Idle Conversation
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Idle Conversation

We were submerged, so there were seven of us in the control room that night in 1971. My assignment as diving officer was to stand below the hatch that led up to the conning tower. From that location I could see everyone else in the compartment, and the Officer of the Deck (Submerged) could yell at me from above.

We were deep, which mostly made my job very easy. Since we were too deep to snorkel, I did not have to worry about the waves washing over the snorkel head valve and causing discomfort among the entire crew. Since we were too deep to use the periscope, I did not have to worry about the OOD yelling at me about the waves washing over the periscope head. Since we were too deep to feel the wave action, it was childishly simple to keep the boat under precise control. It got boring very quickly.

The bow planesman and the stern planesman sat in front of me, facing away, and I looked over their shoulders at the main depth gage. The planesmen were Seamen or Seamen Apprentices, kids who had gone directly from high school to boot camp to submarine school to our boat. What they knew of life they had learned watching Bonanza or The Dick Van Dyke Show. The bow planesman was responsible for maintaining our depth. The stern planesman kept us pointed level, up, or down, whichever I assigned. The two planesmen and the helmsman switched positions from time to time during the watch.

Aft of the planesmen was the trim manifold operator. He was a Fireman, and he aspired to be an Engineman or a Machinist's Mate. He had very little to do during the watch. But absolutely nothing was automated in our old boat. The design was strictly from 1938. So there had to be seven of us in the control room. And the Fireman in the corner just had to be there.

Behind me was the air manifold operator. He was a Machinist's Mate, and he was the third-ranking person on the control room watch bill. He also just had to be there. Once a day, if that often, he had something to do. Otherwise, he was just part of the scenery, part of the conversation.

The messenger of the watch was an Interior Communications Electrician. He was the one who roved forward and aft checking meter readings, running errands, and generally connecting those of us in the control room with the watchstanders in the other compartments. During this watch he was the busiest person there, except for the planesmen.

The last member of the team was the Chief of the Watch, also known as the hydraulic manifold operator. The chief coordinated most of the housekeeping and other routine details of the watch. But tonight, on the midwatch, not much was happening.

This was the kind of slow, dull watch when lots of stories got told. Slowly, with long gaps of silence between tales, we learned about each other and about the Navy. This night, the Chief of the Watch was our Hospital Corpsman. He was a full-fledged character, and he knew it without being smug about it.

The chief had spent a couple of tours in Vietnam, as a forward evac corpsman for the Marines. He didn't talk about the combat, or the wounds, or the anguish. He talked mainly about the stupidity.

He mentioned the glimmerings of awareness among the staff grade officers of drug use in Vietnam. The Major asked him one day if he had any idea how many of the Marines used or experimented with drugs. The chief said that his reply was that 80% experimented with marijuana, that 50% were regular users of marijuana, that 20% experimented with heroin, and that 5% were regular users of heroin.

The major's reply was, "I can't believe that!"

The official report from the company finally said that ten percent of the Marines had experimented with marijuana, and that two percent were regular users. Such was the quality of the data on which our decisions in Southeast Asia were made.

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