Been Down Too Long

by Mike Hemming
 
 

Foul air, breathed, rebreathed, used and reused, too hot and humid beyond belief. How many hours, days have we been breathing this same air? Not sure anymore but its been too long. Whatever this operation is about is no longer important to the crew. Breathing has become the most important work for most of us.

Carbon dioxide at this level makes us pant like dogs on a hot day. We all have headaches that no amount of aspirin will cure, only fresh air. But fresh air is 300 feet away, straight up and unavailable. Cigarettes wont stay lit anymore, smoking is another chore ignored. They taste like crap now, anyway.

Doc has spread lithium hydroxide on the flashcovers in the berthing compartments to remove some of the CO2. In the After Torpedo Room, the lung burning dust from the chemical eases one misery to create another, even though Doc tries hard not to stir the stuff up too much. Looking up from his CO2 meter he says slowly, "4.4 %, the worst air in the boat." Shaking his head, he knows at 5 % we will begin passing out and at about 10% we will start to die. Adding oxygen won’t do anything unless the CO2 is removed from the air. Later, checking again, the level is down to 3.7% but its no real noticeable improvement to us. Are we panting less?

Off watch, we don’t give a crap. On watch, we struggle to do our work without screwing up. We know we won’t die down here, but we don’t know why we are here anymore. Is this all to teach us how rotten being down too long can be? Well if so, let us up... We know now.

Men congregate in the torpedo rooms because they are the coolest place in the boat under 100 degrees, cool being relative of course. They change 'cooler' for more CO2 making headaches. The engine rooms have the best air but only a certifiable moron would linger in the brutal 135-degree heat without reason. The men there will drink 3 gallons of water in 4 hours to have it immediately sweat out of them, leaving only salt deposits on the deck plates. Stripped to shorts and sandals, sweat drips in steady streams from their wet bodies. In the 100% humidity there is no such thing as cooling evaporation, just steady dripping to the deck.

Elsewhere men lay in bunks half-cognizant of their surroundings, wanting to sleep to escape this hell that exists around them. But exposed flesh sticks wetly to the flash covers making sleep difficult. Messcooks try not to sweat into the food they prepare but few will feel like eating. At midrats, men turn away from eating damp warm sandwiches to go on watch with only a cup of coffee or warm bug juice. The Quartermaster tries to mark a damp chart while avoiding contact with the other hot bodies in the Conn. Everywhere men suffer, no longer laughing or talking except for desultory bitching about a situation none can control.

The IC watch and an oiler shove against each other to reach the ice machine first, only to find a skim of water with 3 small chips of ice in the bottom. The chips too small to last reaching the cup, they turn away both cursing each other and the over taxed machine. In a few places, men stand under air conditioning vents to catch the moving air, its coolness an illusion caused only by its motion. Also overtaxed, the AC units fight pathetically to cool tons of hot everything inside the boat and remove moisture instantly replaced by 85 sweating bodies.

Finally this operation having reached an unknown conclusion we don’t give a damn about, the skipper says, "We've been down too long, take her up." Stirred by the chance to breathe air that hasn’t been used by 85 others 10 times first, we make preparations to surface. Some men not on watch move to where the air stream going to the engines will hit them for its reviving oxygen and coolness.

On the surface, engines drawing air through the boat, men catch that body tingling, mind swirling first deep breaths of clean, fresh sea air. For a few moments, an exhilaration and high of sweet salt fresh air replace our CO2 headaches, before returning to a normal state. The feeling it causes, once felt, is never forgotten, but the way to it, is too unpleasant to want to repeat, but we probably will before too long.

 

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