Par For The Course – Therein Lies Madness

20161222_094934For those living on the precipice of madness, I cannot recommend the game of golf, for it will surely push you into the abyss. Only those firmly rooted in self awareness should make any serious attempts at mastering the sport.

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying (paraphrasing) that ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ He probably didn’t say that but the notion is a good one. A corollary to that maxim might be ‘doing the same thing over and over again and getting different results may drive you insane.’

And that sums up golf pretty well. Swinging a three and half foot long club in an attempt to propel an inch and half diameter ball in such a way to cause it to move a significant distance through the air in a direction close to intended and in a repeatable fashion is maddening. Even after you have learned and somewhat mastered (a relative term, to be sure) the key elements of the golf swing, making that ball do what you want is a very dicey proposition. You may think you are recreating the swing that just deposited the ball on the green on the last hole, but no. This time it flies off on a wholly unintended path, leaving you utterly perplexed and exasperated.

I’m vain enough to think I can play golf reasonably well despite not engaging the sport in any significant manner for most of my adult life. It was just two years ago that I took up the game seriously. Prior to that, I called myself a tennis player, if anything. Tennis is a sport I got pretty good at, especially on an intellectual level. I know the game and have taught others to play with some success. Tennis, like other sports where the idea is to hit something and make that something go where you want it to (baseball is another), requires hand-eye coordination and an awareness of what your body is doing. You can’t reliably hit a topspin backhand unless you know what your racket hand, your feet, your torso and the ball are doing in time and space. Although the golf ball is not moving when you strike it, the speed of the clubhead at impact and the relatively small area of contact ‘sweetspot’ make hitting a driver every bit as challenging as that backhand, or hitting a curveball. It requires precision of movement, something gained only through experience and repetition. I was convinced that my tennis skills would translate well to golf. Not so much, as it turns out.

The main issue is that, unlike with a tennis racket, I have no good way of knowing what I am doing with a golf club during a swing, at least not well enough to self-diagnose problems. It is very hard to know how you are presenting the clubface to a golf ball at impact, what the swing path through the impact zone is and whether you have hit the sweet spot. The last part is probably the easiest – if you hit off center, you can feel it. But not as well as with a tennis racket. Video helps, as does engaging an instructor.

Case in point. Last week, I played my ‘home’ course. It’s just a 9-hole, par 3 and 4 course but it’s actually quite challenging. Most of the holes are veritable death traps with only small target areas where you can hope to score well. Hitting the ball outside those areas often results in disaster. I’ve played the course many times, so I know where to hit the ball on each hole. Easier said than done. On one short par 3, a smooth lofted iron will put you on the green. Birdie or par is yours for the taking. Easy peasy, right? But if you hit it slightly left, long or right, well, you’ll be lucky to escape with double bogie. It’s an elevated green and the terrain around the green is horrible. After numerous adventures trying to get the ball on the green on my second shot – usually unsuccessfully – I’ve taken to not even trying for the green off the tee. Hitting short of the green and hoping for a good chip and putt for par is the way to go. Other holes are similarly treacherous.

My goal is to shoot less than bogie for the round. It’s a par 31 course so that means less than 40. On a recent Monday, I had a great round but managed just 40, which was still my best. I played well, for me anyway. Energized by that round, I played again on Wednesday, convinced I had a good shot at 39. Nope. Despite feeling good about my game, I played horribly. Couldn’t hit a thing and was constantly in the deep rough, which is brutal at this course. I actually ended up hurting my left arm from all the shots out of deep grass and quit after seven holes, a million over par. What a disappointment. Makes you think there’s no use trying to get better.

After staying away from the game so my arm could recover, I return to the home course a week later and shoot a cool 37. All through the round, I felt no different with my swing and actually was more than a bit worried about when disaster would return. Almost every shot I expected to shank into the trees. Nope. I even made a birdie on one hole, a rare thing for me.

It’s maddening, I tell you. It’s as if there’s no skill involved – it’s all luck, the mood of the gods, phase of the moon, whatever.

Tennis never did this to me.

 

Nazis

Nazis. I hate ’em. My father fought against them in WWII. We won, so why are they still here? Why?

Trump not only tolerates white supremacists (Nazis), he actively courted them in his campaign. One of his chief advisors is a fucking Nazi. That makes Trump a Nazi sympathizer.

Republicans knew what he was but still elected Trump and the GOP Congress are nothing but petty, immoral facilitators of Trump’s agenda. McConnell and Ryan are scum.

