Saturday, 21 June 2014

Nuclear Submarine trip

Bizarre Adventures Aboard A Royal Navy Polaris/Trident Submarine

Previously posted on Reelshow Mag
Nuclear Submarine
For mainly security reasons the name of the Submarine, the dates and names of the personnel have been withheld
Many years ago I was privileged to be involved in a crew that would join a Royal Navy Polaris Nuclear Submarine for its shakedown cruise before it went off on a prolonged tour of duty.
The security vetting of the film crew was very thorough and months after the documentary was completed I was told of the occasional salesman, long lost relative etc asking my neighbours about me and my wife’s social, dining, sexual and spending habits..
Like how often did I go to the pub, did we drive new cars, was either of us having an affair, were we in debt etc..all blackmail material I suppose to an interested foreign party.
Any way, the vetted film crew eventually arrived in Helensburgh on the West coast of Scotland and we were given a number of briefings about life on the ship, security and safety procedures, behavioural procedures etc.We also filmed a lot of preliminary activity..
Then came departure day.
In my early career I was a trainee mining engineer in the Coal Industry and would normally work on a very low coal seam, two feet six inches to about three feet high .In mainly total blackness and very dusty. We could never stand up once we had crawled along the face area. The seams were twelve hundred feet underground if I remember correctly, but am OK if anyone actually knows what depth those West Cumbrian seams were at. It was extremely claustrophobic.
I was eternally grateful to leave that Industry and join one that let me be out and about, fresh air, big sky, mountains etc.
Now I was about to enter a steel tube that would be submerged for a number of weeks, in relatively crowded conditions, subject to Navy discipline and absolutely no means of communication to family or friends ashore.
The film crew lined up on the Jetty as the sailors were stowing supplies etc and we were introduced to the senior Naval personnel who were detailed to keep an eye on us, answer our questions, make sure we didn’t film anything remotely security sensitive, show us our quarters. And keep us out of the way.
I decided that as soon as I entered the ship I would not return to the dockside. I needed to get my head into the fact that I would be living in a cocoon for weeks. Get used to it. And that is exactly what I did.
During the short spell I was on the ship before the other crew members came on board, one of the crew was deemed to be a security breach and was removed from the crew list. No cruise for him.
The Producer was bollocked by the Captain for bringing a rolled up umbrella on board and was sent ashore to dispose of it, seems brollies are not seen as good luck symbols on a submarine
The Eminent Defence Correspondent from a well known newspaper we had with us who was also the “Expert Presenter” was taken to the Officers mess and immediately given an armed escort .This chap could not go to the bathroom without an armed sailor accompanying him. Not to everyone’s taste. Also most of the Aft section of the ship was out of bounds to him
That’s where the Nuclear reactor was.
A Chief Petty Officer showed us to our Quarters.
What he actually did was point to a rather long, brightly lit corridor and said we could kip there, on the floor, in our sleeping bags of course. The ship worked 24/7 and this was a busy old thoroughfare, but that was the sleeping arrangement. Like it or lump it.
The film crew were based in the Officers mess, quite a small area but with lots to read and some comfy chairs.
For our benefit the duplicate dials showing important attitudes of the vessel were all covered up. No Compass indicator, depth, speed etc. All classified info.
The only drawback to being in the Officers mess was the fact it was dry, and by that I mean ARID.
Absolutely no alcohol whatsoever. It would have been easier to get a drink in Mecca than in that Officers mess, which was probably a good thing considering what those Officers were in charge of.
However, just across the corridor lay a mess of a different order.
The Chiefs Mess.
Because there are more Chief Petty Officers than Commissioned Officers then the Mess room was somewhat bigger, again it had comfortable sofas, some moody lighting, tables and chairs dotted about and at the end of the long room, in splendid isolation, the other Mecca for drinkers. The Bar.
With the Military, any branch, in order to enter a mess then an invitation must be issued by the branch that run the Mess.
The film crews invitation to use the Chiefs Mess for socialising came after three days into the trip, by then the CPO’s had seen us around, worked out we were not TV puffs and decided to let us into their Hallowed Quarters This was probably determined by the fact that our Director was an ex Officer in the SAS.
