6 Things Movies Don't Show You About Life on a Submarine
You can probably imagine what life is like on a submarine, and it ain't cushy: You're trapped in a long metal tube, buried at sea, everything's brutally structured, and there's a lot of gay sex. Well, some of that is a myth: There's no gay sex. Or at least no more than there is anywhere else. The frequency and furiousness of the masturbation increases, sure. Not so much the sex, though.
Speaking of things that definitely won't get you laid: My name's Cleve Langdale, and I used to be a Navy nuclear machinist's mate. From the school to the fleet, it sucked. Just maybe not in the way you think ...
The Training Will Drive You Crazy
Nuke school is a year and a half of white walls, PowerPoints, and fluorescent lighting. Some say that the ships actually ran off of the souls of Nuke students, drained through the ever-flickering lights. Another popular theory was that there were no ships -- the fleet, the school, the whole thing was a myth contrived by Navy psychologists as part of a sadistic experiment.
The base is like a prison for the first two months: You sit there studying for as long as you can, then march back to the barracks, shower, sleep, and do it again. Imagine 10 hours per day learning different components of alloys and engines, followed by exercise (if you're lucky) and then ... surprise, more studying. They cram four to six years of college-level information into a six-month period. It's an impressive system, in the same way watching a car get compacted in a junkyard is impressive.
The instructors only use nouns to save time.
People would stand up during class and post themselves at podiums in the rear, just so they could stay awake. Every now and then one of them would literally fall over. Many times I'd be watching a lecture and hear a boom as the person standing behind me collapsed and took his podium with him. On the plus side, the rest of us would be quite awake after that ... for maybe five minutes.
While I was in "A" school, we had one girl take a bunch of pills and try to off herself. In power school there was a guy who took a swan dive off of a third-story balcony. Last we heard, he was a vegetable. Yet another girl took the pill route; a dude started cutting himself and got kicked out. You probably have similar stories about your time at college, except in this case, those casualties are out of a class of about 20 people. It doesn't help that the Navy already has the highest rate of attempted suicide in the armed forces. There's a reason the mothers of Nukes have their own support group.
"Sure, he's in a metal tube, 100 meters underwater, in the middle of nowhere, but he can't call his own mother on her birthday?"
The SEALs encourage people in training to quit. They'll take a class of 200 and whittle it down until only the hardest, toughest bastards are left. But people who want to be Nukes are in short supply; the accepted ASVAB minimum scores are high, and Nukes rarely re-enlist. Civilian life can offer them such tantalizing foreign concepts as "having money" and "not living in a dank metal tube." The Navy doesn't want you to quit, so when someone does wash out, it's treated like a dereliction of duty. "How dare you betray your classmates -- nay, your country -- by wanting to live on the surface world? You don't want to be a Morlock, son? What, so a giant metal group coffin isn't good enough for you anymore?"
They Fuck With the Oxygen
The oxygen levels on a submarine are kept dramatically low. This is primarily to keep the risk of fires at a minimum, but it has some side effects. Most submariners work with their hands and get injured a fair amount. You'd be surprised what a small drop in oxygen levels will do to your body's ability to repair itself. Constantly oozing wounds are the name of the game. It is not a fun game.
OK, maybe not that bad.
Low oxygen levels also make everyone a) tired as fuck-all, and b) constantly pissed off. The first time I went down the hatch, a guy broke a coffee mug over my head because I didn't move as fast as he would have liked. Three years later, I dropped him off at the airport when he got out; I was the last person he saw as an enlisted man, and he's one of the people I admire most in the world ... but man, do folks be pissy without their precious oxygen.
The only time they'd turn the damned stuff up was when we had a "field day," a term that means something a little different here from what it does in the civilian world. It probably means something fun to you. To the Navy, it means everyone gets the honor of cleaning everything. Everyone. Everything. But add a few extra percentage points of oxygen and everyone's happy as hell about it, so long as they get the privilege of breathing correctly.
