been assigned the Fwd Room where he and five other young kids were told to "Sit on those life jackets and don’t move." With the sound of the diving alarm came the hydraulic whirring of the bow planes rigging out. Quickly followed by the clunk of the vents opening and the gurgling of water into the tanks as the boat nosed. He was in love. This was it. This is definitely what he wanted to do.

He followed the group through the hatch into the Fwd Battery. It was a little humorous seeing how many different positions these people could take to get through a simple hatch. Past the Goat Locker, wardroom, staterooms, radio and the yeoman’s shack. Not many memories here except the time the steward filled the Captain’s vinegar curette from a special bottle of vinegar the cook kept in the galley. The Captain was a little surprised at the not unfamiliar flavor of his new salad dressing - bourbon. The cook got the word mo-scosch and emptied the bottle before the skipper arrived at the galley to inquire as to source of this not unpleasant taste. Naturally said mass manipulator of 5-way beef denied any knowledge of its origin. The skipper just chuckled and turned away - he’d accomplished his mission.

He followed a pair of stretch pants that lived up to their name and whose tinsel strength was being severely tested. "WIDE LOAD should be stenciled on that bulletin board," he muttered to himself and followed it into the Control room.

Here were shadows. In his mind he heard the diving alarm and the room came alive. Vents were pulled, masts were lowered and negative was flooded. The board turned green as the upper conning tower hatch slammed shut and main induction closed. The lookouts dropped down from the bridge and took their stations - manning the stern planes and rigging out the bow planes. To his dying day, he will swear he heard the cook yell "Main Induction shut and locked," from the After Battery. The whole process of taking a ship underwater went smoothly and perfectly as his boats had done hundreds of times That’s not to say nothing ever happened. He remembered the time Main Induction failed to close as she slid under. Everything but the Mess Cook was blown. The boat had shuddered and shook as she fought to regain the surface. A successful surface was quickly followed by the usual rounds of morbid humor to relieve the tension. We didn’t pull any more high-speed crash dives after that. As a Guppy III, she had simply outgrown being that nimble.

And then there was the time a Nuke ET was assigned to the boat to get qualified before being transferred to a Nuke. Apparently the Navy, in all it’s infinite wisdom, figured that it was cheaper to lose a Diesel than a Nuke if they screwed something up. The Nuke did. He couldn’t remember just what occurred but the Nuke was on the stern planes as the boat approached test depth. Something happened and the Nuke panicked and jammed the stern planes into full dive. The down angle was instantaneous and severe - so severe that no one was left standing. Everybody and everything surfed forward. A quick thinking radioman clambered out of his shack in the after end of control and hand over hand, made his way to the HP manifold where he hammered bow buoyancy blow open which took the angle off and allowed the crew to regain control. The inclinometers had to be unscrewed and the bubble tipped out of the riser. He couldn’t remember if the Nuke ever qualified but he remember the new nickname 'Bubbles'. 87 guys figured the radioman should have gotten a medal. He didn’t - quick thinking and swift action are simply expected and received from the men in the Submarine Force.

He looked at the Control room table and thought about how he learned to spin a tack on it and the cockroach races in the clear plastic cube designed to be a maze for a marble. Someone took a piece of scotch tape, put peanut butter on it and stuck it to the bottom hole of the cube. He then dropped a roach, probably a bunkmate, in the top and watched the roach find his way to the peanut butter. Next, of course, came the quarter gaskets stopwatch and cockroach racing became a sport. Everybody acquired a stable of thoroughbred racers and TA-DA Downs came into being. He remembered the waterways being stuffed with cans of food and then the deck covered with boxes of canned goods to walk on. All those extra food stores came in handy on those long, cold Northern Runs.

About this time, unbeknownst to him, the guide had been watching him and came over to where he stood. He wanted to know if he had served on a submarine. He answered affirmatively. He was asked if he would like to guide the tour. He declined. The guide was apparently a very astute young man and suggested he take his time as there wasn’t another tour for an hour. God Bless that young man. The group went to the After Battery and he stayed behind.

The sign on the lower Conning tower hatch said 'CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC'. So what - nobody’s around. He climbed up and looked around. There wasn’t much to see. The chart table was there but the TDC and radar were gone. The helm was there. How many hours had he spent driving a 321 ft tube through the ocean with nothing but a revolving dial to guide him. He turned, sighed and dropped below.

By now, the After Battery was vacant. He sat down at a mess table and looked around. Yep, there is port and there is starboard Safety Flood Valves. He looked at the deep sink and remembered the messcook from Texas that claimed to be a quick draw artist. He claimed to have one notch in his gun from quick drawing against a tree and shot himself in the foot. Oh yeah, how about the new kid on board that was mess cooking during an ORI? An inspector placed a piece of paper on one of the tables that had the word FIRE written on it in big letters. The mess cook was supposed to see the paper and yell, "FIRE IN THE AFTER BATTERY!". The inspector returned to the Control Room to wait for the alarm and observe the crew’s swift action. When this did not occur, he went back to the After Battery to see if the mess cook might be blind. Instead, what he found was another sheet of paper on top of his with bigger letters spelling WATER. The Inspector was hopping mad and the young man instantly became a member of the crew. So much for taking drills too seriously. Real fire and flooding happened all to frequently. Just a part of life on the old boats.

He remembered the Engineman that had eaten twenty-seven lobster tails and claws in one sitting. He thought about the surprise the cooks got upon lowering the AB doubler hatch after a Northern Run and finding a bag of rotten potatoes. We were tempted to taste it to see if it could possibly be Vodka. Fortunately, common sense overcame that idea and it went, un-tasted, over the side for the fish. He thought about nights of celebration upon their return from another successful mission. He could still feel in his mind the sore shins from the combination of clambor, slide, fall and trip his way down the After Battery ladder, landing with a solid thunk on his ass on the deck plate - a deep sigh of glad to be home and staggering off to his bunk for a good solid two-hour nap before the day started again. Oh yes, what about movie marathons in the AB for the weekend duty section prior to getting underway? All the single-johns stood that duty. He would sleep the first three days at sea with no concern about a missed movie.

He thought about meals at sea in rough weather on the surface. Whatever possessed the Navy to buy round bottom metal pitchers for ships? He’d always thought he’d like to meet that idiot some day. Now he didn’t care. It was just a memory.

He heard noises in the Control Room and glanced at his watch. His hour of yesterdays was gone. It was time to leave the boat and return another day for the rest. Too many memories for one trip. He looked forward to returning soon. But for now, it was time to return home and comfort his wife. Humor would not relieve her tension like it had for him and his shipmates in yesterdays.

The drive home took an eternity. Too much time available for emotions to return. He knew exactly how his wife felt. He too felt the fear but he would refuse to show it. He had to.

One thought kept coming back - The Boats will never leave you and the memories of adventures will always live.

The old man was never much for praying - he’d never felt the need. What more could he possibly want but the love of the woman he had married and the son he’d watch grow, much too quickly, into manhood? Yes, he was blessed. Yet silently he muttered these words.

Lord, I have but one request:

"May my son live to have such memories as have I - Amen."

 

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