At a writers meeting the other day, someone asked me about my experiences in the military. So I told a couple a stories, and then she asked: “Why don’t you write about that?”
It’s a simple question, with a complex answer. I spent six years in the US Navy—1982 to 1988. I was a nuclear electrician and served aboard a fast attack nuclear submarine. There is no dark, dramatic story behind my reluctance to talk about that time. Even so, I’m always tempted to use the standard flippant answer we used back then when civilians asked us what we did:
“I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
There are several reasons why I am reluctant to talk about my navy days:
- I’m an introvert and prefer to keep such things private.
- I was lucky to serve in a time between wars. I have no exciting war stories to share.
- Most people think of combat troops when they think of the military. While I was qualified with small arms, the only time I ever carried one was when we had repel boarder drills.
- We weren’t allowed to talk about the nuclear submarine (I had a secret clearance) and I still feel uncomfortable discussing it even now (even though that whole submarine class has been decommissioned).
- Most of my navy stories involve drinking, which are mostly funny stories, but are not ones I care to share with strangers.
Being in the military, any branch, does give you a different perspective. I write fantasy novels with a strong military element. While I was never in combat—especially with swords, spears, bows and arrows—I understand the sense of belonging to a greater group than yourself, and the camaraderie that military people share.
With all that being said, there is a story from my navy days that most people may find entertaining. I was stationed aboard the USS Gurnard (SSN 662). It was commissioned in 1968. At the time when I served on board, it was middle-aged for a submarine; there were older diesel and nuclear subs still in service, but there were also shiny new 688 submarines (Los Angeles Class) getting all the attention. The older subs, like the Gurnard, had one advantage over the newer Los Angeles class subs—they were designed to surface through the ice.
When the navy decided to send a couple of submarines under the arctic ice in 1984, the Gurnard was chosen. Luckily for me (Yes, this is meant to be sarcastic), I was on board at the time. We left sunny San Diego and headed up the western seaboard.
Unfortunately, we had a major piece of equipment breakdown and had to make a pit stop in Adak, Alaska (I did say this was an older boat, right?). If you’ve never been to Adak, Alaska, you didn’t miss much. It was a small base on a small island in the middle of a cold sea. We were there for two days, and I had duty. All I saw was the dock. The guys that went ashore only saw the bars, go figure. From what I understand, there’s nothing left to see there today.
We left Adak and headed through the Bering Strait, submerged. I worked in the engine room, but the guys from up forward said it was a white-knuckle ride with the ice above and the sea bed below and not much room in between. I couldn’t say, but sometimes it can be good not knowing where you are.
After that, we were submerged under the ice for over a month (44 days). We surfaced through the ice twice during that time. Once early on to load the equipment that needed replacing (from our stop in Adak). The navy set up an ice camp and we surfaced long enough to clear ice from our main hatch so we could rig the new motor onboard the sub. I was awake for over a day during that fiasco (I call it a fiasco, but we actually got a commendation letter for our planning and execution), because my division was responsible for rigging and setting up the pump. After replacing the pump, we slipped back under the ice until we reached the North Pole.
When I tell people I’ve been to the North Pole, I always get two questions, so I’ll save you the trouble:
- No, there is not an actual pole there, and
- No, I did not see Santa.
Really, I didn’t see much of anything but snow and ice and darkness. We were there in the winter when it stays dark forever. The picture below is the sail of the USS Gurnard sticking up through the ice at the North Pole. The color on the ice is a reflection from the flare shot off so you can see.
I actually got out on the ice twice while we were there. The first time was because who would go to the North Pole and not go up on the ice? So I dressed up like a green Stay-Puff Marshmellow Man and went up to look. I kinda looked like this guy, only all green instead of camo with a mask over my face.
We were only allowed to be up there for about 5-10 minutes because of the temperature (I don’t actually remember how long, but it was no more than 10 minutes). It was probably the most surreal experience of my life—walking away from the boat’s sail, on the ice, in the dark, and thinking, “I hope I don’t fall through (the ice was way too thick for that); I hope they don’t leave me (That would suck); and I hope I don’t get eaten by a polar bear (If you look at the picture, there are two men up in the sail with high-powered rifles. They were called the polar bear watch.).”
That could have been the end to my North Pole adventure, and I would probably have been left with a more positive overall impression—been left more in awe of the majesty of the place—but this was the navy. Several hours later, I was woken up (during my never-enough-to-really-feel-rested rack time) to go back up on the ice to hook up temporary lights. Several crew members decided that it would be awesome to reenlist at the North Pole. How exciting! Of course, I was the poor slob who had to go up and string lights for the ceremony. Have you ever tried to hang lights in the dark wearing two pairs of gloves (the outer pair being mittens thick enough to be used as oven mitts)? Needless to say, my North Pole memories are somewhat marred by the experience. But hey, the navy promised adventure, right?
I remember the ads from those days: “Navy. It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” I’m not sure why they didn’t show someone stringing up lights in freezing weather on that commercial. I’m sure it would have been a hit.
All joking aside, the navy was a positive experience. I have made a good living because of the training I received. (And I don’t glow in the dark much either.)