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November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day memoire

While rummaging around in one of my Rubbermaid boxes of Navy stuff I came across a stenopad with a mini essay I wrote while stationed aboard the USS LOS ANGELES (SSN 688). I do not know the exact date of this writing but it was sometime in October 1998 based on an underway log entry made immediately following. I am finding more and more of these notebooks and pads and I have mixed feelings after I read them. On one hand, I am extremely grateful that I m not punching holes in the ocean aboard a nuclear powered submarine. On the other hand, I miss punching holes in the ocean aboard a nuclear powered submarine. The following essay is exactly how I wrote it over 10 years ago. Enjoy.

The very nature of a submarine causes people to dislike the situation they are in. It is a unique animal which demands a like coexistence with its crew. Most people will admit that they like their job and just tolerate the rest of the bullshit that goes along with it (drills, workups, fucked up command policies, etc.) until they (a) transfer off the boat or (b) get out of the Navy. But the one thing a submariner likes to do is bitch about his situation. I would have to say, however, that the Navy cliché “A happy sailor is a bitching sailor” is a contradiction in terms- it’s more of a cause and effect.

Nobody wants to be in a shitty situation; they deal with the stress and frustration by bitching. Like Old Faithful, the command gives an inexhaustible and predictable supply of material to bitch about. To wit: The boat pulls into San Diego for repairs. Everyone (sans duty section) has liberty until 0100 the following morning. The duty section, after having to stay aboard the first day, only has liberty from 0730-1300 on their day after. The obvious point here is the duty section getting screwed with only 5.5 hours of liberty when the other 2/3 of the crew had a great time in San Diego the previous day.

A lot of people were complaining about the 0100 curfew. Why bring people in at 0100 when there wasn’t anything in the Plan of the Day until 1230 when the ORSE briefs started? The 1300 curfew for the day after duty people was still a mystery that was never really fully explained by anyone in the command. The big curveball came when the command secured everyone’s liberty on the second day. We received a tentative underway time of 0600 on the third day. Reveille was at 0400. In actuality, it was probably a smart move of the command’s part to keep everyone on board all day, all night, until we left. People were pissed off and that would have been the day everyone would have gone out and gotten shitfaced. A few glasses of Jack & Coke is an effective way for me to forget about the boat for a while. Is getting shitfaced the night before an underway irresponsible? Not any more irresponsible than getting hammered the night before an advancement exam. Would it be a smart thing to do before a major exam like ORSE? Probably not, but it would have been nice to go play a few games of pool or watch TV in the barracks lounge before the underway since we have been gone from Pearl for a month.

What it boils down to is that the command could have made the best of a situation that pulled us into port for a short time but didn’t because of job security, ignorance, or perhaps even out of malice. In the command’s eyes they are actually doing the crew a favor by screwing them out of some well deserved liberty. But dammit if they can’t just twist the knife just a little more by doing something totally retarded like securing the television onboard at 2200 thinking, “That will get them to bed earlier and they will be more refreshed for the underway!” Hey. Assholes. The crew doesn’t appreciate your concern for their well being. In fact, the crew resents being treated like children by being told when to go to bed. As a gesture of good will, the XO bought $100 worth of soda to act as a Jedi Mind Trick in hopes that the crew would forget about the San Diego 1998 bone job. The blue shirts misread the gesture as a pillow for our heads as Billy Bob reamed our unlubricated assholes.

A bitching sailor is happy? I don’t think so. There were a lot of unhappy, bitching sailors in San Diego. What substitutes for happiness when things are going badly on the boat is one of two things: 1) physically abusing someone or 2) verbally abusing someone. Verbal abuse constitutes about 60-80% of all conversation aboard a submarine at any point in time. Ironically, the verbal abuse is usually unprovoked and has a very high probability of being an antiquated mother joke (MJ). The MJ is usually a lame attempt to save face when the person can’t think of an imaginative, original slam. This type of MJ elicits little more than a pity laugh/moan- if he is lucky.

