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At Sea (Literally)

New - 21 April 2006


Paint Out the Numbers

Chapter Four

At Sea (Literally)


Before we made the course change back to the east, Ed Wales relieved me and told me I had the 1600-2000 watch. Since I had already stood an hour and a half of this watch, I was not anxious to give it up to him. I was sure he had wrangled it somehow in order to get a short watch, but there was little I could do at this point without crying to Hal, the Senior Watch Officer.

This is a common occurrence with me. Someone like Ed plots a little evil and gains an advantage, while I coast along fat, dumb, and happy. Then, when it's sprung on me, I can do nothing, unless I want to sound as small as the other man in fact is. It's tempting to start working from the other end, but I never do. Either I'm morally incapable of plotting in this way, or just too dumb. I don't know which.

It was later on my 1600-2000 watch, right after I had relieved Larry McGee and Bill Balence, the latter who was standing an instruction watch, that I noticed the impending storm. It was coming from the northwest, and by now we were heading north, right into it. The entire sky had a dark tint to it, but hovering up ahead and low on the horizon it had the appearance of a solid, ominously black shroud. All I could think of at the time was that I hoped I could be relieved before we ran into it, or it into us. I doubted that it would be much more than a rain storm, but I had no desire to get wet.

And I would get wet. No amount of parkas, foul weather gear, and rain pants would keep the water out. I would still be soaking in time. The water had always found a way in, and I was confident that it would have no trouble this time.

Then I got smart and had radar check the distance to the storm. They came back with 61 miles. This relieved me somewhat. We could only make about 15 knots, and consequently we wouldn't hit it until the end of my four hour watch, later that evening. With any kind of luck. I just might be able to be relieved by Jim Milikan before it hit. Pray! I might have laughed at the storm if I hadn't shivered and reminded myself how cold I was.

This was not unusual; I always get cold when I have the watch on the bridge. It's as inevitable as the sun setting. I have worn more clothes than an Eskimo, but eventually the wind and cold find their way through the maze, no matter how thick or sorted, and I freeze to death, slowly, painfully, and inevitably.

On one occasion I wore, in order from inner to outer, the following: Long underwear including undershirt, an inner padded jacket and pants, khaki shirt and pants, foul weather jacket, rain pants and parks, a thick burly head gear, large artic gloves and mammoth foul weather boots with three pair of socks. I nearly died of the heat before I could get topside.

Then I feared I'd never make it through the hatch in my obese condition. But I did and was warm for about three hours. The fourth and last hour I was cold and almost froze for lack of being able to move. Normally I move around a lot, running in-place and what not, just to keep warm. With all the heavy clothes on, I couldn't lift my legs without great expenditures of energy. So with no movement to keep the blood flowing. I died a slow death the fourth hour.

Tonight I could already feel the chill seeping through when it occurred to me that the canvas on the bow was still in place. I had expected to dive before now, but we couldn't until the canvas was released. If the weather was going to hell, we'd better get the canvas off. I called the Captain.

When he answered in his bored voice, I said, "Sir, this is the Officer of the Deck. We have some pretty bad weather up north of us. Radar puts it about 60 miles. We should run into it about twenty hundred hours.”

"Yes, Mr. Marks. I'm aware of it.”

"Yes sir. But I wondered if you wanted to release the canvas before it hit. It's already getting dark with the overcast and…”

"And what if we're spotted without the canvas? I would think, Mr. Marks, that as Security Officer you would have thought of that.”

"Yes sir. But aren't we going to dive soon?"

"No, not for a while. We'll leave the canvas as is."

"Yes sir." And that's that. I frankly didn't care what he did with his canvas, as long as it wasn't me going out on deck in bad weather to get it off. I'd had my say. But I soon forgot about it as the wind began picking up and elaborating its cold cloak with a damp icy content.

My feet sensed it first. They were always the first to go. I have very susceptible feet. I had spent part of a winter in New London, Connecticut while at Submarine School, and from the first bit of freezing weather in October, my feet had been cold the entire time. For 111 days they remained frozen without once thawing. I was finally transferred and escaped west to sunny San Diego in February, but even then it took five days before the toes were warm again.

I was delirious with joy. Until we went to sea and it started all over again.

