Popeye Meets Technological Marvel

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Before I begin, I would like to preface my remarks by establishing my credentials so you will template my technical observations by using the following standard to gauge the level of my competence and expertise regarding the subject I will discuss. I write in run-on sentences…because I think in run-on sentences. I am 63 years old…safe to say, that won't change…it's the 'Old dog-New tricks' thing, everybody talks about.

I was a submarine qualified E-3 who rode submarines powered by fuel, Mother Nature squeezed out of very dead dinosaurs. I held the following extremely responsible positions in the Atlantic Submarine Force…Messcook…later Senior Messcook and First Loader on the GDU…Garbage Disposal Unit…At sea I was the Sail Door Launcher of One and Two-way trash, and High Altitude Bridge Tosser when the seas were rough and ship's refuse had to be pitched over the side, from the bridge. I was also a Jack-of-all-Trades, Lookout, Helmsman, Interchangable Bow and Stern Planesman…Topside Watch, Leading Seaman, Linehandler…Master Rated Chipping Hammer, Paint Scraper, Three Prong Knucklebuster, Wire Brush and Paint Pot Operator….aka Zinc Chromate Man. I was also a qualified Motion Picture Projector Operator, Guard Mail Hauler, In port Below Decks Watch Stander…Slush Fund Board Member, Wardroom Coffee Hauling Flunky...Tender Thief…and Mayor of Hogan's Alley. During my tour of duty, I saved several drunks who bounced off the tanktops, from drowning for which I received no recognition or decorations…Similarly, I was hit in the head with a pool ball in a bar fight with a foreign power (Canada) and never received The Purple Heart.

Please keep these heavyweight credentials in mind when considering the validity of the following observations…I was also known within the SUBRON SIX Staff Office and around the Pier 22 dumpsters as …ComAnimalLant.

I attended basic Submarine School at then, New London, well before the nukes found a way to set fire to the 150 foot steel tank full of water and burn the sonuvabitch down and well before they picked up the entire base and moved it to Groton…Somewhere during that move the White Hat Club fell off the truck and was lost forever, a historical fact lost to naval historians.

When I attended Smokeboat School, nuclear propulsion was fairly new and the jury was still out on whether it would last or go the way of the hoola-hoop, Davy Crocket hats, Kaiser automobiles, Playtex girdles and Tom Mix. There was also ongoing research into sterility and penis shrinkage due to loose radioactive stuff roaming around in nuke boats. We were all told about the rampant epidemic of radioactive penis shrinkage sweeping Rickover's steel submersible riders…moonbeam crank miniaturization syndrome.

You must bear this in mind when you realize the risk I accepted when I visited the USS Toledo (SSN-769). Sterility was not a concern, having been surgically eliminated from consideration in the 1970s. Pregnancy at our address would either be accompanied with the appearance of a "yonder star" and the visitation of Three Wisemen….. or the shooting of a postman, Washington Post delivery boy or the VEPCO meter reader.

But penis shrinkage would present major problems because my original design spec did not leave me a whole lot of material with which to make unscheduled contributions to the Goddess of Nuclear Radiation.

Please keep all this in mind as I continue.

During the 40th Anniversary of SubVets at Groton I had the opportunity to visit the USS Toledo (SS-769), a modern marvel of seagoing space age technology where we were told…"The rubber meets the road"…(That's nuke talk and like damn near everything explained to us that day on board that Buck Rogers sonuvabitch, something I didn't understand.)

It was like Cro-Magnon man meeting Obi-Wan-Kenobi….I smiled a lot…nodded…said "Humm", "Wow" and "I'll be damned" a lot but didn't understand a whole helluva lot about all of the Wizard of OZ stuff, I was shown.

They assembled us in front of the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) Museum underneath two giant steel rings that may possibly have been the Jolly Green Giants mother's I.U.D. They loaded us on vans and hauled us down to the Lower Base and down to The USS Toledo, a nukeboat undergoing post deployment upkeep.

The pier was mostly spotless. Yes, there were a few pieces of gear that had been off loaded for pick-up and remote calibration and repair…and yes, there were a couple of technician's tool gang boxes near the brow. Joe Roche mentioned that he had seen heavier tools used by dentists, eye doctors, guys who fix Rolex watches and gay guys who pack lingerie at Victoria Secrets.