The other type of MJ is ad lib and comes out of nowhere. It isn’t spoken out of malice but rather as a competitive, insincere slam. The situation was just too tempting to leave a good mj out. I remember a time when a guy came into crews mess and innocently asked for the time, instead of looking 3 feet to his left to read the clock. He might as well just said, “Hey someone give me a relentless barrage of humiliating insults which will throw me into a mild depression and render me useless for the rest of the day.” Almost immediately after this Seaman nub asked his question, I fired back with, “It’s time for your mom to get fucked in the ass by all those prison guards.” Mouth agape, he turned around without saying a word a left the mess decks, the guffaws bellowing down the passageway and ringing in his head.
Some people deserve all the verbal abuse they get. With the kinder-gentler Navy quietly taking over, the Barney techniques for dealing with punk assholes are wearing pretty thin. I miss the old days when a roll of EB green tape and a grease gun could take care of any intolerable, cocky shit bag. The ripping noise from a roll of EB Green sent nubs running for cover.

*Thought: Only on a submarine would you hear this conversation:
“Holy shit. What the hell is that smell?”
“It smells like shit. Are we blowing sans or something?”
“Dude, I think that’s chow.”

I have to say that it is pretty bad when you can’t even distinguish the smell coming from the ventilation as either shit or what you are about to eat after watch.
Another unique statement:
“Ya know, the cool thing about sweat ass is that when you take a shit, it doesn’t take long to wipe.”

It would appear at first glance that submariners have a fecal fetish but it’s really nothing more than conversational backslide when there really isn’t anything else to talk about. With a crew of around 120, and a total of only 4 shitters for the blue shirts, conflicts are bound to occur, especially right after drills or wake ups. Everyone is up and most have to take a shit. I would have never thought I would have gotten used to the smell of (someone else’s) shit while I was brushing my teeth or even be able to not even notice the sound of flatulation echoing in the stainless steel shitters. Just another day.
“The cool thing about taking a shit after a fire drill is that it doesn’t take long to flush because the trim header is still pressurized.”

There is an inboard shitter that leaks flushing water. To prevent an overflow the ball valve is left cracked open. I did not know about the condition of this ball valve and fully shit it before I sat down to do my business. I reached around to wipe and my knuckle brushed the rising turd that was only inches away from my butt cheeks. Good thing I don’t mess around when I take a dump or I would have been picking it up off the floor after it overflowed out of the bowl. I digress.

Physical abuse aboard a sub is pretty much gone. It just isn’t worth losing a stripe over. It broke my heart when the Zero Tolerance Hazing policy was introduced and the first sacrificial lambs were busted for tacking on dolphins. An age old tradition congratulating and accepting a new shipmate into the brotherhood of submarines was lost forever. As sorry as I was to see it go, however, I could easily see why it had to be throttled.

I remember a Seaman who, after just 5 months, received his fish. As he stepped into AMR an A-Ganger congratulated him by picking up Thor, a lead hammer, and pummeling his chest just once. The dolphins split in half and embedded the backs of the pins into his chest. Gasping for air, the seaman stood up and watched the bloodstain slowly appear and spread on his shirt. He was barraged a half dozen more times before leaving the machinery space. His shirt was ruined and his top two ribs bruised.

I was greeted with the same response in AMR but not as bad when I got my fish in September 1989. In fact, right after I received my fish from the Captain during Quarters on the Pier, a fellow Sonarman turned around immediately after were dismissed. He gave me my first punch and almost knocked me off the pier after I tripped over something. But even with all the punching, hitting with foreign objects and even kicking, I knew that it would all be over at the end of the day. I was initiated into the most elite and protective fraternity in the world- I was now a Submariner. I was someone the crew could trust with their life. I took the punches as an unspoken, “Good job. You made it.”


  1. I got my dolphins the Summer of '77. You had to actively look for someone to do that crap to you.

  2. I tried to read a few agonizing pages of a journal that I started when I left home and went to India in 1976 for school. God it was horrible and I was an idiot, I'd punch myself just to get away from me back then.
    I'm glad you're getting something better as an internal response than I get when I read some hideously inane crap I wrote in College thirty years ago.

  3. I am actually surprised that anyone read through the whole thing considering how long it is. My wife looked over my shoulder while I was typing and told me I was crazy for thinking anyone would take the time to read it.