It continually amazes me why anyone including myself would live under these conditions. It wasn't the lure of an exciting career in submarines; since frozen feet attached to a numb body is considerably less than glamorous. I also doubt that it was the extra hazardous duty pay which kept me going. The extra money was handy, but was quickly losing its appeal. Instead, I think the primary reason was that I was unsure of the alternative.

They have a saying in the submarine force that when one devolunteers from submarines, they generally "throw him in the briar patch”. People bailing out of submarines have the embarrassing habit of getting much worse duty -- like being the Damage Control Officer aboard an aircraft carrier where there is a fair chance of dying in the performance of one's duties (even in peacetime). There always remains the agony of doubt. There are a lot of duty stations in the Navy worse then my present billet. I'm convinced I'd go there if ever my frozen feet convinced me to ask for a transfer. So for a lack of guts to speak up and accept the unknown, I would probably continue to freeze.

It's ridiculous. Surely there must be some other reason. It's just that I can't think of one.

When the bulk of my watch had passed, each moment allowed an additional icicle to be planted on my feet. And then I realized it was time to call my relief. This was generally done thirty minutes prior, so in effect I was now in the home stretch. In this cold one lives from minute to minute.

“Control, Bridge. Inform Mr. Milikan that it is cold and damp on the bridge.” I smiled slightly, imagining Milikan's expression when he heard the weather report.

At the same time, I could see it was to be a close race. The storm was almost on us. I had it figured from radar ranges to arrive at approximately 1945 hours (7:45 PM), the time for Jim to relieve me.

Half way to doomsday, I decided to play it safe, “Control, Bridge. Send up three pair of foul weather, rain parkas, and pants.”

“Come on, Jim baby!” It was getting close. The lookouts were being relieved already; a little early, but nothing unusual.

At 1940 I put on the parka. I just couldn't count on James to be on time. I thought about the rain pants, but decided faith was necessary. A few drops of water hit my face. I felt like it was all over until I heard his voice, “Permission to come Up.”

“Come up!” I yelled, much louder than necessary.

“Hurry”, I whispered in desperation. Quick, before it rains and I melt. Then he stepped off the top ladder and turned to look at me. Then he saw the weather.

The black of the sky and the glee on my face told him everything. I heard him groan. "Nice going, Sam. You really lost control of the weather, didn't you?”

“On course zero one zero, all ahead full on three engines. LORAN's out of commission, no shipping or air contacts, and, oh yes, the weather's deteriorating rapidly.”

I missed his next comment since I was struggling out of the parka to give to him. As I presented it, he said, "Brother, this is going to be one shitty watch.”

The sprinkling had increased, and I moved quickly to the top of the ladder. From there I said, "You got it?"

"Yeah. I relieve you.”

"Stand Relieved.” And I was down the first ladder, victorious in my race against time and weather. I certainly would never have made a good mailman. Quickly, I moved to the second ladder, dropped down it, and then stepped to the main hatch leading into the submarine's conning tower.

Within this sanctuary, I sat down and, using the Quartermaster's notebook as a guide, wrote my log. It was my contribution to historical annals... in case they ever begin to wonder what course the USS GILDAFISH was on at 1930 on the 20th of May.

It was when I had stood back up that I fell against the bulkhead. It wasn't a major fall, just suddenly finding one's shoulder using the bulkhead for support. It did, however, remind me that the seas were getting rougher and the submarine was now taking larger rolls. I remembered the canvas still on the bow and the combination of the two seemed ominous. I decided then to make a point of it when making my report to the Captain.

Down in control some white lights were on, in contrast to the rig for red lighting in the conning tower. Most of control was bathed in red (so as not to interfere with people's night adaptation – in case they had to go to the bridge), but a group of white lights were clustered around the LORAN. Rudinak and another man were working over the mass of wires and connections. They were taking voltage and current readings and comparing them to the desired readings in the publication. This told me immediately that they still had problems that they hadn't even found out about. If they had been replacing tubes or-resoldering connections, I would have felt better.

One thing about fixing electronics, the most difficult part is the diagnosis of the ailment. To repair it is painfully simple - as long as you have the spare parts.

"How's it going, Rudinak?"