Fuck them, fuck Trump, fuck anyone who voted for him.

Cops Who Are Fearful

Too often lately I read about someone getting killed by a police officer in circumstances where the cop claims to have feared for his/her own safety. The incidents are numerous and I don’t need to detail any of them here.

My point is this: police officers face dangerous situations where ordinary people might become fearful. But cops are not ordinary people. I’m not saying they are superhuman or inhuman. I’m saying they are in a job where their overarching duty is to go into dangerous situations and protect the public from harm. Protect them, not shoot them.

If a cop claims to have feared for his life because he thought the person in from of him was pulling a gun, then that cop should not be on the force. As a citizen, I require cops to have a much higher threshold of fear than that before using deadly force.

We need to change the law that allows the defense of a reasonable fear for safety to justify use of deadly force. Police should be required to encounter actual deadly circumstances – not just perceived ones – before firing a weapon at someone. Police training needs to change, too.

Better laws, better training, better cops. Better pay, too.

10% Disabled

When I got out of the US Navy in 1979, I had it my mind that I was done with Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club and its affiliates. After six years, I’d had enough. So it was with some surprise and not a small bit of trepidation when a few months later I received a letter from one of the those affiliates, the Veterans Administration. Seems I was required to appear at the local regional VA hospital at a specific time and date. No option, be there. Huh.

Not wanting to incur the bureaucratic wrath of the US government, I showed up at the appointed time, clueless as to why I was summoned. During the next several hours, I was essentially given a full physical examination. The doctors and nurses were unhelpful as to what it was all about – perhaps they didn’t know. The system had deemed I be examined, so that’s what they did. I left the hospital with hardly more of clue than when I entered.

Making the whole thing even odder was the fact that, like everyone who is discharged from military service, I was given pretty much a full physical examination just prior to leaving the navy. Why the VA wanted to do it all over again was a mystery.

A few months later, the answer arrived in the form of another letter from the VA. Using arithmetic only a government agency can comprehend, they had determined that I was 10% disabled. I was officially a disabled veteran.

Which 10%? Well, anyone who knew me back then would have sworn it was my mental faculties, particularly the two psychiatrists who examined me at the behest of Metropolitan Edison Company, operators of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant where I had just applied for a job. I wasn’t entirely right in the head. Call it PSSD (Post-Submarine Stress Disorder). But no, the VA had determined that I had bad knees and it was all the navy’s fault. I was entitled to what amounts to beer money for the rest of my life.

Two things about that. One, I’m pretty sure the VA doctor and nurses hadn’t done squat in terms of examining my knees. They did the usual physical exam stuff – EKG, chest X-ray (?), blood work, turn your head and cough. I think there might have been a rudimentary stress test, too. Maybe not. But definitely no examination of the knees beyond the usual reflex test. So, why the physical? The only thing I can think of besides medical routine is that the VA wanted to make sure there wasn’t something else wrong with me. There was, you know. I developed bad tinnitus from the horrendous din in the sub’s engine room. I mean, seriously, it was fucking loud back between the mains, which is why I didn’t hang out there all that much. Anyway, I blame the navy for my hearing, too.

The second thing is that they were 100% right. I did have bad knees and it was all the navy’s fault. Sort of.

Here’s the thing about that. I busted up both knees while I was in. Chondromalacia patella they called it, although the VA decades later said – “no way it’s chondro mal. More like osteo mal.” Whatever, the damn knees have been crappy since about 1977. And I remember exactly, to the moment, with GPS accuracy, when and where it happened. One of the few clear memories I have of … well, anything.

On the north shore of Kauai, there’s a long hiking trail to a secluded beach. It’s right out of the movie South Pacific. Kalalau Beach. One of the most scenic and peaceful places I have ever been. Back in the day, the only way you got to the beach was via the eleven mile (one-way) trail along the ocean cliffs. Nowadays, I understand you can drop in by Zodiac boat although maybe they’re restricting that, too. But in 1977, it was the trail. During one off-crew period, three shipmates and I decided to do Kalalau.

Wow. Gorgeous waterfalls, ocean views, perilous drop-offs from the trail to certain death, the Kalalau trail is wonderful, magical. As a bonus, towards the end, once you lose the tourists, the trail becomes clothing-optional. Kalalau Beach itself was more like clothing-discouraged and everyone one there seemed to abide by that.

