Boats, Ships and Submarines

Nana stayed at the condo. I left with Alex, took a right on Market, crossed the railroad tracks and waited at the traffic light by the Hyatt. It is an eight-way intersection and it takes forever for the light to change. Finally, we crossed one more street and walked by a shopping plaza skirting Seaport Village. There were people queuing to go visit the Midway, the museum aircraft carrier. We had seen it before and kept going. The day was nice. A group of young men on scooters flew by. Joggers and bicyclists went both ways. A homeless man bent over his shopping cart seemingly inventorying the household items he had inside. Another one slept on a stretch of grass right in front of the US Aircraft Carrier Memorial, next to a dark blue flowerbed of peonies. It was the end of February and the tourist season hadn’t started, so the crowds were less overwhelming than at other times.

It took us fifteen minutes to reach the Maritime Museum. The price for the two of us, one senior and one nine-and-a-half years old boy, seemed a bargain. We could visit seven ships and two submarines. Wow!

We started with a tour of the recently refurbished Star of India — a merchant sailing ship built in the second part of the 19th century. As we walked the plank onto the vessel, we were overtaken by a large group of children, each carrying a voluminous black plastic bag full of stuff. They were supposed to spend the night on the ship as part of a school project, and the bags contained their personal belongings. It wasn’t clear to me why the children did not use regular backpacks, and Alex explained that they had brought their favorite pillows and teddy bears along. The ship was sufficiently large so that the schoolchildren didn’t bother us. I stayed mostly on the upper deck and observed the calm waters of the bay reflecting the sun and the mellow hills of Point Loma. Alex ran around, exploring, trying to move the big rudder and pulling at all the ropes he could put his hands on.

Next, we visited the H. M. S. Surprise, which is a replica of an 18th century Royal navy frigate. The movie Master and Commander with Russel Crow was filmed on it, but that detail did not seem to impress my grandson.

We quickly moved on to the B- 39 submarine. At the point of entry, stood a panel with a round cutout in the middle, maybe two feet in diameter, maybe a little more. To visit the submarine, one has to pass though several holes like this one, announced a sign. My young companion went through it with the ease of a scrawny cat, whereas I, under his slightly amused eyes, had to employ the tricks I learned with time as my body had grown heavier and less nimble. Eventually I succeeded.

Inside the submarine, the oppressive lack of space and the dystopian atmosphere conveyed without fail the gloominess and darkness of spending long periods of time in a metal tube, deep under the surface of the ocean. The number of levers, handwheels, dials, gauges, indicators, pulleys, faucets, bells, cables and pipes was overwhelming. The cots on which the sailors had to sleep were hard and narrow. The fact that 78 men lived on board for weeks at a time was difficult to comprehend. Everything was encased in heavy, black steel.

Two information displays added depth to the visit. The first related the history of the submarine, comical in the manner in which it reflected the demise of a once mighty, if evil, empire. This diesel electric submarine used to belong to the Soviet Navy and was designated as ‘Foxtrot class’ by NATO. It carried 24 torpedoes and it could dive to a depth of 985 feet. At the end of the cold war, the Soviet Navy, strapped for cash, sold it to Canada to be exhibited at a sea fair in Vancouver Harbor. The Canadians, in turn, sold it to us, such that it is now peacefully displayed in San Diego for the education and amusement of the general public. The second story is that of a lower rank Soviet officer, whose first name was Vasily — I forgot his last name — and who appears to have saved the world from a nuclear disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apparently, aboard a submarine patrolling the waters around Cuba, the commanding officer became convinced that World War III had started and was in process of ordering the launch of a nuclear weapon. Vasily stopped him. The crux of the story, however, is that upon return of the submarine to the Soviet Union, both men disappeared never to be heard of again.

If my understanding and recollection of these two stories is not complete, I blame my companion. He did not have the patience to allow me to read all the material displayed on the various boards inside the submarine. Instead, not bothered by the rusty metal surrounding us, he ran ahead, fell behind, hid in every corner, climbed every ladder, touched every lever, pushed every button and tried every cot with the enthusiasm of a lamb jumping through a green meadow. It didn’t take much to understand that to him, born in 2010, stories related to the Cold War and the Cuban Crisis are as removed from his universe as, say, the European Revolutions of 1848 or the Mexican American War would be from that of a baby boomer.

By the time we left the submarine, we were both exhausted. Forget the other vessels and second submarine. Walking home, the distance seemed longer and our feet hurt. But at the condo, Nana was most likely waiting for us with a nice dinner and cold orange juice.

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Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit