In a tube 33 feet across where 145 men
live for months,
By Sig Christenson -- Express-News Staff Writer
BOARD THE USS HOUSTON -- It's 4:20 a.m. and a weary Lt. Tom Shugart is in his 45th hour without sleep. Down the hall, Lt. Brad Hartzell slides out of a coffinlike bunk after being roused from slumber.
Neither man is certain when he'll rest again, or, for that matter, how long he'll be up this time.
In most jobs, those crushing hours would be extreme, but they're the norm on a nuclear submarine on patrol hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface.
Seamen like Hartzell and Shugart -- one of the University of Texas' top eight mechanical engineering graduates of 1995 -- have earned a spot among the Navy's elite by taking a dive in this boat, whose exterior was seen in the 1990 movie, "The Hunt for Red October."
They've invested years of study and untold hours of labor to run the Houston, a Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine whose black, rubbery surface cuts swiftly and silently through chilled Pacific blue.
Ironically, this deep-sea shark that helped win the Cold War is now an endangered species, a victim of tight budgets and Beltway politics. The boat is caught in a controversy over the need for so many fast attack subs in the face of a rapidly shifting global political climate.
"A submarine is in a hostile environment," said Ensign Dan Stauffer, 29, of Dallas. "There's nowhere to go if something goes wrong and you're under water."
One-hundred-and-forty-five men live in Spartan surroundings roughly the size of a 3,000-square-foot home -- one that seems to get smaller as deployments lengthen from days to weeks to months.
But time is relative. Clocks and calendars lose their importance in a place where there are no days and nights -- and no women. Women serve on ships and fly Navy jets, but they are still barred from subs -- although a Pentagon civilian advisory panel recently urged the Navy to rescind that ban in large vessels.
Deprived of sunlight in the cavernlike shell of their ship, the men are exposed to the endless drone of turbine engines and recirculated air, a sound not unlike that heard on a commercial jetliner. It's a tad on the icy side, cool enough that some of the men put their soft drinks near the boat's air vents to keep them chilled.
Houston is one crowded house, a place where a single square foot of personal space is precious. Navigating the boat's three decks means pivoting on one foot to twist, turn and flatten oneself against a metal wall to accommodate passing crewmen, locking eyes and perhaps muttering a greeting before quickly moving on.
Personal space shrinks in the one place people demand it the most: the bathroom. On the Houston, the stainless steel shower shared by 16 officers is smaller than a phone booth, barely big enough for one man. Two steps away is the wash basin. Three more steps and you're at the urinal; another step, the toilet. Three other virtually identical bath facilities on the Houston are shared by 129 enlistees, including 18 chief petty officers.
It's kind, and true, to call the restroom here efficient, but old hands like Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Robert Weber, at 41 a veteran of four sub deployments, know it's more -- and less -- than that.
"Just using the bathroom on a sub is a chore," he observed.
Houston has her ways, little things that earn affection from the men. When the boat rocks back and forth, veteran crew members know the Houston is cruising at about 20 knots. The "20-knot shuffle" only ends when the boat picks up speed.
For the crew, five hours' sleep a night is the norm, as are "rack-outs" -- the undersea ritual of being yanked from sleep to handle a crisis. And when work is done, the "play" generally consists of reading or watching an old video, amid dimmed lights and the smell of popcorn.
To live here is to be sealed inside a compartmentalized cylinder that dips, rises and tilts.
The crew members take it on faith that they're moving forward because there's no window -- indeed, not even a porthole -- that offers a glimpse of the world that Sonar Tech. 3rd Class Daniel MacCabe and his shipmates no longer see, hear or smell. And so it is that they're left to dream of sunshine, birds and rain while on the high seas.
"A lot of people don't think about that stuff until it's gone," said MacCabe, 22, of Willis, a community north of Houston.
"I think the capacity of the human mind for making the alien familiar is pretty much unlimited," said Lt. j.g. Andrew Presby, 24, of Cleveland.
"In a sense, you've got to be crazy (to be on the Houston )," said Lt. j.g. Michael Coursey, a 29-year-old Columbus, Ga., native who oversees the boat's nuclear reactor. "I mean, that's what everybody else tells me."
"I call my force the tribe because the tribe is made up by a level of men, and I'm talking about enlisted and officers, who are very well-educated, who are extremely independent, who have a real, real desire to be independent and at the same time be part of a successful team," said Rear Adm. Al Konetzni, commander of the Pacific submarine fleet. "They can fix anything."
