Great sea stories have a few things in common. They are all based, at least loosely, on some real event. They all hold the listener's attention - not usually too hard to do on day fifty-eight of the 'Sea of None of Your Business' hostage crisis. They all generally start with the expression, "This is a no-sh___er."
The title 'Sea Story' can be deceptive. That name comes from the fact that they are usually shared at sea when time, distance from friends and family, and general boredom coalesce into a fertile ground for the emergence of the shared community experience we called a 'sea story'.
This is one of those stories. And it's a no-sh___er!
The year was probably 1980 or 1981. I was a staff instructor at S8G, the land-based prototype for the Trident submarine reactor and engine room in upstate New York. Though I'd never been to sea, I was an 'old hand' by that time, at least in my estimation.
I'd shown up at S8G while it was under construction. My qualification walk-through included climbing into the containment hull by ladder via a hole in the bottom of the engine room and saying such memorable lines as "When they are installed, the AFW pumps will be located here", and "Normally, this space would be occupied by the Control Rod Drive Mechanisms, which won't show up until the core is delivered". I learned how Reactor Protection and Nuclear Instrumentation operated, not from the manuals (there weren't any) but from the engineers that designed the Reactor Protection System and the Nuclear Instruments.
I'd been part of the crews that had taken the reactor through its first criticality, and all the subsequent phases of testing. I'd been through the critical final stage of testing - Phase 8 - accident condition testing of a new line of nuclear power units, testing that is only done on the first reactor of a series. We had operated solid for weeks - performed real rod ejection events - started up with no reactor coolant circulation. We'd over-sped the main engines (not on purpose) and tossed a whole stage of turbine blades. Scraps of those lost blades kept showing up in the condensate strainers for years! We'd even experienced the fleet's first genuine 2F-2F hi-power scram, with power reaching a level that made your eyes bug out before it finally turned to the collective sigh of relief of all Maneuvering watch-standers.
By this time, I was working on my EOOW quals, quite an achievement for an ET2 staff pick-up. In short, I was young, cocky, probably over-qualified, and, without question, prideful instructor that thought he was God's gift to S8G.
It was January or February. Winter can be merciless in Ballston Spa, and this one was well under way when we got word of the impending visit of Admiral Rickover. But winter or not, Rickover was on his way, and by God, we were going to be ready. For some reason, a desire to impress the Admiral, or by direct edict from the old man himself, it was decided that it wouldn't be winter when he and his entourage arrived.
We spent days shoveling snow, working with front loaders and graders to remove all trace of that white powdery substance from the path he would take when he arrived at the site until he entered the S8G facilities. When we finally reached bare pavement and the frozen ground, it was determined that despite our best efforts, it still looked too much like the Arctic north, and consequently we set about digging up the top four inches of rock hard, frozen topsoil on both sides of the road.
A couple of semi-trailer loads of imported sod, and we unrolled spring along both sides of the plant access. All that remained was to spend the night before the arrival of His Holiness hand-planting dozens of imported blooming tulips along the walk, and suddenly, we had our own little bit of May, right there in the middle of two weeks of record low temperatures! This, I remain convinced to this day, was the origin of the phrase "WTF!"
For those of you not in the nuclear community, Rickover is widely held as the 'Father of Naval Nuclear Power' and what he said went. His irascible nature and the responsibility for all of NAVSEA 08 combined to create a personality that commanded respect, fear, and caution, all at the same time. It was often said that he wasn't God, but he was qualified to stand the watch!
So, to some degree, a desire to please was understandable, but nobody could have anticipated that the Admiral's visit would be delayed by a day.
We waited. By that afternoon, the grass had turned brown and gone to meet its maker. The tulips had frozen and been shattered by the wind. It was a scene out of some horrific nightmare film with a deranged director, and Jack Nicholson mumbling threats under his breath. So, we shoveled up the sod, and swept up the tulips, and by nightfall we had fresh grass and flowers for the next day's visit. Can you say WTF times two?
Finally, the big day arrived. We all turned out in our best working uniforms, with fresh haircuts and polished shoes. We even waxed our hardhats to make a good impression. Rickover inspected us at quarters, and we turned to with the watch routine while His High Lordship started his tour of the plant, along with a New York State Representative and a gaggle of brass aides. It was a big day for all of us.