Even if you'll spend the day choking down Brasso and Clorox fumes.
It's Incredibly Cramped
Yes, yes, you probably assumed this one. But you do not know the extent of it. For the first two months I was on the sub, I slept in the torpedo room. Some jokers even shut me in one of the tubes once. Ha ha, pretty funny joke, guys, making me think I was going to die in the vast black abyss like that. I thought those sleeping arrangements were a bum deal, until I started "hot-racking." Three guys share two racks, so one person is always getting in as another person gets out. You know that super gross feeling you get sitting on a toilet seat warmed by someone else's butt? It's that, in a bed.
You unspeakable slut.
And when I say "one person is always getting into a rack as another gets out," I don't mean we were just lounging around, sleeping the day away. Submariners switch to an 18-hour day while under way. You can't see your precious life-giving and -affirming sun anyway; why keep the whole "24 hours in a day" thing? So we'd sleep six hours, work six hours, study six hours (or work more), then do it again.
But you're still in the military, so there are fitness standards to maintain. We had a stationary bike that was missing the seat. Just a little metal tube you were welcome to sit on if you enjoyed the sensation of being anally violated by a robot. We had a rowing machine that, at full extension, had your back hitting a steam pipe. Every stroke was a test in precision: "How far back can I extend before I burn the hell out of myself?"
"We put a sticker on it, what else do you want?"
We had a treadmill that you could run on if you were 5 foot 8 inches or shorter. I am not. I jogged along with my neck bent either to the left or the right of the pipe that cut right through the center of the track. You think YOU get sore running; try channeling the hunchback of Notre Dame for a few miles. "Just move the equipment!" you say? Ha, you think I slept in a torpedo tube because I'm agoraphobic? In a submarine, things fit where they fit. You're the one that moves.
Everything stinks. It's not just the flatulence (didn't think of that, did you? Imagine your old dorm room, only there's 20 guys in there and you can't open the window for months) or the sweat, or the one guy who was allergic to the chemicals in the CO2 scrubbers, which gave him a skin rash that caused flakes of him to fall off constantly, but he was the only one technically qualified to operate it, so fuck it all, flakes ahoy, good buddy. The whole thing is a machine, and machines need oil. Oil stinks. God, does it stink. I stuffed dryer sheets in my pockets just to remind myself that there were better things in the world.
You know, just like people used to do with flowers. During the plague.
But no, let's not get distracted. The farts are what's important here: After two weeks, the milk would be gone. Three, and there were no more eggs. The freezer was only so big, and most of the stuff in there was for special occasions. Special occasions like the time a guy had a heart attack and they had to make room in the freezer for his body, so there was a somber memorial meal with the food they pulled out. It didn't happen on my sub, thank fucking God, but it did happen ...
Anyway, it all boils down to most of what we ate being canned food. Bad canned food. You know what goes well with 120 men in an airtight container? Suspicious, off-brand canned food. Every day was an experiment in how much methane poisoning a man can take before he becomes more fart than man.
"The fuck if I'm going in there."
Boredom Leads to Pranking
With that many guys dealing with nothing but each other for weeks on end, you can imagine the sort of Jackass-style shenanigans we'd get into. I once saw two guys taking turns beating each other with a stapler, dozens of staples sticking out of their backs, arms, chests, and necks.
"And suffering from a slight iron deficiency."
After I qualified for my first watch, I was so proud. I stood the watch, a true submariner at last, no longer a NUB (Non-Useful Body). I went back to my rack to grab a change of clothes so I could shower. There, where my uniforms had been lying six hours before, were the loveliest sets of lingerie you can imagine. The options were: 1) raise a stink, get some officers involved, and generally be an ass, 2) start to stink and wear the same clothes until someone gave mine back, or 3) throw on the beautiful nightie and thong someone had so kindly purchased for me.
