Blogger’s Note: This is the second post in a multi-part series. You can read Coming Home, Part One here.
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Once inside crew’s mess, I sat down and said hello to some of the familiar faces in the room. A few of KENTUCKY’s junior officers were setting up a welcome aboard brief for us guests. Just before the presentation started, I scanned the space in its entirety, enjoying the sight of the reunions taking place at the lunch room style tables around me. We were well into the brief when a loud voice came over what sounded like a two-way radio behind us. I turned my attention to the back of the room to find the captain standing there in what they aptly call “the pumpkin suit”, adjusting the volume of said radio. My husband and a few others stood close behind looking like they had, in contrast, been hanging out not on the bridge, but in the far drier, warmer spaces below. Catching a glimpse of my husband’s smile is enough to make my heart stop for a moment and produce an embarrassingly goofy smile on my face, so I quickly turned my attention back to the brief. I did stare at him just long enough to notice that he looked surprisingly awake despite the odd hours I knew he’d been keeping and the particularly challenging few weeks they’d just experienced underway. He did look handsome, I thought. Attempt to control goofy smile, DENIED.
When the brief was over, I made my way to the back of the room, stopping to share with one of the sailors an amusing conversation I’d had with his dad just hours before the trek here began. Then, at last, I found a comfortable spot in the arms of my husband who had waited patiently for his hello. There’s an awkwardness about having this moment in a room full of people while on board a ballistic missile submarine that is very much still “at sea”. Part of you wants to feel relieved and elated, but the rest of you is too aware of where you are to do that successfully. No matter how slight, the possibility of potential threats to our safety remained firmly on my mind. Still, I was so happy to see him alive, in one piece, and not too much grayer than the last time we’d seen each other. I almost cried. But I didn’t.
As we made our way back to his stateroom, I took particular care to notice the spaces around me – how things looked clean and “nostalgic”, the equipment dating back many decades now. No matter how stealth and modern our submarines may be, looking around you get an odd sense that Hyman Rickover himself sits somewhere at a console getting ready to tell someone where they need to be (or, perhaps more accurately, where the hell they can go.) I’d visited the boat once before when she was pier side and covered in sea lions, but today there is a noticeable difference in the energy throughout the ship – probably the buzzing of people just wanting to get home. Probably a few other sentiments as well. As we stood waiting to pass others making their way down ladder and through the generous-because-it’s-a-boomer-but-still-narrow passageway, I had the thought I have often from the comfort of my own home: “I don’t know how they do it – how they LIVE here for weeks, months, at a time in the artificial light, the cold, and the amine. It takes a special kind of human being to do this.” Usually, there’s funny commentary that follows the “special kind of human” part, but in this moment, my sense of humor is fleeting. The men and women who choose this life are uniquely resilient and focused, and I’m thankful for and in awe of those who choose to serve here. I can say with great certainty that submarining is not the life for me.
When we arrive at my husband’s stateroom, I sit down next to him on the blue naugahyde bench that doubles as his bed. I’m snuggled beside him now, listening to the sounds of what he tells me is the maneuvering watch being piped in over the old school speakers next to his desk. I recognize the voice of the Navigator and am amused again by the nostalgic feel of things – this time, the cacophony of tinny, crackling, somewhat muffled submarine sounds. The noise is reasonably comforting for a person who once couldn’t fall asleep without the radio on in her room.
Looking at the clock on the wall, it’s nearing 08:30 now. I’m feeling tired, and hungry, and the second that those thoughts cross my mind, my husband excitedly reaches into one of the drawers in his desk and pulls out what he says is the very last of his “good” K-Cups. Peets. YUM. He offers to brew it for me and to bring me back a piece of the coffee cake I had eyeballed as we left crew’s mess.
A few people stop by for his read or approval on things they’d written or prepared for transmission. He seems calm and confident – the most comfortable I’ve seen him in this role yet. It’s a relief for me to see though I know more stressful and demanding times loom ahead. He grabs the K-Cup and minutes later returns with cream, sugar, coffee, and coffee cake – our near 10 years of partnership showing in his presentation. We spend the next stretch of time catching up on all the things we couldn’t discuss over what was intermittent email at best.
Soon, I’m keen to get up and start exploring the ship. I wonder what interesting things I might discover in the time we have before lunch. I leave my coat behind for now and we head out of his stateroom. We pass a few interesting panels which he takes the time to tell me about because they look like old school server room racks to me. They are not. After a few more interesting distractions, we find ourselves in a place I think about often while the boat is underway – missile control center or MCC. You’ll be relieved to know they don’t get Twitter in there…
Part Three will be published next Sunday, October 21.