Submarines Were His First Love
He had been lonely most of his life, this boy with only a few friends and little money for the usual activities of boyhood. His high school years were spent working part time delivering groceries on his bicycle. Sometimes he helped his father deliver the rich folks dry cleaning. As the oldest child, he was the last to get attention. Sure, he knew they loved him but with three younger siblings (one that was pretty sickly) keeping his mother busy, well, sometimes he just felt - alone.
The year was 1947 and he was a young man who had no job skills. The US Navy seemed like a good choice. Jobs weren't very plentiful in this sleepy little town and there was no money for college. Those thoughts led him to the recruiter's office. I wonder sometimes if he really knew what he had done, when he signed those papers.
The US Navy sent him up to Great Lakes, Illinois for training. He said it was the coldest place in the world. He underwent testing for physical weakness and mental stamina and learned that he had qualified for submarine service. I've often wondered if he understood what that meant, back then.
With his basic training complete, he received his orders to report to San Diego, California. He traveled alone by train, from the east coast to the west. It was his first trip outside the state. I wonder if he was afraid. The Navy put him to work in the engine room. He was responsible for keeping the boiler operational. In his spare time, he trained as a fireman and practiced deep sea diving and rescue skills. He loved the water and the thrill of diving.
He worked on the Gato and Balao class subs but the two he loved best were the USS Bashaw (SS-241) and USS Bumper (SS-333). Both were military class subs with intricate ventilation and water systems. Every sailor had to know that complex system inside and out and be able to find any component in complete darkness before they could earn the coveted 'dolphins medal to wear on their uniform. He earned his dolphins quickly and was more than proud of them.
Sixty-five years have passed and his Alzheimer's disease is slowly erasing his memory. To sit with him and talk is to listen to his stories of the real loves of his life. He will always tell you his greatest love is his family but if you read between the lines, you'll find that he's a man who loved submarines best. If that pretty little girl hadn't turned his head, he would have spent his life on those boats. I've never doubted it. When he talks of those years in the Navy, chasing Japanese subs around the Pacific, you can hear it in his voice. It's haunting sometimes when he speaks of Mare Island, Hong Kong, Japan, Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, or Hawaii. He doesn't speak of the night life or the pretty girls. No, he talks about being on those boats, turning valves this way and that to flush a toilet, the noise in the engine room or decompressing in the chamber after diving. He doesn't speak of being lonely or wondering if anyone cared. When he was on those boats, he was part of a team; a team of sailors who depended on each other to do their job so that they could all come home safe.
He never won fancy medals or climbed through the ranks of officers. No, he was happy in that engine room. His felt that his job was just as important as anyone else's and he took his responsibility seriously. When he speaks of those years in the US Navy, he speaks with pride and love. He still wears those dolphins proudly, on a baseball cap or a jacket. Most conversations with him eventually return him to those days under water. Yes, those submarines, they had him from hello. They will always have him, I hope. The Alzheimer's has wiped away the memory of his brother and he no longer knows the names of his neighbors. He can't remember which mailbox is his, and he rarely knows what day it is. But he remembers those submarines. He can tell you about the heat in the engine room and how he used the steam to get wrinkles out of his uniform. He can still recall the sequence of valves he had to turn to flush the toilet. He can tell you about the officer who let him bring his young bride on board for a weekend dive. Alzheimer's hasn't touched his memories of those boats - his real love, and when he remembers, it brings him joy.
© 2012 Linda Crist, All rights reserved.