I was in the submarines, the USS Cubera—a diesel boat commissioned in 1945 but never saw combat— from 1957 to 1961. I was a sonar man who sat in a tiny sonar shack in the forward torpedo room listening to the hunters and the targets on the surface above. I could hear a ship 60 miles away (when conditions were good) and tell by the sound of its screws whether it was coming or going and what direction it was going.
The wolves (the destroyers) were harder to pick up because they were smaller, but it was the slow screws of the merchant ship that would travel for miles. They were our juicy prey.
My time in the “silent service” was spent in an anti-submarine task force based in Norfolk, a carrier, USS Valley Forge, a number of destroyers, and two subs, which were the toys of the surface fleet. We were the target, they our hunters.
At this stage in the Cold War nothing in tactics had changed much from WWII. But a radical change was coming during those years as the Nuclear subs were being built, and the old diesel-electric boats were becoming dinosaurs.
When we didn’t want to be detected, we would rig for silent running usually at 400 feet, which was our permitted depth in peace time. Running on battery, everything was turned off and we would be in our bunks unless at a duty station. You could hear the hull creak from the pressure of the ocean as it tried to find a valve to blow. If you tied a string across the hull, when the sub rose to the surface the string would snap, such was the compression.
You could hear the wolves searching for you with their probing pings of the sonar. Ping… ping… and you could hear the sound of the screws coming closer…(Have they spotted us?)…ping… ping… the churning screws recede. (Don’t breathe… don’t move…) Then another destroyer approaches. (Is that another one or did he turn around?)… You hear a splash as the destroyer throws his depth charge in the water, in this case a harmless explosive. BAM! it goes off and my ears explode in the earphones… The sub begins to twist and turn to shake off its pursers. But still the Pinging follows you…
When we ran silent for some time on battery, the oxygen would get low, and you could tell because the match lighting your cigarette would go out. Everything would begin to sweat: drops of water on the pipes, and its began to get cold and still like a corpse that was still moving.
Lying in your bunk (mine was close to the hull above the torpedoes) you could feel the vast ocean that has buried you in its deep bosom. We called the sub a steel coffin.
I have always felt that my three and a half years in the Silent Service was a living metaphor for my life as a meditator who, like a frog is at home on the surface and beneath the surface of water of consciousness. The submarine knows both, while the surface ships only know the surface —and where I roam is death to them.
My father was a naval officer, but when I joined the navy—as a last resort really because I had no place to go with my life— I chose the submarines because my father was an office in the surface navy and I wanted to discover my own ocean, and why not one beneath my father where he couldn’t find me. There I could be my own man.
But metaphors aside, I was attracted to submarines because I imagined from movies there was a different esprit de corps down there. In the silent service the crew was all for one and one for all, like the Three Musketeers. Unlike the surface navy that was fragmented into special skill departments and regulate by strict laws, the submarine crew was unified by a single cause: everyone depended on everyone for the safety of the boat. You had to qualify and get your silver dolphins when you got on a boat by learning every system, from bow to stern. In an emergency you had to know what to do no matter where you were. Everyone on the sub was the whole sub, while at the same time you had compartmental skills. My skills were that of the sonar man, the one who listens.
I remember how glad I was to be in this silent service when I was on the aircraft carrier in our fleet, and I couldn’t help but notice how regulated everyone was, and master of arms were always nearby to right you up if you were out of uniform. On the boat regulations were relaxed, and you mingled with the officers on a first hand basis. I wore black boots and a bomber jacket instead of navy issue.
This sense of Oneness and individuality was important to me, as it is now. This sense of being a part of the whole and belonging to the whole at the same time is a spiritual urge, a longing we all have. We want to be a unique individual with special skills, and yet at the same time we long to be submerged in a greater ocean, to be part of the main instead of someone always standing outside looking in. Metaphorically, the USS Cubera was my launching pad for a lifelong journey to unite these two imperatives, to be the one under the surface and the one above the surface.
Like a frog I longed to be at home in both worlds, and to heal the pain of their separation in my own being.