For most of the trail, once you gain the 800 feet or so of elevation, you wind in and out following the contour of the ‘finger’ cliffs along the coast. When it veers inland, you get tropical vegetation and extreme humidity. Veering seaward, it dries out and you get those perilous dropoffs I mentioned. But mostly, not a lot of elevation change along the bulk of the trail.

Until you get to the end, near Kalalau Beach. Then – and I remember this clearly even if it isn’t true (it is) – the trail descends a ridiculously steep grade down to sea level. So steep that you may lose your footing. Which I did. Rather than fall over in a heap, I did what most people would do – I went with gravity and more or less ran down the slope, avoiding an unseemly wipeout. This with a full back pack.

I may not be describing it all that well, but the point is that what I did was incredibly hard on my knees and after gaining the beach, I knew I had done something terribly bad. My knees hurt. So what, right? I’ll be fine the next day. Right?

Not so much. Although I limped around and explored that incredible beach for the rest of the day and the next, I was hurting. When we headed out, I actually needed help from my buddies to get back. They took some load off my pack, which eased the pain a bit.

The knees were never right after that. “But wait!”, you say. “How is that the navy’s fault? You were on a fricking hiking trip!”

Well, there’s this seemingly weird but actually understandable concept that the military owns you and your body. Whatever happens to you while you’re in, the military deals with it. Basically, they had the responsibility to discharge me in the same condition I was in when I joined, which was physically fit. So, they owned the knees no matter what happened to them. Mind you, this arrangement was not a one-way street. I had no right to refuse medical care, for example. As an example, prior to every patrol, we had to see the dentist and if the dentist said we needed work, it was done. We had no input into the matter. The navy can’t have sailors with impacted wisdom teeth or whatever while under water in the middle of the Pacific. Similarly, I got the notorious swine flu injection without my consent.

Hiking the Kalalau – twice, I went back the next year (I know, don’t yell at me.) – wasn’t the only activity that was hard on my knees. This might be a little hard to explain, but part of my job as a nuclear electronics technician/reactor operator was to maintain the reactor controls equipment on the sub. As you might imagine, submarines are a bit cramped. Most of the electronics panels I worked on were in narrow alleyways. Every week, we had to calibrate the various panels, which involved hours of squatting in front of them while we operated the test equipment and adjusted the channels. That is very hard on the knees even if your knees are in good shape. Every one of us would groan after a weekly on the PPIPs. The back hurt; the knees hurt; the ankles even hurt. I doubt everyone sustained permanent damage to their knees but chronic injuries are not uncommon in such occupations.

Since becoming a ‘disabled veteran’, I’ve tried my best to not act like one. Before the disability got too bad, I ran 5K and 10K races, played an obscene amount of tennis and hiked hundreds of miles. Other than running road races, which I wasn’t in love with anyway, the difficulty with hiking has been the biggest challenge to my preferred lifestyle. I like to hike and I like to hike terrain with significant elevation changes, which are the toughest on my knees. Going downhill in particular is quite damaging.

Which brings me back to Telescope Peak. I wrote a blog post on that epic hike earlier. Summiting Death Valley’s ultimate peak is perhaps my greatest post-Kalalau hike and I’m still suffering the effects years later. It was really hard on the knees.

Totally worth it.

I do not have a ‘Disabled Veteran’ plate and will never have one even if I’m eligible (which I’m not – there’s a 25% disabled threshold for that). Although I am eligible for VA health care and Atlanta has a fine VA hospital and outlying clinics, I rarely take advantage of it. I have my own private insurance and, frankly, it bothers me to use the VA because it’s so underfunded. There are many, many veterans who need their services way more than I do.

So, beer money for life.

Wampyr

Count Yorga. The name just oozes vampire. Blood dripping from razor-sharp fangs, black red-lined cape, Eastern European provenance. Count Yorga was a proper vampire, not one of the sparkly creatures that infest the modern genre. And not one of those vampires that are themselves victims, caught up in an un-life they never asked for and who are just trying to get along as best they can without killing too many people. No, the good Count was a scary vampire with no qualms about murder. After all, killing your food isn’t really murder, right?

