As Iron Sharpens Iron…
As Iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens his fellow… –
As I recall it must have been around mid-February, 1983, when USS Michigan eased away from Delta Pier at SUBASE Bangor (as it then was) and headed out for Patrol #3. I was a brand newly qualified Missile Compartment Roving Patrol going to sea for the very first time. Usually the Maneuvering Watch lasted about an hour and a half or so, and for this Patrol I was assigned to the Forward Damage Control Party stationed in the Crews Mess. I wasn’t dumb enough to bring a book to read, and there are no windows to look out, so for those first minutes at sea in my life, I listened to the conversations around me, and looked over system diagrams getting ready for qualification checkouts.
As I mentioned, I had completed my MCRP watch station quals just few days earlier. This was important for a lot of reasons. First, the Weapons Department was – as always – short handed for watch standers. Being a qualified watch meant that I was a part of the team, even at a very junior level. It also mean that – for the moment – I would not be assigned to MS Division, and spend twelve hours a day washing dishes and smashing trash. Later in my career on the boat, as an FTB3(SS) Battle Station Missile Fire Control Supervisor, the Chief of the Boat would demand that I be assigned to crank, since, as he put it, I “never had been.” In an odd way I am proud of that, not because there is anything about cranking that is demeaning or insulting, but because I meant that I was always ahead of the curve on my quals and we were always short handed, meaning that I was always useful.
Anyway, when that first maneuvering watch secured, I was assigned to the section that assumed the underway watch, meaning that for the next six hours I was the MCRP. I donned my security gear, picked up my clipboard and began my roving, trying to put on an air of confidence and authority that I neither felt nor really understood on that day.
The MCRP is the sole security and safety watch in the largest compartment on the ship. He has four decks to patrol, but that does include 2nd and 3rd levels that are usually occupied (3rd level is crews berthing). Still, the Missile Compartment as a whole is a vast labyrinth of valves, tubes, equipment and hazards in addition to its 24 TRIDENT C4 Missiles (assuming it has them, which I can neither confirm nor deny). The dangers inherent are immense and as I would come to learn, the MCRP is a very junior watch station in rank only. In responsibility, it is a huge. And I was about to that find out for the first, but not the last time.
About three hours after we left port, the ship reached the Dive Point, located near Port Angeles, Washington. In daytime it is as routine an evolution as there can be aboard a nuclear submarine. At night it can be harrowing. This, my first dive, was in the mid to late afternoon and while I was certainly alert and interested, I was also a little bit nervous. When the klaxon sounded and the ship slipped beneath the waves, it took on a motion that was like being in a giant elevator that moved not just up and down, but in three directions randomly and simultaneously. It was both weird and exciting. The primary job of the MCRP on the dive is to verify that safety of the entre compartment and that there is no water leaking into the “people tank.” So I began my rounds in Upper Level, moving as quickly as prudent to each of the other levels before finally reaching the lowest level, level 4.
I worked my way fore to aft, checking bilges and connections, basically unconcerned as the big hull penetrations were aft, where the lower level Missile Compartment joins with Machinery Two lower level. Here, two Depth Control Tanks (“hard tanks” which are exposed to sea pressure) form the aft bulkhead (wall), while the bilge area contains two potable water tanks. Most of the ships exercise gear is here too, along with the famous AMR2LL bilge which is the responsibility of the MCRP to pump. This is an oily, disgusting bilge that can be freezing cold and notoriously difficult to get the single pump designed and built for this hell hole to prime, resulting in some of the more uncomfortable moments an MCRP can have, fishing out whatever – and let’s just leave it at that – might be blocking the pumps suction. To the right (as you face aft) mounted on a missile tube is a 4MC Phone, the emergency announcing circuit that lets the ship know when there is a problem.
And it was here, on my first dive that I stood, for just a moment rooted to the deck as a loud “whooshing” sound and water spraying everywhere along the back bulkhead caused me to pause for a split second. Along the aft bulkhead a ladder climbs to Machinery 2 3L, where the A Gang Machinist Mates make their home and stand their basic watches. At that moment, through that hatch, appeared the nearly bald head and bright eyed behind thick glasses head of Machinist Mate First Class (Qualified in Submarines) Bull Durham. This was long before the movie, and he had – as I had heard once or twice – earned his moniker as one would have expected a MM1(SS) to have done.
His head reached down through the hatch, saw the water flying everywhere and heard the whistling and whooshing, followed by a loud barking expletive, and then disappeared.
In that instant my mind made up that we had a huge problem that had scared the pants off of an A Gang PO1. I reached for the 4MC and literally practiced what I was going to say, “Flooding in Machinery Two Lower Level.” I wanted to sound calm and professional, even if I suddenly had the urge to urinate and puke.
The phone was in my hand, when Bull bounded down the ladder with a wrench, tore up a deck plate, and with language seldom matched, shut off the Potable Water fill valves that were overfilling the two tanks and venting – as they were designed to do – along the Depth Control Tanks.
I stood there in awe as he climbed back up, lowered the deck plate and then noticed me standing there with the 4MC in my hand.
Bull Durham had a laugh that was infections and reassuring. When he finished laughing, he said simply, “I bet you’re glad you didn’t do that.” I put the phone back in the holder and said, “Yep, I am.”
Bull took a couple of minutes to show me how the fill system worked, traced the over flow vent and explained to me why it had sounded the way it had. He took moment of near panic induced emergency surface and turned it into a teaching moment. He made sure that I understood, laughed again, and then climbed back up to AMR2 3L.
What he didn’t do was make fun of me, he never told anybody else (as far as I know), never wrote about it in THE BS LOG and never said anything to me about it again. He used a opportunity to teach, and as much as any man is, MM1(SS) Bull Durham is responsible for me becoming a successful submariner. You could make a reasonable argument that because of what he did that day, I was able to do the things I did later in my career.
That’s how the military and the Navy and submarines work. Little moments that maybe nobody else ever knows about, but turn out to change the path of a person. Bull changed my path that day, and he helped me to become the submariner I wanted to be and consequently the person that I am today.
Bull Durham died this past weekend after a long illness.
And I just thought that you should know that about him even if you never heard of him or had the opportunity to meet him.