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Anyone who’s ever seen the movie Crimson Tide will recall this exchange between the commanding officer and executive officer. The conversation is tense, painful to watch almost, but honest. Sure it’s a Hollywood dramatization but in my opinion, it illustrates not only the complex relationship between a boat’s number one and number two officers by responsibility, but the complex nature of the mission a submarine like KENTUCKY undertakes.
Making our way to the missile control center (MCC), I felt excited like any “tourist” would to see and experience what awaited us, but understanding where I was about to be felt daunting and a little heavy. The mission of this ship is deterrence – and it executes said mission by disappearing and strategically positioning itself in the ocean, standing ready to receive a message no one, except perhaps Gene Hackman’s character as the fictitious captain of the USS ALABAMA, would be excited to get. Should the president call upon them, their job is to launch nuclear missiles capable of destroying a nation, or our entire planet, from the room I’m about to enter. I let that sink in for a bit before going in.
As my husband – the ship’s XO – walks ahead of me into the MCC, several missile techs (MTs) cease conversation for a moment, in part I’m sure because the XO has walked in without warning and they’re curious to know his intent. My trailing behind quickly served as enough indication that he was just there to play tour guide, and it was back to business as usual. I’d seen what this space looked like in documentaries, but being inside of it as the boat was underway felt a bit surreal. To my untrained and tired eyes, the space seemed exceptionally clean, well lit, and with a quick look down one of the aisles, I caught a glimpse of what might be the most important piece of day to day equipment in the room – a Keurig. I’d say the place felt comfortable even, if I wasn’t acutely aware of the scenarios they routinely practice here.
Looking at everything on the wall in front of me, including the infamous cabinet that requires a combination not carried on board to open, my husband did his best to explain a few things before one of the MT’s who stood by observing swiftly corrected him on the accuracy of his statements. I enjoy moments like these for many reasons, not just because I’m amused when my sweet engineer husband gets occasionally humbled, but because they reinforce that different individuals hold specialized knowledge of different things on the boat and that the courage to speak up about inaccuracies in spite of rank is crucial and requisite if they are to succeed as a team. Submariners in general are very good at what they do, highly intelligent, and their often quirky personalities no doubt contribute to their resilience and ability to manage their unique lifestyle. I note the DEFCON level – 4 – written on the panel in front of me and ask if we’re only slightly excited then. They start to laugh and someone points out that XO’s wife is slightly inappropriate. I’ve been married to a sailor for nearly 8 years and worked for the Navy 4 years prior to that. My husband laughed, amused, knowing the part he plays in my occasional crassness. Shortly thereafter and still snickering at the awkward moment I seem to have created, we move on.
For the next hour or so, we walk through the ballistic missile forest, visit the Navigator in control, and make the intimidating climb up to the bridge – a much less spacious area than I’d previously envisioned and, on this day, a colder and rainier spot than most everyone would have preferred. We sat down to lunch in the wardroom soon after that for a meal I’d call “eclectic” at best. There, we enjoyed the best of the food that remained on board – some of it delicious and much of it, most importantly, warm. After excusing ourselves, we retreated to my husband’s stateroom for a short while while and had another cup of coffee as several folks gathered in the officers’ study. I felt tired as did many of the wives who had been awake for well over 24 hours now. The captain came by to remind my husband that he was required in control as they prepared to conduct another brief stop for personnel (BSP) to bring the pilot on board. What I had the privilege of observing next will remain in my memory as the best and most awe inspiring moments of the trip. It was time to observe the crew take the boat through the Hood Canal bridge and home. So up to control we go.
This series will conclude in a forthcoming post.
Thank you for reading! Your comments and sharing of these posts have been so wonderful.