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My first vampire experience was with Count Yorga at the drive-in theatre in the Gold Coast of Queensland, where I (sort of) grew up. I’m really stretching my memory but I think it was on a date with Sheryl Boan, a nice girl. Yorga scared us. Yorga scared everyone in the theatre. There’s a scene where two lovers are in a Volkswagen micro bus stranded on the side of the road near Yorga’s estate. They had met the count earlier at a seance and offered him a ride home. After dropping him off, their VW gets stuck and rather than walk back to Yorga’s place they decide to sleep in the bus. Well, Yorga came to them in the night. Hearing noises outside, the girl asks the boy to investigate, which he does but then doesn’t come back. Girl gets alarmed and eventually pulls back the window curtains on the side of the bus only to reveal the vampire’s face, fangs on full display. Total freakout in the theatre (actually in our cars, being a drive-in theater). Things go significantly downhill for the girl after that.

That’s how it should be with vampires. While you may or may not appreciate the scantily-clad fangsters which are part and parcel of many B vampire movies, terror and blood are integral to the vampire. They’re terrifying. They want to drink your blood and maybe enslave you into a undead existence yourself. Vampires appear in your room in the middle of the night, provided you earlier unwittingly invited them in to your house. They hover midair at your second story bedroom window asking to come in if you haven’t, as Stephen King imagined it in Salem’s Lot a classic of the genre.

Beyond the terror, vampires represent immortality, a conscious or unconscious longing for many people. We all want to live forever, to experience centuries – millennia! – of things we could not possibly imagine while tethered to one mortal lifespan. These are the vampires of Anne Rice’s imagination, and others. Dracula is the epitome of such a vampire and has been the most portrayed vampire in movies, with Christopher Lee’s films accounting for a good chunk of them. Older vampires, who seem to have unnaturally clear memories on top of everything else, recount stories of Roman and even pre-Roman times, of Biblical events, of wars long forgotten to all but historians. In True Blood, an HBO series involving good and bad vampires, before relations between vampires and humans takes a nasty turn south, the vampire Bill addresses a town hall meeting in his hometown, regaling the people with stories of their own ancestors whom he knew personally. His personal knowledge and experiences far exceeded anything they had known before from ‘normal’ historical sources. Think of that and then project back two, three, even four millennia. What we could learn from these creatures of the undead. That is, before they ripped opened our throats and drained the life from us.

Sadly, few quality old-school scary vampire movies are produced these days and indeed during the past few decades. Mostly, the modern vampire is considerably less terror-inducing, being either the sparkly type, angst inflicted or vampires that serve solely as vehicles for gore and violence, such as Blade, Underworld and From Dusk Till Dawn.

Salem’s Lot may be my favorite scary vampire movie (and book). Stephen King’s interpretation of what the insidious evil a vampire represents is truly, epically terror-inducing. As the people of the town are one by one turned into vampires, including some main protagonists, you experience a creeping dread. A dread that makes you want to scream No! Don’t go in there! Get away! Not to spoil it, but it doesn’t end well even for the two survivors of the carnage.

Which is not to say I haven’t found other modern interpretations of the vampire entertaining, even if not terribly scary. Two films come to mind: Let the Right One In and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Both are horror but both also involve a sense of humanity not previously found in vampire films, including the angst films. You empathize with the vampire, not their victims.

There are also some quirky movies I’ve liked, such as Only Lovers Left Alive and the really funny What We Do In The Shadows, a pseudo-documentary that is recommended viewing even if you’re not into vampires. But in the final analysis, I prefer an old-fashioned scary vampire. I prefer Count Yorga.

With a little help from the internet to bolster my memory, in no particular order, here are some of the vampire movies and TV series that I have seen. If you like vampires, seek these out and enjoy!

Salem’s Lot (1979), a TV movie based on Stephen King’s horror novel. The residents of a small New England town start turning into vampires after an ancient vampire moves in with his manservant. Very scary – the scene with the kid floating outside the window asking to be let in is truly terrifying.

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), a young couple are victims of a European count who recently moved into town.

The Return of Count Yorga (1971), the count continues to prey on the locals.

True Blood (2008-2014), HBO TV series revolving around an angst-inflicted vampire in love with a fey human. Despite that, this is the best ‘good’ vampire story I’ve seen. I really got wrapped up in this series. The characters are compelling.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), a horror-comedy involving a young woman whose destiny is to kill vampires. Best scene might be the protracted death throes of the vampire played by Paul Reubens (Peewee Herman) after being staked by Buffy. Worth a view just for that.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), TV series directed by Joss Whedon (Firefly) and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. Had a large following; it’s pretty good.

