January 20, 2010
Originally published June 5, 2004
My daddy was a Navy man. He enlisted when he was eighteen years old and found himself leaving the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky, to end up stationed on Guam, halfway around the world. He was a "scaly-back" sailor, because he crossed the International Date Line twice during his service.
He was proud of that fact until the day he died.
I must have been somewhere around Quinton's age when a submarine docked on River Street in Savannah and the Navy opened it for tours. My daddy took me to see it. Bejus! It wasn't what I expected.
I was accustomed to thinking all submarines were like "The Seaview" from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which was one of my favorite television shows at the time. You know... wide-open, spacious, brightly-lit and very comfortable. The REAL submarine I saw was NOTHING like The Seaview.
It was dark. It was cramped. It smelled of farts, diesel fuel and body odor. The racks where the sailors slept were mere cots, spaced in stacks about 18" apart in the crew quarters. I learned that TWO MEN shared every rack--- they just staggered shifts so that one man had a bed to sleep in while the other one pulled duty. I was allowed to look through the periscope, but even there, a 10 year-old boy had to be careful not to bump into something.
Any ideas I ever had about being a submariner went away that day. I am NOT claustrophobic. I spent a lot of my working career crawling through narrow boiler steam drums filled with cyclones and chevrons that made turning around in there impossible, even for someone my size. Doing that never bothered me.
But thinking about living on that boat, under those conditions, for months at a time just gave me the willies. I remember my dad saying, "Now you've seen a real submarine. What did you think about it?"
"I didn't like it, Daddy," I replied. "It's just too... I don't know. It's just not what I thought it would be."
That wasn't the last time I had that reaction to something I had never seen before.
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