Sunday, March 15, 2009

Nothing Sinks Like a Sub

Article 3 of the "Men or Mules" Series

It’s 1730 hours aboard the USS San Mateo, as the galley crew begins serving supper. Meanwhile, in the Control Room, the Officer of the Deck orders a dive to 550 feet. All routine events aboard an SSN-688-class U.S. attack submarine. Twenty-three minutes later, they’ve leveled out at a comfortable 36 knots (about 41 mph), cruising along in the South Pacific.

And then it happens. The Control Room is a tangle of chairs, equipment and sailors careening through space. They’ve hit a “seamount”, a sheer underwater mountain cliff that wasn’t on the charts.

“Negative Sonar!” somebody barks. Then from the intercom: “Massive flooding, Torpedo Room—evacuate and secure watertight bulkhead!” Followed by that sickening down-elevator sensation. This boat is going down. There is only one course of action, and only one man aboard has authority to order it.

“Emergency Surface!” bellows the Conning Officer. “Repeat. EMERGENCY SURFACE!

“Emergency Surface, aye, Sir!” echoes the Diving Officer. The diving alarms are already droning their aaaaOOOOgggAAAAHHHHH, aaaaOOOOOgggAAAAHHHhhh, signaling the crew to prepare for a submarine’s most drastic maneuver, reserved strictly for life-or-death situations! “Chief of the Watch, EMERGENCY BLOW—NOW!”

Reaching above his head, the Chief of Watch throws open two tiny hydraulic switches that unleash 4500-psi pressurized air from the enormous, curved “banana bottles” nestled along the ship’s hull, to blow the seawater out of the Main Ballast Tanks. All hands aboard brace themselves for the expected roar of air, and “jet takeoff” effect, as the ship shoots to the surface and literally leaps out of the water like a flying fish.

But…nothing happens!

For a split second, everyone in the Control Room is frozen in place, as they sink—faster and steeper now—plunging toward Crush Depth, where a 2-inch-thick steel submarine hull will crumple like a soda can.

Hydraulic Failure!

Only one thing left to do. “Attention, upper-level ‘Boats’, forward and aft, man all Emergency Blow hammer valves! Repeat. Man the hammer valves!!

Four gigantic valves are located on the upper deck, two forward and two aft, to release the 4500-pound Emergency Blow air. These valves are operated remotely by those hydraulic switches in the Control Room. But, in case of hydraulic failure, each valve features a massive bronze hand wheel weighted internally with lead. Two boatswain’s mates (“boats”, as they’re called—guys built like Arnold Schwarzenegger) grab each hand wheel and spin it back and forth repeatedly to “hammer” the reluctant valve open against the stubborn resistance of 4500-psi air pressure.

Finally—like a jet engine—comes the roar of rushing air forcing seawater from the main ballast tanks. A few seconds more, and the wild ride begins. The ship shoots toward the surface…breaks the surface…splashes back down in a magnificent 200-foot plunge…then up again. Finally, the sub is bobbing on the surface like an injured sea lion waiting for its mother.

Emergency Blow. With it, a crippled sub can surface and lives can be saved. Without it, all hands aboard will be lost.

Emergency Guidance. With it, a child of God discovers direction in the face of seemingly senseless events, and wisdom when all choices seem hopeless. Without it, despair, shipwreck, and lost years that may never be redeemed.

Sometimes we’re cruising along in “Doin’ OK” mode. Not quite headed in the right direction, but too comfortable—and busy!—to give it much thought. No time to ask God where He’s going with our lives. There’s that project plan due Wednesday, and back-to-back soccer coaching this week. And, next week doesn’t look so good either.

Then, about halfway through Thursday—SLAM!!! The seamount that wasn’t on our charts. School calls to say Tommy was caught with some little blue pills. The wife calls at work to say you need to come home and talk—Allie just found out she’s pregnant. The kids’ youth pastor just skipped town with the church secretary. Your spouse’s office is closing, and he has to move to Chicago or get laid off—and they need an answer by next week. And on, and on, and on… Just when you you’re “Doing OK”, suddenly it seems Crush Depth is only a breath away. Where is God in all this? Asleep at the wheel? Hmm… Come to think of it, when did we hear last from Him? Or, when did he hear from us?

Pastor and author Charles Simpson said, “God isn’t just the God of miracles; he’s also the God who’ll put you in a place where you’ve got to have a miracle.”

Just when Israel thought they were “Doing OK”, God sent them on a long vacation to Babylon. But, He gave them this promise: “ You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.”

Emergency Guidance.

One day, twenty-five years ago, the phone rang. It was my sister out on the west coast, hysterical, saying that her husband Chris had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of an orange, and needed immediate surgery. The best neurosurgeon in Tucson was going to operate, but he gave Chris only a 50% chance of coming through.

Our whole world was put on hold as Janette and I took to our knees. There were no easy answers—our trite little “hydraulic switches” were not doing the trick, so we had to start swinging the hammer valve of prayer together. It was hard work. We had to break a sweat…a lot of sweat! But, then we heard the sweet sound of God’s guidance rushing through the channels from heaven down into our spirits.


What’s that?

“Gerry!” my wife repeated. “Uncle Gerry! Isn’t he a neurologist?”

I only remembered meeting this Uncle Gerry once, and vaguely knew that he was “into neurology.” I doubted that it would do much good, but we felt God had spoken, so I placed the call to Nashville.

As it turned out, he was eager to help. In fact, I discovered that my uncle Gerald Fenichel was actually a famous author and professor in the field of neurology. Now semi-retired, he spent most of his time traveling and lecturing on advanced topics in neuroscience.

Uncle Gerry knew every neurosurgeon who amounted to anything, and he told us that Tucson was not the place to have this operation! To make a long story short, he flew Chris out to Nashville to be operated on by the best-of-the-best neurosurgeons at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

It was a high-risk operation, removing this huge tumor from his auditory nerve. Recovery took many months. But Chris was able to go back to his job at the power company. And today, 25 years later, he still lives in Tucson, has eight kids and six grandkids, and is a pillar in his church.

Would things have turned out as well after a surgery in Tucson? Maybe. But, more likely, they could have gone much worse.

God’s guidance is the best possible plan for the best possible outcome, but sometimes it won’t come until the violent take it by force. Until we realize the folly of our position, and man the hammer valves of desperation.

Doing OK? Think again. “You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.”

Originally published in King's Courier, a bimonthly magazine, 3/15/2009. 

Copyright © Brad Fenichel 2009 All Rights Reserved