Or, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Tennessee anymore.”
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”Mark Twain
“You can’t have a narrow mind and a thick passport.”Pauline Frommer
“You can’t have a narrow mind and a thick passport.”Jawaharial Nehru
I have written of my upbringing, and the joy of having grown up in rural East Tennessee. Specifically in the Holler. But that was only the beginning. One of the best things to have happened to me was a spur of the moment (emotionally driven) decision to join the Navy. And there, let the adventure begin. (The Navy advertisements didn’t lie.)
My first two years, plus a little, was all in training. Orlando Florida, then San Diego. Then back to Orlando for several months. Finally off to upstate New York, Saratoga Springs. After this I was assigned to a new construction submarine in New London Connecticut. We finished the construction phase, and the submarine was handed over to the Navy and subsequently commissioned as the USS Phoenix SSN 702. Most of us on board were newbies, as well as the ship. One of my memorable moments was seeing Admiral Rickover. The Admiral went on every new submarine’s alpha trials excursion. I always admired him for that.
After this we did a lot of training. Submarine training. And luckily that was mostly centered in the Caribbean. Torpedo certifications and sonar certifications. We had liberty ports in Port Canaveral, which was great. There was a shuttle launch while we were there. And then we went to Puerto Rico a couple of times, and St. Croix quite a few times. St. Croix was one of my favorites. Perhaps I’ll blog about some of these in more detail later, for now I am posturing to discuss things a little further from home.
In 1983 we were deployed to the Indian Ocean. This was a pivotal year for me. After I jokingly referred to 1983 as the year that didn’t exist. We were deployed for around seven months. During this deployment we spent five days in Perth Australia. Three days in Auckland New Zealand, where I only got a day and a half off. And finally a combined time of about two weeks on a tiny military atoll in the British Indian Ocean Territory called Diego Garcia. Sophisticated communications equipment, an airstrip, and meager personnel support facilities were all there was at this idyllic volcano remnant crowned with extensive coral growth, all eroded down to a low ring-shaped island.
Diego Garcia isn’t much to speak of really. But it was indeed a tropical paradise to us submarine sailors. Especially taking into account with the timeframes I’ve mentioned above, almost 90% of our deployment was spent underway. And underway meant underwater. We didn’t really realize it at the time, but these days at Diego Garcia were a needed respite. Salt air, the ocean and truly a Gilligan’s Island setting. When we pulled in, we tied up next to the USS Holland, a submarine tender. A welcome sight after weeks underwater… we all swiped right. The Holland was anchored in the lagoon around a mile from the main Navy base of the island. To get to the island, we had to take a liberty launch; a forty or so foot powered boat which did regular taxi trips from the tender to the base.
Now there there was danger with this island. We were specifically instructed not to go into the ocean side of the island above our knees. This was due to the shark danger. However the lagoon was a-okay. While the island was a respite, there actually was not a lot to do on the island itself after the first or second foray. They showed movies on the at the enlisted club, but the movie ended at around 11pm, whereas the last liberty boat back to the sub tender was at 10pm.
Though we’d not always go to the island, we certainly didn’t stay on the sub. We’d typically hang out on the sub tender. First it was fresh air. Open spaces. Joyous. But most of all, there were coca-cola machines on the sub tender. Canned coke machines, not found machines. We had a fountain machine on the boat, but it just wasn’t the same. At night we’d hang out on the fantail of the sub tender. That’s the aft end, or rather the back end of the ship. The ship had powerful security lights setup to illuminate its entire periphery. After the evening meal on the ship, the cooks would bring the food waste up and distribute it into the water at the fantail. This was an image that has been indelibly burned into my memory. Within the lighted area at the fantail we would see typically at least a dozen large sharks swimming lazily. Makos, black tips, and occasionally a hammerhead or two. For those of you keeping score, this was in the lagoon. The self-same lagoon we were allowed to swim in. I’ll just leave that there for you.
All of this was an amazing experience. And for the rest of my life — until now, as my life hasn’t yet ended — I have looked back and thanked the Navy for helping me to see that there was more to the world than East Tennessee. And what a world it is. I can’t encourage you all to get out and see as much of it as you can. But when you do, let me give you some advice. Don’t bring your normal world with you. Make sure you absorb every bit of the local flavors of wherever you might be.
Peace and love
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