Living on borrowed time.
It seems strange to think about the duality of time. On the one hand you have all the time in the world. On the other, there never seems to be enough of it. In the end, we all die. It’s not a gruesome fact, it’s just a fulfilment of the fact that nothing biological lives forever. From the moment your life begins, there is growth as your body follows a pattern set by the DNA you are made of. But the entire time, parts of you are dying. At one point the parts just wear out and that is the end of your cycle.
Some people live lives that are going to test the limits of that cycle. Something inside of those people pushes them to an adventurous life which tests the original designer’s plan for survival. Instead of blandly waiting for the life cycle to complete its process, they choose to seek a lifestyle that places themselves in challenging situations with uncertain outcomes.
One group of people that qualify for that challenge are sailors. They are fully aware that going to sea on a ship has danger and challenges, yet they go anyway. The sea is vast and unpredictable and can turn on you in a moment. It is filled with storms that are about to happen, creatures that will eat you if you fall overboard, and with no landmarks at every turn, can cause you to be lost without any hope of finding your way home.
A smaller group of people in that elite group choose to test the system in a way that is even more questionable. We call them Submariners.
This group not only challenges the principles of an unforgiving sea, they choose to dive beneath the waves into the darkness. Every time they dive, they are embraced with the fact that they are living on borrowed time. The human body needs air and light along with fresh water. Submariners are uniquely aware of those needs and do everything they can to make sure they compensate for the lack of all three.
The deep also is a place filled with pressure. Science explains why the deeper you go, the stronger the pressure which pushes on the hull of the craft you are in. But another kind of science explains the pressures that each Submariner faces once the hatch is closed. Will the boat hold? Will we find an underwater uncharted or poorly charted mountain at high speed? Will the people they left behind be okay and what difference does it make since we can’t just check out and go home to fix things? Will I measure up to the expectations? Will fire or flooding creep into the vessel and make an already dangerous ride even more so? Will my adversary see me in time to avoid running into me? Will I see them? That is pressure which is beyond the ability of any man to measure accurately.
Every time we dive, we are living on borrowed time. If the souls of the lost submariners could speak, they would tell you this with a loud voice. Only the witness of their memory has a voice though. The empty berth at the pier and the family homecoming that never comes are testaments to borrowed time. The cold hard stones with etchings are the only physical reminders of lives that once were bold and adventurous. Annual ringing of bells in ports around the country are the only sound they make.
It is a testament of the skills and tenacity of the Submariners that we haven’t lost more of their kind to the sea.
Only they know the stories that are never told except to each other about where they have been and what they narrowly escaped. Truthfully, even if they told you, even the best storyteller wouldn’t be able to put you in the moment. How do you accurately describe being on a boat with an uncontrolled depth excursion caused by a stuck open head valve that allows massive amounts of green water into the spaces that are filled with exhausted sailors fighting for their very lives? The smell alone has to be experienced to be understood.
Then the day comes when your run is over. The boat pulls in for the last time of your last deployment. You will never again feel the freedom that comes when all lines are cast off and the boat breaks free from the pier. That amazing feeling when the diving alarm sounds and water rushes over the bow on its way to the sail and beyond. The peaceful rest in a darkened bunk with the hushed sounds of people moving around you doing the most mundane chores. The world will not give you the thrill of angles and dangles anymore. They may come in different forms, but not in a way where you are all feeling the pull of gravity and the adrenaline of the boat moving rapidly into the abyss and back to the surface in a way that combines fear and the ultimate excitement.
You are finished. They hand you your orders and your life as a Submariner is over. For the rest of your life, you will find that nothing replaces what you have lost. Most people will hear what you did and say “Oh, I could never do that.” You just quietly smile and don’t say a word. If only they could know what you know. They will never know what its like to live on borrowed time in the exact same way.
As you get older, your own body finally starts completing the cycle. The knees give out from all that climbing up and down ladders. The eyes fade as well as the memory. A submariner that once carried a heavy tool roll while wearing an EAB in a dimly lit passageway can now barely carry a load of firewood from the log pile to the fireplace. All of the pressures of so many years ago take a toll on the heart. Or maybe it’s just a broken heart from knowing that you can no longer return to that life.
It doesn’t seem fair somehow that after living lives that were truly lived on borrowed time, we can no longer borrow any more.
People have asked me why I wrote so much about boats and Submariners. My answer is always the same. I am trying as hard as I am to cheat the cycle. If I tell the stories often enough, it’s almost like I can feel what it was like to live them again. That, and reminders from time to time that living that life took a toll on my body and I may not have as much time as I want. There will come a day soon when time will not matter anymore. I hope when I get to heaven, the first person I meet is the Chief of the Boat and he hands me a Navy Issue grey wool blanket and a set of sheets along with a white and blue striped coffee cup. As he welcomes me aboard, he tells me we are just about to get underway so I should stow my shit and assume the watch.
I will truly know then that I am in heaven and I will never live on borrowed time again.
12 thoughts on “Living on borrowed time”
Excellent ! 🇺🇸
Knees are on their way, eyes are on their way. Ears are gone(courtesy of FairbanksMorse 38D8 1/8.
Wouldnt trade it for the world.!!
Thanks for the response. Hunley had six mains and four aux FB engines to drive her and keep the lights on. After engine room had four mains and they were old and cranky by the time I inherited them. But when they were on line and humming, it was like a symphony.
Well done, Mac. Your inner drives and memories help fill our lives…
I recall dark nights, the wind over the deck, the last recovery at 0235; the sudden quietness of the flight deck as greenshirts go about their maintenance repair jobs, preparing for the next cyclic ops. The black no-horizon nights, red flashlights, the stink of JP fuel, driving rain, the heat of ‘Nam, the Med, the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, or cold arctic air off Norway’s north coast or Korea’s east. Tailhook squadron weenies never stopped… nor did the snipes who made it work for us and continued year after year. Memories and people live on. Your tales are much appreciated, pal!
Thanks Doc. You have a lifetime of memories that would stun people if you could find a way to share them all. The common thread is that what we did made freedom possible. That means everything to me.
This may be the best submariner post ever written. Thank you for taking me back. It’s only 25 years ago for me but I miss it.
That is very humbling, thank you
A wonderful read. I retired in 92 and we live in the Hampton Roads area. Every time I see a boat leaving Norfolk, I imagine what is going on below decks.
I was discharged in 1971, and have missed being on boats, ever since. I belong to this tribe—-qualified on three , two of the 41, and an attack boat that did some amazing operations. For that time in my life, I am very grateful.
Your writing touched that place that I am only able to share with The Almighty and other submariners.
You are more than welcome brother
I think you have touched a place in my heart that has never been touched! The time I spent on the Boats, little did I know then,would end up being the best years of my life! That’s pretty ironic that during that time I couldn’t wait to finish patrol and get back to my wife! I’ll never forget my shipmates and the Comarodire we shared for each other,Truly my time on the Boats,Priceless!
Thank you very much brother. I appreciate the feedback.
A story well told, many untold, my memories never forgotten. 21+ years (2.75 cumulative years underwater) on 3 boomers(14 patrols) and one SSN. Even had a tour on a CGN. NOT the same as the boats. Been retired 26+ years. Thanks Mister Mac.