How to drive a nuclear sub

13 Oct

Well, you did it. You made it through four, grueling years at the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating third in your class, if you count up from the bottom. You made it through officer training school and all the most strenuous courses the Navy could possibly throw at you: thermodynamics, reactor dynamics, differential equations. You know seamanship and command, strategic weapon systems and nuclear propulsion as well as anyone, and you’re ready for your first sea tour as a Division Officer aboard the USS Tennessee, an Ohio-class Trident nuclear submarine.

You report for duty in South Korea, and the CO names you Diving Officer – a huge responsibility. Basically, you get to drive the submarine, and when the CO asks you to back the Tennessee out of the dock, you don’t hesitate.

“Yes, sir!” you say, climbing into the driver’s seat. You turn the key and the big, S8G PWR nuclear reactor rumbles to life. You let it warm up for a few minutes, revving the engines, and put Journey’s seminal, 1982 release, “Frontiers,” in the cassette player [note: the Tennessee was commissioned in 1986. Nuke subs only came with cassette players back then]. You jam the transmission into reverse, floor it, and the sub launches backwards. The steering wheel tears from your hand and you hear an awful scraping noise.

“Whoa! Whoa! Shut it down! Shut it down!” cries the CO.

There goes my Navy career, you think. Sheepishly, you follow the other officers onto the deck to inspect the damage. It’s minimal, a few pieces of chrome trim are bent and you totally wasted a couple of fishing boats, but that’s about it.

“Do we have some kind of adhesive spray on board?” you ask. “I can fix that trim in about five minutes.”

“I’d better let someone else drive,” the CO mutters, pointing to one of the other officers.

“Aw, come on,” you say. “How was I supposed to see the dock? There aren’t any windows down there.”

But the CO is adamant. He names you Weapons Officer, instead.

“Yes, sir!” you say. You like the sound of that: weapons officer.

Still, after a few hours on board, you realize that being a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy isn’t all that great. You kind of thought there would be more adventure involving motorcycles and speedboats, but no. Basically, you just drive around in the ocean.

“Borrrre-ring,” you tell Ensign Price, one chair over. “I’m bored. Call me when I need to shoot something.”

You go to fix a sandwich. Unfortunately, while you’re away you miss the announcement from the commanding officer that you’re about to undergo a live fire exercise on a derelict ship; however, the exercise will be staged as a real-life nuclear launch against Beijing.

You come back onto the bridge just as the exercise is getting under way. Ensign Price is tapping nuclear launch codes into the computer. “Hey, what’s happening?” you ask, taking another bite from your smoked ham and gouda on a fresh-baked Kaiser bun.

“We’re going to war,” LPO first class Benjamin Nipples says. He seems scared. Really scared.

“Prepare to launch MIRV Trident II on Beijing!” the CO cries out from his position near the periscope.

You throw your sandwich onto the console in front of you and quickly punch in the firing coordinates for Beijing. Your mind is racing. Did the Chinese attack first? Or is this some sort of preemptive strike?

“Weapons officer, do we have coordinates?” the CO calls.

“Yes, sir!” you say. “We certainly do!”

You clench your teeth. You know better than to follow a “yes, sir,” with a “we certainly do.” Nobody does that in the Navy.

The CO begins his countdown to launch: “6, 5, 4…”

Lord forgive me, you think.

“3, 2, 1…”

Images flash through your head: children laughing, singing, playing on a playground.


“Come again?” you say, turning in your chair.

“I said fire!”

“I thought you said ‘hire,’” you say, laughing nervously. “I was wondering who I was supposed to give a job to.”

“Fire, goddammit!”

Your finger is poised over the launch button, trembling, but you can’t do it. You see the helpless faces of 100 million Chinese children who have done nothing, who bear no responsibility for this genocide. You start to cry, your sniffles echoing through the cold, steel chamber.

“Fire!” the CO yells. He’s angry.

“Oh, all right,” you say, under your breath. The world is ending, anyway. You stab your finger at the fire button, only your eyes are so blurred from tears you push the wrong button. Instead of firing a missile, a small door next to the CO pops open and an ironing board swings down and hits him on the head.

Well, there goes my Navy career, you think.

After a few minutes of stunned silence, however, the CO breaks into a wide grin and starts to laugh. Soon, the whole bridge joins in.

“Permission to starch your collar, sir!” you yell to the CO from your station.

“Permission granted!” he yells back, and everyone starts to laugh even harder.

A few hours pass and it seems everyone forgets about bombing Beijing. Just as well, you think. Heck, you didn’t want to annihilate one of the world’s greatest cities, anyway.

Your shift ends late and you head back to your bunk. On the way you run into Petty Officer Jesse Klute, who does light welding and maintenance on the boat.

“Hey, wanna get high?” he whispers. He shows you a huge Tupperware bowl full of pot. You look at him, stunned, and the pound or so of dank bud he’s holding. He smells like potatoes.

“I – I’m an officer, Klute,” you whisper back. “I could have you arrested, but, well, OK, um, let’s go. Follow me.”

You lead him down a side hallway to the lower level, through the engine room and into the nuclear plant.

“Let’s step outside,” you whisper, pushing on a door. Ice cold sea water pours into the room. You shut the door, quickly.

“I forgot,” you whisper, pointing at the door. “We’re underwater.”

“They should put a sign on that door,” he whispers back at you. You nod.

You climb a ladder to a steel platform by the ceiling. There’s at least a foot of water on the floor. The reactor is making a funny noise.

Klute loads his pipe and you both take a few hits. He reloads and after a few minutes you’re higher than you’ve ever been in your life.

Suddenly, there’s noise in the hallway. The door opens, and the CO steps into the reactor room. He’s wearing fleece pajamas with band instruments printed on them. “What the hell is this?” he says, sloshing through the water. He throws a switch that evacuates the water from the room, then opens a little door at the bottom of the reactor. “Damn pilot light,” he says, “just as I thought.”

He lights a match and gets on his knees, holding down the control knob for a minute or so to let the thermocouple heat up. Slowly, he turns the knob from “pilot” to “fission reaction.”

When he stands up he sniffs at the air, then looks up and spots you and Klute. You both snap to attention. Klute, however, drops the Tupperware bowl full of pot, which lands at the CO’s feet and spills open. The CO looks at it, and back at you.

Well, there goes my Navy career, you think.

“I should have you both court martialed,” he says after what seems like an eternity. “In my 40 years in the Navy, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an egregious violation of military regulations.”

Your mind is numb. The CO stoops and picks up a handful of Klute’s weed. He smells it.

“Nor,” he continues, “do I think I’ve ever seen such a righteously keefed bud. Load me up a bowl, bro.”

An hour later you’re back in your bunk. That sure was an eventful first day, you think.


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