The Nest

by Mike Hemming
 
 

As a west-reddened sun sets and a bright moon rises in the east and the subs in the nest end the day, Guppy bows and bullnoses are aligned forward of black painted step and North Atlantic sails. Freshly painted dark hulls next to peeling, just chipped and primed ones float in faintly oily water, side by side. One still carries her wartime superstructure aft of her bridge, painted gray all over she stands out from the others. But all are diesel-powered subs and all are mostly resting now.

For work has slowed in the still and heavy wet air. Some recreation begins below decks; movies or a few card games will start after chow. Men will sit and chat of home, cars, girls, and life that they may or may not yet have experienced. Work may have slowed, but it never quite ceases. Batteries and air banks are charged, minor repairs are done and always qualifications are worked on.

On one boat a hatless chief in grease-stained khaki sits on the forward capstan and imparts equal parts wisdom and submarine lore to a fresh from 'A' school young sailor and a somewhat salty 2nd class from the fleet. But both are about equal until they earn their Dolphins. This night, they both will proceed forward in the quest to gain them. Some future night in another nest, they both will place the knowledge gained tonight into other hands and minds. The boats mainly stay the same but crews move through them unceasingly. Men coming aboard, qualing, getting rate, transferring, retiring, getting out, living and sometimes even dying. A chain of men stretching back to the beginning and forward into a far away and unseen future. Boys that drop down hatches and emerge sometime later mostly as men changed and always and forever a little different from the others that sail the seven seas.

The nest does the same, boats come and go, here today, gone who knows where tomorrow. Secret missions or boring holes in the ocean, providing ping time, its all the same to the nest and its boats. Over time, boats leave to other homeports or the sad fate of scrapping. The hull numbers change over time like the men's faces.

A periscope rises from the sail of one boat, to reach its zenith, spin around 2 times then to hiss hydraulically back out of sight. A test of something, qualifications or a shortened periscope liberty? Who knows, except the sailor in the conning tower?

The seagulls of the night emerge from hatches to haul the garbage cans of tomorrows flying seagull food to the dumpster. Messcooks gather there every evening at this time for a quick smoke and joke session. At the bottom of the chain, they gather in their food-stained dungarees to bitch about their lives with others that care just a little about their problems. Then finding nothing more of interest, they circle back to their jobs to finish up for liberty, sleep or quals. All the while wishing for release from this drudgery of mess cooking.

About this time, the dueling diesels start. Lined up for battery charges, they are lit off in a cloud of blue smoke. A Jimmy and a Fairbanks boat side by side erupt in smoke and noise, but soon settle back into that whispering rumble of warming up. In a bit, the loads will be put on and increased, and will make them noisy and smoke again until settling out into a louder rumble over the swish of discharged cooling water. The unsynchronized rumble and surge of the 4 engines is part of the seascape of the nest and soon fades in the minds of those topside. A comforting sound missed when absent. In the future, the men that call the nest home will miss it and dream of it.

A lone sailor from the destroyer piers stops in his walk down the seawall and for a while he looks at the nest. Is he thinking of joining the sub sailors or is he thinking "No way Jose"? After a bit, he walks on, his mind made up. A life changing moment? Either way, he has made a big decision, one he will never forget. Will he join those in the nest? Time will tell, but if he does his life will be different from then on.

As the evening progresses, the movement of men slows until it's only the topside watches checking draft readings.

They sometimes talk back and forth, the usual "Where you from?"

Or, "Did you see what Susie Q did to that fat Bosun's mate off the carrier the other night?"

"Got an extra cigarette?"

Their battery charges finished now, the rumbling diesels are shut down. The nest quieter now with its signature music silenced. The rumble that was earlier ignored is missed now by those topside who call the nest home.

For long hours, the only movement is the topside watches checking draft readings and mooring lines. Some don't move about at all, trying to sleep leaning against the sail without falling down. Others move constantly either from a desire to not fall asleep or not having reached that experienced nonchalance, watchful stage of the permanent topside watch.

Before first light, the doughnut truck will arrive to deposit its load of sugary delights by each brow. On some boats, the watch will wait until someone goes below to get them to the mess hall. On others, a yell down the hatch will bring the below decks watch to the ladder and he will exchange a blond and sweet for them. Of course both men will grab out a couple of their favorites to have with their oil tainted coffee.

On one boat, a man's head appears on the bridge resting his chin on his arms he stares out over the nest and the slip its in. Thinking of home, or just letting his mind go blank for a bit. Someone that can't sleep or a just relieved below decks watch that doesn't want to bother to go back to bed right now. Anyway, he is just another part of the nest at night.

As a now reddening moon sets in the west and a faint light forms in the east, the two outboard boats come alive. Sleepy-eyed in ragged dungarees, the topside gang begins to make preparations for going to sea. Opening line lockers, finding brow clamp down bolts and recoiling heavies, they grumpily go about their well-rehearsed duties. Always they argue over where the capstan T wrench is. They have done this before and will do it many times more.

On another boat, two snipes use a greasy line to mule haul a fuel hose aboard. The oily black hose leaving its mark on their hands and already stained clothes. With non-sparking tools they will hook up the hose to then spend several hours watching pressure gauges and water discharge as the tanks fill. It's another one of those long, boring, dirty jobs in the nest.

Two boats will depart for sea and one will return today. From where, to where? To ops dull and boring beyond belief. Just long days of boring holes in the ocean, broken only by snorkeling, while the good guys play at looking for them. Or from places reached only by sneak and stealth, also long days of boredom. Then to be broken only by minutes of occasional terror while the bad guys work at finding them.

By now men in ones, twos, and groups come down the pier to go aboard their boats, another day is dawning. As the sky brightens, morning colors stops all for a bit. All men salute the flag of their country, honoring it, as they should.

The nest's sinister black inhabitants having never completely slept, stirs and awakens for another day.

 

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