Like any tribe, this one has rules and taboos.
You don't cry "fire" in a crowded submarine unless one has broken out. Fire is always a potentially catastrophic event on a submarine, so much a threat that crewmen doing their laundry never leave the boat's washing machine and dryer.
You say "shoot," not "fire," when a torpedo is released, call Cmdr. Daniel P. Mack "captain" or "sir" -- few call him "skipper" -- and no one, but no one, sits in the head chair of the wardroom.
That's his seat.
The atmosphere, though, isn't as stuffy as it seems.
A well-worn Elvis Costello CD is replaced by the more serene tunes of James Taylor at lunch. There is small talk about journalism as the boat's captain, Cmdr. Michael A. Zieser, leads a friendly game of cribbage after dining on lasagna, sausage, soup and salad.
It's Zieser's last dive as captain; Mack will take his place.
Sub slang and acronyms zip over the dining table as Coursey, reading from a yellow Post-it note, reviews maintenance issues with Lt. Cmdr. BrianReed, the chief engineer.
Banter ensues at the "Longhorn Café," where enlistees eat elbow to elbow at five small tables next to poster-size color photos of the downtown Houston skyline. Storekeeper 3rd Class Reginald McCarty said he loves the Houston because "it's like a family environment."
Unlike family, though, they have a choice about being here. No sailor is compelled to serve on the Houston. Everyone is a volunteer.
They likely posted high scores on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a test given to all recruits. And for the officers, the grind only got tougher as the time came to learn their specializations.
Shugart recalled spending up to 70 hours a week in a classroom at the now-shuttered Naval Training Center in Orlando, Fla., where he attended a graduate-level nuclear reactor school. The students studied there, rather than at home, because the books were classified.
"You'll drive yourself or be driven to meet the standards of the program," said Shugart, who studied everything from reactor dynamics to particle physics at the center.
"If the people here weren't as knowledgeable as they are and weren't as well-trained as they are and weren't as dedicated as they are, this job would be pretty scary."
There's a reason why it isn't.
As the 360-foot-long boat rolls, dives and rises unseen under the waters off San Diego, her crew lives in a subculture of excellence fueled by fear of incompetence. It's an extreme, peer-powered ethic as crushing as the pressures of the deep and as palpable as the recirculated air that has a faint aroma of oil and machinery.
"It's almost a cliché, but you're only as strong as your weakest link," said Lt. Cmdr. Jack Todd, a Navy spokesman. "That's why they all have to be that strong link."
It is for that reason perhaps that Stauffer totes a fist-sized manual littered with green tabs. The book looks like a courthouse records binder, but it is actually a reactor plant manual, one of almost a dozen bibles on critical ship systems.
Preparing for his first deployment, Stauffer, an electrical assistant, must have a thorough understanding of the Houston if he wishes to wear the distinctive submariner's badge, a pair of dolphins, and remain on the boat. "There's no room for dead weight," he said. Sailors say visions of a watery grave don't fuel their drive, but the possibility is never far from their minds.
"I don't think I'd call it fear," Presby said when asked what pushes the crew to long hours, heavy reading and light sleep. "I'd call it appreciation for the gravity of the situation."
Lessons 'written in blood'
Of 191 nuclear-powered submarines built by the United States since the keel of the USS Nautilus was laid June 14, 1952, the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion are the only ones to have been lost at sea.
While no American subs have suffered severe reactor accidents, many similar incidents occurred on Soviet boats during the Cold War.
Thresher went down during a test dive April 10, 1963, claiming the lives of all 129 men aboard. The precise cause of the accident is still unknown, but the Navy believes a failed joint in a seawater pipe was the culprit.
The Scorpion and her crew of 99 vanished around May 21, 1968. A debate raged for years over how the boat was lost, with some saying it was destroyed by one of its own torpedoes -- a scenario considered plausible by courts of inquiry. The Navy this week said the cause of the accident remains a mystery.
A best-selling book, "Blind Man's Bluff," revealed that the sub's Mark 37 torpedoes caught fire in tests. The information never reached investigators looking into the Scorpion tragedy, and it was believed to have been squelched by someone in naval ordnance, said Sherry Sontag, a New York writer who co-authored the book with Christopher Drew.
Design and safety changes, however, have emerged after each accident, and some of them are noticeable. Visitors to the Houston will see miles of pipes and electrical cables, some dime-sized and others as big around as a beer bottle, in the ceiling. The wires are exposed so crewmen can catch trouble early; a lesson learned after a false wall hid flames during a 1986 blaze aboard the USS Bonefish. Two sailors died in that incident.