The first folks we came in contact with were blue jackets wearing Marine green camouflaged uniforms. The green camouflage was a bright decision. Everything within a square mile was painted "number seven, navy gray" so the woodland camouflage blended right in. The Toledo had a boatload of tubes, hoses and cables running into it…The damn thing looked like it was on mechanical life support…sorta like Carol Anne Quinlin. And everywhere were these guys running around in Jarhead commoflage uniforms.

"Pardon me sir, are you a tree?, a bush?, a lost duck hunter?, a two legged poison ivy plant with a riot gun? or a topside watch with Marine induced submarine duty, buyers' remorse?"

"I am a defender of the American way of life and sentinel of the free world who signs for doughnuts, spare parts, classified communications… who hustles drunks aboard in strange places and shoots anything running down the Lower Base road waving something with a flaming fuse, yelling…"Praise Allah."

They checked our picture I.D., (Gene Autry Range Rider cards were unacceptable…anything else with your picture on it, was pretty much okay. Ron 'Warshot' Smith pulled out a folded piece of paper previously posted on the wall of a post office in Juarez Mexico indicating that he was worth several hundred thousand Mexican pesos alive or dead. It was accepted because Warshot explained that it was "an official government document.")

A very high speed, hyperactive Chief was introduced to us. This guy operated at a level just below the speed of light. I think he was either the manager of the Flying Walendas, the ringmaster of a three-ring circus at a lunatic asylum or on dope. Having said that, he was a very knowledgeable guy who was one of the most positive motivators I had ever seen. Everyone we came in contact with, praised his "people skills", leadership and overall competence. In the term used in my day, he was CrackerJack in all respects.

This man, the Toledo Chief of the Boat (COB), turned my group over to a senior Chief who took us into the big iron monster.

Nuke boats don't stink of fuel oil, dirty laundry, the gifts from inboard poop tank venting, rancid armpits…stinking feet and the airborne residue of massive cigarette incineration. All language used aboard would be most appropriate in any convent or Girl Scout Camp. It is in every sense of the term, a far more gentlemanly force today….and far cleaner and shipshape.

Nobody uses the universal all applicable, Chinese submarine adjective "fookein", I didn't hear anyone ask if any one had seen "that fookein sonuvabitch", when referring to some misplaced tool or personal article, missing gear or clothing. Nobody asked the cook to tell him."what's for fookein chow?"….or,"Horsefly, get your fookein foot off my fookien toe."

As what appears to be some kind of budgetary cost saving measure, the United States Navy has eliminated all "fookein" gear and there is a massive shortage of "gahdam sonuvabitches" and things that "if they were up your ass, you would know where they were." Nobody was told that it was probably in the lost shit locker or in the gear adrift lucky bag. The word "Snotlocker", as in, "How would you like a shot between your running lights, right in the gahdam snotlocker?"is no longer found in the sanitized vocabulary of your Rickovarian boatsailor. The word nose is now substituted. Nobody in Ships Company, hits the beach to get "Bent-On", "Two-blocked" or "Get alongside some honey". Men go ashore to locate a possible love interest leading to eventual matrimony…or some starry-eyed pigtailed sweetheart to take to a marshmellow roast or Wednesday Night Tent Meeting…Nobody returns to the boat and has to wake up the Corpsman for a penecillium shot to ward off strange illnesses of the lower torso received as a good-bye gift from some darling who sold her "Alohas" in a returning cab for ten bucks a shot.

Nobody yells, "Gangway one-eyed marine with a baby, comin' through," to clear a passage way, or yells "Hot Stuff…make way."

Folks, it's a different world inside one of those big steel pixie dust powered contraptions.

Over the years and especially following the advent of nuclear powered propulsion the vocabulary of the submarine service changed. Some would say it decidedly improved. They would be English teachers, old maids and all the ladies in your mother's garden club.

Words sounding like rasserfracting dyno agitating dipthermic fasticulation fiznoid and pre percolating doo-dad urggastulation whizza-ma-rig…became the norm and "that gahdam whatcha-ma-callit" and "that check valve globe reducing sonuvabitch" were consigned to the obsolete phraseology locker.

