Our war was the Cold War. It seems quaint and gentlemanly in retrospect, like those stories of WWI fighter pilots saluting their adversaries as their bullet-riddled biplanes went down in flames.
I was stationed on a nuclear submarine, the SSBN 644. SS means sub-surface and N is nuclear. Not nuclear weapons but a nuke power plant. Just peaceful, carbon-neutral nuclear fission heating steam to run a turbine to turn a big prop (or screw, as it is properly called). But don’t get the idea that we didn’t have nuclear weapons. The difference between an SSN and an SSBN is about 120 feet in length. That’s to make room for the B: ballistic. 16 Poseidon C3 intercontinental ballistic missiles. ICBMs, in the parlance of the age.
You might think living near those missiles was scary but far from it. Unlike our fellow seaman on the fast-attacks subs (SSNs), life on a “boomer” was pretty laid back. For starters we had two crews, Blue and Gold. (I was Blue.) When Blue Crew was out on patrol, Gold Crew was ashore with their wives and kids. “In training” supposedly, but it was known to be cake duty. The crews traded off every three months.
While underway we had three watch sections, six hours on, twelve off, rotating around the clock. You did maintenance during off duty and generally got more sleep than you needed. After two weeks on patrol you would stop dreaming about life ashore and stand watch even in your dreams. This could lead to the horrible situation of waiting to get off watch only to wake up and realize you were dreaming and now it’s time to go on watch.
The mission of a ballistic sub is simple. Hide. The Benjamin Franklin-class ballistic subs were Ike’s “41 for Freedom,” part of the Cold War nuclear deterrent. Like those B-52s in Dr. Strangelove that continuously flew around Russia, the boomers lurked undetected deep underwater with their colossal nuclear payloads nestled warm and cozy in their silos just waiting for the Day We Hoped Would Never Arrive.
One of the technical advantages American subs had over their Russian counterparts was their silence. In the game of underwater brinksmanship, quiet is king. The only way to hear another submarine is to hear over your own noise. So the quieter you are, the farther you hear. And if you hear the other guy before he hears, then you can just shut down your engines and let him pass or maneuver behind him up into his wake and follow him where he’ll never hear you. And when I say hear, I mean that literally. The Navy tests the hearing of every new recruit and those with the best ears are trained as sonar men. Sonar men simply sit with a set of headphones and listen to a microphone deployed out behind the sub on a long wire. Pretty high tech, huh?
So all of this is to say that duty on a ballistic sub is, by design, boring. If anything exciting happens then something has gone terribly wrong.
“We changed course.” Karl sat down across from me on the mess deck, sliding his metal lunch tray onto the table. A drop of neon green flavored water, known colloquially as bug juice, slopped from his glass.
“So?” I ate a French fry.
“We’re headed someplace and we’re in a hurry.” Karl mopped the bug juice up with his bun and placed it back on his burger. “Course changed two hours ago and the plant is at 100 percent. Navigation and Comm are locked down. No non-essential personnel. Have you ever heard of that?”
“Get this. All sonar and comm personnel —enlisted— are being moved into the officer staterooms. They’re eating their meals there. Complete segregation. All engineering officers are being moved to enlisted berthing!”
“Shikels? Whitehead? Pope? Chief B?”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes. Quarantine. You can’t even talk to them.”
Sure there was always a bit of clannishness in the military. Skimmers-vs-bubbleheads, forward pukes-vs-fucking nukes, snipes-vs-twigets. But on a 400-foot boat with a crew of 120 men, everybody knew everybody and their wives and kids. It didn’t seem believable to expect to stop communication on board.
I finished my meal, slid the tray through the scullery window and stepped out into the narrow central passageway that ran the length of sub. As if to prove my point, Jerry Whitehead descended the stairs from Comm. The passageway was barely wide enough for two men to pass, and only then if one of them was narrower than Jerry. Jerry was a Sonar Tech First Class. He was also my best friend and carpool partner when we were ashore during off-patrol.
As we passed each other with a sidestep I said quietly, “Hey, Jer. What’s with this…?”
His body stiffened and he locked eyes with me. Almost imperceptibly, he shook his head. His eyes darted toward the closed Comm door then he quickly turned and bolted for the officers’ quarters where he disappeared.
When I reported to Maneuvering, the plant was at peak power and the throttle was full open. Lieutenant Bender was the OIC. I looked from him to the throttle man and got blank looks in return.
“How are you liking the berthing compartment sir?” I offered, trying to lighten the mood.
“No problem. I sleep on my back,” he joked. But his heart wasn’t in it. He returned to his clipboard.
“Rig for ultra quiet until further notice.”
I was lying awake in my rack when I heard the announcement. I leaned out through the curtain into the dark compartment. Other heads poked out, some silhouetted by reading lights. Nobody spoke.
Ultra quiet? I’d only heard it used before as a joke. In the battle for quiet between submarines, patrol quiet was the equivalent of battle stations. Except, as everything in the sub service, much more boring. Patrol quiet meant (or it usually meant) a potential hostile had been detected and we were going quiet: all inter compartment hatches locked open to prevent slamming, all non-essential equipment shut off, all maintenance stopped, all personnel in their stocking feet, no talking!, and best of all, non-watch standers in bed until further notice.
The engine room was unusually quiet as I walked aft for watch, skating on the polished floor in my socks. The reactor lazily threw off 15 percent power, just enough to keep the batteries charged and the air filtered. Secondary pumps were secured. Even with the A/C turned off the Engineering Compartment stayed cool. That meant we were in very cold waters. All the seawater intake pipes were dusted with frost. I reached out and touched the curved surface of the hull, using the back of my hand like good sailor. Ice cold. Maybe Arctic cold?