Thirty-three feet in diameter and shaped like a teardrop, the mostly submerged Houston barely registers its outline as it enters home port at Point Loma across the bay from downtown San Diego.
The boat, on a quick turnaround, is here to pick up several passengers and will be out before dusk.
Headed west against a stiff, cold wind, with the brightly lit California coastline to starboard and the constellation Orion high above its wake, the Houston is relatively quiet during its first hours at sea. At 9:56 p.m., the peace ends abruptly as the boat's alarm twice shakes the air.
"Dive! Dive!" a voice cries.
A pair of navigation charts in the darkened control room show the boat's position as it submerges 25 miles southwest of Point Loma. The boat tilts forward, a depth gauge reading 100 feet and dropping. Ears pop at 152 feet. The boat levels off briefly, then tilts forward again.
Houston has plunged 480 feet as Chief Electronics Tech. Tom Layne, the new control room supervisor, sits in his chair and straps on a seat belt. His six-hour watch in the boat's nerve center has begun.
"Three hundred feet," he says.
"Very well," replies Lt. Charles Dunavant, officer of the deck.Over the next two days the crew will battle mock fires and flooding in the torpedo room. One fledgling seaman will win his dolphins badge, and Zieser will conduct a funeral at sea for a one-time sailor. The 15-minute service, conducted on the boat's bridge and planes -- the only parts of the boat visible when it surfaces -- is a frequent occurrence. Given for submariners and others who have worn a naval uniform, it typically includes the reading of the prescribed Scripture, the spreading of ashes into the ocean and a rifle volley.
A U.S. flag flown on the sub is later given to the family of the deceased, as well as a chart, a video and photos of the service.
Frayed nerves aren't uncommon a month into a deployment, said Weber, who has spent two-thirds of his 24 years in the Navy aboard subs. Trouble with kids, finances or a marriage can affect work, said Chief Fire Control Tech. Robert Griffin Sr., who finds that talking things out sometimes can help.
But reading is good therapy, too. Sonar Tech 3rd Class Chris Bryant, 20, of Seattle sat on a metal floor in the torpedo room reading a thick study book for the SAT. The torpedo room also is the one place on the boat where the crew can exercise with jumping jacks, push-ups and sit-ups.
"One of the best ways to pass the time out here is to stay busy," advised Senior Chief Electronics Tech. Bruce Talbot, 38, of Victoria.
"I try not to keep track of the days," said Harvard-educated Jonathan Caverley, 26, of Wantagh, N.Y., a veteran of one six-month deployment in 1998. "You get angry, frustrated, tired."
A taste of home
In the insular hull of the Houston, it's common to see sailors take a slice of home to their bunks as they vanish from a land-locked world.
McCarty, 24, of San Diego takes Lifesavers and popcorn. Coursey, an 81/2-year Navy veteran, packs root beer and cokes.
Griffin, a 19-year veteran of six deployments -- including one run under the North Pole -- brings a blanket and pillow but no food or snacks. "I've got to keep my girlish figure," he said, patting his stomach.Crew members can receive e-mail messages, without attachments. They're entitled to family-grams, written messages from spouses that run 40 words or less. But there's a catch: Neither e-mail nor family-grams can be received while the boat is submerged.
There also is no TV or radio.
Weber misses CNN.
Electronics Tech. 3rd Class Charlie Cady III, 24, of Rockport, wishes for Port Aransas beaches and his days of shark fishing on the jetties.
Sonar Tech. 2nd Class Ronald McCallister, 29, of Seguin pines for his wife, Kristin, and his two dogs. McCarty hungers for fast food.
"These are men that when you ask them how old their children are, some of them will start to cry because the question also means to them, how many years did they miss?" Sontag said. "It's enormous danger and enormous success, and all of it you have to hold in."
That's true today.
If tight-lipped as ever about their post-Cold War mission and steeled to the harsh realities of life on the Houston, her crew wouldn't trade their lot for anything on land or sea.
"It's a mystique," Griffin said.
"Who can do this?" wondered Chief Torpedoman Jeff Davidson, at 39 a veteran of five submarine deployments.
"My roommates from college, one's a surgeon, one's a lawyer, one's a physicist at Berkeley," said Caverley, the Houston 's communications officer. "They're all really smart, ambitious people, but we're always talking about my job instead of theirs."