I’ve been feeling miserable with the first cold I’ve had in 10 years. I don’t get sick much. Trying to sleep is rough when you don’t feel good. When I think of being cold, I drift off back to when I was 17, going through submarine school in Groton, Conn. back in 1969.
I was a year or two younger than most of the guys I was stationed with, but I had an advantage over them. Because my Dad was an Officer, I had enjoyed many privileges that most enlisted men don’t get to see. I had been on subs as a kid. My Dad was a Submariner, he had his “Silver Dolphins,” that you earn as an enlisted man. I wanted mine. Just like aviators get wings, submariners get “dolphins”. Dad would send me on excursion trips during the summer, “Kiddie cruises” he called them.
I’ve been on Carriers, Subs, “Tin Cans” (Destroyers), Destroyer Escorts, Mine Sweepers, Helicopters, PT boats, PBY’s(Sea Planes), you name it. Dad was the Discipline Officer in Gitmo, if a guy got put on report for some infraction or another, Dad would let them work it off, their chore was to “show me the ropes”.
Guess I was “Gung Ho.” I loved it. I had lived through more sea duty, before I enlisted than most guys ever get. Our house never had a floor or a wall in it. It was always the deck or the bulkhead, we ate in the galley, the bathroom was called the “Head” and our bunks had to be made by Zero Six Thirty..
When I went to boot camp, in Orlando, I volunteered for submarines because I wanted to be just like my Dad. I was tested for a billet. It seems like I had extraordinary hearing and was assigned as a sonar tech.
Hold on, give me a second, time for some cold medicine, oh, how I hate cold weather.
Okay where was I? I started Sub school in January, it was an 8 week class. We were tested every week, you had to maintain a 3.0 average or you were shipped back to the fleet. The two things I remember most about the school, other than the bitter cold, were the “Pressure Chamber” and the “Escape Tower”. The pressure chamber was a surprise to me, I had never heard of it before. One day we are marching in formation, destination unknown, 5 minutes later, we are stripping down to our skivvy’s and told to enter this small, round metal chamber that resembles an over sized pressure cooker.
They took us 6 to 10 men at a time, into a large tank, a bench on either side. The instructor told us to hold our nose and try to blow through it, til they popped. He said that we were gonna simulate 600 psi, if we couldn’t stand the pressure, just holler out, then he slammed the hatch behind him, secured the locking mechanism and started pumping air into the chamber.
At first we were all uneasy, because it got weird fast. I knew a couple of the guys were ready to holler, but they couldn’t. The joke was on us. At 600 psi, simulating the pressure at 300 feet, you can’t talk, blood streamed out of our noses. Some of the guys were rolling on the floor, doubled over. After about (for what seemed forever) 15 minutes. They relieved the pressure, things got back to normal, no one it seems, suffered any permanent damage. I didn’t want any more of that pressure chamber, that’s for sure. I started having second thoughts about being a submariner.
When the snow was too deep to march to the chow hall, school would be cancelled for the day. Instead of learning about all of the controls and valves and the mysterious compartments on a sub, we learned the very important skill of shoveling snow. I grew up in Cuba. I found myself wondering “How did I end up here?” I had no experience with a snow shovel, but the US Navy saw fit to rectify that. If we wanted to eat, we had to march to the Chow Hall. In order to make a path through the snow, someone had to get out there with a shovel. Since I was the youngest and one of the newest members of the fleet, I had to pay my dues to join the club.
The Navy is famous for serving great chow. The food on a sub is said to be even better. I weighed in at 132 pounds after boot camp, after hours and days, sometimes weeks of shoveling snow, I wanted to be first in line at the Galley. I became a real chow hound. Potatoes of some kind were served at every meal. I left sub school weighing 158 pounds. The Navy has a way of making a man out of you, whether you like it or not.
If I didn’t have the duty on weekends, I was free to explore the surrounding communities. The Coast Guard Academy was across the Thames River, just down the road from Connecticut University, it was still an all girls’ school back then. To me, being a little bit of a rough neck, it seemed like the girls at the University preferred the smooth, suave sophistication and some what debonair persona of the Coast Guard plebes over that of the sometimes rough and tumble and more aggressive men of the Navy, stationed across the river in Groton. Having a competitive nature, I just figured “Game On.”
