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  • I began to look for distractions, things to take me out of my head and my very desperate loneliness. Somebody proposed a softball game on the base. I threw all of my energies into getting ready for this. I worked out, got my body into its best shape. I channeled Roberto Clemente, did what I’d read he did to prepare for a game – I visualized every play of the game before-hand, saw myself making these plays I’d never made before. This would be my way out of my personal hell.

    I played that game with a passion and a vengeance, pouring all of my sense of frustration and anger at life into my play. I’d never really been that good on the ballfield before, but that day, I was incredible. Those things I’d learned from my childhood hero, Roberto Clemente, really worked! I willed and visualized myself into being a damned good ballplayer. I had never been even a decent one before that. It was one of my first personal demonstration of the power of intention, and visualization.

    One fellow from my Engineroom, Gerry, had played some ball in college, and he asked me after the game if I’d ever played any college ball. He told me that I certainly had the skill level and ability to compete at that level. This really shocked me. Gerry had been one of my early shiboard critics, but he was also one of the Engine Room leaders, and he kind of became a protector, even a mentor. He took me under his wing.

    He put together a fast pitch softball team that competed in a league against other ships and other units. I became the regular right fielder on the team. Roberto’s position. I felt Clemente’s presence whenever I played, and continued to practice his visualization techniques, with good results. This was only a little over a year after his plane had gone down off the coast of San Juan, PR. This would help me make it through the next 3 months on the ship. In a way, softball saved me way back then, just like today it is helping to keep me young and vibrant, physically and mentally, as I approach my 60s. I plan to keep playing into my 80’s, if my body will allow it. I’m doing everything I can to ensure that it does.

    My newfound focus on playing ball caused me to cut way back on the booze and the drugs. Just knowing that I had become good enough to play on a team in a highly competitive league gave my confidence quite a boost. By now, the arrogance had pretty much been crushed. I had become a much quieter person, and began to experience what I would later learn was some genuine humility. I was beginning to make some genuine friends on that ship. It was like they were just waiting for me to run through all of my bullshit, and once I was done running it, they were there to be friends. I didn’t have to work so hard to try to make things happen, to try to be someone I wasn’t. Sometimes, you just have to be yourself and let things come to you. A valuable lesson, learned in the hardest possible way.

    Then, the fire happened. I was where I often was, down in the bilges, below the lower level deck plates in the engineroom, where all the water from leaking pipes and all the oil or deisel leakage would wind up. I was down there dipping the oil out of the water in the bilges. These were the jobs that fell to the new guys in an engineroom, and I was still one of the newer guys there. At times, I kind of liked it down there – it was good “alone” time, time to gather your thoughts and think things through. I did a lot of that in those dark times.

    Suddenly, I heard a lot of noise from several levels above me, lots of pounding on the deck plates up there, footsteps running, a voice on the engineroom communication speaker, though what it was saying I could not tell. I started up the ladder to the main level of the engineroom to investigate what it was all about, in my oily coveralls. When I reached the main level and lifted the deck plate at the top of the ladder, I found nothing but black smoke everywhere! Very thick, impossible to see beyond a foot or two in front of me. I felt my way around to the closest ladder leading out of the engineroom, and quickly scaled it to the top, only to discover the hatch had been closed and secured! Shit!

    I scurried back down the ladder, hauling my ass around to Mission Control and the main ladder. I bumped into Manny and Louie on the way, heading toward the ladder I’d just tried. “No, this way, guys!” We got to the main ladder. Louie was first up, with me in the middle and Manny behind me. At the top, Louie found the same thing I had on the other ladder. Closed and secured. This was not good!

    We’re now breathing this toxic black smoke, Louie’s pounding on the hatch, we’re all shouting, “Open the hatch, we’re down here”, frightened that no one can hear us, breathing more smoke as we yelled. It was terrifying. Within minutes, maybe not even, we’d be goners, suffocated to death or worse. There was no other way out.

    Finally, we heard the hatch turning, it flung open – Thank God! - but, then there was a sudden “Whoosh” sound, and a bright flash of light. The incoming fresh air mixed with the gases in the smoke-filled compartment to create a combustion that literally propelled all three of us right up the ladder and out of that hatch.

    Our coveralls caught fire as we fell out into the passageway – we all immediately dropped to the deck, and rolled around until the fire went out. Folks in the passageway were trying to help, as well, beating us with towels or blankets or something.

    I lost half of my hair and my moustache, and suffered some minor burns on my hands and face. Louie was about the same, but Manny had some much more severe burns on his arms and hands.

    The worst was the awful taste of smoke in my mouth, and a burnt sensation in my throat and lungs, which would take weeks to fully go away. The fire had apparently started in the Boiler Room, which was adjacent to the Engineroom, and the smoke had come into the engineroom through the ventilation ducts. They did eventually get the awful fire put out. It would leave an idelible mark on me, one that would stay with me for some time.

    This experience left me with a determination I had not previously known. I was determined to get off of that ship and into Nuclear Power School, whatever it took. At that point, I had been to two Captain’s Masts, (a disciplinary hearing with the ship’s captain, a precursor to a Court Martial), and there was some question as to whether I would even still qualify for Nuclear Power School with this on my record. I was very concerned about this, and prayed with all my might to somehow be allowed to transfer from the ship to Nuke School. I never wanted to set foot on a conventional ship again, and just wanted to get through Nuclear Power school so I could spend the rest of my time on a Nuke ship.

    My last couple of months on the ship were a time in which I hunkered down, applied myself as best I could to the job at hand, kept quiet, read a lot, played ball, and prayed. I lived in great fear that I would never get to leave that ship, but what was more powerful than that fear was the determination and affirmation that I had to. I sincerely prayed to God to help me, somehow, to do this. It seemed like a miracle to me when my transfer papers came through. I was to report to Nuclear Power School in Bainbridge, MD, at the end of May. Hallelujiah!!
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