The Brolly toting Producer got into trouble again, he had a rather fancy hairstyle and he kept it quite long, so long that occasionally he would surreptitiously give it a quick going over with a hair spray.
He only did it once when on board..
The tannoy in the Officers mess suddenly burst into life and the Captains distinctive gravelly voice came on. “Would the person who is now using hair spray desist immediately, It stinks and is fucking up the ventilation system”.
On arrival at the appointed hour we were led in, introduced to the crowded room and all of us were then given a half pint of amber liquid. Upon enquiry we were told that this was our spirit ration …for day one…. and to get it down because the other two days rations were lined up on the bar.
As you can imagine the rest of the trip passed in something of a blur and I only have brief snatches of memory
I do vividly remember visiting the toilets/shower area sometime during that session to witness the sound assistant sitting on a toilet with the door open, having a severe attack of the runs, he would rapidly rise and then vomit down the pot, then into the shower for a quick clean up and then back to it again, the runs and vomiting I mean..
For a few days he was oblivious to his sleeping conditions .Ironically, today, that person is a hugely successful wine grower in NZ..
During the trip we were to discover that all of the furnishings in the Mess had been modified to hold booze. The table tops were perched on barrels, all of the padded seating would be removed to reveal stacks of bottles and more barrels and some of the wall panels also hid the liquid treasure..
Down at the pointy bit of the vessel lived a sub species of humankind, cruelly but rightly referred to by the rest of the navy crew as the “Scum”. The appropriate Navy title is Able Seaman.
These creatures were rarely seen and never referred to if possible. They were at the extreme end of the Navy food chain They scuttled about the forward portion of the ship in their own netherworld.
It was among this outfit that I would find lodgings.
As we moved around the vessel I would be constantly looking for a more comfortable place to put my sleeping bag. I didn’t mind the brightly lit corridor or being stepped on occasionally but every so often the Missile tubes would be vented, a process that involved a very loud hissing noise and one that I never got used to.
On one of my probes around the ship I entered the area of the Scum and found that the Torpedo cradles were a perfect fit. The torpedo area was rarely visited and it was quiet .In I moved and stayed there for the remainder of the trip.
I slowly became a part of Scum life.
Angles and Dangles
That’s what they called it. It was more like a collective slalom with suicide being the ultimate objective.
The major dining hall was amazingly large for a submarine and at one stage early in the trip all of the tables and chairs were moved out and any one with the desire to end it all gathered at one end of the long room with a food tray.
Then the ship dived…almost vertically, the surge of power was massive and everyone not tied down went into a dive, the idea was to actually sit on the tray and have a sleigh ride. It didn’t work out like that.
Dozens of sailors went flying down the hall to land in a heap at the other and, great fun, the ship stopped diving, shuddered a little, and went into a powerful climb up through the ocean. Again all the sailors went flying down the room to end in a heap at the other end.
I am told it was a serious exercise ..It didn’t look it. That was Angles and Dangles
On another occasion a string was tied to the shell of the ship at one side and stretched across to the other side. It was tied tight and taut. When the ship dived the string went very slack. What the pressure was on the outside hull is any bodies guess. Scary.
To cut a long trip down into a few anecdotes ..we settled in to the routine of the ship, ate in the Officers Mess, got drunk in the Chiefs Mess and I slept with the scum in their mess. They had some endearing little habits which are far too disgusting to relate here but this is something I did observe.
For this trip a new AB had joined the crew .He had a reputation that had spread before him and he was anxiously awaited.
He was reputed to have the longest erect penis in the Navy.
The Scum had money riding on this and the ships pride was at stake among the Submariners fleet. If the reputation was indeed well earned then the crews standing among their fellow seamen would be massively enhanced….They needed to know.
Unfortunately the supposed proud owner of this prodigious member was very shy and naturally reluctant to supply evidence. After a few days the patience of the Scum had worn thin and they decided to take matters into their own hands, in a manner of speaking.
They ambushed the unfortunate lad, stripped him and tied him to a chair .Then they placed a stack of the most vile pornography in front of him and told him to look
