Deep Submergence

Deep Submergence Unit (DSU) at Naval Air Station North Island was the public-facing operational arm of Submarine Development Group 1 where the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicles, Deep Submergence Vehicles, Advanced Tethered Vehicle and other specialized gear was stored and maintained by a group of divers and submariners. One of the few guys who fit neither description was the staff photographer and documentarian, Photographer’s Mate Second Class Cesar Rush. He had been there for a couple years at that point, mostly responsible for taking snapshots at command functions and keeping the visitor folders stuffed with pretty images of DSU vehicles and people, in that order.

Cesar told me later that he resented the sight of my face the first day I came tearing into his shop all fired up to put our respective commands on the map. He had lost his own fire quite some time ago due to lack of support and my carte blanche to open the floodgates of publicity was all the more painful as a result. All the same, we became close friends as we joined forces to tell some great stories. My words painted pictures in the reader’s mind while Cesar’s pictures were each worth a thousand of the best words I could find. It was one of those friendships that feel lifelong right from the start, though it couldn’t survive the advent of Facebook, far right partisan politics and the election of Barack Obama.

As I neared the end of a second enlistment that started four years earlier aboard USS Hunley before I went to journalism school in Indianapolis, I made plans for my dad to read me the oath of enlistment in March for my next four years. The event would take place standing ankle deep in frigid water on a plain metal plate some 2,500 feet below the surface of the Pacific where the Mystic and the Avalon, the Navy’s two deep submergence rescue vehicles, practiced mating to the escape hatch of a submarine stuck on the ocean floor.

I picked the old man up at the airport and checked us into the Navy Lodge located near the main beach at Naval Air Station North Island on Coronado Island, just a stone’s throw from the piers where the DSRV support vessels were tied up and waiting for us to join them for the scheduled training run that made the special day possible in the first place. We had burgers and fries at the bowling alley after the old man schooled me hard in a couple of games. We snagged a six pack of beer on the way back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening in companionable silence watching his favorite television shows until we fell asleep around eleven. The bedside alarm woke us up for our Father and Son Adventure Day at Oh-Dark-Thirty, always a couple hours before the sun came up.

The boat was pulling out at 0700, so we “Shit, Showered and Shaved” in Gordon’s parlance before hitting the McDonald’s on base for breakfast and coffee. The ship was a couple hundred feet long and maybe fifty wide with a flat bottom, a large forward wheelhouse and “cradle” at the stern to house the DSRV suspended over the water below. It was an pale orange-yellow over most of the square footage with dark-orange trim picking out details around windows and hatches and stacks. Cesar met us at the pier around 0630, greeted my dad warmly and led us to the stateroom we would be sharing even though we expected to return the same day. This ensured room on the life rafts should a normally straightforward trip come to dire straits. It was around noon when we anchored over the submarine rescue training platform two thousand feet below us of the coast of La Jolla Cove, and the crew started prepping the small green mini-submarine for launch.

My dad wore an ear-to-ear grin as we were led through safety drills and briefed on the mission parameters.

We climbed into the DSRV from underneath where the docking cradle would attach to a disabled submarine’s escape hatch in an emergency. The ladder disappeared into the center of three interconnected metal spheres, seven and a half feet in diameter, that made up the pressure-safe interior of the fifty-foot outer hull of green fiberglass that enclosed the vehicle’s ballast and sensitive electronics. Active sonar in the nose helped the pilots guide the mini-sub with uncanny accuracy to the site of a distressed nuclear submarine resting on the ocean floor while a fine-tuned propeller mechanism at the stern and shifting mercury ballast as needed allowed the vehicle to pitch and roll up to 45 degrees and still mate with the escape hatch of their target, an operation simulated today on a metal plate secured to the ocean floor more than two thousand feet below our feet.

Launching a DSRV from its surface support vessel is almost as exciting as watching cement dry without all the suspense of whether or not someone might carve their name in it. Doing it from the inside is marginally better with the electronic bells and whistles being managed by the submarine’s pilot and co-pilot in the forward sphere. The middle sphere was occupied by a lone sailor whose sole mission was the monitor the life-support systems that would keep us alive once we sunk under the gentle waves rocking us from side to side.

Dad was with me and Cesar in the aft sphere, not sure what to expect but avidly watching as the DSRV’s crew went through their paces with speed and accuracy. It was my first time on the DSRV, so I didn’t know what to expect when Cesar told us to hang on to the metal bar that went around the circumference of the curved bench seats we were sitting on and to brace his feet against the opposite side. He aimed his camera in our direction to snap off a series of pictures at odd angles when the pilot started to test the guidance and handling systems by taking the nimble submarine through its paces. At one point we were almost standing upright on the side of the seats across from us. The extreme angles had the added benefit of purging any excess air from the nooks and crannies of the dark green super-structure.

The vehicle leveled back out and the pilots told the surface support crew that we were descending to the test platform at a rate of one hundred feet per minute. Twenty-five minutes later, the sailor in the middle sphere announced we had a soft-seal and were draining the mating skirt. I’m not sure how long that took, but once a hard-seal was reached, we could open the hatch to let the passengers enter the middle sphere for a reenlistment ceremony that included me, my father, and DSU’s commanding officer. Cesar to capture the unique moment on film.

