I was having a fun filled conversation about the head on a submarine that included the operating procedures and the sanitary tanks this week with a very good friend.
To be fair, who else would you have such a conversation with?
My friend was a ground pounder back during the countries extended excursion into South East Asia and since the conversation was on Facebook, we got a number of inputs from other Submariners. You just can’t have an isolated conversation about such a weighty subject without having others who observe it want to weigh in.
We talked about the method for using the head, the disposal process, the highlights and lowlights of use during an extended underway deployment and certain contests that most hard core Submariners would be well acquainted with that involved the head. Most importantly we included safety features such as remembering to never try and flush when the system was pressurized. Ah, the memories came flooding back.
My dear friend the ground pounder at one point started to push back a little when a few of the boys reinforced with glamorous stories of their own. At one point, I let my fellow brothers of the Phin know that while he had never ridden a submarine, he had many of the necessary skills to be included as a bubblehead. I know this about him since we worked closely together and have had a friendship for over twenty years. I truly believe that if Uncle Sam had not drafted him back in the sixties to go and urinate in a 155 MM shell, he would have found himself on a submarine at some point or another and would have fit in quite well.
Sadly, when I called him an honorary bubblehead, he was confused and a bit disoriented. Perhaps even a little chagrined. Why would I call him such a thing? After all if you Google Bubblehead on the internet, you will find the following:
NOUN slang: A stupid of foolish person; dolt (First heard in 1950-55)
A foolish or stupid person
Synonyms often include:
airhead, birdbrain, blockhead, bonehead, chowderhead, chucklehead, clodpoll (or clodpole), clot [British], cluck, clunk, cretin, cuddy (or cuddie) [British dialect], deadhead, dim bulb [slang], dimwit, dip, dodo, dolt, donkey, doofus [slang], dope, dork [slang], dullard, dum-dum, dumbbell, dumbhead, dummkopf, dummy, dunce, dunderhead, fathead, gander, golem, goof, goon, half-wit, hammerhead, hardhead, idiot, ignoramus, imbecile, jackass, know-nothing, knucklehead, lamebrain, loggerhead [chiefly dialect], loon, lump, lunkhead, meathead, mome [archaic], moron, mug [chiefly British], mutt, natural, nimrod [slang], nincompoop, ninny, ninnyhammer, nit [chiefly British], nitwit, noddy, noodle, numskull (or numbskull), oaf, pinhead, prat [British], ratbag [chiefly Australian], saphead, schlub (also shlub) [slang], schnook [slang], simpleton, stock, stupe, stupid, thickhead, turkey, woodenhead, yahoo, yo-yo.
I am sure my great friend of more than twenty years had to have been distressed when he saw that I might have calling him a dolt. But nothing could be further from the truth!
I tried to assure him (to no avail) that only the most significant people in my life ever earned the title of Bubblehead. I have many honorable friends who were skimmers (or targets as we bubbleheads call them), Airedales, ground pounders, jet jockeys and so on. But only a few ever became Bubbleheads.
So who are these creatures? Where do bubbleheads come from?
Well, it’s partially a mystery. Even though literature is filled with submarine stories like Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea” and American lore is overflowing with high tech submarines with windows and mini subs like those found in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”, real life is never quite that well defined.
Often times, credit is given to skimmers who resent the fact that we have the best food, best assignments, best advancements, extra pay for riding in the same ocean and really cool equipment. According to my friend the ground pounder, we also drink all the best beer in Norfolk leaving the Army to drink nothing but 3.2 beer.
Some people claim that it had something to do with a slang name once given to Bell Hat divers.
Others credit it to the clinometer that is found in the control room of most submarines. The only way to determine the angle of a submarine on its axis is to have an inclinometer which is a curved vial mounted with a bubble of air within that indicates at any given moment what the submarines disposition is in relation to the earth and the ocean. (Interesting note: when someone is said to have lost the bubble, it could relate to the fact that they are no longer stable and their bubble has escaped the inclinometer… but I digress)
But I have my own ideas about their origin. Let me explain.
