The Captain entered, also for coffee. We chatted about weather (He was from Buffalo, NY, I from northern Michigan), about Hawaii, about his ship, about the places he's been. He was an aide to President George W. Bush. He told a few stories, at my request, that made the President much more human. Much more importantly, he suggested that I head to the bridge (up in the sail again) once the maneuvering watch was set and secured.
This endorsement gave me, for the only time as a guest on the ship, the courage to enforce my will. The executive officer (XO) had the conn (was in control of the ship) as we approached Oahu. I watched the ranges to the island decrease steadily, sitting in the corner of command and control, out of the way, patiently awaiting the XO's word that I was clear to climb to the bridge. Once we got within a few miles of shore, I recognized that this opportunity would slip away if I didn't act. When I saw a clear path open up in the crowded room between the XO and I, I took a few steps to the XO and asked if "now would be a good tim". He barely restrained an eye roll and said "sure, just check in with the pilot". I'll let his attitude slide, his wife gave birth less than 24 hours before, while he was at sea.
I let the pilot know what was going on, then took on the Grand Ladder (my phrase). The beauty of the use of a photonics mast in lieu of a periscope on the ship is that command and control can be deep inside the ship, instead of up top on the first deck like all past submarine designs. A lot of good things result from that, but the downside is a 30' ladder, on a rolling ship, to reach the top of the sail. Up I go, knees occasionally knocking steps as I clamber up. Even the now slight rolls of the ship are a curse, a slip will send me straight down into the bowels of the ship.
I reach the sail and realize it is still quite dark at about 6:30 in Hawaii. We are over Penguin Bank and about to enter Pearl Harbor itself. The lights of the city are stupefying once you try to train your eyes back to sea or into the dark regions of the ship. In fact, it is only after 5 or 10 minutes that I realize a fifth sailor is right behind me, crouched in a recessed cubby hole of the sail structure. Two officers and a radioman stand atop the flying bridge, while at my side is a second class who communicates to the rest of the ship below. "TM" I ask the man backed into a nook (I knew he was a torpedoman=TM) "what are you doing back there?"
He matter-of-factly replied "I'm the gunner".
"Going to be tough to get a good shot off from in there" I noted.
"Dat's what I said." he replied with a shrug. It is at this point I realize my arrival pushed him out of his usual station into the nook.
We are as secure as a submarine can be on the surface. Two small patrol boats flank us on our transit, and our ship carries a slew of small arms. That, naturally, is aside from the ship's high strength steel exoskeleton, suite of sensors, countermeasures, and whatever is available in the torpedo tubes. Additionally, we are not only entering one of the largest naval installations in the United States, but also one of the larges air fields, Hickham Air Base. Squads of airmen can be heard on shore doing morning PT, calling out the cadence with chants indecipherable from our distance. It sounded like a scene from Blues Brothers.
We were traveling slower than during my previous visit to the bridge. Gone was the throbbing power and roiling spray and brilliant sunshine of our outbound transit. We were gliding smoothly, the wave of water standing on the bow was tame, not even approaching the sail, and made of smooth, foamless water. The moon was very high in the sky directly to port. It was only a night or so to either side of a full moon, and its white light was firm and pure. The reflection of it on the river drew a smooth line right toward us. I said nothing, amid the constant chatter of the maneuvering party I would find no audience, regardless. The end of the lunar reign was soon announced by a lightening of the sky directly to starboard. By the time we entered the channel, the moon's influence had receded to the perimeter of its body, it was besieged by light blue sky. Soon the sun had fully risen and asserted its supremacy.
The Captain brought the ship to a bulge in the channel, then used the secondary motor to turn the ship around. He reached down, slapped my shoulder, and said I should go back down below and get my bag, since the Harrier ( the shuttle boat) would arrive within 10 minutes. We shook hands, and I ambled as quickly as one can amble back down below. It took me a while to get back to my bunk, because I had worked hard with the crew and wanted to thank those I bumped into on the way out. It is easy to bump into people in such tight spaces. While I always respected our submarine crews, I now have developed a new appreciation for their commitment to their ship and missions by sharing a week in their world. Earlier, I threw $20 into the crew's slush fund, and the way they reacted you would have thought it was $2,000.
I hastily turned in my dosimeter (measures how much radiation your body is exposed to) to the Doc and signed a form, grabbed my duffle bag, and headed to the lock out trunk (LOT). The LOT is intended for quickly deploying teams of Navy SEALS, but today it will transfer Navy civilian VIPs onboard for a day cruise and non-Navy civilian non-VIPs to the Harrier. In the blink of an eye we were topside, on the Harrier, and heading back towards solid ground.