The guys aboard Toledo might have been speaking mandarin Yugoslavian as far as I was concerned. I speak fluent 1950s seaman first and have never visited the planet Pluto or nuke school. So if you think this talk is going to involve a highly sophisticated discussion on the technical capabilities of the USS Toledo, you'd better start fishing for your car keys.

The Chief told us…"Yes, some of the guys still hotsack". Friends, hotsacking on a monster nuke is like having to take seconds on a nap with Candice Bergan. You've gotta see the bunks on a nuke…privacy curtains, a headset to listen to music of your personal selection…bunks arranged in little communal rat maze compartments like small civic associations. It wouldn't surprise me if Chiefs and above got issued those Magic Fingers beds they have at the Red Roof Inn.

Nobody was off watch laying on a sweat soaked, stinking flash pad…smoking an Old Gold, Pall Mall or filter-tip Picayunes, reading "The Sexual Exploits of Swamp Woman" or "The Nymphomaniac Queen of the South Seas" and scratching his athletes foot "split-toed" on a bunk chain…while the duty Corpsman held sick call in Hogans Alley and lanced putrid butt boils three inches from the poor bastards nose.

The control room looks like something NASA built. Everything has been miniturized. The Chief of the Boat told us a cocker spaniel could trim the boat and frequently a trained cockatoo stood underway Diving Officer watches.

They have plasma screens all over the boat and docking stations in damn near every compartment. The computers allow a lad to exchange unlimited e-mail with the folks back home…download exotic porno and place bets on horse races in Argentina.

The plasma screens can be used for numerous things...giving PowerPoint presentations to the entire crew, conducting underway shipboard training, watching downloaded satellite images and commercial programming, and most importantly, used to relay periscope imagery of extremely large busted women getting out of very expensive cars at the base Officer's Club.

Wardroom chairs weigh as much as a tractor-trailer truck full of bridge rivets or the after high turret on the Iowa. The Senior Chief told us that wardroom furniture is used for underway weight lifting during Richard Simmons exercise sessions. Actually the added weight prevents them from sliding around during boat gyrations and slight angle operations. During extreme angle ops, there are small hinged arms that hook into padeyes attached to the Wardroom Table that allow the officers chairs to be fastened securely and prevent them from taking off, roller coaster style.

The Chief took us down a starboard side passageway. They had sonar-monitoring equipment in that passageway that could hear ticks burping in Uganda. They had screens with lines and squiggly looking bullshit that we were told were visual manifestations of acoustic analysis that could differentiate between extremely quiet enemy combatant craft and when in the Indian Ocean could intercept the sounds originating from Osama Bin Laden's nose hair growth.

A nuclear submarine like Toledo should be number one on any listing of modern technical marvels. It is the latest product of proven methodology, state of the art, cutting edge technology and culmination of one hundred years of submersible craft refinement, research and development. The USS Toledo embodies that tradition and has incorporated within its hull, the latest manifestations of our most advanced weapons system deployed in the world today.

All ships have a personality. Some good, some lousy and some colorless, non entities. There are boats that, when their names and hull numbers come up in conversation, make everyone smile. The USS Toledo is such a boat. That became evident as we toured the boat. You don't have to understand the whiz-bang up to date technology to recognize high morale, first rate leadership and well trained bluejackets, with evident pride in the skipper, the crew and the Boat. In the old days, the term"Happy Crew" would be used to describe the crew of the 769.

I've been in highly recommended restaurants…triple A four star "feed your face" establishments that wouldn't measure up to the Toledo's messdeck. Clean, comfortable and appeared extremely well managed. That is one of the best indicators of a sharp boat in a world inhabited by E-3's.