I had an advantage over most of the guys. I had my own car, a ’68 Volkswagen and a southern accent, yeah I know just what you’re thinking, a real “ice breaker.” I did have a problem sometimes ordering food off base, most folks couldn’t understand me. Up there, a “submarine” sandwich is called a “grinder.” Go figure. I often heard insults about taking the “grits” out of my mouth before I try to speak, but the local girls loved it. Every week end that I didn’t have the duty, I would cruise by the girl’s college and just pull up to a dorm and ask “Which one of y’all wants to go to Boston for the week end or can any of you purty gals here, show me how to get to New York City for a couple of days?” We would go to Boston and hang out around the “Common” or go to New York City and check out 42nd Street and Times Square. Just walking up and down Broadway was a real experience for a kid that grew up on a small base in Guantanamo Bay. In Gitmo, I may have been a “pearl,” but in NYC, I was just another oyster.
Before graduating the class, we had to make a simulated escape from a 100 ft. deep. The escape tower was a hundred foot tall and had a fake conning tower at the base. I had to go down some steps and climb up inside the conning tower chamber. There, we were shown how to open a valve to let sea water fill the chamber, (after I shut the hatch and secured the lock). When the chamber was two thirds full of almost freezing water, I had to shut the water valve, then reach down below the water level and unlock the hatch that led into the tower, which was filled with sea water, dark and foreboding, scary. I took a deep breath, duck my head under water, swung the hatch open, climb through and turned back around to shut the hatch and lock it. There on the other side was an instructor wearing an insulated diving suit. He made sure that I locked the hatch, before ascending.
I wrapped one hand around the rope that ran from the bottom of the tank, to the surface and started exhaling, as I let my grip on the rope loosen. We were taught to exhale as we floated upwards; the instructor’s job was to be sure we did. If not, he would stop you and put his knee in your belly. The danger being that if you didn’t exhale; your lungs would explode from the compressed air. The bubbles from my mouth raced ahead of me, even in the dark, I could see the effervescent glow of bubbles in the gloomy water. Faster and faster, seems like it took forever. Just when you don’t think you don’t have any more air left to expel, a faint glow appears above you and all of a sudden the surface seems near. Just about the time I felt like I could reach out and touch the glow, like a cork, I popped up into the air about three feet and fell back, still holding the rope.
I made it. I don’t remember the cold water anymore, just breaking through the thin ice at the surface, but I do remember how sweet that first breath of fresh air tasted, said to myself, I’m glad that’s over. Little did I know that I was gonna have to do it in real life, from a hundred foot deep in the ocean several times. It’s all part of training, If you do something often enough, correctly, you get good at it. When your life is on the line, and others, you appreciate every bit of training you get.
After Sub School I went back to Orlando to complete Sonar School for four weeks, and then it was back to New London. My first duty station was a “boomer,” the USBNS Thomas Jefferson. My first cruise, the yeoman got appendicitis and was transferred off the ship to the USS Orion, a Sub Tender. The yeoman was one of the most important men aboard ship, because without him, nothing gets done. A guy that could type, read, write and spell was important, especially if you wanted to go on liberty and needed a liberty pass, of a leave chit, travel orders were a necessity, transfer papers, request for nearly everything, the Plan of the Day, Officer’s fitness reports, you name it. Since I took typing in high school to hang out with a room full of girls, some of that wore off on me. I told the Captain that I could type and immediately had my bunk transferred to a much better berth. I had my own compartment, next to the Captain.
Working for the Captain gave me a new status. Just because I could read and write properly, I could take the Captain’s rough language and type reports, and messages using correct spelling and grammar. Being on call 24/7 removed me from the Duty Watch List. I typed the duty roster. Suddenly I was every body’s friend. If we came into a foreign post like Rota, Spain for instance, no one wanted to be stuck on board with the duty watch, while everyone else was ashore, living it up. I got invited to pinochle games, chest matches, scrabble games and allowed to win, this was the Navy I was brought up in I thought, you mean I don’t get woke up in the middle of the night to make an emergency escape in the cold dark waters anymore just because I can spell and punctuate? To me, everything was “4.0”, I spent some of my off duty hours writing letters for less fortunate guys to send back home. Over and over I thanked my parents for those Bobbsey Twin books I got for Christmas back in Cuba, when what I really wanted was a bike. Those books paved the way.