I entered Maneuvering without verbal permission; the chain across the door was open and secured to prevent noise. I looked from the throttle man to the RO to the EO (who I was relieving) to Lieutenant Bender, all in their stocking feet. They nodded silent greetings. I walked over to the EO chair but Lieutenant Bender stopped me, leaning down from his tall chair. He smiled and handed me his clipboard.
“Bet you never saw that before.” He whispered, tapping on the log.
I looked at the number he indicated, consistent over the last three hours. Depth: 2235 feet.
In violation of patrol quiet, Leutenant Bender laughed out loud at my expression. Not only was that deeper than I had ever been, it was 200 feet deeper than the sub could ever “legally” go. Meaning that not even the Captain, except in battle, could exceed 2000. Whoever was running this operation was very high up, somewhere far away.
By day three of patrol quiet, the charm had warn off. I couldn’t sleep anymore and I was bored with all of my cassettes. I lay in my rack, flipping absent-mindedly through someone else’s well worn copy of Hustler. Even masturbation had become boring. Police Synchronicity side two played on my Walkman for the 20th time. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” then comes “Tea in the Sahara” (fast forward) then “Murder by Numbers” then it ends and I’ll pop it out and–
Jerry was staring at me. I yanked the headphones off.
“Jesus Jer! What the fuck!” Somebody shushed me from another rack.
My rack was on the top row at about chest height. Jerry had pulled the curtain back and was just staring at me, inches from my face. How long had he been there? God I hope he wasn’t watching when I jerked off!
I couldn’t read his expression. He reached over to the Walkman and ejected the cassette, replacing it with an unmarked 90 minute cassette. He gently placed the headphones back on my head and pushed play.
I haven’t thought of that for 34 years. In fact, I’m not sure I remembered it at all. But six weeks ago I answered the phone and it suddenly came back to me.
That patrol ended early, without explanation, and the boat was decommissioned. The crew scattered to other assignments. Why was it decommissioned? I don’t remember even questioning it at the time or thinking it unusual. I tried a little research on the Internet but there’s not much –suspiciously little– on the SSBN 644.
After my enlistment was up, I divorced my wife. I can’t remember why I did that either. Or why, even though I’d been trained as an electrician’s mate, I used my GI benefits to get a Masters degree in chemistry despite never having any previous interest in the field.
And six weeks ago, when I got that phone call, why did I send out a blast email to my entire department announcing my immediate and open-ended absence due to an imaginary family emergency (involving an imaginary family), only to return after hours to use my department head security badge to access the chemical warehouse and load six 55-gallon drums of muriatic acid into the back of my Range Rover with a forklift?
Even with a Masters in chemistry I’m not totally sure what I was doing to that acid in my garage for two weeks, using parts scavenged from my refrigerator, 20 smoke detectors, and enough electricity to keep tripping the breakers until I physically welded them out of the circuit. I ended up with about two gallons of silvery viscous sludge, heavier than lead, which I poured into a vacuum canister and sealed shut.
And I don’t know why I drove that canister 530 miles to Gloucester, Massachusetts in the middle of the night and stole a fishing boat. But I’m starting to get an idea.
I never knew our exact location in the ocean back then. The guys in the power plant generally never knew. We were just in the back of the horse costume, keeping everything moving. It was guys up front who steered.
I know we were somewhere in the North Atlantic, but I have a feeling I’m going to find out the exact spot tonight. Looking at the charts and my current course, I have a feeling it’s going to be somewhere off the coast of Nova Scotia. Just a feeling. As the twin diesels droned at full throttle I was dimly aware that there wouldn’t be enough fuel for the return trip but it seemed irrelevant.
Why would the government send a boomer past operating depth to go listen to something on the bottom of the ocean? The only possible reason is proximity. Something happened in the ocean and the only vessel near it was the 644. Or worse, there were Ruskies nearby who might beat us to it. No time to wait for a fast-attack. You take your nearest super-expensive boat full of super-expensive missiles and endanger it’s super-secret location in order to get to this super-important thing. What could it be?
Maybe a secret prototype we didn’t want the Russians to find? Or a real life Red October situation where we’re trying to grab a Russian vehicle that’s defected. But I don’t think that’s it. Just a feeling.
What if something crashed in the ocean? And what if the sonar men listened to it and it got into their heads through their ears and it gave them some sort of instructions? And what if Jerry recorded those messages and played them for me? And what if that’s the reason that I’m at 44º 58′ N and 61º 13′ W at 0534 on a cold, foggy December morning in a stolen fishing boat with a mysterious package to deliver?
As the sky lightens I shut down the engines (why now?) and I can see another boat bobbing in the gentle swells, engines off, a few hundred yards away. I pick up the binoculars and try to see who is piloting. A balding middle aged guy. Could that be Jerry? Hard to tell. I still can’t read his expression. I see three other boats now. We’re forming a large circle.
As I roll the canister toward the stern I note without surprise that the four other captains of their stolen vessels work in wordless synchronization with me. Their packages are different shapes and sizes but they all hit the water simultaneously. We watch them sink.
It’s only now that my mind returns to thought of the depleted fuel or that I even begin to consider whether I’ll make it back home alive.
A weird blue light starts glowing from deep, deep underwater.
Frank Cable’s whereabouts are unknown.