Up to Table of Contents

A Sinister School of Fish

They looked deadly, even in the fading sunlight of the winter afternoon. They were almost motionless, moving imperceptibly with the lapping of the waves against the edge of the harbor. Their skins were shades of black and gray, mottled in some cases. Each was blemished with barnacles and with other examples and residues of the amazing varieties of marine life among which they lived out their short and possibly violent lives. Each had a protrusion on its back, a sort of dorsal fin, that added to the sinister impression.

As awesome as each specimen was as an individual, the gathering of them in this congregation was eerie. These creatures did not normally travel together. These were the lone wolves of the sea. They did not belong in these restricted waters. They should have been at sea, alone, independent, stalking their prey. There was nothing in this harbor for them to sink their teeth into.

To my newly practiced eye, no two looked alike. Admittedly it would have been difficult in some cases to explain the differences, even to another expert, and even if I were permitted to do so. Fortunately for me at the moment there was no one to talk with, no one to ask difficult or embarrassing questions, no one to see me staring at them in silent wonder.

That afternoon I had dressed for this occasion. I straightened my tie, I checked my crease, I glanced through the large brown envelope to be sure that I had all of my papers, and I walked steadily, hoping I was displaying just the right amount of confidence with my stride and my demeanor, toward the wet, black killers lolling against the pier. As I passed each one, I was aware of a pair of eyes following me without divulging that I was observed, or even noticed. I was looking for one, particular creature in this harbor, but I did not dare exhibit any hesitancy or confusion or uncertainty. My objective was reportedly out here in this area. It had to be one of the ones that I could see as I walked.

Finally I spotted the correct specimen hiding alongside one of its sisters, and I approached it deliberately. I crossed the brow of the first one, I returned the salute of the sailor who was standing the topside watch there, and I uttered the one strange word, "Odax", in response to his unspoken question. Then I turned toward the one I had been sent for, my destination after months of intensive training. I marched briskly across the second brow.

This pair of eyes was looking directly at me, with concern and with some genuine interest. Very little activity occurred out here at the water's edge. No one could find himself here accident. My presence there could only mean that I intended to be there, to find this one shiny black specimen among all the others. The topside watchstander on this one snapped to attention and saluted. As I returned his salute, I said, "Ensign Frank G. Charlton, III, U.S. Navy, reporting aboard with orders. Request permission to come aboard."

He responded, "Permission granted. The duty officer is in the wardroom, sir."

I walked forward to the door and hatch arrangement through which an officer normally enters one of these old submarines. I descended four steps, then I bent at least double as I entered the side of the forward escape trunk through its thirty-inch round side door. I turned awkwardly to grab the handles, then I descended the vertical ladder through the eighteen-inch by 28-inch lower hatch into the forward torpedo room, trying not to drop anything important while doing so, and trying to maintain as much dignity as possible in such inherently clumsy maneuvering.

Also, I was trying to be quiet. I was sure that there would be several sailors napping in the torpedo room, and I was correct. The lights were dim, even though it was still late in the afternoon, long before the official bedtime. There was a gentle snoring, a slightly stale fragrance of laundry and linen, both clean and dirty, and the smell of men. There was also a trace of the aroma of hydraulic fluid. And of course, there was the matrix in which all other odors were but accents, the fundamental scent of my life for the next few years, the hallmark of my chosen craft as well as of my assigned craft, the distinguishing characteristic by which I and all of my shipmates, as well as all of the sailors from our sister boats in the flotilla, were identified whenever we wandered into more civilized environs, there was the ubiquitous smell of diesel fuel.

Yes, I was reporting aboard a pigboat, a sewer pipe, a "conventional" submarine, a diesel-electric submarine, a Guppy, an anachronism, a killer, a target. Whatever you wanted to call it, this was to be my home for the next several years.

A few steps took me through the 28-inch by eighteen inch door into the forward battery compartment, and sure enough, I found the duty officer in the wardroom, reviewing some official paperwork. He was the only officer aboard on this Sunday afternoon, this first week of the new year. To him I repeated that I was reporting aboard, and I held out my envelope full of official papers. He did not look at them. He seemed uncomfortable, disconcerted to see me. He placed the papers on the Yeoman's desk in the boat's office, and he said, "The X.O. will take care of this in the morning. Why don't you go back ashore and come back when we can properly receive you here?"

This was an unexpected turn of events. Yes, I could now go back to the Bachelor Officers' Quarters, change into casual clothes, and go carousing with my classmates from Submarine School Officer's Class Number 146. But I was eager to become a crewmember of my new boat. I didn't know quite how to react.

"Thank you, I think I'll do just that." Of course I couldn't let the duty officer see that I was disappointed.

"Have a beer for me," he said, as I left the way that I had arrived.

Up to Table of Contents