I reported to duty on the Cubera at Charleston in 1957 where the boat was in dry dock. The next day we would traverse the wild Caper Hatteras for safe harbor at the Destroyer Submarines piers in Norfolk. My first duty station was to assist (or watch) the helmsman whose station was in the conning tower beneath and to the left of the conning tower hatch that went to the bridge and the open air. This is where the waves entered the boat. I asked the helmsman what the large coffee can hanging around his neck was for. “You’ll find our he said,” with an ironic grin.
Cape Hatteras is a rough place, and subs don’t—at lease the old diesel-electric boats—don’t submerge to escape rough seas. First, because you can only go about five miles an hour on the battery which has a short life, but more than that, it is dangerous to surface and submerge in high seas because a wave to hit you when you are your ballast is in transition in between being a surface vessel or an undersea craft. The wave can capsize you since you in transition between two worlds. When you are in transition, you are always vulnerable to the unexpected. I great lesson the Cubera gave me for my journey.
As I clung to the bulkhead and the water poured down through the open hatch as waves crashed over the diving and lurching boat, I discovered what the coffee can was for. A submarine in rough water is like riding a roadhouse bull: the ocean’s one goal is to make you toss up.
My first night on the Cubera was a knock out event. New sailors had to “hot bunk” which meant that in your sleep time you slept on a bunk that was zipped up in its plastic cover, its owner on watch. I got on a top bunk in the After Battery compartment that housed the majority of the crew and the mess hall, which was really just a small diner. When the sub dives, a loud OOOOOga goes off with the urgent announcement DIVE…DIVE…and the OOOOga horn was near the bed, so I shot upright at attention, hit my head on a pipe and dove back to sleep.
It was some months before I earned my own bunk in the foreword torpedo room close to my tiny sonar shack; it was the best bunk because it was on top of the rack of torpedoes and was not pulled up during the day so the torpedo men could work on their fish. I could lean over the edge, safe and warm, and watch these shirtless sweating men grease their charges. The pipes would drip hydraulic oil on my bed so it was always easy to slip into it. At night I could here ships above and imagine this great vast ocean mother a few inches from my head holding me in to her bosom.
In a few months I earned my coveted silver dolphins, which to submariners is equivalent to the pilot wings, only we fly underwater. The two dolphins kiss a submarine as if to bless this new fish. As a sonar man I became great friends with the dolphins who would swim with the sub whistling for it to respond. Once when we surface on a calm sea, dolphins were migrating from horizon to horizon jumping and splashing to surround us in a vast plate of happy fish all leaping and playing.
In the old days when a submariner earned his dolphins, he was thrown overboard as a baptism in the sea in which he was now at home. But polluted harbors stopped that initiation. Now you just got pinned in a ceremony on deck. There was something mythic about the dolphins. The Greeks gave them roles in their mythology as guardians of seafaring men. And even today there are stories of dolphins saving a man from the sharks or what not.
The submarines is an integrated number of systems, all of which you have to learn and tested on. The diesels propel in on the surface, and the batteries under the ocean, charged by the diesels when on the surface. (Just like my Honda Hybrid)
The Germans invented the snorkel tube that draws air above the waves while you are submerged at periscope depth so you can run your engines and recharge the batteries.
Interesting thing about the snorkel is that when a wave goes over the chimney pipe, it shuts down so the engines won’t suck water into their lungs. However, the engines may not know the breathing tube is shut so they continue to suck before they are shut down automatically. In that gap between breathing and not breathing, the engines suck the air out to make your ears pop and will suck any ink out of a fountain pen in your pocket.
I found out why subs were called pigboats. When you are at sea for an extended cruise, everything stinks. The two showers are filled with sacks of potatoes and the crew has to eat its way to a shower. A submarine bath is when you put your finger under the faucet to catch that single drop lingering there to wash your eyes.
The Cubby Bear was commissioned in 1945 at the end of the war so it never experienced real depths charges and when I arrived the old silent service was undergoing irreversible change. The service was going nuclear. The first nuclear boat, the Nautilus, was a tremendous success, and nuclear boats were being built so fast that the Cubera became a training platform for new sailors to qualify so they were ready to man the next nuclear sub off the assembly line.
