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  • “My life is boiling over
    It’s happened once before
    I wish someone would open up the door…”

    Donald Fagen, Steely Dan’s “Fire In the Hole”

    “Someone saved my life tonight”

    Bernie Taupen, Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”

    What I’m about to recount happened nearly forty years ago, but some of the details are still as vivid as if it happened last week. This is partially because, I relived this experience so many times in dreams. This incident haunted me for many years after it happened. It no longer does haunt me, thankfully, but I can still remember it vividly. It is entirely possible that some of the details of what I remember are actually from the subsequent dreams, but most of them have been verified by others who were there, so I’m thinking most of what I remember is what actually happened.

    I will tell it in present tense, like I am there and reporting on what is happening. This is the way it is when I remember it, so it’s the best way I can think of to write about it. I’ve never tried this way before, but I’ve also never been happy with previous attempts I’ve made to write about it. So, here goes nothing…

    I’m down in the bilges of the forward Engine Room, one of two Engine Rooms on my first ship, a little Gearing-class, vintage WW II Destroyer, DD-867 USS Stribling. I’ve been aboard the “Strib” for four months - four of the strangest months of my life to this point. I’ve become kind of a pariah on the ship, partially through my own fault, and partially for reasons beyond my control. My part has been taking the things beyond my control, and reacting poorly to them, thus making it worse by being reckless and arrogant. I see that now. I’m trying to change. I’ve been humbled.

    At this point, there’s only three people on this entire ship who I consider to be friends. I’ve burned all my other bridges here. I’m really just biding my time until I get transferred off the ship to Nuclear Power School. That’s one of the strikes I have against me here. I’m what they call a “nuke puke” – I walked onto this ship, fresh out of Machinist’s Mate “A” School and Boot Camp before that, with only five total months of service under my belt, and I’m already a Third Class Petty Officer, E-4. I outrank all but four of the enlisted men in my Engine Room, and most of them have been in for three or more years, they’ve been to Nam and back at least once – the ship just returned from Nam a couple days before I reported to her.
  • So, here I am, down in the bilges, wearing oily, greasy coveralls over my Navy bell bottom work jeans and denim shirt, sweating my balls off, dipping oil out of the bilge water into a bucket. Most of the equipment in the Engine Room leaks oil and deisel fuel, and they always send the new guys down here to dip it out. I use this time to think. I just blew my engagement to Susan last month – I have no idea how, but I did. My car got stolen right after that, and then I found out I had bogus insurance, so I’m paying $200 a month, for the next three years, for a car I only had for a month.

    My life basically sucks, big time. I’m afraid to go out drinking anymore, because I keep blacking out and have no idea what happened the night before. This wasn’t so bad when I had a lot of friends around – I actually kind of enjoyed the stories of the crazy shit I did – but now, it scares the hell out of me. I’ve found myself in strange places, with people I don’t know, and it’s no longer fun times. So, I just read a lot, and I’ve taken to praying a lot. I don’t even know what I’m praying to or for – I’ve already burned that bridge with the Jesus Freaks here, and they’ve kind of burned me out on the bible. I no longer want any parts of that. They used it to point out all the good and evil all around me, and really freaked me out with all the judgments. I still believe in God, though. I’m really hurting, and just keep praying like hell that God has something better in store for me. There’s got to be more to life than this!

    All of a sudden, snapping me out of my little reverie down here in bilge-land, I hear a lot commotion coming from above me, lots of pounding on deck plates. Something is being announced over the intercom, but I can’t hear a damned thing, for all the other noise and confusion and banging around up there. So, I put down my bucket and rags, and climb up the ladder to see what the hell’s going on. As I open the deckplate at the top of the ladder, all I see is black smoke, everywhere. It’s thick and hot, burning my throat and nostrils each time I breathe it in, so I try holding my breath as much as I can. I’m as far away from the main ladder out of the engine room as I can be. There’s a secondary exit and ladder closer to me, so I quickly feel my way around to that one. I get to the top of the ladder, and the hatch at the top is closed and secured. Oh, shit! I’m going to have to get over to the main exit ladder. I’m still trying to hold my breath, but my lungs feel like they’re going to explode. Each time I try to gulp in any air, I mainly get the burning black smoke, which makes it worse.
  • The strangest thing about all of this is, I remain perfectly calm as I go. I have no idea what that’s all about, but I am not panicked, at all. As I make my way to the other ladder – I know exactly where it is and how to get to it, even though I can’t see a thing – I run into Louie and Mannie. I’m not alone. They’re heading towards my ladder, but I tell them it’s no good, follow me. We make it to the main ladder, and Louie scampers up the ladder first, with me right behind, and Manny bringing up the rear.

    Then, we stop! I hear banging on the hatch – it’s Louie, banging on it, hoping someone will hear him. Now, I panic. I start screaming, “let us out – we’re still in here!” As loud as I can, but each time I do, I take in more black smoke, and I’m on the verge of losing consciousness, just trying to hang onto the ladder, as I’m sure that I’m about to die. I am not ready for this. I resort to prayer. There’s really nothing left to do. This one is completely out of my hands.

    Then, just like that, I hear the hatch cover turning, and a blast of cool air kisses my face, as I try to gulp it in as I start clambering up the ladder. Suddenly, there’s a loud, sucking “Whoosh” sound, a briliant flash of light, and the next thing I know, I am being blown straight up through the hatch, and now I’m on the floor of the ship’s narrow passageway above, my coveralls are on fire, the smell of hair and skin burning (MY hair and skin!) is filling my nostrils, and I’m rolling around, while someone’s beating me with a blanket, trying to put the fire out.
  • This incident happened in early March of 1974. The rest of my time on that ship was haunted by nightmares of this incident, and they would come back periodically for many years afterwards, waking me with a jolt, sometimes screaming. In some of the dreams, the hatch never opens, and in others, it does but they can’t put the fire out in time. It would be years before I could truly relax again. My nerves were always on edge after that.

    When I was given a Service-connected disability from the V.A., after I got out, they diagnosed me with a “Nervous Condition”. I now understand that that was the term for what they call “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”, or PTSD, these days. I never thought about it like that, until I related the experience to a wounded warrior who’d served three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he asked me about the dreams and the times that I would find myself back in that Engine Room, in my mind, and he said, “You had to have suffered PTSD from that”. As soon as he said it, it made sense to me. It was healing, just knowing that. A part of me, that I didn’t even know was still there, that felt shame over how my navy career ended, finally relaxed and said, “Dude, give yourself a break – you did the best you could with what you had to work with. You only left when you couldn’t stand it any longer.” Indeed, the day I left my second ship, was the day that I came this close to hitting an officer with a huge pipe wrench. I had just snapped, and fortunately, in that same moment, something led me to just let go, literally, of that wrench, and just calmly turn around, and start walking. I left the ship, and I never looked back. The Navy gave me an honorable discharge three months later, and the V.A. awarded me with a disability about a year later. So, all in all, I was pretty lucky. I could easily have perished in that Engine Room fire.

    On Veterans Day each year, I always think about the guy who opened that hatch. For many years, I didn’t even know his name, but we found each other through an on-line ship’s log about five years ago, and I got to thank him for saving my life. I also found the guy who was above me on that ladder, and we are now Facebook friends. I get the biggest kick out of the fact that, here we are, forty years later, following each other’s lives on Facebook, when we both shared a moment that we both thought, for at least a moment, might be our last. He was one of those three friends I still had on that ship.

    This is just one of many memories that bubble up for me on Veterans Day.
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