Interview With a Vampire (1994), based on the book by Anne Rice, the story of the powerful but reckless vampire Lestat as told by his protege Louis to a human reporter. Anne Rice lays out one of the better vampire mythologies you’ll find, with a lot of historical detail. The film does the book justice with good performances by Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.

Queen of the Damned (2002), a sequel to Interview With a Vampire but not nearly as good.  No Cruise; no Pitt.

Let the Right One In (2008), Swedish, a different kind of vampire story. A young boy befriends a new girl who moves in next door. But she’s an ancient vampire, not a young girl, and she protects the boy from bullies. A great film.

Let Me In (2010), the American remake of Let the Right One In. Not quite as good but still worthy.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), an Iranian film that tells the story of a lonely vampire who befriends a young man in the midst of troubles with an abusive drug-dealer. Excellent.

Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi as the venerable count created by Bram Stoker. Lugosi’s Dracula is the model for all vampires and vampire costumes. No one wore a cape like Lugosi.

Dracula/Horror of Dracula (1958), Christopher Lee in the first and best of his roles as Dracula. Retitled from Dracula to Horror of Dracula for American release. Lee would make several subsequent Dracula movies, none of which gave Lee much of a speaking role: Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965), Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).

Dracula (1979), Frank Langella as Dracula and Lawrence Olivier as Van Helsing. Langella fans (I’m one) will like it.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), a modern adaptation of the Bram Stoker Dracula story directed by Francis Ford Coppola with an excellent performance by Gary Oldman as the vampire and a poor performance by Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker. Stupid title but a good vampire flick.

Dracula Untold (2014), a film with better special effects than previous vampire flicks, this tells the story of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), the Wallachian prince said to inspire the myth of Dracula, rather than following the Bram Stoker storyline as most other Dracula movies have done.

Nosferatu (1922), F. W. Murnau’s seminal silent film that remains one of the best.  The vampire Count Orlok is both hideous and mysterious. The story is actually an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with the names of the characters changed (per Wikipedia). Because the Stoker heirs sued over copyright issues despite the name changes, all copies of this film were ordered destroyed but a few thankfully survived. Every budding vampire aficionado must see this film.

Nosferatu the Vampire (1979), Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu starring Klaus Kinski as the vampire. If any film needed to be remade, it might be Nosferatu because of the original being a silent film (it’s still great – see above). Kinski puts in a great performance.

30 Days of Night (2007), vampires terrorize a remote town in northern Alaska during the winter when the sun doesn’t rise. The idea of endless night made me think a vampire might want to migrate seasonally between the Arctic and Antarctic circles.

The Lost Boys (1987), film about California vampire gangs starring Keifer Sutherland in one of his earliest major roles.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), an intriguing movie about two older vampires searching for meaning in their undead life. Great performances by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston make this movie a must see.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014), the funniest movie of the lot. Filmed as a pseudo-documentary, it involves four vampires living together in New Zealand that have as hard a time putting up with each other as they do with being vampires. Hilarious.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), a bloody film (it was written by Quentin Tarantino, the modern master of over-the-top blood and gore) with a top notch cast of George Clooney, Antonio Banderas and Harvey Keitel. Basically about criminals that unwittingly run into a den of vampires and then kill most of them.

Byzantium (2012), thoughtful Irish vampire film. A mother and daughter, both vampires, on the run from a vampire society. Good flick.

Fright Night (1985), something of a cult movie, it involves a teenage kid who suspects (correctly) that his neighbor is a vampire who is killing people. Kid enlists the help of a TV vampire hunter to stop an actual vampire.

Thirst (2009), Korean vampire movie. There’s a love triangle with a Catholic priest who gets turned into a vampire.

Vampyres (1974), British, two female vampires lure unsuspecting men for sex and blood. Never turns out well for the men in the end.

Requiem for a Vampire (1971), British, sort of the opposite of Vampyres, two women are lured into a castle and then attempt to flee from the vampires within, mostly the main one who wants them to continue his bloodline.

Innocent Blood (1992), also known as A French Vampire in America, the story involves a modern-day female vampire who doesn’t like taking blood from anyone except criminals but who then unfortunately gets involved with the mafia. Don Rickles has a role!

Blood and Roses (1960), one of the several adaptations of the story of the Blood Countess, Carmilla Karnstein. In this film, a young woman is apparently possessed by by her ancestor, the countess, and embarks on her own killing spree. Stars Mel Ferrer.

The Vampire Lovers (1970), a vampire classic, this film is about the Blood Countess herself.