Climbing through the small opening between the aft sphere and the center sphere, we sat back on the bench around a hatch open to the cold steel of the test platform below us. A white circle was painted as a target and just barely off center of the mating skirt now dogged down securely by the sailor manning the life support. He climbed back out of the hole to make room for me and my father, now without shoes due to the 12 inches of water that remained after the pumping.

To say the water we stepped into was freezing would be a significant understatement. It was such a bone-chillingly intense shock that my legs went numb below the knee immediately and my previously frostbitten toes started a slow burn that would become a sharp pain in short order. I had never seen the old man so happy or proud in his official Deep Submergence Unit baseball cap and dark gray “US Navy Dad” sweatshirt, right hand raised and the left holding a cheat sheet for the thankfully brief oath of enlistment. The bright flashes of Cesar’s camera left spots in our eyes probably made the text harder to read, but we made it through without missing anything.

After dropping my hand and signing on the dotted line, I was officially locked into my last four years of military service.

* * *

The pain of staying current on my bills had gotten so intense by April of 1996 that I decided bankruptcy was the only way out of the dilemma. It was surprisingly simple, though probably should have been harder to accomplish as I didn’t really learn my lesson with spending until I got married and gained a lovely wife who “enjoys” balancing the books. I hired a lawyer who prepared and filed all the required paperwork for a thousand bucks. In a short hearing at the courthouse downtown, all my debts were discharged “with malice” and I was ordered to take my car back to the dealership within ten days.

I completed that uncomfortable and embarrassing task the very next day and made my way back to base via bus.

When Cesar and I weren’t tearing things up on the job, I developed a friendship with a submariner assigned to the supply department. Store Keeper Second Class Peter Carroll was about my age, lived in the dorms and was one of the few single guys in a command with a mostly married crew. We shared a love of the San Diego nightlife plus he had his own car now that I was hobbled by a lack of wheels. Pete had a laid-back style and confidence that made female companionship easy to secure. His clothes may have been standard fare in his hometown of St. Louis or his own unique flair, but I suspect he picked up wearing cargo shorts, T-shirts and sandals when he got to California.

The first style choice I adopted (and still wear to this day) were the Ben Franklin eyeglasses. I then added cargo shorts, T-shirts and too many pairs of Birkenstocks for someone who wasn’t living a far more natural life style. I even replicated the Doc Martens he wore when we hit the clubs each weekend. Of those additional fashion choices, only the shorts and T-shirts remain. The easy confidence with women didn’t happen until after I met my wife and remains a vestigial skill even now.

Our venue of choice most weekends was Emerald City in Pacific Beach, a few blocks from the ocean. The DJ played a standard, if eclectic, mix of mid-nineties and older hits for a dance floor that filled up early with a mostly female crowd and stayed that way until closing. Megan #2 entered my life (the first Megan being a fourth grade crush) when Pete sealed the deal with her roommate Jessica on the dance floor one Friday night, and we ended up in their hotel room to continue the party once the club closed around two.

The girls were visiting on a break in their studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. San Diego was where they wanted to live once they graduated, so they had come to check it out in person. Meeting me and Pete was an unexpected bonus that stretched throughout the rest of their visit, allowing them to get a much more complete view of the city and all it had to offer. Pete and I took a road trip to Flagstaff in a follow-up to that first awesome weekend in the sun a few months earlier.

With two broken wings of my own, I tend to find women who are in need of healing. Megan #2 was no different and well beyond my skills at that particular moment in time. I definitely have a thing for red heads with green eyes and ample endowments, because she was a fairly close analog to Megan #3, my wife of nearly a decade now. Her hair was dark reddish brown where my wife’s is strawberry blonde, though many of their attributes are startlingly similar in hindsight. Chief among these being compassion and intelligence and a drive to better herself beyond the circumstances of her birth. Not to mention severe self doubt and a fissure I could never mend.

I fell pretty hard that weekend in northern Arizona, though there were early signs of impending collapse. Megan #2 was still nursing a heart ripped to shreds by a recent boyfriend with a penchant for ridicule and neglect. The first time we had sex was followed by a deluge of tears and shame. With no frame of reference for the display, I simply hugged her until the tears dried, assuring her she was indeed beautiful. I was happy to settle into a long-distance thing that would avoid a repeat scene in the future due to geography if not temperament.

Pete and Jessica didn’t survive that first weekend, but Megan #2 and I eventually built a deeper connection. There were a couple of repeat visits, her to California and me to Arizona. Once we got past the tearful fallout from intimate relations, we settled into a steady relationship of mutual attraction and respect. It was my longest adult relationship by far though only a couple months old. One of the last trips we shared was Valentine’s Day 1997 when I flew into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor for a long weekend that would include a drive south to meet her mom and step dad in Tucson.

Right up to the moment I started looking for a way out, I was convinced I had found The One.