A Sea Story

By Bruce J. Schick, Whale's Tales: Recollections of a Diesel Submariner. DBF Press, 2006. Pp. 7–8

The Thames River flows between Groton and New London, Connecticut, just before it empties into Long Island Sound. Locals call it the Thames, not as the British pronounce their Temes. Groton, on the northem bank, is home to the U.S. Submarine Force. The submarine base is called the New London Submarine Base, despite the fact that it is on the wrong side of the river. The town of New London, on the south bank, is home to Connecticut College and the Coast Guard Academy. You figure it out.

In 1960, between the submarine base and the sound, there was a huge, great, high, arching bridge across the river for automobile traffic. There was also a low, flat bridge for trains. The railroad bridge was a drawbridge. On the bridge was a shack in which lived a little old man who raised the bridge. Vessels coming up or down the river blew their horns, the old man checked to see if a train was coming or not, and he opened the bridge or not, depending. His job was to keep trains from falling into the river. He was not paid by the submarine force; he was paid by the railroad people. He didn't give jack-shit for submarines. He also seemed, in my days on the river, to sleep a lot, or he was deaf as a stone.

A submarine, fully surfaced, could not pass under the bridge. But a submarine could submerge partially (Don't worry, the channel is deep enough.) and squeeze under the bridge. By carefully venting tanks, one could take a boat down to where the decks were awash and get deep enough to clear the bridge if the old guy was taking a nap or a train was coming.

In order to make sure we were deep enough, an officer would lie on top of the sail and eyeball the bridge-a very primitive transit.

So…we were proceeding down the river. We blew our hom to ask the old guy to open the bridge. No response. Backing water. Current flowing fast. Rocks to starboard, rocks to port. Blow again. Still no response. Captain says, “Flood down to the water line.” XO (executive officer, number two officer on board, second in command) climbs on top of the sail. We flood down. Decks awash. XO eyeballs the bridge. Says, “ Okay, let's go.” We sail under the bridge.

Now on top of the snorkel mast was a radio antenna called the beer can. Highest point on the boat. Tlrree times as big as a real beer can. Fragile. We go under the bridge. Bump. Beer can is now at a forty-five degree angle. Oh, shit!

Skipper calls the senior radioman to the bridge. A chief petty of- ficer~we were lucky to have one so experienced. Chief says, “What's wrong?” Captain says, “Beer can's bent. What should we do?’,

Chief puts his arm around the captain and says, “Blow the boat up six inches and back up through the bridge, Skippsie. That should straighten her back in place.” Never call the old man anything but Cap'n. “Old Man’, is okay behind his back, and he'll be pleased if he overhears. But Skippsie? Never.

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