Subspecies (1991-1998), a series of four movies, Subspecies revolves around the vampire Radu, a rather grotesque creature, as he tries to possess and control the Bloodstone, a source of power. Radu is aided by his minions, the subspecies. There was a fifth film in the series but it involved a different vampire.

Love at First Bite (1979), a comedy starring George Hamilton as Dracula trying to deal with New York City.

Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Frankenstein? Yes, but it’s notable because Bela Lugosi reprises his role as Dracula for the only time since making the film for which he is famous. A comedy, obviously.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000), an interesting concept. While filming a remake of Nosferatu, the actor playing the lead seems to actually be a vampire.

Blade (1998), first of a series about the Marvel comics vampire hunter, starring Wesley Snipes.

Blacula (1972), a blaxsploitation film (as the genre is called). An African prince is turned into a vampire by Dracula.

The Last Man on Earth (1964), based on the book I Am Legend, this film stars Vincent Price as a man surviving in a world where a plague has turned (almost) everyone else into vampires.

I Am Legend (2007), a remake of The Last Man on Earth starring Will Smith.

Planet of Vampires (1965), you remember all those campy sci-fi movies made in the 1950s and 60s? This is one of them. The ‘vampires’ are more like zombies.

The Vampire Circus (1972), A circus comes to town. Unfortunately for the townspeople, they’re vampires.

Bloodrayne (2005),  a vampire/human hybrid takes revenge on her former captors. Inexplicably stars Ben Kingsley.

 

 

 

Burn It

Selling a house is a major pain in the ass. I recommend anyone contemplating such a thing to instead burn the fucker to the ground and collect the insurance.  Do evacuate the pets first.

Not a Mormon, Thanks Anyway

About an hour’s drive north of Idaho Falls, off a nondescript two-lane road, you’ll find a US Navy installation. This surprises some – why a navy base out here hundreds of miles from water? Actually part of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (now run by the Department of Energy), the site also hosts the Naval Prototype Training Unit and is where some of the sailors slated to be the next generation of naval nuclear power operators come to train. There’s a similar facility somewhere out east – Groton, Connecticut, I think. The Idaho NPTU was the first, though.

INEL has a bit of history, at least from a nuclear reactor standpoint, if not from the exploits of the sailors who passed through. It was the site of an experiment to test the safety systems designed to control a full core meltdown. One of the test reactors was actually subjected to an intentional meltdown to see what would happen. We learned a lot from that, I suppose. A less happy incident took place not too long before I got there. Some workers mucking about with the SL1 reactor apparently tried to get one of the control rods unstuck by manually pulling it out from the top. They were successful, but a little too much so – the rapid extraction of the rod caused a local prompt criticality, the water in the rod channel flashed to steam and forcefully ejected the control rod out of the core, impaling one of the workers. He died, of course, as did a few others from radiation exposure. Or so they say.

 

I was stationed there in the winter of 1975 and ’76, having completed the classroom part of my nuclear training at the Mare Island Naval Base in Vallejo, California during the previous six months. Like the others sent to this frozen outpost, I would learn on a real reactor what they had taught me on paper at Mare Island. NPTU had three prototype reactors – actual, functioning power plants that were designed to simulate naval engineering spaces. Mine was called S1W: it was the first (1) submarine (S) prototype built by Westinghouse (W).

S1W was designed to resemble a fleet submarine power plant – it was housed in a ‘hull’ and was the same size and power as a real sub’s reactor. Kinda cool, actually. They also had one patterned after an aircraft carrier plant, the USS Enterprise’s, I believe. By the luck of the draw, I was slotted for S1W.

We lived in town, not on the base. I chose Idaho Falls for some reason long lost in my memory but could well have decided on Pocatello, Blackfoot or another nearby town if I wanted. Most of us lived in Idaho Falls – it was the biggest and the closest to the base. That was important because to get there, you had to ride the bus and the further away you lived, the longer the ride. Time was precious to us, we were later to learn.

Idaho Falls has enough Mormons in it that you’d think you were in Utah, which is not too far away. Weird place to live. We called it Idiot Flats. It was picturesque, though. Nice river running through town and the nearby mountains were great. But the best part was nearby Yellowstone National Park. I must have gone there half a dozen times in the six months I was in Idaho.

