A Tale of the Sea and Me (For Sam) – Installment 12

This is yet another of my sea stories out of sequence, actually just a short description of a destroyer’s firerooms in 1973 when i was her chief engineer. It will be included in my serialized book in progress A Tale of the Sea and Me (For Sam), more or less in chronological order. But the other night, this thought came into my head about the attraction i found in the firerooms i had on the USS Hollister (DD 788), 1973-74. i wished to capture it before it left my head as other thoughts have disappeared into the void of age.

Fireroom, 1973

She was old and worn out. Today’s Navy engineering plant “experts” would consider her abused. She had 27 years of service and three wars under her belt. Her firerooms were in another world.

And she was mine.

Un-dog the hatch and hoist it up to where it catches the lock on the bulkhead and stays. Slide down the slightly slanted ladder like any self-respecting boiler tender (BT) would do: facing forward, sliding on your hands with an occasional foot break to slow you down. Hit the upper level, propelled forward by your slide, take a step, and repeat to descend to the lower level. There you lurch against water tank sides where electrical cables hang in a bunch wider than a railroad track and a foot deep, running the length of the fireroom. And when you lean against that tank, you feel a slight shock, and draw back knowing to find the short or exposed wiring is an impossible task, omitted from the shipyard work because the expense would be more than the old girl is worth. But you are where men spin dials, light fires, replace burner plates, keep the furnace fires a’boiling with black oil, and sweat shirtless in the dank and dark lower level with blowers on the burner flats drowning out your voice and blowing off the sweat but not doing much to abate the heat. Worse than the humid Southern summer heat, not the dry heat the deserts to the west.

Your realize she, the boiler, and her sister across the flats, and the two in the forward fire room are the stomach of the food cycle, digesting the black oil with burners to heat the water coursing through the steam drum before routing the newborn steam to the heart of the two turbines, producing efficiency through the reduction gears to drive the two huge shafts to the propellers, the body, the legs, to thrust against the propellers: the steam cycle on the 600-pound steam plant of a World War II destroyer made perfect sense when you traced it, but tracing a Rube Goldberg composition was less complicated when you are down in the midst of it.

Then, the bridge orders up thirty knots, and the BTs shift into high gear for anything above twenty-seven requires super heat. More burner plates are thrust into the furnace. More black oil pores through the veins to the plates and the temperatures rises to 850 degrees and the superheater tubes at the top of the boiler reheats the steam and it is dry and courses its way to the turbines and Mr. Goldberg is smiling,

And then, they pass the word through the 2JZ sound-powered phone circuit that the ship is commencing a full-power run and there is no leash on the steam blasting out of all four boilers and you walk behind the boilers in the after fire room, and they are wheezing,, huffing hulks, the metal sides flexing with their power and you realize you are in the guts of a living thing, a living thing that any slight misstep might blow the whole thing away, including you, in a ball of fire hissing into the sea and she keeps pounding and the bridge announces she has reached her top speed of 37 knots but she keeps on winding out and no one can record the knots, but you know she’s getting close to 40 and the thrill is in your throat, pounding in your heart…and finally, the bridge commands to cease the run, not because she reached her limit or even that she became unsafe, ah unsafe, you laugh, because it ain’t ever safe unless she’s sitting cold iron at the pier, but the slow down begins because the ship has to be in another OP area for an exercise and cannot turn onto that course with that much speed, not even turn at all because of the high speed endangers any turn and the steam decreases and slowly, carefully the superheat is finally secured and the boiler and fireroom returns to normal steaming, but the BTs don’t slow down but stroke the boilers and their firebox like a child and you watch with pride and joy and allow the thrill to rest in your memory and you emerge from the hatch and walk out to the weather deck on the port beam with the wind and ocean spray cooling you…and you smile.

3 thoughts on “A Tale of the Sea and Me (For Sam) – Installment 12

  1. Wow! That’s a powerful, gripping tale, a haunting, visceral memory! Terrific prose, Jim, enjoyed reading it – twice. Powerful.

  2. Great read! In was Main Control on 782 and 886. NOTHING LIKE IT! I was a qualified Top Watch as a mmfa ( that’s another story) I’d stand there, doing27+ and think here I am, pimply faces 19 yr old and this is my baby!,

    1. Being top watch in main control as an MMFA is something to be very proud of. i agree being in the engineering spaces underway is something special, very special. Thanks.

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