Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Update on Sailor Boy. . . second weekend of September I visited SB in Seattle. Flying out late Thursday, I arrived at the airport at 1:30 a.m. Friday EST and took the "short" $24 cab ride to the Howard Johnson's about 8 miles from the airport. A very polite middle-aged, Middle Eastern man--Pakistani perhaps--checked me in at 2:00 a.m. body time and directed me to my room. This was a circa 1958 Howard Johnsons where the rooms opened onto the parking lot for the front rooms and the backside rooms onto a chain link fence. The room had been updated--about 1980--but it was clean and with only 12 channels on the TV and me dog tired, it was time to sleep.

Next morning I got breakfast at Denny's across the highway--does every Denny's use the same grease in their hashbrowns for the Grand Slam Breakfast? Back at the hotel, I got the call that SB was on his way, so I proceeded to check out . . . and was serviced by the same polite, m-a, m-e gentleman who must work 24/7. He beamed proudly at my positive response to the question, "And how do you like our nice hotel?"

SB made the hour-long drive in his elderly white Toyota Camry and we began the trek back around Puget Sound to Sub Base Bremerton. Along the way he pointed out the sites of interest, mainly the obvious reasons that Washington is called "The Pine State." Crossing a high bridge over the tail end of the Sound, I got a look at some beautiful scenery and several houses on bluffs overlooking the Sound that most go for $1M and up. In case anyone needs to relocate, check them out.

Highlights of Friday were a tour of his housing area on the base which is about 15-20 minutes from the boat. SB has a room about the size of your typical college dorm room with similar furniture. He shares a bath with another sailor in the next room. Just down the street are all the necessities: Navy Exchange for tax-free goodies, mess hall, theater, fast food, grocery, etc. Not that SB seems to spend much time there since he's working most of the time.

After a short nap for both of us, we got some grub and headed back down the Sound to Bremerton and the Navy Base/Ship Yard. Parking on top of the parking garage, we got a great view of two aircraft carriers that were in port, adding 10,000 sailors to the local population and turning parking into a scare commodity on work days. Since SB was bringing a civilian onto the base, we had to have a Navy van from the boat pick us up and take us through the gate.

Given the fact that we were entering an area with access to nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines, the security didn't seem all that rigid, but then I wasn't going to test it. The guard didn't notice that my driver's license looks like a crazed Melungeon. Once at the pier, we walked across the gangway to the stern of the USGN 726 (the Ohio, moored, somewhat ironically, next to the Michigan). Here's where I entered a personal "dream-come-true" zone for the next two hours. Almost 600 ft. long with 24 missle tubes and a 30 ft. sail with massive planes on either side (that tall thing sticking up out of the sub with wings on it), we made our way forward and down a ladder through a hatch.

How can I begin to describe such an incredibly complex array of massive steel hulls, plumbing, electronics, computers, pumps, and weapon systems--all designed to sink hundreds of feet underwater on purpose. Forget the movies. Everything is much smaller, tighter, compact, cramped, head-thumping and shin-bumping than I had imagined. The stainless steel ladders between the four decks are straight up and down for the most part. The water-tight compartment hatchs are about 3.5 ft. in diameter and required a swing low, sweet chariot posture to get through. And everywhere there are pipes, valves, gauges, equipment, duty stations. There's a huge, 12 cylinder diesel that runs with a snorkel at periscope depth, a giant compressor, huge pumps and valves--everything depends on air and water getting moved to the right place at the right time. With pipes holding air at 4000 pounds per square inch and outside hull pressures way beyond that, this is very serious business. And it's mostly done by kids being trained and supervised by the old salts.

Basically we were allowed everywhere except the radio room off the main control room and the reactor room, which were off-limits (that was ok with me, although no one seemed to glow in the dark). SB's work area was a narrow walk-in with three computer stations, shelves and files, and was situated close to the captain's and officers' area and the control room. As SB noted humbly, yeomen make everything happen on a boat because everything has to be documented and it has to go through them. And the yeomen make it happen by knowing how to get it done and who to know to get it done and forgot about how the Navy says it's supposed to get done.

A few other boat highlights: looking up a 40 ft. missle tube, now converted into a four-level/chamber interlock to launch SEAL teams and a mini sub off the deck underwater; the torpedo room and tubes (no weapons on board but still impressive); looking up the sail where control equipment and a machine gun have to be hauled up by ropes to the top of the sail so the sub can be guided on the surface--it's one long, long climb up a straight ladder (this is where SB got caught in a pressure current when someone opened the hatch too soon and floated him off the ladder); the crew berths that were stacked three high and some were just an opening in the wall where you crawl in and try to remember not to sit up since there's no head room anyway and you just climbed in after another guy climbed out most likely.

The Ohio is still undergoing the final phase of a refit and the boat was busy 24 hrs. a day with civilian contractors installing equipment, so we were constantly moving out of someone's way. Looking at the huge warehouses and machine shops on the pier to maintain the boats, it's easy to see why our Defense budget is what it is, even minus the $200 hammers and $900 toilet seats.

On Saturday we did some shopping, rode the car ferry to Seattle and toured the city. It's an interesting collection of post-60s social detritus and hip, loco java Northwest affluency. Stadiums for basketball, football, baseball; the oddly UFOish space needle; a ratio of one coffee shop for every ten residents; the gorgeous homes high enough to overlook the bay and the less than beautiful parts and people; the harbor with it's busy ferries plying the waters and all the messy industrial port stuff thankfully down in lowly Tacoma; Mt. Rainier and Cascades to the east and the Olympic range to the west--it's one beautiful piece of manifest destiny and social contradiction--but isn't that America?

1 comment:

Call It Courage said...

Good to know it is easier for you to get into an nuclear aircraft carrier area than over the Canadian border...