10 January 2008

The right tool for the job

My first boat was under construction when I reported in. In fact, it didn't even have a name when I got my orders - I was to report to Commanding Officer, PCU SSN 717. By the time I rang my sponsor a few days later, though, he was able to tell me that I would be serving on USS Olympia. (My reaction: "Just what I wanted. A boat named after a can of beer....")

Oly was built at Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company (now Northrop Grumman Newport News). Being on a new-construction boat had its good and bad sides. To begin with, it made qualifying interesting - "Okay, that component is going to be right here, and this component will be over there." Or, "Picture, if you will, a valve right here." It also meant going places where most people wouldn't be able to go on a normal boat; all four hatches were choked with ventilation ducts, power cords, air lines, &c, so access to the boat was through either a hull cut over the CO's stateroom (a ladder right where his desk would eventually be), a hull cut over the Nucleonics lab, or a hull cut over the reactor compartment (a ladder leading down to the top of the reactor vessel). On the other hand, I'd just finished nine months of schools designed to teach me how to operate, troubleshoot and repair equipment that wouldn't even be on the boat until several months after I got there*, so I managed to forget quite a bit.

NNSB&DDCo didn't just build boats; they repaired them, too. This meant that there were a lot of techs on shipyard payroll, and their duties included installing and testing the equipment. As I was an HF tech, I dealt with the shipyard's Great God of HF (whose name, of course, I have totally forgotten in the intervening 23 years). He came down to the boat one day to do a little testing of some sort. Unfortunately, I was off the boat at the time, so I missed all the fun....

At the aft end of the shack was a fuse panel. It was labeled as holding six fuses, but as this was three-phase power, there were actually six sets of three, with each set holding one fuse for each phase. These fuses are nothing like the fuses you have in your house, mind you; each one was around four inches long, and close to a half-inch thick. Due to the current they carried, we radiomen weren't even allowed to touch them - we had to call an electrician's mate forward from nukeland to pull or replace them for us, and he had to take all sorts of precautions when doing so.

I returned to the boat that day to find that the Great God of HF had decided that he needed to secure power to something, and had started to pull the fuses himself. (Great Gods, of course, do not need the assistance of mere electrician's mates - right?) Whilst pulling one fuse, though, he'd accidentally turned it slightly so it made contact with the neighbouring fuses - thus shorting across the phases. I recall being told that A Gang had been snorkeling at the time, but the resulting power surge caused the diesel to shut down.

This caused plenty of excitement, of course. The Great God of HF explained what had happened, and there didn't seem to be any permanent damage. Someone did ask a potentially embarassing question, though: What had happened to the Great God's fusepullers? Had he been using proper fusepullers? Of course, he said. So where were they? Well, he said, naturally he had been startled by the arcing and sparking and had jerked his hand back from the fuse panel; the fusepullers must have flown out of his hand and - ah - gone outboard?** There were a few dubious looks, but no-one called him on it.

And life went on, and life was good.

Fast-forward five or six months. My LPO decided we needed to inventory and restow the contents of the toolbox at the aft end of Radio one day, and drafted me to help him. He knelt by the toolbox and, starting with the top drawer, pulled everything out and handed it over his shoulder to me. After we finished restowing the top drawer, he proceeded to the next, and so on, until we reached the bottom drawer. The LPO started pulling stuff out, and there, amidst all the rest of the junk in the bottom drawer, was a shiny new pair of channel-locks. The kind with bare metal handles, sans insulation.

He picked up the channel-locks and held them out for me, but I didn't take them. He waggled them to get my attention, but I still didn't take them. "Y'know, I think we just found that idiot's fusepullers," I said.

"Huh?" He turned to see what I was looking at. Shiny new channel-locks? Yeah, the side that had been facing up while they were lying in the bottom of the toolbox was nice and shiny-new, but when he'd held the channel-locks out to me, he'd rotated his hand so the other side of them was facing up. And that side wasn't shiny - it was black. Scorched. Partially melted, in fact.

Fusepullers, my arse.

The channel-locks went up the chain of command, LPO to RMC to Commo to Nav, but there wasn't anything officially to be done. There was talk of mounting the channel-locks on a plaque and presenting them to the shipyard HF shop, but I don't know if they actually did that....

* There wasn't even a Radio Room door - just a rectangular hole in the bulkhead - the first few months I was on board.

** Behind the equipment racks.

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