But we did have Pappy, a torpedo man who was in WWII subs. Speaking of depth charges, there were three toilets (or heads) on the sub, forward and aft torpedo rooms and in the After Battery room where the crew slept. These toilets has a negative tanks which had to be blown when used, which required a tricky series of values so the the contents of the tank would go in the right direction. Of course, in subs you were qualified to do everything so there were no instructions on the bulkhead on how to Blow Negative. When the sub was in dry dock, one of the coveted assignments was to clean that tank. It was a standard joke for a gullible newly that you had to do it with a tooth brush.
One day Pappy was in the head, and we heard this WHOOOOSH…slowly the door opened and Pappy came out, his glasses and face a hilarious color brown. I finally knew where the expressing Shit Eating Grin came from.
The Cubera was one of two subs in an anti-submarine fleet headed by a small carrier, the Valley Forge, and we would go out for week or two maneuvers so unlike the nuclear subs to come, we were always coming back to port. When you went to sea, you could get cigarette sea stores that were tax free, supposedly to use at sea. But you just bought a case of cigarettes at ten cents a pack (can you believe that?) and have someone take the case home and put it in the fridge to keep them fresh.
Everyone seemed to smoke on the boat, and I don’t recall anyone being irritated by the smoke. In the 50s everyone smoked so it was just the air you breathed. Where could you go that smoke was not, not even on a submarine? When we couldn’t smoke, the Navy term was Smoking Lamp Out or On.
Coffee and cigarettes was the fuel that ran the navy. As the junior sonar man, it was my job to get the coffee. It was going to be black and sweet, black and bitter, blond and sweet or blond and bitter. Everyone had a permanent hook in their forefinger to hold their coffee cup. I never learned how to fix the sonar gear, but I did know how to get coffee without having to write the order down.
During the Cold War one of great rewards was a Med Cruise for the Atlantic fleet. When I was engaged (another story) I told my wife the Cubera would never abandon go on a Med Cruise and I would never be gone for more than a couple of weeks. The month after we were married I was gone for three months.
But back to cigarettes, I learned the value of American cigarettes in Naples where even if you were buying a diamond, a pack of cigarettes thrown in would sweeten the price your way.
When we stopped in Southern France, the French tobacco has such a pungent smell that everything smell like arm pits. But too much of anything is bad. I went to a perfume factory where all the combined aromas over powered the nose like a perfumed skunk.
I also don’t remember anyone stinking on the Cubera, even though a shower was rare, and the personal lockers were a little larger than a cigar box. And, it need not be said; there was no washing clothes on a submarine. My wife would hold my clothes with a stick when I got back. Everything smelled of diesel and god knows what else.
When something becomes your metaphor, it is a wellspring of creativity that keeps on giving. The #cubera347 is my Twitter. Seven seems to be my number for 347 always pops up in my life.
While at sea on maneuvers the Cubera needed a new movie operator and I was selected, or I volunteered, and remember this was before VCR and the entertainment was movie reels, which needed a projector. A helicopter came over from the carrier and picked my up from the deck and deposited me in this teeming floating city on the sea. I was like some hayseed from the country just dropped into NYC. I spent the night there and compared to the bouncing and hopping sub, it felt like I was on the ground.
I did notice that a number of sailors had MA bands and they carried themselves with some authority. Master-at-Arms were the police who wrote you up if you were out of line. The surface navy was a land of strict laws, which need constant enforcing. There were no police on the submarines because there the law was life and death so life was simple and choices were always in harmony with the law of survival.
This is a spiritual question, you might notice. Even St. Augustine wrestled with the eternal question of the wayward will that didn’t spontaneously obey the law. Those on the surface needed the whip to enforce obedience, but those beneath the surface were obedient to the ocean itself.
The great fear and weakness of the surface ship was sinking. Submarines were fearless because sinking was their strength. The submarine like the spiritual seeker who dies many times until it becomes the essential part of living. And yet, no matter how many times the boat goes under and the OOOOGAH sounds with the three DIVE..DIVE..DIVE…there is still that thrill of being real…and the fear of being dead.
