Suffice it to say I wrote a lot of poetry during this period. I served on the Michigan from 1982 to 1985.
It was early spring when, departing Norfolk and the Hammerhead, I arrived at Electric Boat. It was still cold. The Blue and Gold crews were working together getting the boat ready, seaworthy and shiny for a September commissioning. The Ohio, the first in the class and its namesake was overdue for its commissioning with delays and corresponding cost overruns. That would not be the case with the Michigan.
I remember having to arrive before the crack of dawn to get a good parking spot at the shipyard. We worked long hours, both crews in tandem with the shipyard workers to get the ship ship-shape and ready to go. As spring became summer, the days were long and hot. There was lots of welding and lots of testing of piping, hydraulic, pneumatic and steam, and that was just the part our division knew about. And equipment under our supervision had to be run and tested – the emergency diesel generator, the low pressure blower, AC and refrigeration units forward and aft, all the atmosphere control equipment, shit pumps and tanks, the hydraulic power plant back aft and associated piping, hydraulics for weapons systems, hydraulic operators for the nuclear plant, and hydraulics for the periscopes, masts, and antennae.
We formed a strong team across both crews and with the shipyard folks. I became good friends with a shipyard welder who used to let me come to her place in New London to cook on the weekends. I would wine and dine her, so happy to be away from the barracks for a moment. She would feast and go to sleep. Every time. And I would clean up, listen to some music, and return to my barracks room. Or maybe she was fooling me. I never figured it out. Besides, it actually worked for both of us. Sometimes we’d go to a reggae club in downtown New London, Cool Runnings, where local and regional bands did covers of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, and Steel Pulse songs that were popular in the tiny expat community.
We commissioned in September 1982 to huge fanfare and public acclaim. It was as if everybody and their brother knew that even though the Ohio was the first, the Michigan was the real deal, the workhorse, and the sea going vessel of the working man.
Following commissioning, the Blue crew took possession of the boat and the Gold crew traveled to the west coast to get their families settled. After a couple of preliminary day long sea trial excursions, we took the boat to Port Canaveral, Florida, where we would do serious sea trails in daily ops in and out of port. Daily ops are always hard but we pushed it through and the Gold crew came in December to relieve us.
I returned to Greensboro for the holidays, spent some time with my sister and my niece, and in late December headed out I-40 for points west. This was before GPS, of course, but I had something from Triple A called trip tickets that outlined the journey for you. I decided on I-40, thinking I would avoid bad weather, but boy was I wrong. I should have traveled south and taken I-10. But that’s water over the dam, as my father would say. I got in touch with Jan, (yes, the same Jan I slightly pursued in Ballston Spa) who was in Bremerton by that time and working at the Trident facility where the Michigan would be home ported. She told me she had a cute little cottage on the bay and I could stop in when I arrived. So of course I was hyped for the journey. Love conquers all.
Day one I drove from Greensboro to Memphis. Day two took me from Memphis to Amarillo, Texas, where I got snowed in and was lucky to get a hotel room. Day three after the roads cleared I drove from Amarillo to Flagstaff, Arizona. Day four from Flagstaff to Bakersfield, CA. Day five from Bakersfield to Reno, Nevada. I was getting tired of driving and the distances per day was getting correspondingly shorter. Day six was a relatively short sprint from Reno to Eugene, where I had to stop to pay homage to my childhood hero, middle distance star Steve Prefontaine. Day seven I pushed into Bremerton and Jan had a big supper awaiting me!
The Ohio returned to Electric Boat (EB) for its PSA, post shakedown availability, the maintenance period after sea trials to fix stuff that either broke or failed. Admiral Rickover was pissed and accused EB of shoddy workmanship in the first instance because they knew the boat would return after sea trials, extending work opportunities for the shipyard. Meanwhile there were already three more Tridents in the EB pipeline after us, the Florida, the Georgia, and the Alabama, and the Ohio was years late getting to commissioning with corresponding cost overruns. So Rickover decided we would do our PSA in Bremerton shipyard to spite EB. That was fine in theory, but Bremerton workers had never seen a Trident boat before. So the burden came down to the crew to get the shipyard work done following sea trials. We went from four sections (overnight duty every four days) to three sections, to port and starboard (overnight duty every other night), wearing down both crews and crushing our social lives, i.e., my social life with Jan. We got the job done and trained Bremerton shipyard workers for future Trident shipyard availabilities.
At length, we emerged from the shipyard and transited to our new home port, Bangor. We settled into a standard ballistic missile submarine schedule, 72 days underway, 21 days of repair, and transfer to the other crew.
My time on the Michigan, once we hit a normal stride, was somewhat unremarkable. I gave it my best at work. I did my time underway, making four deterrent patrols and one horrible extended shipyard availability. I earned promotion to E6 and was selected for the Enlisted Commissioning Program at the end of my sea duty rotation three years later.
One thing worth mentioning is meeting the Trident protestors. They were in small boats blocking the straits when the Michigan first arrived. I frankly found that curiously courageous and even ballsy. I stopped to chat with them while they were handing out pamphlets outside the gate. I met the leader, Jim Douglass, and told him I was on a Trident crew and we were actually human beings. He invited me to his house for a home cooked meal. I am always up for a home cooked meal! They were actually interesting people. Later the Seattle Times came on base and interviewed the crew and somehow I got caught up in it. They quoted me saying something very pro-Trident and very pro-nuclear deterrent. When it reached my new radical friends they wrote me off forever. Too bad because they were really cool people.
My new friend from Seattle was into jazz big time. We saw, at various occasions, George Winston, Esther Phillips, Ernestine Anderson, Chuck Mangione, George Benson, and others I cannot remember. We saw a couple of good plays that I remember, A Soldier’s Story (Charles Fuller) and Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Meanwhile Jan and I were up and down, on and off, a very bipolar relationship. I should have read the room. I remember we saw the premiere of the new Gandhi film, followed by dinner at a very posh Indian restaurant. We also drove up to Vancouver once to see Bad Brains, a band her cousin Garry was in. Eventually she moved in with her new boyfriend. We spoke on the phone occasionally but the relationship was over.
There were wonderful weekends in Seattle and Tacoma, visiting with relatives and new friends, going to jazz concerts, exploring bookstores and art galleries in the Pike Place Market. Oh and fast food visits to Ivars were the best. And browsing used record and book shops in the U District and on Capitol Hill. Life was grand on the west coast. Finally, every off crew I took a course at Chapman College on base in fulfillment of my long range plan.
Underway, my principal place of employment and watchstanding was Auxiliary Machinery Room #2, AMR II for short. AMR II had all the atmosphere control equipment, the O2 Generator, the CO2 Scrubber, and the H2 Burner. Very poetic names, I’m sure. Quickly, the O2 Generator produced oxygen for the ship’s atmosphere as oxygen was constantly being depleted by humans breathing. But it was also known as “the Bomb” because the very controlled process of using electrolysis to strip oxygen atoms off of water molecules had its detractors. The machine had to be constantly monitored for temperature and pressure changes across sits internal components. Sometimes the little oxygen atoms didn’t want to separate and instead rushed back to their hydrogen buddies. This could potentially cause a big bang that could sink the ship! To prevent that big bang, alarms are set to alert the watchstander to drastically changing temperature and pressure excursions that would accompany such a condition. At this point you have to “block” the machine, which involves rapidly shutting five or six valves in rapid succession. That was the 80’s though, and I suspect, I hope the builders of submarines have improved on that technology. At any rate, folks were afraid to operate the machine because of those inherent dangers. I had a couple of good mentors in AMR II, John Novak and Clifford Taylor, who taught me how to operate and maintain the machinery. I stood all my under instruction watches with them. They showed me all the ropes, so to speak. When I tell my wife submarine stories, she says, “One person does all that?” I laugh so hard.
There is another whole paragraph each on the CO2 Scrubber (necessary because people are constantly exhaling carbon dioxide) and the H2 Burner (necessary because the ship’s battery is constantly being charged, a process that gives off hydrogen, and people are constantly farting, passing gas). I will leave it to the dear reader to Google “submarine atmosphere control.” The internet has everything!
Old memories literally flood the space. A shipmate reminds me about the time a bird that got sucked into the snorkel mast during diesel operations. How could I forget that. Wasn’t I the on-watch diesel operator at the time? And how about that time the Commanding Officer made a decision, coming out of the Panama Canal locks, to steer south for some crossing the Equator fun. It was just like this, only more confining inside a submarine. I was already a shellback from my Hammerhead days and there were only three of us onboard so we had to initiate the rest of the crew, a bunch of pollywogs that they were. And yes, after Cocoa Beach liberty and hanging out with the Brit submariners in port for a liberty call after their extended wartime deployment in the waters surrounding the Falklands, I swore never to go to another “tiddy bar” again as long as I lived and kept that promise. And I remember that night-time shuttle launch from Canaveral. We were doing daily ops (and sometimes nightly ops, that’s the way submarines roll) but the Captain delayed setting the maneuvering watch) so everybody could see that spectacular launch. Transiting the Canal got us all a new designation, Order of the Ditch. Don’t know where I misplaced that certificate. We had a cookout topside transiting the locks. Fun times and beautiful sights on the shore.
Another memory. I seem to recall getting paid in advance before each patrol. 72 days, 11 weeks, a bit over four paychecks. A nice lump of cash up front. I would buy a few books and some toilet articles for the patrol and bank the rest. There was nothing to buy underway, no bills to pay. I think married guys’ families continued to get their pay twice a month. Well, as soon as the last line was cast off, a poker game would begin and it would continue for 72 days, until return to port when the first mooring line mooring went across. One continuous game.
On the Michigan we had two poker kings. A big white guy, I think he may have been a Nav ET (navigation electronics technician) went by the name Big Money. Those ops guys took three showers a day and always had sharp creases in their poopy suits (a poopy suit is a set of coveralls, normally blue, which substituted for a uniform, but only underway. Worn on top of underwear, poopy suits saved you from wearing out your uniforms because you wore it on top of underwear only. They issued us three.). The other king, a slender short black guy who was an ICman (interior communications tech) went by the name “Little Money.” When we returned to home port, without fail, Big Money and Little Money would have won huge stashes of cash, tens of thousands of dollars. Some guys managed to break even. But there was always a handful of guys who owed thousands of dollars to the poker kings. And they had to pay. And often it was not pretty,
What have i omitted, consciously or unconsciously? I moved off base to a large three bedroom apartment with two guys in the Gold Crew. It was old military housing that had been rehabbed and repurposed in Poulsbo. When they deployed and left me with huge utility and phone bills, I put their stuff in storage and moved out on my own to a section of the same housing but closer to Jan’s apartment. That proximity probably spelled the doom of the relationship. The following year, 1984, I moved to a small above garage apartment in Bremerton, right on Kitsap Bay. it would be my final residence while attached to the Michigan.
In the Spring of 1985 I packed my newer model diesel Volkswagen Rabbit and headed back to the east coast to attend the summer-long Naval Science Institute in Newport.
Naval Science Institute was designed to cover the first two years of NROTC course and training. There was the classroom phase, covering Naval history and traditions, and what I called the outdoor phase, which covered marching, drilling and PT, physical training. The running and calisthenics parts were fine, but I did have some problems with the obstacle course, especially the Wall (Note I capitalized Wall – I have great respect for it) and climbing the rope. After several embarrassing attempts, I finally got the hang of it and by the end I was mounting the wall and climbing the rope with the best of them.
At the end of the summer we graduated and I set off on the long drive from Newport, RI, through Greensboro, to Tallahassee and Florida A&M University.
Poetry from that period
Thank you (End of Year)
Thank you for the thunderstorm
on the eve of the final departure —
that cleanses the air and
charges every ion in the atmosphere —
that clears the path of obstructions.
Thank you for every raindrop
that waters the good crops
as well as the bad ones,
and replenishes the water supply,
that baptizes the once wayward soul
and steers its direction.
Thank you for sisters and nieces,
for aunts and uncles and cousins,
for fathers who teach by example,
for mothers whose special love is irreplaceable,
for friends and for strangers,
for meetings and for farewells,
for departures and arrivals that are happy.
O2 Generator watch
Sometimes I feel it coming
From a dark and distant past,
Rising to the surface,
Freeing my soul, at last.
Occasionally it haunts me,
The urge to write and weave,
Up from the deep it calls me,
I answer but can’t always receive.
From time to time he visits,
This spectre from the deep,
He sits down at my station,
And sows that I may reap.
breathing manufactured air
eating plastic food
drinking water from a still
sleeping in a tomb
such is life aboard a submarine
adventure all the way
in its mission to pursue
deterrent (deferment) to judgment day.
where we left off (to J)
where we left off…
do you really suppose
it is worth the time and effort
to return there?
let’s just start
we’ll call it
don’t write like I used to…
lost my style,
lost my spirit,
inspiration got transferred
to San Diego…
yes, I know the source
and origin of your attitude,
you could say I have
a preformed judgment,
a prejudice about
wish you were here,
wish you could hear
me wishing for you…
and I wish you were
the same person you were
two years ago…
broken pieces of a vision
spread about the cabin floor
the next line won’t quite come to me
trying to write is such a bore…
writing poems can be a chore
when all your love is lost, forsaken;
the rhyming spirit comes, then goes,
then from your daydreams you awaken…
the rhythm flows, a new creation
distilled from timelessness and void
presents itself and seeks relation
to a world that’s paranoid…
And so, you see, it is so useless,
and all your time is spent in vain,
trying to write some verse of substance:
these poems you write
won’t soothe your pain.
Postscript (to J)
just thought I’d write
a line or two
to let you know
I’m feeling blue.
My boat just launched
an atom bomb.
it flew so high,
then kissed the ground.
I wonder how
the people felt
to watch their homes
and children, melt?
Missile Launch Sonnet
“This is the Captain, this is a strategic launch!
Man Battlestations!” rings around my soul,
And rousing me from sleepiness and slumber,
Demands that I assume my chosen role.
We rise up, like a beast, from ocean’s bottom,
The hatches open, doomsday is at hand—
We push the buttons, random pick the numbers,
Then send the missiles after our command.
And afterward the afterword is zero…
There’s no one left to tell us how we sinned;
We’re the survivors, that makes us the hero,
We build the world anew and make amends.
But how can we ignore, erase our wrong?
We pay the price. Are we the best, the strong?
Bangor Submarine Base, WA February 1983
Would that I’d never tasted (to J)
Would that I’d never tasted passions’ cursed
forbidden fruit, nor drank deeply of that
poison which deprived me of all reason,
sapped away all reservation, left my soul
and spirit wasted, broken down, diseased and hurt.
Apparitions of an angel I was seeing,
so completely was I cast beneath its spell.
Wanting it kept me inspired, its embrace,
my sole desire, but it bathed my soul in fire,
forged like iron, cooled in pain.
Now it’s over. I’ve recovered from the guilt,
the misery. Self forgiveness isn’t easy;
but once reached, the soul grows stronger,
finds the power, searches longer
for that quintessential something
Every soul is hoping for.
San Diego, CA – August, 1983
Untitled (to J)
just don’t cut it anymore….
conversation in paragraphs
nothing more to say
to you baby
no more love,
no more lust,
no more feeling
(green, not blue…)
to lose it
tried to keep it
time is a bitch sometimes …
passing thoughts (to J)
better to let you pass….
not worth the worry,
the guilt-ridden conscience,
the shame, the disgrace,
the fear of showing my face…
(thought I’d throw in a little rhyme…)
don’t need to be tainted
by the uncleanness
of having made love to you…….
(it’s too soon for the end…)
don’t need to be thinking
about rushing back,
about screwing you,
abut who may be screwing you –
I thought you understood,
thought you caught my drift,
thought you could dig
where I was coming from…
when I said it was a shame
I was telling you that it
could never happen again…
How come you didn’t understand?
How come I didn’t understand?
This morning I’m bubbling over
this morning I’m bubbling over
out of the clear blue
some spark of creativeness, of inspiration
has awakened inside me
thoughts, words, phrases
emerge in rapid succession,
like fireworks in the summer,
or like raindrops in Seattle…
images flashing, reminiscences with
the power to stop me in my tracks
assail me from all corners,
all dimensions: nowhere can I hide…
is it some external stimulus,
or am I just overdue?
starting again with little certainty
starting again with little certainty,
no real ground to stand upon,
no explanations for what just happened,
nor justifications for why…
deeply regretting the loss:
my spirit aches with the pain
of a thousand heartbreaks
and a year of lonely nights…
Far from a storybook ending it it was.
sounds a bit corny, and it was,
and it is; and stupid, and
senseless, and very unnecessary.
getting sleepy, maybe it’s time to retire for the evening.
random thoughts about you (to J)
random thoughts about you
haunt me night and day
memories of times we shared
silly games we play
paths we’ve traveled together
confront me from all directions
no place for me to hide
no one to flee to in my dire need
faster than the speed of light,
constant and abiding
come with me and let’s take flight
what a high we’re riding
you chase all my clouds away
and make my life worth living
in your arms I’ll always stay
so much love you are giving
sweet as candy, peppermint
always there to please me
warm like summer’s evening sun
when you hug and squeeze me
your smile makes darkness disappear
bad feelings, clouds depart
your voice fills very soul with cheer
your ways touch every heart
if I could write a song of love
of tender feelings unexpressed
I’d write about the joy it brings
just thinking of your sweet caress