The Tale of the Dolphins

My old wonderful curmudgeon of a boss from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the man who gave me a not so gentle kick and made it possible to be a health physicist, has just moved into hospice care. He said, and I quote, “You’re too damn smart to spend the rest of your life swinging a meter. Get your degree and start telling guys like me what to do.” As if I’d dare tell him what to do without asking his opinion first; it’s a damn fool of an officer that doesn’t listen to the sergeant. Bill is similarly too damn smart to have spent his life swinging a meter but found his joy in being a cantankerous smartass, which is part of why he was made my boss (quote: “He’s an ass who drives people crazy, but he’s a smart ass. You two should get along perfectly.”)

We spent an awful lot of his smoke breaks listening to his stories of the Navy and decades gone by at LLNL. I did my best to absorb them all and I became a font of institutional knowledge that convinced people that I’d been working there longer than I’d been alive. It is time to share my favorite of his stories, “The Tale of the Dolphins”, to honor Mr. Shea. This is a story of Navy traditions, drinking, and attempted drowning in Hawaii. Admittedly, saying “Navy traditions”, “drinking”, and “attempted drowning” in the same sentence is thrice redundant.

Bill was a submariner in the 70s, at the height of the prison inmate enlisted men/frat house officer Navy at the same time that Admiral Rickover’s Nuclear Navy was really coming into its own. He arrived in Pearl Harbor, fresh from Nuclear Power School to be assigned to his boat. As he approached his boat there was a large group of men punching one solitary seaman in the chest, right up until the moment one man picked him up and threw him overboard into the harbor. When Bill saw this he not-quite-quietly said, “Aww man, why did you go and do that?”

The EXTREMEMLY LARGE Chief of the Boat, the man that did the tossing, says “And why shouldn’t I?” in an EXTREMELY LARGE manner to Bill.

Bill shook his head in disappointment, “You tossed him in the harbor. He’s gonna leave a fucking ring around the boat we’ll have to clean off before we leave.” It is important to remember that the Navy area of Pearl Harbor was a goddamn toxic cesspit with untreated sewage at this time. If you’ve been to Pearl recently and think it’s still a goddamn toxic cesspit, just know that it’s much better now. To suggest that the seaman was filthier than Pearl Habor itself…

The COB squints at Bill’s nametag. “Shea. I’m gonna remember you, Shea.”

Old Style Enlisted Submariner Badge (courtesy of the US Navy)
Old Style Enlisted Submariner Badge (courtesy of the US Navy)

Bill had walked aboard in the middle of a “dolphin” ceremony where a newly minted submariner is granted their pin with the dolphins on it that denotes that they have successfully completed their training on all the major functional areas of the submarine and, therefore, more useful than mere ballast. When Bill got his dolphins several months later, they threw him overboard twice. Oh yes, the Chief remembered him.

Oh, I forgot. The punching? That was the lucky new submariner’s team punching his pin into his chest without postbacks. For Bill, when the pin was first presented, it was at a bar. It was shown to the recipient, but then quickly taken away. A water pitcher was found. Everyone in the bar poured what was left of their drinks into it. The barmat was wrung out to fill the pitcher. The dolphin pin was then dropped in and Bill was told to chug and come up with the dolphins in his teeth. Immediate vomiting would have been considered unlucky, so Bill had to make it at least through the next game of darts before a strategic chunder was approved.

There you go, The Tale of the Dolphins. If you have a tale of your time in the nuclear Navy you’d like me share with him when I go visit in the next couple weeks, I’m always happy to learn a new story. And I know he enjoys when I spin him a fine yarn.