He did look but not at the mags, ..solution,.. every time he looked away or closed his eyes he was tapped on the head with a small hammer. It seemed to work and within a few minutes detailed measurements were being taken.
This was a very serious business and the Scum all offered him their daily beer ration of three cans each to compensate for the ridge of small lumps now appearing across the top of his head..
There was real fire alarm during the trip and as I was trained to get to my section as quick as possible. I legged it through the ship to my area among the Torpedoes. As I ran across the last section the steel door in front of me was slammed shut and faces of the Scum were peering out at me through the thick glass panel.
Thanks Lads.. I ran back to another section and managed to get through before the watertight seals were activated
I was soon kitted out with a life jacket and was standing in a queue to get to the escape hatch.
I was told that when it was my turn and I exited the ship that I had to blow all of the air out of my lungs as hard as I could, all the way up to the surface. Seems rather a strange thing to do but at great depths the inside air pressure would be so enormous that it would blow my lungs apart..
It was with great relief that the alarm was called off. I don’t think I was the only one pleased about that, particularly as I am not comfortable underwater without a Scuba outfit and we had no idea how deep we were.
Later in the trip the ship surfaced for us to film the hatch covers on the missiles being opened. I have no clue where we were but it was deathly quiet as this huge warship just sat in the swell and we almost started whispering as the sixteen hatches slowly swung upward. Looking down on a highly polished Polaris missile or its ballast dummy was a scary moment, If that thing was ever fired in anger then the world as we knew it would be gone forever.
We were on the surface for just a reasonably short time but we were not too popular when we re-entered the ship and slid beneath the surface again, apparently most of the crew had begun to feel queasy and some were actually seasick from the rolling of the boat in the swell
Towards the end of the trip we approached the Clyde at dawn, it was a perfect sunrise and we were on the surface, almost silently gliding up the deep inland waterway to the ships base. The Captain invited me and a couple of crew members onto the bridge. Actually we almost begged him to let us up there
It is still one of the abiding and proud memories for me. To stand on the top of the conning tower as we headed to port in one of the deadliest craft in the world, manned by a very professional outfit, in spite of my stories on here.
When we were tied up at the dockside there was a sudden panic on board, Some high ranking Officer, Admiral of the Fleet or equivalent wanted to come on a quick visit.
Film crews in general are not known for being tidy dressers and it was decided by the First Officer that perhaps we might consider staying out of sight during the brief visit, but where. The perfect place, a broom cupboard….even submarines need to be swept occasionally.
So all five of us duly crammed into the cupboard .It was a tight fit.
The visit began and as the entourage made its way around for some ritual inspection the door of our cupboard was opened by the Admiral. He was in full dress uniform and dripping with Gold Braid. The ships Officers behind him looked a little grim.
“Good Morning Gentlemen”
“Good morning Sir” we chorused .
“Have you had a good trip”
“Wonderful Sir”
“Good,” he looked around the cupboard “ Nice quarters”
With that he closed the door and they all moved on.
Two further small anecdotes to finish. After all of my fears of claustrophobia I was the last one of the film crew to leave the vessel. I had become accustomed to it.
During the course of the trip we had never been allowed to buy any of the CPO’s a drink in spite of their massive hospitality, but we did say we would buy them all a drink when we arrived back at base
We left the vessel and moved to a Hotel nearby as we still had a couple of days filming to do and that evening my internal phone rang, it was reception. “Sir, could you come down to reception, there are some visitors for you”
I walked to the large mezzanine landing which looked down onto the reception area and there was the entire Submarine crew with wives and partners all waiting to be bought a drink. Almost three hundred of them. .It was a fun evening.
At the moment there is much Political debate as to the effectiveness and high cost of this Nuclear deterrent. My personal opinion is that it is worth every penny and when one looks at the nuclear proliferation in the world today, notably by some unstable and downright rogue states then I sleep a little easier at night knowing that we have a unbelievably brave and dedicated professional crew out there in a fantastic ship protecting us and definitely deterring them.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