When I left the Valley Forge the next morning, I was catapulted off the carrier in a plane going to Norfolk. You sat facing backward and when the slingshot released the plane, your tongue came out. At Norfolk I was on a mail plane going to New London and movie school where I learned the intricate operation of a movie projector and how to thread the machine.
Navy planes were a trip. Before taking off from Norfolk to New London one of the plane’s crew climbed out on the wing and pounded on the engine with a hammer. I don’t remember how I got back to the Cubera.
On the boat if at sea we watched films we had brought with us in the dining area, which had three row tables. Everyone smoked then and I know it would be intolerable now, but I don’t recall smoke even being noticed then since everyone smoked.
If the boat was at the navy base next to the dock, we would watch movies on the deck in warm weather. I do remember encountering a problem that was not part of my training. The deck of the boat was slated so water would go through, and apparently film also. One of the reels had come loose from its reel and had gone straight through the crack and into the sea. I turned to rewind the reel and there was no film there.
I look down right now at my age and notice that the reel of my past story has run through the slates in the deck and disappeared. Where did the stories that I once lived in go?
If is because I don’t live in my Story of Me that I can write about it. You can’t critique the movie when you are a character in it. I joined the navy when I dropped out of the University of Virginia, not knowing what I wanted to be. I thought I would find out in the Navy, but all I found was that I didn’t want to be in the navy.
When I was contemplating leaving the navy, my chief sonar man Watson would pat the sonar equipment and say with great wisdom: “You take care of this gear and the navy will take care of you. Stay in, retire, and then just sit back and drink beer, satisfied. “
But I looked around at those who had made that choice, and they wore short Timer chains on their belt if they were close to getting out. The bathtub chains had little balls that were clipped off for each month. It seemed like a prison to me where everyone waiting to get out. Did I want to spend my adult life counting the years until I was free? Something was missing in this bargain of freedom for security.
Why couldn’t I have both? I had to find out if this was possible. The submarine as metaphor taught me how. Surface ships were at home only in time, and they traveled in fleets from port to port, with the time at sea a dead time, that made arriving in port always fresh and exciting for awhile, and then they went back to sea so that they would miss the land again.
Marriages were sustained because it was always a honeymoon again and again, and as soon as the honeymoon waned, the sailor went back to sea.
What was different about the submarine? Well, it did obey the laws of the surface world and moved with the fleet. However, it also knew the laws of the underworld where mermaids swam and Davy Jones had his locker.
The submariner didn’t need the ports of the land to give his live meaning. He was able to draw from within his own oceanic mind to escape the doldrums of the surface sea.
Life on the surface sea is horizontal. Without being at home beneath the sea, the surface is only a line of time that stretches backward and forward from horizon to horizon, and all you know is where you have been and where you are gong. The present moment if void of interest. Life is something to get over, to arrive at the next port were you will be free.
Beneath the waves of time is the stillness of the eternal ocean in which all life plays like the whales and porpoise.
I learned to know both worlds and the laws of each. One has to die many times before you learn this secret. Meditate…meditate…and dive beneath the thought waves of the mind. While the storm blows you around on the surface, you can dive and at the same time you in the storm and below the storm, rough and still at the same time.
The awakened mind is the submariner who is able to be above on the surface where others see him as an object, and at the same time to be below the wave where you are One with the whole ocean. Noisy and silent, active and passive…both at the same time.
Sometimes even submarine captains get a little too exuberant and must pay for their lack of judgment. We had a popular commander, but one Sunday when our sister sub and us had nothing to do, the two boats decided to take pictures of each other diving and surfacing. The other sub submerged and surfaced normally, and our commander thought we could do better than than. “We’ll show them something.” So we dove, but with too deep a down angle and suddenly we were headed to test depth on a step slide, which in these old boats was 400 feet, so in a panic all the tanks were blown and a full up angle applied.
Inside the boat it felt like a roller coaster doing straight down and then straight up, stuff falling off of everything, and it was scary to feel your steel coffin behave in an unpredicted way. We shot out of the water like a whale, water pouring out of its bow. Our “hot shot” commander was sent to a desk job. But I did get a good picture. I learned first hand what a “battle surface” was like.
