Life in a Steel Pipe

Life in a Steel Pipe

by Bob ‘Dex’ Armstrong


My daughter said, “Dad, it looks like all you did was have fun…” I guess it looks that way to folks who never did what we did for a living. Most people have no idea what life was like inside one of those steel monsters. People always ask… “When you were underwater, could you see out?” They have the idea that submarine duty is like riding a glass bottom boat in Tarpon Springs, Florida… We just enjoyed life and watched fish go scooting by.

Walt Disney caused folks to think like that. In his rendition of the Jules Verne version of submarine service, his boat had a big glass window… Folks sat in big, overstuffed red velvet chairs, smoked imported tobacco, drank sherry, and watched the crew go out some magic hatch and play grab-ass all over the ocean floor. That boys and girls, is pure, unadulterated bullshit… Strictly 20,000 Leagues of Grade A horse manure.

You can’t see out… It’s hot… It stinks… You’re cooped up in less moving around room than you have in your garage. You share your living space with very active, one-inch long, multi-legged wildlife and 80 two-legged critters.

Without stupid activity, life could become unacceptably boring. There were times when life was so uneventful, you could actually hear your toenails growing.

So we did nutty stuff. We spent hours thinking up stupid stuff to do. It was either that, or a trip to the loony bin. When you lived in the North Atlantic, the only circus that came to town was the one you created in your head. We had to manufacture any fun we had.

For example… Only boat sailors will think this is funny… Why? Because they did it. If any submariner tells you he never pulled this one… He’s lying.

When you got some JG or fresh ‘out of the cabbage patch’ lieutenant standing the diving watch… You waited. You waited until he had trimmed the boat. Then by twos and threes, you made your way to the forward room… You waited some more. Then all of you moved by ones… Twos… Until all of you were in the after room. The boat would take on weird angles… The diving officer compensated… The trim manifold operator laughed as he responded to instructions…

“Pump 500 lbs. aft… No, forward… Wait… Make that after trim… Forward trim… Belay my last… Make that zero bubble! More dive on the stern planes… What the hell’s going on? What’s happening??? Boat’s really acting weird…”

It never took long for the COB to get a handle on what was going on.

There was another outbreak of crew lunacy on Requin… Most possibly the best… At the very least, the most memorable.

If you visit the Requin in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she’s sitting out in the river in front of Three Rivers Stadium. If you go through the boat, you will find a little aluminum fish dangling over the control room chart table… Hanging down on a bead chain with the legend ‘ODIN’ die-stamped in the aluminum.

They’ve got tour guides… Non-qual wanna-be fellows who make up answers for John Q. Public to cover what they have not the slightest clue about. There are as many stories about that little fish as there are tour guides.

Here is the straight dope. I was there… I was one of the idiots involved in it and had a front row seat in the “I will shoot the next Viking” major ass chewing.

Stuart was the primary instigator… A major player and father of that aluminum fish. I am not ratting on a fellow shipmate… Far from it. At reunions, Stuart is a celebrity… He starred in a video, signs autographs and I am told, will contract to father children for anyone wishing to have a certified diesel boat maniac in their family tree. Knowing Stu, it would probably fall out of the tree and land on its head. Stuart deserves the credit line on this one.

It was winter… Up north, cold as a witches’ tit… We had rigged in all the brass monkeys. Before we singled up and took in the brow, we got this film, The Vikings. Great flick. Some other boat in SUBRON SIX gave it up, as I recall, because we got orders that didn’t allow time for a movie run.

We showed it the first time, the second day out… Good movie. We then saw it six or seven times in a row. Weird story… If you haven’t seen it, rent the video. Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, and I think Curtis’ wife at the time… Some good lookin’ blonde.

The Vikings were a ratty-ass looking bunch. They did a lot of drinking… Fondled a lot of blonde, blue-eyed women and went to sea on a regular basis. It sounded familiar…

One night, someone announced that we, the crew of the Requin, had to be the spiritual descendents of the Vikings. WHAM!! In that instant, we all became Vikings. Everyone spoke in Scandinavian, Minnesotan, Inger Stevens dialect.

“Ja Sven, you see da cheef? He’s da beeg fella wit da beeg moudt!”

Everybody got into it. The skipper became Ragnar… The exec, Einar… We turned our foul weather jackets inside-out so the brown, hairy looking fake fur stuff was on the outside. We made cardboard horns and stapled them to both sides of our watch caps. When we passed each other going fore and aft, we banged our chests and yelled, “O-O-O-DIN!” (Taken from what they did to greet each other in the film).

In the movie, this old crone, old wrinkled wise woman, gives Tony Curtis this fish made from a ‘falling star’ i.e. meteorite… It was magnetic and was considered to be major magic because it always returned to point north. With this fish always pointing north, the film had Viking ships cutting through pea soup fog and running back and forth between Norway and England like a cross-town bus. Stu went down in the pump room and built us an aluminum fish and die stamped “ODIN” on it.

He hung it from the MC box over the control room chart table… It dangled and swung back and forth. Every time some clown from the after battery would pass through the control room, he would give it a little ‘start swinging’ tap. This eventually drove the Chief of the Boat stark raving nuts! He would foam at the mouth… Get red… Veins would pop out of his neck… Words like, “God save us from these unruly children” and “In the Old Navy, the old man would rake your useless butts over the coals.”

Why did ODIN stay where he was? Simple… The skipper liked it.

As time passed and we became more and more ‘Viking’, the exec put on his “Enough is enough” voice and announced over the 21MC that the crew of Requin had just gotten out of the Viking business… All stop… Don’t answer anymore Viking bells… Over… El stoppo.

Ten minutes later, some idiot tapped into the 21MC and whispered,


The exec lit us up like a Christmas tree. From then on, we looked around for officers before giving each other the silent Odin salute.

When we came in and the exec opened his vertical uniform locker and removed his ‘hit the beach’ hat, it had grown a pair of cardboard horns. It had to be a miracle because the COB used everything but truth serum to get the rats to rat on whoever did it. I think the Chief finally recognized that the leadership of Requin may have pissed Odin off.

All the exec said was,

“You sonuvabitches never comprehend when the game’s over and it’s time to pick up your toys and put them away!”

He was a deep thinker… We had no idea what in the hell the man was trying to communicate… We knew if he was really serious, he wouldn’t be standing topside talking to the OD of the USS Grampus wearing a hat with cardboard horns attached to it.

Life was uneventful so we fought boredom any way we could. Most of the time submarine sailors won.

Forty years later, a group of late middle age bastards stood in the control room and watched Stu, the originator, replace ‘ODIN’… And we yelled, “O-O-O-DIN…” and banged our chests. We were young again and someone in the crew’s mess yelled,

“Jeezus, the idiots are at it again!!”



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