Saturday, June 04, 2005

So there I was...

July 1993. Shortly after the 4th (during which I'd managed to extend my leave to hit a big bash at Mayport Naval Station back home with my current girlfriend) I reported to my first boat, the (soon to be) mighty USS TUCSON (SSN-770).

Now most bubbleheads recall the bewildering surroundings, that smell, and a ton of activity they are thoroughly confused by. Especially if joining a boat that is soon to be getting underway. I mean who the heck knows what to do when they say "station the maneuvering watch" for your first time? And then there's meeting your rack for the first time (chances are it was also two other guys' rack, too...).

Well, it was different for me...very different. I reported to the boat during the initial crew manning phase of new construction. Really early...beat the PCO by a week. All we had for crew was the nukes, the YN's, an RMC and to RM's, the A-Gang LCPO (an MMCS) and the O-gangers (minus the CHOP and WEPS...and for the first week minus the "old man" as well). And that was pretty much how it stayed for the next year or so, by the way.

I didn't report to the boat, per se, either. See, what would one day be our boat was at the time in four large chunks (engineroom, reactor compartment, AMR-to-Torpedo Room, and Torpedo Room-sonar dome sections) inside a big hangar at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. Not even remotely habitable...not even whole! The keel had been laid a couple of years before, and all the big pieces of equipment were in the various major sections, but that was about it. Lots of welding, grinding, noise, dust, dirt, and it was unrecognizable by even the sea returnees. We were all, in a sense, NUBS. In fact, this being the early '90's, about 75% of our crew had never been on a 688 (we had boomer, sailors, two Trident, sailors, a bunch of 637 sailors, and one or two 594 types...and a bare handful of 688 types, only one of whom had been on a fourth-flight 688i).

Fun times ahead...

We worked out of an office building, on the fourth deck (dubbed by the new-con sub crews as "The Building"), and when we manned up duty sections for the first phase of plant testing in October of that year we slept in a bunkroom in "The Building", and would either take a ship's van or (more often) hoof it the 1.5 miles to the boat. Getting a piss call was, shall we say, challenging when everyone was off-hull.

Our life for the first several months consisted of assembling RPM's, SSM's, S&EPM's, making up our PIP's, bills, creating the various instructions, memos, standing orders, general orders and other administrivia that govern the function of the boat. No duty for the first 3-4 months, but TONS of training. Seems the training requirements in new construction are near double what they normally are, at least for us nukes. This would become a major pain in the "shaft alley" later, as once the plant testing and various shiftwork periods started we were busy.

My first actual trip to the boat was a week or so after I reported in. We took a field trip down to the hangar, where the boat was now somewhat assembled (the modules had been rolled together and they were welding the structure up). Back then we entered the boat either through a hull cut over what would be the CO/XO staterooms, a hull cut in the reactor compartment, or a hull cut in the area of the wardroom (this was the most common, until later when we would be going primarily to the engineroom...then we started using the RC bilge access). No core yet, so no radiation issues to worry about. Also no battery, no bulkheads up forward (except major structural items), no gear in the galley, no racks, not much other than big parts (like the diesal, the torpedo tubes and stows/handling system, the BCP/SCP). The sail was on the floor off to the side. The sonar dome wasn't on, so the sphere was exposed...but no hydrophones yet. We walked in to the wardroom area, the group being led by my division's leading first class who was the boats only 688i veteran. I didn't have a clue where we were, honestly...the only sub I'd been on before was a tour of an old boomer in high school about 7 years before, and we only really went to the missle compartment and crews mess. So I stayed close by ET1, so as not to get lost. Keep in mind there was no crew, so the only people on the boat were shipyard workers. ET1 gave us a tour consisting of "this will be the crews mess, this will end up being berthing, this will someday be the goat locker, let's go aft".

The engineroom was much closer to it's finished appearance at this point...all the big stuff (SSTG's, main engines, EPM, shaft, condensers, switchboards, SSMG's) were in place, though little was hooked up. Maneuvering had the panels and EOOW desk installed, but everything had protective covers on it. Looked vaguely like least I recognized what stuff likely was. Again, it was very "unfinished" deck tile or wall covering, none of the few "comforts" of a commissioned boat.

My next trip down was, in retrospect, quite funny. I was one of two true NUBS in RC Division, all the rest being sea returnees (plus one prototype staff pickup), and I wanted to be the hard-charger. Went down on my own to work on quals (which wasn't a big priority in those first weeks, but I remembered prototype and wanted to get way ahead). I went in via the hull cut over the CO/XO stateroom, though I didn't know what they were at the walls, doors, nothing but the deck, a lot of construction material, and a steel shitter bowl in the middle of the deck. That threw me...I thought for a long time after that there must be a crews head up there forward of control, as why else would there be a shitter bowl?

I went poking around, looking for the RC tunnel door, and of course got lost. However, having been an ROTC cadet and having gone to sea on a few targets, and having been to a prototype that was a decommissioned 616-class boomer, I was a bit too proud to ask directions. I thought I could reason it prototype, the RC tunnel went over the top of the RC, so I started going up and to the center (not too hard on a round hull, right?). And there it was! A hatch that looked similar to the one at prototype, top center of the boat, and facing aft. Had to be it!

I cranked the hatch open and went in...and thought that this didn't look much like the tunnel. Bunch of big machines, small room, very small walkway, and no other way out. And, unlike the tunnel at prototype, this went the full width of the boat. And oddly enough, there was something that looked like an escape trunk in the center of the room aft, where the door to the engineroom should have been.

OK, I was really confused...where was the damn engineroom? Now it was time to eat some humble pie and find a yardbird to help me out. And there was one right outside this mysterious room...which turned out to be the fan room! I learned that day that the RC tunnel was on the starboard side of the boat, not over the top of the RC. And I learned that I had a lot to learn...

Oh, remember that access cut in the wardroom? Well, my fellow NUB hadn't been to the boat yet, had missed the tour ET1 gave us and didn't know that it was the future wardroom. A few days later, after I'd spent about an hour or two a day aboard every day, another divisional trip ensued. ETC went along this time, along with our staff pickup ET2 and two other ET1's, myself and my fellow NUB. When we went through the cut in the wardroom, he asked "what is this door for", and one of the ET1's deadpanned "it's the diver's will be an airlock for divers when the boat is finished". Of course, the other sea returnees went along, as did ETC and staff-boy (he'd done a one month ride on another boat, so knew better...and knew to play along, too). I took the hint, and we all got a few laughs at the NUB's expense when he commented later at department training how cool the diver's door was.


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