17 November, 2006

Contrasts - Submarines

A friend of mine pointed out that my Channeling of the Ancient Submariner wasn't particularly flattering. In retrospect he is right. My intention was absolutely not to paint a bad picture but to give a feel for what it was like to be on the boat to be true to the time.

It is somewhat of a cliche but my time on the boat and in the Navy was a study of contrasts for me. There were very good and very bad moments but in the long run it was overwhelmingly a beneficial experience.

Like every navy member out there now and in the past I spent a lot of time away from my family. I basically missed the first two years of my son's life and the first year of my oldest daughter. My marriage was strained to the breaking point.

Homecomings were the greatest highs you could possibly imagine. They were the sweetest feelings and I could not possibly do them justice in words. I am not even going to try. It was a terrific and painful heat to temper my marriage that happily has lasted to this day.

Sadly many of my shipmates were not as lucky and it was not unheard of to return from a run and find a lawyer as opposed to a wife on the pier. In those times the camaraderie is what helped to take the individuals through the pain. In most cases it was a tempering experience for them as well.

It is not possible to get a true sense of comradeship without a suitably high barrier for entry. The barriers for acceptance are high and need to be. Lives rely on it and in some of my more serious memories that manifests in a direct and immediate way. If you understand the implications of the event I mentioned earlier you know that despite my flippant attitude what happened was very bad. It was treated with corresponding significance and integrity by all involved after it happened. In a very real way sea stories are a healthy part of the response to mistakes. Perhaps that deserves a post later.

The barriers to entry for the comradeship take many forms. Demonstrated integrity, time, knowledge, skill, emotional fortitude, lingo, persistence and sheer intelligence are a few of them.

All submariners develop a knowledge of the boat that is instinctive. The nukes and the officers culture a nearly eidetic memory and to this day I remember hundreds of numbers, settings, and procedures. Given a few days of thought I could probably recite them verbatim and I expect this would be the norm. The officers (even the Ensigns who I was less than properly deferential to) and many of the other nukes could quickly and accurately do complex math in their heads. This instinctive knack for the right answer doesn't leave you but it does have to be periodically exercised or it weakens.

To be honest I only knew one officer that deserved the term butter bar and the system worked and weeded him out early.

Integrity and confidence are possibly the best legacies that come from the experience.

Believe me presenting to the board of directors in multi billion dollar company is less stressful than your first final qualification board and the integrity required in an incident review is stronger than multiple SOX audits.

The treatment by senior sailors when you are a NUB (Non Useful Body) is harsh but prepares you well for the politics that exist outside and frankly if you are unable to handle that pressure you shouldn't be operating a nuclear reactor or manning a station controlling a billion dollar piece of machinery whether it be the helm, sonar of or any number of other positions.

Being underway sucked. Most of the time it was boring, occasionally during workups and particularly important runs it was slightly interesting, sometimes it was a bit frightening but overall it just really sucked. I would never voluntarily do it again but overall it was worth the experience.

More than that I wouldn't be what I am or where I am today without it.

What I described in the sea story was fairly accurate for a boat side conversation. Not pretty but true. I just should have remebered that when you get to a new boat you have to earn your quals again. You can't just take them. Now that I think of it that is applicable to where I am in life now as well.


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1 comment:

[CHRiS] said...

you may want to tell people what a nuke is, not everyone will know a nuke is someone who works in engineering, most will probably think of the warhead.