My Eyes Opened at 4:45

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by Erik Sklar

I reported to my first submarine in 2007, and the following years were not easy. The captain of the ship at that time is a submarining legend, a towering, overbearing man, built like an astronaut, with the presumable presence of Abraham Lincoln. This man never slept, did calculus for fun, and refused to let strawberries be brought on the boat, by anyone, for any reason (to this day, I have no idea why, but when you command a multi-million dollar nuclear powered attack submarine, well, you don’t have to answer to the crew).

The submarine captain and I did not get along. But, no matter how much he did not like me, he could not get rid of me, because the ship could not go to sea without me. I was one of the ship’s divers, the ship’s combat search and rescue swimmer, one of two. Without a ship’s diving party, a submarine cannot go to sea. The ship’s divers are the submarine captain’s contingency plan; they are the self-proclaimed warrior elite of the United States Naval Submarine Force, emphasis on the self-proclaimed.

This captain did not like me because he viewed my married status as a weakness; and that being married implied that I was in love. To him, love was the anti-derivative of hesitation, of cowardice. His convictions eventually led him to question whether I would choose to preserve my own life over the life of the crew, if, under the circumstances, he asked me to. Of all of the crew-members, the divers would inevitably be the most likely individuals tasked with an objective that would warrant the contemplation of such notions—a task whose certainty of death would determine how far we would be willing to push ourselves to accomplish the mission. And as such, the divers were held to a Spartan standard.
In my heart, I was certain that day would come at some point. He doubted me, and as a result, he resented me.

In any case, I served under this Captain Ahab for a few years; one of them spent at sea patrolling the reaches of the Pacific. For six months of that year, I, Ishmael, was sentenced to work in the ship’s galley for recklessly operating the equipment on his duty station, while under a duty status.

Galley work is hard work. It is everything you hated about working in the service industry, only it’s on a submarine, hundreds of feet under the water. We worked in 12-hour shifts that often stretched into 14-hour workdays. Seven days a week, for six months, I lived a life not far from that of a 15th century able-bodied seaman.

The punishment was meant to break my will. The captain even added-on that I was not to leave the ship or pier under any circumstances while in port, and he ordered the radiomen to screen all of my emails and withhold mail from me as well. He ordered that I be quartered in the torpedo room, which is well lit at all times—not far from the sanitary tanks. I did this for six months, until that captain transferred command. He never let up.

But he never broke me.

The former captain was promoted. My coffee mug was a silent token of my perseverance.