Social Polish

January 7, 2009

Sometimes, it seems that the powers that be smile on us and grant us a favor. It’s not until you’re in the middle of the situation that you actually see the great joke.

We were in Brisbane, Australia for the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. The cruiser USS Chicago was involved in the battle and they were trying to gather all the namesake ships for the celebration. All the important ships were to meet at Sydney. Since the USS Chicago sunk in the battle, we were sent to Brisbane.

During the voyage to Australia, to put us in the mood, our venerable captain gathered us together on the mess decks. He split the crew into thirds, but it was still quite a challenge to fit fifty people into a space designed for twenty-four. He then proceeded to read from the battle log of the cruiser. He read log entries for over an hour.

Fifty of us, crammed around little tables, listening to his voice drone on…and on… and on. The air conditioning, which is always challenged to keep this area cool, decided that this was a futile task. The temperature started to rise.

The captain, his bald head shining in the florescent lighting (every submarine captain I’ve seen is bald) continued to recite the log entries. This was a man you did not fall asleep in front of. If he caught you nodding off, you could just forget about being paid for a few months. I saw men bite their tongues trying to stay awake during that hour. Finally, the ordeal was over and we were allowed to return to our duties. If his was to put us in the mood, what were we in for? We found out all too soon.

We finally arrived in port, moored the sub, and connected to shore based electricity when the word arrived: The Secretary of the Navy was in town for the celebration. Tomorrow he would visit us, talk to us, and answer any questions we had. It was his idea of improving morale.

What does anyone do when they find out someone important is coming to visit? They usually like to straighten up a bit. Fluff up the pillows, do some quick dusting, vacuum the rug. In the navy, this process turns into an all hands, four hour cleaning extravaganza.

Once this cleaning (known as a field day) is finished, the off duty crew got to go ashore and the duty section continued cleaning. I was in the duty section. I got to wash the floors in the engine room and make sure the bilge was nice and clean. You never know when a Secretary of the Navy might want to crawl down inside a bilge.

I didn’t mind though. I knew that my duty section would be relieved at eight o’clock the next morning. This meant that I would not be there when the Secretary arrived. Little did I know…..

The next morning we were rousted out of bed and told that we would remain with that day’s duty section until the Secretary’s tour was over. We were to gather in our work areas and be ready to answer any questions when he came through. Oh, and we had to be in our dress white uniforms. So I find myself, on my first day off in Australia, standing in the engine room in my dress uniform.
We spent an hour waiting for the Secretary to arrive. Finally, the executive officer (XO) came over the announcing system and told everyone to gather on the mess decks.

The XO was an interesting officer. He’s a rapidly advancing officer. His last position was in Washington DC, writing orders for other officer’s tours of duty. It seems he sent all the bright fast track officers to the USS Chicago, then he wrote himself orders to the USS Chicago. The rest of his career has been mainly spent in Washington as an aide to numerous admirals and politicians.
There were now approximately fifty of us on the mess decks waiting for the XO. Almost like a few days before when we were listening to the captain. The only difference is this time we’re wearing 100% polyester dress uniforms. The XO finally comes in and addresses us.

“Men,” he says, “if the Secretary of the Navy asks you if you’re in today’s duty section, tell him yes.”

I being both a smart ass and part of yesterday’s duty section, raise my hand.

“Yes, petty officer?”

“Sir, wouldn’t that be an integrity violation?”

“No, petty officer, that would be …um…er…that would be social polish.”

And here I thought polish was what we did to all the brass on board during the previous day. That comment of his showed me that there was one major difference between myself and that rapidly rising officer. We both did a lot of polishing, he just polished a different type of brass.


Triple Testosterone

January 6, 2009

What do you do for enjoyment on a submarine? What do you do in your spare time? These are two questions that I’m asked all the time. In a way, it seems a lot like prison. One of the main sources of recreation is working out.