"Hard to say, Mr. Marks. Right now we're getting a picture, but we're not picking up any stations. Mr. Lawrence has assured us that we should be picking up something."

“I'm afraid I would have to agree with him."

"Just one question, sir. Why the hell couldn't we get help from the Flotilla? They got a Chief ET up there that could have spotted the trouble with no problem at all. We just don't have a single man that's been to school on this gear."

"There was a question that if the Flotilla had known about the LORAN being out of commission, they might have cancelled the mission. Or at least our part in it."

"And cut out the chances for the Captain's gold star, huh?"

"No comment."

"Say Sam," the voice belong to Ed Wales as he passed and slapped my back, "First chance you get, how about fixing the LORAN?"

I tried to ignore the remark and continued to watch Rudinak's face. He laughed a bitter, sarcastic laugh while I could hear Ed chuckling at his humor as he ducked through the watertight door into the Forward Battery Compartment. Our train of thought broken, Rudinak went back to his work and I began studying over one of the manuals of the LORAN, thinking to help, if only through moral support.

After a brief, vain study, I left with a parting word of encouragement. In the wardroom I found the Captain with Ed, Hal, and Bill, all in various positions of sitting, resting, working, and taking it easy after the evening meal. The Captain had his usual cigar, looking very high and mighty. I reported to him my relief.

"Sir, l've been properly relieved of the deck by Mr. Milikan, conditions normal below decks.”

“Very well.”

“Incidentally, sir. The weather is picking up quite a bit. I mention it since you probably want to get rid of the canvas before it gets too much worse.”

"Thank you, Mr. Marks, for your concern. But I think we can handle that end.”

Hal was reading but also following the conversation with interest. Cutting in on the Captain's last statement, “We're not going to get rid of the canvas now, sir?"

"No, not until we're ready to dive, and we're not yet ready.”

"Begging your pardon, sir, but I thought the Flotilla only wanted us to be out of sight of land when we got rid of the canvas. Then we were to dive immediately following.”

“Not exactly, Mr. Lawrence. They wanted us to dive before 0600 on the 2lst."

“My understanding was that we were to dive soon after changing course to the north. Since we left a little earlier, we're well ahead of the game. We're already at the diving point according to my calculations.”

"And we'll dive tomorrow morning.”

“Sir, you do realize that we're already ahead of our track by about 14 hours?"

“I know that Mr. Lawrence. We may very well need those hours if we lose number three engine. You sometimes have to go beyond the minimum requirements set down by the Flotilla. If we dove now, fooling around and losing valuable time, we could endanger the entire mission. I hope I don't have to remind you that Russian trawlers are reported in the area. We've got to make good time to ensure that unforeseen events don't foul up our plans."

“Yes sir."

I turned to watch Ed enter his two bits. "And I understand that number three engine is not running too well right now.”

That's right, Ed, hop in on the side of truth, justice, and the guy that writes your fitness reports. Sometimes I hated the big lummox at the end of the table.

But taking the lead from his straight man, the Captain continued, "Exactly. We have a bad number three engine, a high Speed of Advance, and we are not diving until tomorrow morning. And I don't see the point of any more discussion on the subject."

With the ultimatum presented, the Captain arose with the air of a debate champion and left the wardroom for his stateroom. I stepped aside, then slid back into the wardroom in time to catch Hal going into a quiet, controlled, but furious rage.

Turning it on Ed, his junior in rank, he said, "Tell me, Mister Wales," Hal seldom called any officer, "Mister." "What the hell difference does it make if we lose number three engine once we're submerged?"

"We still have to snorkel."

“And we can't snorkel on more than two engines, which we'll still have, if and when we lose number three.” Hal was bitter, his face turning into a cruel, mean stare. I could sense that Ed was in a corner and frankly expected that he would revert to his old standby, that the Captain was always right. But he surprised me.

“We know number three to be on the verge of breaking down. Why not admit that we could lose number one or number four unexpectedly?"

Hal didn't answer immediately, and Bill watching the whole thing in silence, suddenly asked, "There's not much chance of losing two engines, is there?"

Hal and Ed both turned and glared at him until he went back to his reading. Still watching him, Hal added with a sarcastic grin, "That's the first intelligent statement I've ever heard from our Ensign."

