the Right String
by Don Ennis ETCS(ss) USN(ret), USS Stonewall Jackson SSBN-634
I recently learned that two shipmates from the Stonewall Jackson had died and the fact that their deaths occurred several years ago does not ameliorate my loss. They could have passed from this earth yesterday and my feelings would have been the same. Time doesn’t seem to matter. I’ve had this story of the two of them floating around in my head for thirty years now not able to make connection between this unlikely pair that makes enough sense to write it down. Perhaps I couldn’t write it down because our stories are what we are and without them we are creatures without a past with no hope for a future and I couldn’t see how a teetotaler Mormon owned any part of the story. I finally realized that this is my story too because I observed it and understood the human drama and the humor that took place. I wish I were a better writer so I could justify their lives with more noble thoughts than this silly story. You can be sure that if I every find the talent and the stamina to write a submarine novel as I promised Ron Brumfield I would, you will find in it a laconic captain modeled after James P. Keane and a mysterious Cajun who looks a lot like Earl Fagot pronounced “Fig O”.
I have recently been in contact officer shipmates who talk about “Jim” Keane. I find it difficult to refer to the Captain in such familiar terms. The fact that after thirty years and way beyond military obligation I still think his first name was Captain indicates to me some measure of the man. He was fair with those over whom he held the power of life and death. Above being merely competent I felt safe with him at sea.
Regardless of the danger and submarining is a dangerous vocation; I always had the sense that the Captain would bring me home. He had an extraordinary sense of detail. I have never served on a cleaner boat, because, I think, nothing escaped the Captain’s attention. He saw everything and one night on the midwatch at sea when the faint odor of beer crept unnoticed by most of the watchstanders into the control room, I learned that his sense of smell wasn’t far behind his eyesight. The captain noticed.
Awakened from his sleep he came into the control room completing his donning of the submarine coveralls we all wore velcroing the front shut. Where’s that smell coming from” he asked awaking the conning officer from a day dream. The young officer answered with puzzled look as the Captain left the control room and headed towards the crew’s mess. The movie was in progress and he correctly surmised that no one would be dumb enough to drink beer on the mess deck. The smell must be coming through the ventilation system which meant it’s origin could be anywhere on the boat. He couldn’t have guessed that the odor was not just coming through the ventilation system; the beer itself was in the ventilation system. In the 80’s when screaming skippers turned the word nuke into half a word the whole word then being ----ingnuke, we would have gone to general quarters in a futile attempt to find the source of the offending odor as well as the culprit. James P. Keane was a smarter man and a better captain than that. He knew that any crew who could hide the X.O.’s door for two weeks could hide a six-pack indefinitely, but more important he knew that if his crew didn’t stick together he wasn’t captain over very much. He took a quick look at the fan room and went back to bed knowing the fact he had noticed was sufficient and would not go unnoticed by the crew; especially not by those crew members who were hurriedly covering their asses.
Someone once said “If you think it’s difficult getting a ship into a bottle try getting a bottle into a ship” Now I’m not saying it was Earl Fagot who brought the beer onboard, but Earl drank a lot. Years later when I was working on an undergraduate degree at the California State University at Los Angeles and it became know that I had served on Polaris submarines one of my classmates, a young man who worked in the aerospace industry in southern California approached me. He told me that one of his work colleges had also served on Polaris submarines and for a thin guy could drink more beer than he thought humanly possible. “He’s a dark complexioned guy and his name is…” I finished his sentence “Earl Fagot” to the amazement of my classmate.
Earl was kind of quite and he had a sense of mystery about him. I remember his wife Donna telling me that when she first met Earl, she thought he was a gambler. He always seemed to have a lot of money and he disappeared for long periods of time. And he had that look about him that suggested he was descended from a long line of Cajun riverboat gamblers. Earl also had a golf bag and although it had golf clubs in it I somehow doubted that golf was his game. I only knew that when Earl went on liberty the bag went with him and when he returned to the boat he seemed to list toward the shoulder the bag was on.
Only civilians and surface skimmers have to ask where alcohol could be hidden on a U S Navy ship of the line especially one as small and as confined as a submarine. Out of courtesy to any of the former who have endured this tale thus far I’ll try to quell your curiosity. For starters, the NAV Center’s EAB bench locker inboard of the NOCC had a false bottom where cashew nuts from all hands stores loading parties were detoured. The SINS binnacle bedplate had a space big enough from a small man like Dave Caudel to sleep undetected through field days. The center outboard bunk in the forward sleeping section of the goat locker had a locker where anything that could fit through the locker door could be found only by climbing into the bunk, lying on your back and reaching your left hand into the darkness and around the ventilation piping. On another boat when the COB had a heart attack and had to be MEDIVACed I had to do his job and mine and I was busier that a one legged man in an ass kicking contest. The choice got to be between eating and sleeping and I lost 25 pound in forty days only because I knew where to hide myself.
For a good submariner like Earl hiding beer was a piece of cake. It was only by chance that I saw a piece of string caught in the door of the NAVDAC ,a piece of equipment Earl maintained. I opened the door and followed the string to where it disappeared into the air conditioning piping . The piping was just the size of a beer can and there were more than the one string I had found. I picked up the hank of string and pulled gently on one of them. The NAV Center was dark and from the darkness a voice warned me: ”Chief, you have to know which string is connected to the top can. If you pull on the wrong one you might pop open the flip top on one of the bottom cans and you’ll wake up the captain again.” I was 14 days past my 27th birthday when I reported to the Jackson as a newly and properly initiated CPO and that was six months before I found the string. I wasn’t much of a chief then, but I had some great examples to follow including one who taught me what was sufficient.
If there is a heaven where submariners go and it is a place that needs to be run with care, understanding, and precision I know who will be running the place and it will be a place where you don’t have to hide beer in the ventilation system.
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