The first thing an old smokeboat rider recognizes is the absence of roaches, salami hanging from vent operating handles, no potato lockers (also checked the showers…no spuds in there). I applied my junior Dick Tracy Super Detective skills and came to the conclusion that the modern day boatsailor doesn't smoke, drink, cohabit with flatbacking professional ladies, operate slush funds, use sea stores smokes and skin books as the basis of the ship's barter system, steal white hats, piss in the suction side of the bilge strainers during battle stations…He doesn't have to acclimate himself to oil slicks floating in the coffee, rolls of GDU bags hanging from overhead ventilation lines, cases of canned goods stored in passage ways, behind racks, in the waterways, outboard engines…heads that smell like a Karachi, Pakistan bus station public restroom… and no one yells "open the bulkhead flappers" before farting. The lower enlisted elements, "the bottom feeders" weren't going around wearing ratty hand-me-down foulweather gear, with names like "Stinky", "Wingnut" and "Texas Ted" handwritten on the back….and greasy, hydraulic oil stained inverted raghats are no longer in vogue when strolling the lower base piers or being sported simply to piss off shore duty based CPOs.

It is a new boatservice. More visually professional, vocabulary raised to a level acceptable at a church supper, no grabass, a lot of shined shoes, a helluvalot more gentle…No Chief wild boar look-a-likes with tattooes of nekkit Chinese girls riding porpoises, lotsa gold rates and hashmarks...(I never remember any submarine qualified CPO with anything but red rates and hashmarks when I was in…Well, maybe a suspected homosexual Yeoman up at DesLant…but nobody down around Pier 22). Folks say "pardon me sir" instead of planting a size 12 brogan square in your ass. No place to plant your butt topside after chow to catch a smoke, watch the sun go down and swap verbal bullshit with your shipmates.

It's different…that may well be the understatement of the century. Make no mistake, the USS Toledo is the most impressive ship I've ever seen. It didn't take me long to figure out that I woudn't make a good pimple on a Toledo sailor's butt…that's a God's honest fact.

But, I left the boat still as deeply in love with the USS Requin (SS-481) as I have ever been. The old girl gave me bucking bronco rides in the North Atlantic…rocked me to sleep during aimless, go nowhere night steaming on station, and took me out and back, safely. She gave me sunrises and sunsets out where seagulls could crap on you and not on a plasma screen hooked up to the Mister Rogers "Let's see what's happening in the topside neighborhood" contraption.

I rode the old girl at a time and place, in the continuous chain of submarine history when a member of ships company could poke his head around the After Battery airlock door and yell…"What's for fuckin' chow?" And there was no Martha Stewarts Mate to care.

I rode smoke belching cantankerous sonuvabitches, when there were Gunners Mates, Torpedomen, Signalmen, Quartermasters, Stewards and tattooed CPOs.

I rode them when the cigarette smoke in the control room got so damn thick you couldn't see the gahdam air manifold operator and it was okay to wire a tuna can ashtray to the shallow water gauge bracket.

Nuclear powered submarines are very clean and odorless. There was a scuttlebutt in a passageway. The water didn't have the typical iguana bladder taste or leave a petroleum rainbow film on your tongue. And messdeck coffee is served in little white Styrofoam cups. To an E-3, that's progress at a level he can appreciate.

Nobody has to jackass torpedoes anymore. No getting the overgrown bastards into the tubes by block and tackle and two pints of human sweat…They have automatic doo-dahs that load them and a hydraulic system that operates like some kind of lever-action Winchester, to effect reloads.

And they carry missiles and Master Missile Wizards have replaced the TMs. The way the weapons systems appear to operate these days, the gunnery gang must spend a lot of time standing around like the Maytag repairman.

The advance of undersea warfare technology has far outpaced my level of comprehension.

When I was an eleven year old Scout, my patrol leader, a kid named Charlie Bartlett explained how sex worked, using the insertion instructions out of his older sister's box of Tampax. We knew that that little piece of folded paper contained all that we needed to fully understand the complete intricacies and mysteries of sex and baby fabrication. It was as if we were beholding a very important part of the Dead Sea Scrolls…The Rosetta Stone of the Female Goodie Locker…the unraveling of the Open Sesame of the Forbidden Fruit storage bin.

The only problem we had, involved the instructional narrative accompanying the cutaway anatomical diagram. On that tiny piece of paper, which was strictly geared to poking the things in and extracting them, nothing made a damn bit of sense to an eleven year old. It was like having yo-yo trick instructions and you had never seen a yo-yo up close.

You are probably saying to yourself…"What in the hell does that have to do with the subject at hand?"