The only downside was that the chiefs wouldn't let me sit down to eat; my mostly bare ass couldn't touch the same seat they had to sit on. I made sure to stand front and center so everyone was forced to see my bulging thong while they tried to eat. It didn't take too long for my uniforms to show back up.
The fan dance may have been a factor in that as well.
By the way, when the reactor goes "critical," it's a good thing. That's what reactors are supposed to do. Criticality means that the fission inside the reactor is at a sufficient level to maintain itself, so when a reactor goes critical, it's powered on and capable of moving the ship. Every movie or show where someone yells, "The reactor's gone critical!" has been messing with you. One guy's family came down for a tour and his friends decided to mess with them. So right as they're being shown around -- blah blah where's the periscope -- he stares at a screen and shouts out, "Dear God, it's gone critical!" and then sprints out of the room. The rest of us paused for maybe half a beat before we, too, fled screaming out of the engine room.
The captain was a little upset when he found out.
Even the Surface Sucks
When the sub is submerged, everything stays nice, level, and calm. You might as well be tied up in port. Sure, somewhere inside you know the walls have contracted a bit, and the gauges showing the incoming seawater temperature are cold in a way that sends existential terror shooting through your subconscious, but at least things are stable. Submarines are meant to be submerged. Now take that brilliantly engineered tin can and put it on the surface. The damn thing wallows like a pig in mud. And since you're inside, you have no frame of reference. You don't realize how much easier it is to deal with a rocking boat when you can see the waves, or at least the horizon. Inside the sub, it's basically a carnival fun house, with everything liable to tilt wildly at complete random and with no warning.
Oh, and make sure you keep the most powerful and dangerous energy source ever built from killing everyone slowly and horribly.
There's this thing on the roof of the submarine, right in the middle of the main walkway, called a rising stem valve. It looks like this:
That's a closed one, but when it's open, that center piece projects outward about a foot. It's pretty easy to avoid when you're submerged and the ground hasn't spontaneously come to life, motivated only by its hatred for you -- but when you're on the surface and the ship is pitching and rolling ... well, one way you can tell someone served on a submarine is the forehead scars.
But that isn't so bad compared to the showers.
There are only three showers on board, so each one of them has about 40 guys using it every day. And sure, we clean them ... but 40 guys a day? Forty guys ... with no other privacy, sealed up away from the world for months? Let's not be delicate: Everyone's jerked off in there. You really don't want to touch the walls. I can't stress that enough. You shower like you're in an iron maiden. But then, when you're surfaced, showering means something terrible. Something unspeakable. It means constantly getting slammed face-first into a wall covered in the crusted semen of crusty seamen.
Subukkaked, if you will.
With all that said, lifetime submariners are a salty, hard-boiled bunch of awesome bastards. I wish I had the stones to be like them. The only time I ever thought I might want it was during our transit from Norfolk to Pearl Harbor, when we surfaced as we entered the Panama Canal. I popped out of the hatch and breathed in the first fresh air I'd tasted in weeks, stretched out, and saw the sun coming up over a lone mountain beside the canal. SEALs were racing around in their small boats to escort us, giant freighters were lined up so far into the distance that they disappeared, salt water was spraying, the birds were calling and singing. My master chief was standing to next to me, showing a rare smile.
"Almost makes it worth it, huh, Langdale?"
"What the hell is that smell?"
"That's not-fart, Master Chief."
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Cleve wrote a book! Sort of! It's a cynical comic book about a political superhero, and you can read it at Voterman.com! It's funny! Pretty funny! You can tell this is exciting news because there's exclamation points!!!!! You can also reach him on Twitter at @CleveLangdale.
Robert Evans is Cracked's head of personal experience articles, and you can contact him here if you have a darn good story.
Related Reading: Cracked also talked to an escaped survivor of the Church of Scientology, read her harrowing story here. We've also talked to an Air Force drone pilot and looked into the shocking problems faced by women in the military.