First, the term bubblehead seems to be unique to American submariners. I am sure someone from my global submarine community will fire a torpedo in my direction for saying this but since I am an American Submariner and that is my sole experience, I am sticking with that preposition.
Bubbleheads come from farms, townships, cities, boroughs and the suburbs. Anyplace and any state in the country and a few of the territories. Even the Philippines. But all Americans by their devotion to the Service
They must have an equal measure of intelligence and sarcasm in order to survive the curing process involved in their making. They come in all colors, sizes and backgrounds. Despite the space limitations, a few of the largest humans I have ever met served on board boats. They are also serious, lighthearted, emotional, emotionless, happy, angry, sleepy, often grump and dopey. All though to be fair, dopey doesn’t normally do very well
Bubbleheads are made under pressure. In the early days, that meant surviving the pressure chamber test and the dive tank test. Once they get to the boat, there is the pressure of being a non-qual air breathing nub with no useful purpose under the sun than to fetch coffee and scrub the head form sun up to sun rise (which is incredibly hard to define once the boat is submerged). The pressure comes from driving a boat into an ocean that is wild and changing at speeds that you can feel but not being able to see where you are going. Pressure is not knowing what is happening to your family for months on end. Pressure is learning to rely on your fellow shipmates for your own and the ship’s safety. Yep, bubbleheads are made under pressure. And it never seems to go away.
Bubbleheads are all volunteers but must go through a selection process. While it has changed through the years, it nearly always includes psychological as well as physical examinations. One of the best explanations of how it was done back in the old days explains a lot about our heritage. From the 1942 Book called The Fleet Today by Kendall Banning:
“Because of the dangers inherent in the submarine service, extreme caution is exercised in even the most simple of operations. This caution extends as far back as the selection of the men themselves. In the first place, they must be dependable men. The crew of a submarine is small and every man has a duty to perform; a single act of negligence might endanger the life of every man aboard. In the second place, a submariner must be blessed with the virtue of calmness and self-possession. The fellow who is subject to temperamental outbursts or who is contentious or who talks too much or who becomes excited has no place on a pig boat. And—to add the human touch—he must not be cursed with those little mannerisms or affectations which, in the intimacies that must necessarily prevail in cramped quarters, might grate on the nerves of his shipmates. Even that intensely personal and often unavoidable quality, designated by the medicos as bromidrosis but more popularly known as “B.O.,” will bar a man; even if his “best friends won’t tell him” the Navy will. The fruit of this selective system is found in the chief petty officers who have been developed over a term of years and who rate among the steadiest, most silent, and ablest groups of men in the Navy.”
Bubbleheads must exhibit redundancy in all they do. Starting with the way they enter the transition they will undergo, all Bubbleheads are required to volunteer twice. Once to serve the nation, and once to join submarine training. There have been exceptions over the years but the majority of bubbleheads are twice as committed as their fellow sailors. (SEALS are one of the notable exceptions but even they like to ride submarines from time to time).
A Bubblehead subjects themselves to the fact that to truly earn the title, the learning never stops. Basic qualification leads to advanced qualification. Each qualification leads to more studying and work in order to advance in their submarine assignment as well as their personal advancement. You have to learn every valve, every circuit, every system, every pump, and every piece of damage control equipment. Every submariner is indoctrinated with the law and the gospel that quick decisions must be followed by immediate action. Emergency drills accustom the men to shut the watertight doors and isolate ventilation and secure all of these in a matter of split seconds. Its life or death.
You are a bubblehead for life.
No matter how old you are, once you have earned your fish, you are part of a unique family. Many only serve for four years. Some serve for a lifetime. But it never ceases to amaze me that when we get together, the years and the age seem to disappear. Memories of a lifetime ago all come rushing back. The sacrifices we all shared in those dark days beneath the ocean’s surface all did one thing: they created a bond that can never be broken.
I am sure there are some purists that will object to the slang term that has been highlighted in my story. Hell, I know some people that still get snotty when the word Submariner is mispronounced. (It’s Sub – Marine*-er). But I am just as proud to call the ones who I care for the most by a special name: BUBBLEHEAD.