As I stood in the control room of the Toledo looking at all that gear, I couldn't recognize anything that I got signed off on in 1959 or 60. I might have just as well been in the central power generating plant on the planet Mongo…suddenly I knew exactly what a June bug trapped in a pinball machine feels like. I was a kid again looking at the anatomical schematic layout of the female inner sanctum so intricately laid out by the folks who made tampons and wondering how in the hell and where in the hell the baby manufacturing process took place.

I was in the hands of a Senior Chief who knew everything about nuke boats and I "had left my brain in the hip pocket of my other pants".

Everything was extremely complicated and required three years of physics, a basic understanding of nuclear power generation and an abstract math and chemistry background at the M.I. T. graduate level.

I was lost…I didn't want to show my ignorance so I let them lead me along the intestinal track of that exotic beast and when the Chief said…"Any questions?" I tried not to look like I was too damn stupid to formulate an intelligent question. To be honest…if I had been captured by some "to be named later" enemy and they used some diabolical torture method…like say…strapping me in a chair and having to listen to Joan Rivers for over an hour to get me to explain what I saw aboard the Toledo…National Security would be safe except for a detailed description of Hatch hinges, Styrofoam cups and those big ol' overstuffed lounge chairs the guys who steer the boat, plant their butts in. Beyond that, I felt like I was going through Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

One thing became evident the farther we went in the boat. The cement that binds the Toledo crew together is mutual professional respect. There's a feeling you get when you see a pro ball team make a triple play…three guys set up a complicated hockey goal or one of those unbelievable trapeze tricks.

You say to yourself, "Horsefly they make it look easy." Making damn difficult stuff look easy is what true professionals do. If that's the case… the Toledo sailors who took time to show a lot of old coots around, were true pros.

I saw no evidence that acey-doucey, hearts or Hollywood, "tenth of a cent a point" gin-rummy, were played aboard ship…no acid-eaten dungarees…no frayed raghats, no officers with great big greasy rags hanging out of their hip pockets. There are no lines of human ants jackassing all manner of substance rations across the pier from the tender. One very probable reason for this is, there are no more tenders. Hearing that there were no more tenders, I couldn't help wondering where E-3 Leading Seamen went to steal the stuff they needed.

The old adage went, "You can steal anything from a tender that was small enough to fit in a mail bag." In my day, that was the most important link in the Sub Force supply system…Tender Theft.

The whole damn ship seems to run itself, do absolutely incredible things and accomplish miracles.

The enlisted men change light bulbs, eat, sleep, use the head, send each other e-mail, take visitors through the ship, wear clean, very fashionable clothes, and re-enlist.

Nobody cusses, smokes, goes around with a skin book in their hippocket... It is no longer fashionable for enlisted idiots to fasten halyard clips loaded with keys to a starboard belt loop, play hearts for money, serve on the board of directors of the local branch of the Saltwater Savings and Loan (A long ago euphemism for the boats totally illegal crew funded "Ten'll get you twelve" floating loan office run out of a cigar box in the goat locker.

Nobody sits around in the messdeck drinking coffee and telling stories about drunken shipmates peeing out of a tenth floor hotel window near La Rochelle, on French cops or fist fights in liberty launches off the Italian coast.

Above all, the inside of a nuke smells like a new car rather than an orangutan armpit. You can bring your mother on board on Mothers' Day to meet your wardroom and shipmates without having to fear that she will return home and tell her bridge club that her boy lives in a seagoing septic tank.

To be honest, too much time has elapsed between my era in the boat service and the fast paced advance of undersea technology. It was like someone gently taking away a caveman's axe and handing the dumb bastard a bazooka.

The place looked like everything found in all the Radio Shacks and Circuit Citys on the East Coast had been jammed in there. The whole boat looked like the inside of a pinball machine.

I was a lost ball in the high weeds… I thought the nukes had a whole lot of spare room…empty space. I'm glad my wife didn't go into that contraption, She holds the North American record for cramming stuff in a closet, but the damn Toledo has her beat. You couldn't get another piece of gear in the Toledo's control room even if you Crisco'ed the sonuvabitch and tried to hammer it in with a twelve pound sledgehammer.

Of course, most of the stuff aft of the messdeck was "shoot you dead" secret. That's probably where the dog track and nine hole golf course is.