Working out on a submarine? Where do you find the room? When I first came on board, the officer in charge of the propulsion plant was an avid body builder. His body was so well sculpted, his nickname was “The Rock.” During a beach party, women were lining up to touch his chest. He made sure that we had plenty of opportunities for physical fitness. Since he was in charge of the mechanics, he could get them to build or modify any piece of equipment he thought was necessary.

For aerobic exercise, we had a stationary bicycle and a rowing machine. For weight training, the Rock started with a basic Soloflex machine, and had it heavily modified. When the mechanics were through, the machine was only vaguely similar to the original. Weights, pulleys and cables were strung on it, making it the most unique looking piece of exercise equipment in the navy.
This was not the only service that the Rock provided. He was a complete source for physical fitness. He gave out numerous copies of a catalog that offered every nutritional supplement ever devised.

One item became very popular. It was a small spray bottle filled with some liquid. It was advertised that spraying this under your tongue, three times a day, would triple your testosterone levels. I don’t know if this really occurred, but the placebo effect it generated was certainly effective.

Picture this: one hundred twenty men trapped on a sewer pipe, one-third of them with triple the normal testosterone levels in their bodies. They were easy to spot. The walked around with their chests thrust forward, and spent a lot of time grunting. They would pull out their little spray bottles, squirt the bottom of their tongues, and give their best impression of the Incredible Hulk, “Grrrrr!!”

We had men glaring and grunting, slamming their chests into each other to prove their manliness. Weight lifting contests became common place. Every situation was looked at as an opportunity to prove their physical prowess.

Eventually, the Rock left the navy. The last we heard from him, he was in New Orleans working as a model. The exercise equipment fell into disrepair, and the little squirt bottles were emptied. Like Popeye when his can of spinach was empty, the men soon acted weak and impotent. Life returned to its normal state of abnormality.

The Self Licking Ice Cream Cone

January 5, 2009

At my current job, one of my responsibilities is to write Technical Data Packages (TDP). These are submitted to Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) who reviews them for safety concerns and grants permission to install equipment on Naval Vessels.

For my current TDP, I had to hire the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC, pronounced NEW-ick) to perform a safety analysis. In the past, I would submit the report, detailing this analysis, to NAVSEA for approval. Recently, the person who approved the analysis retired. NAVSEA decided not to hire a replacement. Instead, they out-sourced the position. They outsourced it to NUWC.

This has led to the following situation. I paid NUWC to perform a safety analysis. NUWC then reviewed the analysis, found problems with it and rejected it. I had to pay more money to NUWC to fix these problems. I then resubmitted the analysis to NUWC who is currently reviewing it. If they find any more problems with their analysis, they will reject it. I will then have to pay them more money for further corrections. The circle continues until NUWC is satisfied.

This reminds me of the Dilbert cartoon where they pay the programmers to fix any bugs they find. Wally decides to “write himself a new sports car” by creating and fixing bugs. I wish I could find a job that let me get away with that.

Change You Can’t Believe In

January 4, 2009

I reported to the submarine tender to work in Radiological Controls (RADCON). Before I could start, I had to clear medical before they would issue me dosimetry. Luckily, I had recently had a physical, so it only took two weeks. If I hadn’t had that physical, it would have taken four to six weeks. During this time, you’re pretty much useless.

Weekly field day (four hours of in-depth cleaning) occurred. Since I didn’t have any dosimetry, I couldn’t clean the work spaces, so I was assigned the locker room and the head (bathroom). My task for the next four hours was to clean these two spaces. The locker room took about twenty minutes. The head was a different story.

Picture the foulest gas station bathroom you can imagine. Our head would make the gas station bathroom seem like something worthy of the Waldorf-Astoria. The smell was overpowering. There was green ooze in all the cracks. Piping had a combination of stains and rust that were basically putrid.

I decided that since I had to keep busy for the next three and a half hours, I would do the best field day ever. I found some really thick rubber gloves and got to work. I scrubbed the toilet, the floor, the walls and the overhead. I disinfected everything, not once, not twice, but three times. I polished the piping and fittings. There wasn’t a trace of green mung anywhere.

Everyone was impressed. Our division officer was showing it off to all his fellow officers. I knew it was a good job when the women said that they would start using our head. They thought it was clean and safe enough to use.