I stayed in a two bedroom apartment with Charlie, a friend from Mare Island. I forget his last name, it might have been Roberts. Nice guy, easy to get along with. Between him and Steve Roquemore, we were hanging-out buddies, although we had many other friends too. A close-knit group of guys, I guess, which was understandable because we had all just gone through a pretty grueling classroom phase at Mare Island. Steve was a qualified pilot and he and I went up once in a Cessna and flew around the Grand Tetons. I got to fly the plane some.

Idaho was a bit of a coming out for me. I was only 20 years old, although I had been in the navy two years now (we nukes got a LOT of training). When I arrived in Idaho, I was still a bit excited about being in the navy and being a nuke. I had the great adventure to look forward to. But by the time I left, I was disillusioned and regretted my enlistment. It wasn’t any single event that changed my attitude, and to be honest, I’m now not exactly sure why it changed. But change it did. There was that ‘incident’ at S1W, to be sure, but I’ll get to that.

Despite being a rather backwater town, Idiot Flats offered plenty of opportunity for us sailors to get into trouble. Lots of drinking, shooting pool, chasing women. Wait, did I just say chasing women? Me? Yep, it happened although not very successfully. One girl – a Mormon – wanted to marry me, but I knew it was just to get out of Idaho. Still, she was nice and I had fun with her for a while. Come to think of it, after I turned her down, so did Charlie and Steve. Poor girl was really desperate to get away.

It snows in Idaho. It snows a lot. During a period of a few weeks, I couldn’t even get into my car. Hell, I could hardly find it – it was just a vague mound in the parking lot and I wasn’t sure which mound. But some of the others had trucks and such that did better in the snow, so I didn’t really need the car. And, as I said, the bus took us to ‘work’. That bus trip was brutal some days, waiting at a busstop before sunrise when the temperature is minus 2000 Fahrenheit and the wind’s howling. Brrrr. Bad place for a lizard.

I had a 1972 Chevy Vega GT, which I bought in San Francisco after I got the idea in my head that my previous car, a 1967 four-door Chevelle, wasn’t reliable enough to make it in Idaho. Strange notion, because the Vega was notoriously unreliable, in general. Fortunately, mine wasn’t. It was a stick shift, though, and the Chevelle was an automatic. I learned to drive the stick on my own and on the streets of San Francisco.

The Chevelle was great. I bought it off a small lot during my previous time in SF when I was stationed at Treasure Island, located in the middle of SF bay. The car dealer probably saw me coming – another wet behind the ears sailor. Because it had bench seats, a bunch of us could pile into it to see games at Candlestick Park or the Oakland Coliseum. But the Vega did OK in Idaho, at least when it wasn’t under ten feet of snow. I took it to Hawaii where I eventually traded it in on a 1971 Datsun 240Z, which I often wax nostalgic over.

But the Idaho winter was really bad, especially for driving. I remember one time Charlie and me helping a guy (a fellow sailor but not one of my buddies) get his car unstuck in a virtual blizzard. He was grateful so we went to his place for a celebratory drink. Anti-freeze, he called it. We each were poured a glass of whiskey that must have been four inches tall. As I am today, I was a lightweight with alcohol and normally avoided hard liquor. But drink it I did, with the predictable result.

At the NPTU, we spent some time in classrooms, but the emphasis was on ‘qualifying’ on the reactor. I was a reactor operator, meaning that I was designated to operate the reactor control panel. But because we cross-trained on everything, I had to become proficient at the electrical and mechanical stuff, too. It was a bit of a competition. See, the promise was whoever qualified first would get their choice of duty station in the fleet when it was over. Quite an incentive, because the USS Eisenhower – an aircraft carrier – was due to be commissioned soon and our class would make up a lot of the crew. Nobody wanted to be on a carrier; there had been a lot of trouble on them since the end of the war. Violence, race riots, bad stuff – they were like floating depressed cities. I qualified first in my class and chose a ballistic missile submarine out of Guam. Had to pass the psyche evaluation for that first, though.

So we learned how to be good nukes – how to operate the plant during all sorts of conditions and disasters. We’d be assigned watches at the various stations along with an instructor and they’d throw all kinds of crap at us – things breaking, reactor freaking out, pipe ruptures, whatever. It wasn’t too bad, but some of the guys got a little behind in their quals. If you got too far, you found yourself restricted to base and on extended hours.

As I said, I qualified first, so along with my guaranteed choice of duty station, I was also the first guy in my class who could stand watch by himself without an instructor. One of the stations they put me on was one that trainees didn’t do because it wasn’t something that you’d find on a real submarine – the Water Brake, aka The Ocean.