The quality of the head paper has improved. The stuff must have been butt tested by Tinkerbelle. The old smokeboats got toilet paper made out of old reprocessed dump truck brake linings. The stuff was a metamorphic state of plywood…you didn't wipe - you sanded.

It is a kinder, gentler sub force. There are no more tenders, no sleazy strip of pawnshops, tattoo joints, uniform shops and naval tailors found on the roads leading to the Base. The old Dealy Center geedunk is now a plastic food, McDonalds. They don't have Mardi-Gras looking used car lots where some guy named Crazy Eddie wants to sell you freshly painted clunker for low lifetime payments, that end when the embalming fluid kicks in.

No trip to the Mecca of submarining would be complete without a trip to Banks street…ah, Banks Street…the New England version of a naval sin franchise, former venue of Seven Brothers…the Gambini Brothers' bar. After the death of one brother, known to boatsailors' as "Seven Brothers and a Ghost."…The Premier Boatsailor's Watering Hole.

Folks, you wouldn't know Banks Street…It's full of little boutiques, antique emporiums, little book stores and some kind of gay hangout. Halfway down the street, there was a thrift store…they had this blond female manikin in the window. She, the manikin, was wearing this wedding dress…it had slipped off the manikin's shoulder and one breast was exposed …It was a message sent from the Goddess of the Main Induction…saying "I shall return" ala Douglas MacArthur. At 63, it was a matter of complete indifference to me. My interest in breasts not covered in my most recent joint tax return would be strictly from the point of artistic appreciation and anatomical configuration admiration.

The bad thing about generational change is that if you do not respect the longstanding traditions, there are disconnects between the old long ago sonuvabitches and their downline whizkid successors. I found it impossible to connect with the life I knew. That is not a complaint, just a statement of regrettable fact. Too much water has flowed under too many bridges since I got my Dolphins pinned on a wet dungaree shirt….And yes, pinning a qualified submariners Dolphins on a wet shirt after his mates have tossed him over the tanktops into the waters of the slip where his boat is moored, is another tradition lost along the way.

There is nothing aboard the modern marvels, I am intellectually capable of understanding…I feel the same way about the space shuttle, modern surgery, computer chips and all the rules of ice hockey…programming T.V. recording devices…and what kind of magic they put in Viagra.

I am glad I served when I did for a number of reasons, not the least of which would be the sunrises and sunsets stored in the depths of my heart that I often replay on cold winter nights…listening to the old magnificent bastards of the Pacific War tell tales of kicking Hirohito's butt from '42 to '45 over great meals in a rolling and pitching messdeck…rocking and rolling around in North Atlantic swells…drinking coffee with a hydraulic oil slick floating in it and sharing space with most of God's cockroaches.

Hell, I wouldn't know what to do in a fresh smelling boat, absent cigarette and cigar smoke…or standing watch in a control room where the watch standers were more interested in differential calculus, thermodynamics and twenty foot long algebra equations than big-busted barmaids with loose panty elastic.

I wouldn't like buying shoe polish, multi function calculators and underway reading material suggested by the Bureau of Naval Mind Expansion. I wouldn't want any kid I went to elementary school with, knowing I ever wore anything called a "poopie suit", because saying "you wore a poopie suit…you wore a poopie suit" would call for a mandatory playground butt whipping.

But the worst part about being a sailor today is that it would rob me of telling people, especially my grandchildren… that once upon a time…long, long ago I served in Arleigh Burkes Navy…something I would be honored to have carved on the chunk of rock I'm buried under.

Every man should be proud of his era of service and I am proud of my choice of the United States Submarine Service and the honor of being allowed to serve and qualify aboard the boat I rode and riding with the crews, wardrooms and skippers I served with.

But anyone who failed to recognize the quality and level of competence of today's submariner, both officers and men, would be a damn idiot. I was very impressed with the CPOs and especially the Chief of the Boat on Toledo.

The COB is a very special man. Every raghat that ever rode submersible steel recognizes a good COB when he comes across one…and I would be proud to go to sea aboard the USS Toledo. Why in the hell they would want an idiot like me would be another question…and a mystery of epic proportions.