That night, the engineering department messed up a valve line-up and overflowed the toilet. I came to find out that this was a monthly occurrence, which usually resulted in two to three inches of raw sewage floating in the head. The next morning the head was back to its normal status. All traces of my hard work were obliterated.

This story pretty much sums up my experience as an active duty sailor. No matter how hard you worked, or how much better you made something, the improvement was very short lived. Something or someone always erased it and set things back to the beginning.

Working on my People Skills

January 3, 2009

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Eau de Amine

January 2, 2009

One of the first questions I’m asked is, “Where do you get your air when you’re underwater?” Quite simply, we make it. In order to survive, you need to breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. The same principle is true for the submarine.

First let’s look at oxygen. We get oxygen from a process called electrolysis. We take pure water and run an electric current through it. The water splits into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is vented overboard. The oxygen is either sent to the submarine or to storage tanks.

Getting rid of the carbon dioxide is accomplished with a chemical we call amine. When amine is cool, it absorbs carbon dioxide. When it is heated, it releases the carbon dioxide. We have a machine that has two chambers. In the first, the amine is cooled. It gets pumped through a nozzle that looks like a shower head at the top of the chamber. The cooled amine rains down as little droplets inside the chamber. Air form the submarine gets blown through the amine stream and carbon dioxide is absorbed. When the amine reaches the bottom, it is collected and pumped into the second chamber. In the second changer, the amine is heated, and releases the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is compressed and vented overboard.

There’s one problem with amine, it smells. The best description I have for the smell is rotten fish that have been soaking in lubricating oil. Since the small droplets of amine are blowing through the air, the smell gets into everything. You get used to the smell pretty quickly, but other people notice it. I always told the newcomers to wrap their civilian clothes inside two garbage bags. Before sealing the garbage bags, drop two bars of soap inside. Your clothes will smell like soap when you pull into port.
Not everyone takes this advice. We’ll pull into a port, and the sailors get ready for a night out on the town. They just never can figure out why women are backing away from them all the time.

Submariners have a very distinctive smell. The amine not only gets into your clothing, but also your hair and the pores of you skin. It takes several scrubbings in the shower before a woman will even think of hugging you. Most wives leave a bathrobe for their husbands in the garage. When he gets home, he leaves his clothes there and heads straight for the shower. His wife finally greets him after he’s clean.

People’s reactions when we first pulled into port always made me wonder. The technological miracles the machinery performed allowed us to survive underwater, but people acted as if we smelled like corpses. Did we really survive our voyage?

Responsible Drinking

January 2, 2009

When a sailor returns to port, he likes to blow off a little steam.  When a submariner pulls in, he knows he only has a few short days in port, so he’ll try to cram as much leisure activity into that time a possible.

Most of the men like to go out and drink.  They drink hard and they drink fast.  Are they alcoholics?  They go out to sea on a sewer pipe.  How normally adjusted can they be?

On my third western pacific deployment, we had pulled into Guam.  This is one of our major maintenance stops, so everyone is very busy.  This also means that free time is at a minimum, so everyone shifts into overdrive when they go on liberty.

On the fourth day, we had our morning meeting.  We gathered on the pier, because the captain wanted to address us.  We were all standing in ranks on the pier, when he came up and gave us a little address that went something like this:

“Men, you’ve all been working very hard and I appreciate this.  There is a problem with liberty though.  We’ve had too many alcohol related incidents in the past three days.  I can understand the van getting scratched up on the first night, but last night there was another accident and now we can’t find the rear bumper.  We’ve also had several complaints from the barracks of unruly drunks coming in, vomiting and passing out in the lobby.  From now on, I want everyone to cut back and drink more responsibly.”

“The second item concerns Saturday.  We’re going to have a beach party and a barbecue on the beach over here.  We’ll have a keg of beer and you men can feel free to bring whatever else you’d like to drink.  I’m sure we’ll all have a good time, and I don’t want to see any beer left in the keg when we’re done.”