A navy reactor plant performs two basic functions: it provides electric power for everything on board, and it turns the propeller. Because a submarine changes depth and goes into water that varies in temperature considerably, the density of the water is quite variable and that affects the propeller’s ability to drive the boat. One really big, negative effect is cavitation. The spinning propeller creates a zone of low pressure on the trailing edge of the blades. With enough blade velocity, that pressure can drop low enough such that the water forms vapor bubbles – it boils. After the blade passes, the pressure recovers and the bubbles collapse. This process is called cavitation and it is actually quite noisy and can be picked up on a sonar easily from a distance. Pumps experience this phenomenon as well and is one of the key design criteria for sizing fluid systems. Extended periods of cavitation can ruin a pump impeller.

The throttleman (the guy who controls the steam to the main engine turbines and thus the propeller shaft speed) on a boat is trained to avoid cavitation. Don’t want to give away the position of the submarine to the Commies, after all. Part of the training is knowing and sensing the water density. He will keep and eye on the water temperature and the boat’s depth (there’s an outside water temperature and a depth gauge right next to him on a submarine) and open the throttles more slowly if the water’s less dense. He can tell by a sudden increase in shaft speed if the prop cavitates. Also, the sonar operator will pick it up and relay it to the captain who will quickly call aft and scream at the engineering watch officer. Cavitation is bad news.

But in Idaho, there is no ocean, so what’s the big deal? The deal is that we needed to be trained to deal with an actual ocean so they designed and installed a contraption on the end of the propeller shaft that had the ability to simulate water density changes. Basically, it provided a variable drag on the shaft in place of where the propeller would be and would cavitate like a real propeller, too. The Water Brake operator kept track of the “depth” changes the watch officer ordered and adjusted the water density to suit. It was a cool watch station – not much to do (which was really good back then) and no pressure, so to speak. But mostly, I stood watches inside the plant, like on the RPCP (reactor plant control panel).

First watch on the RPCP, I’m handed a list of the day’s drills (planned ‘emergencies’). Before I was qualified, my instructor would get the list and I’d be in the dark. Now, I was basically just filling up a watch billet while the other guys not yet qualified still had to do their stuff. As RPCP operator, I still had to do what was required to respond to the drills. And I was expected to know what that was now.

One of the drills was a large coolant leak from one of the loops and we’d be isolating it and going to single loop operation. No problem, I could do that and I had time to look up the procedure to refresh myself anyway. It called for systematically isolating the various subsystems off the main coolant loop in hopes of isolating the leak. I knew of course that that wasn’t going to get it, because the ‘leak’ was in one of the big loop pipes and I’d end up shutting the main coolant cutout valves for that loop.

But what I didn’t know, and they didn’t tell me, was that there was a subtle difference between the actual coolant leak procedure and the one to be used for drills. The difference was the presence of what was called the Hot-Loop Test Facility. The HTF was something connected to one of the loops that sampled the coolant which was analyzed in ways we never were told or cared about. It was an AEC research facility. Because it wasn’t part of a real sub reactor plant, it was to be regarded as not existing. But, if there was an actual coolant leak, it had to be considered as a source of the leak, too. What I didn’t know was that isolating it ruined whatever experiments were running with it and the AEC scientists would get majorly pissed.

As I said, they didn’t tell me. So when the drill started, I followed procedure and began isolating systems. During an emergency, you don’t ask permission to do stuff – you just do what you’re trained to do. I got to the HTF, announced that I was isolating it and shut the valves. About then I noticed that every non-trainee except myself was looking horrified and the watch officer immediately canceled the drill and ordered me to open the HTF valves. It was too late, of course. There would be pissed off scientists showing up real soon.

I got to talk with the ‘black box’ right after that with a couple of mysterious naval investigators present. They wanted to crucify me. Nobody present stood up for the fact that I was just following procedure and wasn’t told not to shut the HTF valves. The watch officer, a total dickhead, was particularly slimy in shifting the blame to me.

Eventually, they realized they couldn’t pin the blame on me despite their best efforts, But that scarred my naval career, in my mind. What happened to standing up for your team members? What happened to accountability? I may not have realized it right then, but after that, I never entertained another thought of re-enlisting in the navy.

I left Idaho not long after, never to see most my classmates, like Charlie and Steve, again. I was off to new adventures in Guam, Pearl Harbor and the vast Pacific Ocean.