Ed, I noticed, had decided to let that serve as the end of the conversation. Rising quickly he left without a word. He had only the backing of the Captain and nothing else. I doubt that he cared to defend the Captain too much.

When I had been in my stateroom for a few moments, Larry stuck his head in and asked, "Sam, the Captain and I are getting up a bridge game; we need a fourth. Wanta play?"

I enjoy cards and in particular bridge. Naturally, "Oh hell yes. Let's go."

"Fine. I'll see if I can get a third.” Grinning, Larry ducked back out.

When I made it into the wardroom, Larry came in the other door.

“Well, I've got a third. Let's get started.”

"Who's playing?"

"Us, Captain, and Ed."

"I trust Ed volunteered to play with the Captain as a partner?"

"You don't want the honors, do you?"

"Good God, No.”

"Looks like Ed gets the brass ring."

He threw the cards and score pad out on the table. I picked up a deck to count them and find the jokers as the Captain came in. Larry, ducking his head out into the passageway, called, "Let's go, Ed."

Little was said about the partner arrangement and we began to play. We were halfway through the first hand (Larry was trying to make three spades), when Ed nonchalantly started dropping little jewels. "Say, Larry, I noticed when I was checking rig for dive the High Pressure hull valves were almost impossible to turn. To all effects they're frozen. If we ever need to close them, we're going to be out of luck."

Larry stopped playing and, turning his head slowly toward Ed, stared unbelieving at the Weapons Officer.

"Were all of them frozen?"

"Yes sir, Captain. All the ones I checked were so tight you could never get them shut in an emergency."

Larry's face had suddenly hardened. "I certainly appreciate your concern, Ed. Since it's really none of your business."

"Don't get pissed off, Larry. It's my life too if we ever get in trouble and the damn things don't work."

“Ed's right, Larry. Let's get on those valves and free them up. You should appreciate the fact that Ed goes to the trouble to tell you about the problem."

In front of the Captain? I thought Larry was going to blurt out something to the Captain, but he didn't. The Captain and Ed both kept dead serious faces as Larry trumped his own good trick. He continued his excellent playing throughout the rest of the hand and went down three tricks. When I verbally put down the score, Larry regained his composure and started glaring at Ed. As a smile began to work its way over the outraged face of Larry's, I realized that this could be an interesting evening. Ed would be pitting his twenty years of working up through the ranks from an enlisted man to full Lieutenant against Larry, whose only qualifications were a mere six years in the Navy and a biting intelligence.

The first foray started when Larry howled at one of Ed's leads, which a quick appraisal of the Captain's frown showed to be the worst possible one. Ed's face turned a miserable sour as Larry gleefully finessed the Captain's solitary King. Larry's true reward came when, at the end of the hand, the Captain showed Ed his blunder. The Captain being a confident player and one who never errs, had always made every effort to help others to improve their game.

Naturally he was very gracious and lenient with Ed's ineptitude, but Larry generously dumped salt at each swipe of the rake. And always with a cheery smile. I got in the swing when, after bidding outlandishly, the Captain laid down his hand as the dummy. Ed, with a little slam in diamonds bid and doubled, went pale when he saw the Captain's two small diamonds. A quick glance to the left at Larry's broad smile told him where the rest of the diamonds were.

It was sort of sad, since Ed had had a beautiful hand, but I cheered up when he went down four tricks. The sportsmanship of Larry and myself was less than outstanding as we wrecked havoc through the dummy hand. The Captain only shook his head and occasionally mumbled something about why in the world Ed had ever gone to slam. Ed would have cried had not his teacher/expert been his partner.

But the supreme happiness of the evening was just before we quit. I had dealt and could see Ed's face take on progressively brighter sparkle as he picked up his cards one at a time. When he had all 13, he was delirious. They were well behind us in score but within range of winning if they could pull off a slam. Ed kept glancing at the score, his mind figuring the upcoming points. I passed, leaving him the floor.

“Two hearts.” His little suntanned face positively glowed. But the Captain hardly noticed. Larry passed and folded his cards to sit back and join me in watching the partners bid.