I had been chosen to stand the Reactor Operator watch because of my high standards, impeccable record, and zealous attention to detail. (OK - I drew the short straw!) We had put our best watch section together, because, well, that's what you do when you want to make a good impression. Which we did, us being pretty proud of 'our' plant and all.
Rickover made his tour of the plant, stopping to talk with each watch stander about the details of their watch stations. He was unexpectedly thorough, looking under deck plates, inside equipment cabinets, through the reactor compartment periscopes. It was, after all, not 'our' plant in his mind, but 'his' plant.
Completing his tour of the plant, the entourage finally showed up at the door to Maneuvering. Requesting permission to enter, according to protocol, the Admiral and a handful of his staff squeezed into our hardly spacious control room.
Those of you that know Rickover may be aware of a couple of things. One, Rickover always 'stands watch' on each of 'his' reactors at some point in time, so if you dig deep enough into the logs, every plant has his name in there somewhere. Two, by this time, the Admiral was an old man. Hell, he was an old man twenty years earlier.
He was standing next to me, and I knew at least two things about the Admiral. One, he was going to take over my watch, and two, he wasn't a very impressive physical specimen. He was eighty years old at that point, probably only about five foot four, and maybe 120 pounds. He also wasn't a very snappy dresser. His suit appeared to be ten years out of date, and at least three sizes too big for him, though I wasn't about to point that out. He made oversize suits look bad way before David Byrne of the Talking Heads evolved his premise that 'wearing suits that are too big will make it easier for people to remember you!"
He asked for my logs and gave them a critical review. He looked the panel over, and handing me the logs, asked for a turnover. I gave him the whole nine yards, a turnover speech I'd been rehearsing for hours.
We had prepared well for this morning. I'd been briefed, re-briefed, and re-re-briefed by everyone from the EOOW to the plant manager to the base CO, so I knew that while Rickover had the watch, I would still be responsible for everything that happened, just as if it were a student on the panel. After all, while Rickover was 'qualified' by virtue of being, well, Rickover, I was qualified by virtue of the plant training and certification program. So regardless it was made clear, I still owned the responsibility.
For the first time, I looked him directly in the eyes. I was struck by how clear and alert they were, unexpected in a man his age. Faint blue turning to grey, they really captured you. There was no doubt he was there, present, ready, and competent. For the first time in our meeting, I was caught a little unprepared. Despite that, and the turnover now complete, the Admiral addressed me by name, saying, "Petty Officer Williamson, I relieve you!"
"I stand relieved," I replied, and signing over the logs, stood up and changed places with the Father of the Nuclear Navy. He sat down, took the logs from me, and started his initial entries. I sat down in my usual position, on the instructor's stool to his left, and slightly behind him, where I could oversee his every movement, and intervene if a student, even if it was the Admiral, decided to do something stupid. I assumed my typical instructor's pose, arms crossed, but poised and alert for unexpected actions.
Rickover glanced briefly in my direction, and assumed his duties, starting with a full set of logs. He was meticulous despite or perhaps because of his unfamiliarity with the panel layout. He would manipulate the occasional selector switch, and neatly print the corresponding readings on the log sheet. A few minutes went by, and I did not recognize his occasional side-long glance and growing irritation.
Finally, he turned to me and very clearly and loudly said, "Petty Officer Williamson, I said I have the watch!"
Gulp. "Uhhhhh, yes sir," I mumbled, as I stood up and turned to the door. As everybody else looked away embarrassed for me, the EOOW caught my eye with a look that said something like, "If you leave Maneuvering, I will give up my day job and hunt you to the end of the earth until I have killed you, your children, and your children's children!"
That, I got. I squeezed through the crowd to the back corner of Maneuvering next to the EOOW, where I could see the panel, but not really be seen by the Admiral. Everybody else sort of scooted away from the Admiral and the RPCP so that none could be caught "hovering" over His Worship.
Finally, after about 15 minutes by the clock (three hours if you are standing in the back of Maneuvering) the Admiral expressed his desire to be relieved, which relieved us all.
I stepped up to the panel, reviewed the logs (like I'd been somewhere else) and asked for a turnover. The Admiral dutifully detailed the logs and events of the past 24 hours, and finally I said those words which most of us could not imagine we would ever have the opportunity to say...
"Admiral Rickover, I relieve you!"
And I did. After all, I may not have been Rickover, but I was qualified to stand the watch!