You became intimate with the ocean when you were on a submarine because you swam with the whales. As sonarman I could hear them talking to each other. Behind the playful tunes of porpoise and whales you could hear great banks of shrimp. It’s too bad I couldn’t tell the whales where the ship were, but I guess they knew. As a sonar man I got a feeling of what the world of whales sounded like.
When ocean was rough, green water would come over the bridge and we lookouts would hook our belts to the conning tower so we wouldn’t be wash overboard as the sub seemed to actually submerge in the wave. The hatch to the coning tower was shut and we were on our own, ducking and hanging on when a wave came over. We were not on the ocean; we were in it.
At night alone in the ocean in this tiny steel whale, I would think of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk I had begun reading. Why did he leave the world and dive into a monastery? I could feel his pinging at me under the surface of my conscious mind. Something was calling me. Something was speaking to my soul. Who was this man who left the material world, the surface world of fleets of religions and systems of thought.
At night on lookout duty alone with the ocean, I heard a call I recognized that I must follow. I would not stay in the navy. Was it God? Was it my truth? I didn’t know. Who knows what the whale knows.
Surface…Surface…came the call when the boat transitioned from below to surface craft. Surfacing was always risky because you could surface in front of a ship if the sonarman’s ears were blocked by a thermal layer that deflected surface noise sideways. The first thing that went up upon reaching periscope depth was that single eye of the captain. Through his periscope he would take a quick 360 degree survey before finishing the surfacing. You could tell immediately when the boat was on the surface because now you were in the waves instead of beneath them. Our mother was rocking us in her cradle.
When you were in the conning tower, that first gush of fresh air was like a lung full of air for the whole boat. Two lookouts and the Officer of the Day went up to take command of the boat from the bridge. It might be so rough that water would wash over the boat, and you would hang on as if in an amusement part ride.
To the surface bound sailor the submarine was a metaphysical problem: you see nothing at all on the ocean, and then suddenly there is something. Where did it go? Is it watching me now? To the submarine crew these “surface skimmers” were lacking in the esprit de corps that was the lifeblood of the submariner. Like an undersea tribe, the crew of the silent service was bonded by something much deeper than the surface sailor every knew. Like a tiger in the jungle, the submarine used the ocean as its friend. Unafraid, it went where no surface ship dared to go.
Submariners were tribal. Unlike surface “skimmers” who lived in a pyramid scheme with the captain at the top with the gold of the sun dripping from his hat’s brim, the submariner bonded as a tribe where each member was equal in value with every other member. All for One, One for all, was the motto. There were no nobility and peasants on submarines.
Proud to be called pigboats because of the smell (you just didn’t have much water for washing), a submariner wore silver dolphins that made him feel like he had wings, wings to fly in the sky of the ocean. Fish and birds were both free. But unlike fish and birds, the Cubby Bear alway flew alone. It was the surface skimmers who took refuge in schools and flocks, to protect themselves from, guess what, the submarine.
Having your silver dolphins pinned on your chest by your captain was membership into the tribe. Before the harbors were polluted, you were thrown overboard as a baptism. Something had changed, something had shifted in your consciousness and now you were no longer alone. You belonged to a boat, to a tribe, and you knew they had you back no matter what.
There were rarely any fights on the Cubby Bear. In fact, in my three and a half years I never saw one, and I can’t even remember an argument. Unlike surface ships there was no master-at-arms (ship police), and I never saw anyone getting written up. There was no tension on the Cubby Bear—unless it was a string you tied from bulkhead to bulkhead when you were deep. As you surfaced and the pressure on the hull was reduced the string would stretch until it popped. I never saw any sailor snap on a submarine.
While in Naples the Cubera moored next to a submarine tender (a large ship that carries submarine supplies) in a row with an Italian, French, and British boats. All had liquor rations, which we went from boat to boat sampling. All we had was coffee. Coffee was the fuel of our navy, I knew had had to leave the navy after five years because those that stayed had a permanent crooked index finger. How could I ever pick my nose?