“Two hearts, huh?" The Captain looked terribly wise as he stroked his chin, counting his points. He only added four points one time, so by his lip movements, I figured him for a single ace. "Four no-trump.”

Ed's smile lessened but he gallantly and obediently answered his partner's call for aces, "Five spades."

That accounted for the aces. He got an immediate response, "Five no trump." I smiled at the Captain's confidence, since that alone meant almost certain disaster for Ed. Ed did not dwell on the normal question of whether or not the Captain was asking for Kings or whether it was a true no trump bid. He quickly chose the first, since apparently the latter was unthinkable. "Six spades."

The Captain smiled broadly and, without waiting for Larry's routine pass, announced, "Seven spades.”

I think Edward died a little that night. He'd had eight hearts and 150 honors. If the shock of seeing his hearts go down the drain had not so stunned him, he might have thought of going to seven no-trump. But it didn't occur to him and he passed. The Captain laid his hand down and then looked at Ed's hand. The idea of seven no trump popped into his mind immediately.

“Oh for Christ's sake, Ed. Why the hell didn't you bid seven no trump? We don't have a seven spade bid!" Larry's grin confirmed this fact.

We quit shortly after that most delightful of hands. Larry boisterously totaled the scores as the Captain made known his basic theory of bridge. Roughly translated it goes: The game of bridge is governed by three primary factors; the exceptional skill of the Captain, the wild luck of the opponents, and the occasional stupidity of one's partner.

In any case Larry had thoroughly infuriated Ed and I had the opportunity to see him lose his customary control. I suppose the extremely sour mood the evening's bridge had generated was one of the reasons for the incident which occurred later that evening.

Ed was obviously desperate for an image raising event. I was undressing and preparing to crawl into my bunk. Bill was resting like a log in the top bunk. I suppose Hal was in the Conn, navigating. From Ed's voice I could tell he was hanging in the X.O.'s stateroom doorway, the curtain pushed aside.

"Say Bert. I've got a problem." From the volume used I knew that the C.O. was in his stateroom. "This watch bill is really putting the hurt on me. You've got my only Firecontrolman standing a lookout watch."

"More accurately I've got a Firecontrolman Striker, a seaman, standing a lookout watch, a seaman's watch." Bert had a very unconcerned tone.

“But X. O., I've got to have him working on the equipment. Is it possible that he could stand a Torpedo Room watch?"

"So he could work on gear while on watch?"

"Yes sir.”

“That's exactly what I don't want. A man on watch has to be alert, not immersed in a schematic or a tangle of electronic wiring."

"But sir, I've got to have him down here. I can't very well guarantee the fire control system without time to work on it."

"That decision's final, Ed."

Then, surprisingly, I heard the Captain interrupt, “Bert, I think Ed's right. Let's take Marvin off the watch bill.”

"Sir?" I had never heard the Exec lose his cool, but his tone guaranteed a gaping mouth and unbelieving stare. I would have leaped out to see the sight if the increased tension had not caught me.

"Putting Marvin on as a lookout is a bad idea. We'll change it."

"Excuse me, sir, but I would like to point out a few things."

"Like what?"

“Well, I think it would be better if we talked in private."

"Let's just quit fiddling around and get on with it. I don't care for any back talk."

“It wasn't meant as back talk, sir. I simply meant that we just go over it again in private.”

"I don't really give a damn what you meant.”

"Sir?????" My own unbelieving thoughts echoed the Exec's question.

"And I want to see all the other watch bills. Right away.”

“Aye sir." The conversation was over.

I was still sitting with a shoe in my hand when I heard Ed tiptoeing back to his stateroom. I opened the curtain and looked at him. He said nothing, but gave every conceivable expression of shock and surprise at letting loose some kind of monster never dreamed of. As dogmatic about the point as Ed had been, I'm convinced that he had never expected the Captain to overrule his Exec. Especially in front of the officers. Ed was as shocked as I was.

I kept wondering for some time why the Captain had butted in. It was one thing to step on Bert's toes in an area traditionally the Executive Officer's. But to do it in hearing of the officers! I could not imagine the rationale of such thinking. I thought about it for some time, but eventually it released my mind and I fell off to sleep.


Chapter Three -- Underway

Forward to:

Chapter Five -- Man Overboard




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