Up the Pacific Coast from San Diego to San Francisco by submarine

It was travel but not one of the most scenic of routes, in that there wasn’t much to see. But back in 1979 my dad’s submarine the Pollack — as the history notes, he received the commission in April of the previous year and had participated in a couple of exercises — was due for an overhaul. Though based down in Point Loma in San Diego Bay, the best shipyard for it was up the coast in San Francisco Bay, specifically the Mare Island Naval Station, now since decommissioned. Mare Island was next to Vallejo, something of a backwater for the Bay, up in the northern reaches of the bay (Mare Island is actually the peninsula to the west). My two years there are somewhat dim in the memory and frankly I’m not all that sad about that, it made for an odd transition time in retrospect between 1979 and 1981 — a presidential election, the release of The Empire Strikes Back and very little sense that anything had really changed between the decades.

That’s another matter, though — what counts is, to quote the history of the ship, the Pollack was to due to receive “major SUBSAFE modifications, a new sonar system, and a new fire control system,” so up to Mare Island it went. Since there wasn’t anything major about this trip — took a total of three days or so, I believe — and since there wasn’t much in the way of necessary secrecy per se, my dad asked for and received permission to invite myself and his own dad on the ship for the trip. Three generations of Raggetts, and why not? We’re not a Naval family by tradition by any means — my dad was the only one who participated in the service in our history and I can’t sense any inclinations of it in the next generations yet — so this was less some sense of familial identification as a chance to see what one’s dad/son (strike where appropriate) did and where he worked during an actual voyage.

I was only eight so my memories are understandably furry, but good memories they are. I had something close to the run of the ship and everyone knew that both myself and my grandfather were on board, so I don’t think we caused any surprise to anyone — at least I hope not! I had already seen the sub a few times so this wasn’t a surprise to me per se, but getting to live there for a bit was very good fun. Definitely not for everyone, though. One or two sub films aside — The Hunt for Red October is one of the better ones — no sub film captures the sheer compactness of subs, which if you don’t suffer from claustrophobia is all right enough, and I don’t, and neither did anyone else (if they did, they wouldn’t be on the sub in the first place — Hyman Rickover was still in charge of the sub fleet as well, and you can bet that it was his way or no way at all. That means months at a time getting used to staircases that are essentially ladders, as well as ladders straight up, hallways that are metallic warrens, cots that are used in shifts as one person then another works while another sleeps, and of course no windows, ever.

But again, my grandpa and I had no worries about that — three days is three days and we made the most of it. I was alternating between reading books (no change there then), floating around the various crew areas, poking my nose briefly into the torpedo bay (not by myself, quite obviously), chatting with dad and grandpa (at one point, to my sheer surprise and delight — while still going ‘ew!’ — my grandpa revealed to me that he had dentures by taking them out), having lots of good meals (the sub service might not be giving you fresh food down below the waves but they feed you well nonetheless) and observing the command deck. There I was taught the importance of keeping the lights on red rather than white at night to help enforce a sense of the day, keeping things visible but preventing night blindness, and remembered once or twice quietly flicking my small flashlight to white, but only when nobody was looking.

One of the nights I discovered the sonar room, and the guys there were totally friendly and invited me in. It must have been a boring night for them after all — nothing to track, no Russian ships to shadow, then again who knows who was shadowing them in turn — and next thing I knew I was spending about an hour playing around with one of the sonar screens. They were mostly amused, I’m sure, and I just remember creating all sorts of crazy patterns and shapes and more with them, and I’m sure I enjoyed whatever sounds were made, though I can’t really remember those.

And of course besides all that I slept when needed, and thankfully no cot to share (minimal crew on board, I believe). The cots were built into the walls and were nooks of the sort that you hear about in Tokyo hotels, though not as art-designed. I did have a nice little light there for reading, though, so I wasn’t complaining at night.

I remember nothing about the start or the end of the trip — the last thing about it all was coming back to San Diego alone on a plane, rejoining my mom so that way she and my sister and I could get ready for the trip to Vallejo together (our quarters in Mare Island weren’t quite ready yet). And of course most people who know me and submarines think of a later sub visit when I was 11. But for me this was the best time on any of the Navy ships in my dad’s career, a trip done just because it could thanks to other plans.