Submarine Dreams


EM1(SS) Eric Van Fossen PA-C, CH

It was thirty years ago but in my dreams it could have been just last year. In the mid 1980’s I was stationed on a nuclear powered submarine. I operated the nuclear power plant as an electrician. Submarining is a young man’s game. I have a clear memory of helping one of the senior chiefs, a man approaching retirement, lift and install a heavy metal component of one of the escape hatches. We were both huffing and puffing, but he was hurting. He looked thin and frail and had gray hair. I distinctly remember looking at him and thinking he was so very old. Only years later did I realize that he was probably only about thirty-eight years old. But through my twenty-three year old eyes and in the submarine world; he was old. Yes, submarining is a young man’s game.

However, it can also be the fortunate man’s game. For those four years I was surrounded by some of the best friends I would ever have. Cramped quarters, hard work and pride create quite the cement. There were a few people I despised and one guy I even hated with a passion; but such is life. I suspect that one of the most formative times in our lives are our twenties. The experiences we have, the challenges we face, and how we either conquer or lose to them determine the type of adult we will be.

It was a surreal experience, going to sea the very first time. I had only just reported to the boat and did not know anyone. Climbing down into the steel tube, amongst 120 strangers and submerging a few hundred feet below the surface for the next two weeks left me unsettled.

There were only a few times that I was truly scared for my safety or my life. The first of these happened my very first day out at sea. At my rank, I had to serve thirty days in the galley before I got to go work on the nuclear power plant. I was told that there were not enough cooks to clean cook and serve in the kitchen. They said it was a time period that also served as some form of indoctrination.  It sure felt more like hazing.

I was a “crank,” the lowest form of life on a submarine. For about fifteen hours a day I did all the dirty work of the kitchen. I scrubbed floors, did the dishes and served food to the crew. After my work daywas completed I was expected to then work on my submarine qualifications as well as my nuclear power plant qualifications. My first day out to sea, I was trying to figure out how to operate the dish sprayer when an urgent voice came over the loud speakers and cried out, “Torpedo in the water!” Suddenly the boat took an angle and sped up trying to get away from the incoming torpedo. This was during lunch and I was amazed how calm all of the other sailors were. They went about their meal and talked and joked. As I looked around, I realized that none of them were concerned. Then I realized that it was hopefully, probably, a drill. A training exercise for the helmsmen and a lesson learned for me. But it did scare the crap out of me.

There were a few other times that I felt endangered. The submarine service is known as the “Silent Service.” I will not discuss them further but to say that they frightened me. Maybe no one else felt the way I did. We never talked about it. My entire four years on that boat were outside of what I would consider the normal human experience.

 If we were not out at sea, then we were in port working ten hour days and still sleeping on the boat every third night to stand watch on the reactor plant. There was really no family life. There was very little sleep. I often reminded myself that even if I was going out and partying all the time, I still would not choose to get that little amount of sleep. The food was good. The company was good. The hours we kept and the time away from loved ones were horrible. It was a perfect Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” scenario. I was doing an interesting job in a unique setting, alongside mostly likeable guys. There were good and there were bad experiences.  But good or bad, it was always an intense experience to me. The whole experience had an underlying intensity that I only experienced again when I did a tour in Afghanistan with the army. After all is said and done, I suspect that it is the intensity of the experience that keeps it so fresh in my dreams.

My submarine days were 30 year ago. When I dream about them, it feels like it was maybe last year. The dreams are still fresh, crisp and sharp like a high definition movie that was watched yesterday. The dreams always have a bittersweet aftertaste to them.

Human Givens theory states that dreams are the way our brain deactivates any undischarged emotional arousal from the preceeding day that would take up too much energy and space. The theory states that dreams are metaphorical representations of what we experienced that day, being discharged and that we basically need to put them to bed; so we can move forward the next day. A lot of my non submarine dreams fit with that construct. If I carefully go back and think about the events of the prior day, I can usually understand the dream metaphors and what they are telling me.

This process doesn’t seem to apply to my submarine dreams. Submarine dreams are content heavy on interactions between my shipmates and I. We are in our glory days; young and vibrant and smart and brave. There are no metaphorical castles and dragons to slay. Just me and the guys-doing submarine stuff.

I am happy with this. Maybe there are no issues from that experience to resolve after 30 years. Or perhaps, dreams that are purely taking place on a submarine are the entire metaphor. The environment is rich with human interactions. There was no going home at the end of the day, drinking a beer and complaining to your spouse about what happened at work. We were in a way, prisoners to our human interactions. We had to either put up with or solve any conflicts. So maybe the stage setting of a submarine is the perfect foundation for dreams to occur within. The emotional charges we gather daily, which need to be discharged in our REM sleep, are purely human interaction based. Maybe the dream interactions with my shipmates are what I really need. Perhaps the sea stories we tell each other are full of metaphors and the stories healing.

For those moments I dream, I am back to being the twenty something electrician, operating the nuclear power plant on a submarine. The guys are all there. At least the ones that made a big impression on me are visually clear. The other guys are more of just a back drop for the story. But what always gets me is that we are still so young. Even that senior chief that seemed so old back then, now seems to be a young man. They are alive and vibrant. We are laughing, complaining and teasing each other. They are in essence, alive.

Immortal; at least in my dreams.

I always awaken a bit confused due to the crispiness of these submarine dreams. In my head I know they are older like me. Some of them have even died. But they live on in my dreams, joyfully stuck in those moments of youth.

At times, I worry that maybe the reality is, that our submarine sank. Maybe we all died in the instant painless compression of the deep, deep sea and are living in some kind of purgatory for submariners. Perhaps all of my current life and daily consciousness is really the dream.

Either way, they are immortal. At least until I die and can no longer dream them. But then the next question is this. Are there some of my navy buddies out there that have dreams with me in it? Am I forever young inside of their dreams? That is, until their dreams fade away or they die.

They are young and vibrant in my dreams. Am I young and vibrant in their dreams?  A sure disadvantage of Facebook is the fact that I can see and talk to some of these guys. I know how old and fat we all have become on this plain of reality. But on a different level, that comes to me a few times a month, they are young and laughing and bright and clear.

Does this energy, this immortality of sorts continue on? After my passing, do the mental energy and images still exist somewhere?  Or like luminaries in the night, will we all fade away when the last of my shipmates goes to sea for the last time?

Thirty years ago I understood nuclear physics. Maybe back then I could have further explored these difficult questions. But that knowledge has left me; forgotten and replaced by things I need to know for my life now. What I do remember, several nights per month…is that I miss those guys.

Come, my friends,

'T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.