Control Room

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

The control room was the compartment where you could go to get the straight dope… Make that, as much straight dope as the United States Navy thought an E-3 should be trusted with.

I had joined the Navy voluntarily… No one hypnotized me, tossed me in a gunny sack and hauled me off to Great Lakes. Nope, did it to myself… Listened to a Navy recruiter named Malleck… Old first class gunners' mate who had sailed with Noah… The slick talking, silver-tongued sonuvabitch had pictures of Hong Kong… Tahiti… Beaches in the Med… Hula girls… Palm trees… Faraway places with smiling bluejackets and good looking women, all over the walls of his office. It seems odd, looking back… He didn't have any photos of midnight loading parties… Of sailors freezing their doodads off in the North Atlantic. No pictures of barmaids with tattooed tits and a glass eye… No guys with chipping hammers and paint scrapers. Malleck just had pictures of places we never went and sweet young things we never saw.

Hell, I couldn't get in fast enough!

The way he explained it to me… It would be Great Lakes, then the beach in Tahiti, where as he put it,

"The only way you can keep the wimmin' off ya, is to turn queer."

He never once alluded to the remote possibility that I might see Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and a helluva lot of floating ice… And hula girls only on maneuvering room calendars.

I joined. I let them pinch me, poke me, stick needles in me, remove vials of blood, and peek into crevasses, cavities, and orifices I had never seen inside, myself.

I let them yell at me… Say terrible things about my ancestors, living relatives, religion, hometown, intelligence and personal appearance, state, mother, and way of life.

I had gone to New London where medics played games no longer associated with civilized behavior… And I learned more about the mechanical care and operation of stuff that I ever had any remote desire to know. I got an academic diploma… My knowledge of things mechanical did not extend far beyond ignition keys, can openers and light switches. Somebody on Ron's BBS said,

"I didn't think sub school was that hard…"

I figure anyone who said that could make you an operating grandfather clock if you handed him a jacknife and a telephone pole.

The Navy sent some guy from the FBI to talk to my neighbors, teachers and the minister of a church I hadn't seen the inside of in 15 years.

After all this, the United States Navy didn't trust me enough to tell me where we were going half the time. I certainly wasn't going to tell the Russians… First, I didn't have a Dick Tracy pressure hull-penetrating wrist radio… And being from East Tennessee, a not too popular Communist influence hangout, I wouldn't have recognized a Red if he hopped out of the vent lines with a picture of Lenin tattooed on his cheek.

Speaking of Communists, when some Russian trawler would show up… Everyone figured it was looking for us. They could be hauling in fish by the ton and the exec would say,

"It's all for cover… The bastards are spooks looking for us… Spyships… Dex, you want to take a look? Check out all that electronic equipment on the bridge."

I looked through the scope and all I saw were old porked up, doofus-looking Russian women wearing leather aprons and black head scarves… Hanging over the rust-stained fantail, smoking brown cigarettes and scratching themselves in weird places. If they were spies, they sure had great disguises. Mrs. Portachenko and the Dig and Scratch Sweethearts didn't look like they could find their asses with a roadmap. My failure to recognize the Communist threat was one of the reasons I was never selected to be CNO.

The control room was supposed to be where you could go to validate or discredit rumors… Where you could go look at charts… Listen to officers discuss things like OP order specifics… FINEX times… And ETAs. The conning tower was the Sacred Tabernacle of the Skipper (God's direct representative in the North Atlantic).

The control room was like the central outdoor market in downtown Baghdad. Wise traders came to traffic in lies, cleverly packaged bullshit, the latest rumors, gossip, grapevine produce, and high-grade horseshit.

Truth never made an appearance… Maybe it did, can't say for sure… But if it did, it didn't stay long enough for us to recognize it.

There was always some old "I've been everywhere and seen everything" cigar chewing Chief camped out on the hydraulic manifold. The hydraulic manifold was the place all submarine qualified Chiefs went before they retired or died. One of my biggest fears was that when I got to Hell it would be full of Chief Petty Officers and hydraulic manifolds. Then somebody came up with something even scarier… Someone said that when I died, the Devil was gonna make me hot rack with Rickover… I've sinned, but nowhere near the point where they make you hot sack with THAT beady-eyed ferret! If I had known that was even a possibility, I would have taken Billy Graham pills and renounced my association with Ray Stone.

All Chiefs lie… Lying, beer drinking and blue streak cussing are the only practical factors once you transcend above the rag hat.

Chief Petty Officers owned the control room. They ruled it from their padded locker perch by the hydraulic manifold. You had to be a major league, pathological liar beyond salvage or redemption to survive in the control room.

No matter how wild the lie… How fantastic and unbelievable… No matter how fully horsecrap-loaded the plot vehicle was, it never failed… Some old barnacle butt, smoke boat Chief would open with,

"Hell, that ain't nothin'… Back in '42…"

The words 'that ain't nothin' have preceded some of the gahdamedest self-manufactured bull dookey ever dumped on mankind. Submarine Chiefs in my day, made Bill Clinton's lying amateur-level stuff. If lying ever becomes an olympic event, the old E-9s will collect gold medals like dogs collect fleas.

The control room was where it all happened… It was where the wardroom mingled with the 'Great Unwashed' and all the big doins' were hashed out. It was the crossroads… The tracks. The alley housed the riff raff… The hobo community… Bums and assorted trash… We loved it. The jungle below the sea.

Most meaningful memories of submarine duty center around the messdecks or the control room.

"Blow negative to the mark!"

"To the mark, aye!"

"Negative blown to the mark!"

"Chief, cycle the vents…"

(Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop)

"Vents cycled and shut!"

"Very well, make your depth 200, three down…"

"Two hundred… Three degrees down bubble!"

"Chief, what does it take for a sonuvabitch to get a dry jacket and a hot cup of something resembling coffee?"

"Ask politely."

"You want polite conversation, ride the Queen Mary…"

Sitting here, damn near 40 years later watching the sun go down and inventorying God's lightnin' bugs… It seems like only yesterday.