USS Nimitz

This is a short tale, and was previously posted on The Reelshow Mag... but it sticks in my memory so maybe you will also enjoy it….

A day out on the ‘USS NIMITZ’ you will see from the picture this is one Mother of a ship…one of the biggest tonnage vessels in the USA Navy.

I was sent down to Naples in Italy with a crew to do a short documentary on this naval titan as it set off on a patrol around the Gulf of Libya…in those days the Libyan state, controlled by Col Ghaddafi,..Was not considered to be a friend of the Western world and it was constantly monitored by Allied navies.
After an eventful night in Naples..(Another story) we were picked up at the dockside and transferred to the Nimitz which was moored out in the bay.
Once on board we were shown to our quarters and invited to the Officers mess to meet our press liaison Officer. We all enjoyed our welcoming drink of a cola
Yep.. all USA Navy vessels are dry. .no alcohol whatsoever, ever, nada, zilch.. this was a three day trip but it already stretched out ahead of my near alcoholic crew like a lifetimes sentence.
OK, So, parched, alcohol free and already showing anxiety levels akin to those who go cold turkey on any addiction we set off on a filmic tour of this leviathan of the waves.
A one point I was able to stand at what can only be described as a crossroad of gangways, one in each direction. they all dwindled off into the distance for what seemed like hundreds of bulkhead doors.
Then there was the storage and engineering deck. This is immediately below the flight deck, its like several football fields joined together and it is stuffed full of aircraft, of all shapes and sizes but mainly fighter attack planes as one would expect, but the thing that really amazed me was the number of engineers who live down there, it seemed like thousands of them, all beavering away on engines and broken bits.
When we talked to some of these men they all said they had never been on the flight deck, they were on board for the two year mission and their aim was to work, pump iron in the vast gymnasium, eat, pass exams, eat some more, pump more iron and SAVE MONEY…these were serious people..and they had a lot to be serious about.
On our mission there had been a dog fight with a couple of Ghaddafi’s Migs out over the Gulf and both of them had been brought down. Time for a modest celebration in the Officers mess, modest it certainly was as we downed copious amounts of Coca Cola, but for these steely eyed Top Gun boys it could have been the best champagne or beer in the world.
The operation of Jets taking off and landing seemed to be a 24/7 task as jet after jet catapulted off the flight deck and the incoming hit the deck with a thump and were then taken down to the maintenance deck for a mechanics rub down.
We met and interviewed the Captain of the vessel, this man was a USA Hero going back to the Vietnam war, it was reputed that he had been shot down on two occasions behind enemy lines and fought his way back with just a small hand gun, a tough cookie indeed, if it were me then one time being shot down would have sufficed.
The interview was arranged to be filmed on the flight control deck, the Captains Bridge, that’s the tall spiky tower in the pic All was set up, the skipper arrived and we began, except we couldn’t..
Every time we started the interview the sound man would shout “Cut”…he had a problem with his recording machine, in those days it was a Nagra, A state of the art recorder and a reel to reel ,very reliable, but this one would only turn round in short bursts of a couple of seconds. It didn’t take long to work out that the signal from the large rotating radar dish, just above our heads was sending out such a strong magnetic field that it actually stopped the recorder from working.
We quickly found another venue for our chat but it did give me food for thought that if the signal was that strong it could stop the recorder …what was it doing to the personnel who spent hours working on that deck every day…just a thought.. They all seemed quite normal..
OK..we did the usual documentary stuff for a few days , nice pics of the aircraft taking off and landing, some little escapades and near accidents but it all went relatively smoothly.
And then came the day of our departure.
The ship can stay at sea for over two years without re-fuelling and personnel rarely got to go on shore leave but for those in an emergency they can be flown off.
Not many volunteered.
At the appointed hour my crew assembled at the detailed departure point on the flight deck.
All equipment boxes securely fastened and stacked neatly, Navy style.. Then I looked around the deck. It was completely stuffed with fighter planes, row upon row of them, dozens of them, it was all you could see..
What I couldn’t see was a flight deck for my plane to trundle along to take off.
And where was our transport plane. .nowhere in sight.
Then a huge hole in the flight deck opened up and like the Phoenix from the ashes our twin prop driven aircraft arose. Its wings were folded up like a broken bird. They were soon flattened out and now it looked as though it was capable of flight…except.. there was no runway.
Then it dawned on me.
These lunatics were actually going to catapult us off the deck
And we were lunatics for agreeing to it…not that we were ever asked.
They were really going to sling us off the very short flight deck on a catapult..
Most people today have flown, the plane taxis to the end of a VERY LONG RUNWAY
They then run up the engines to high revs and start rolling down several hundred yards of concrete runway. .at a certain speed lift is achieved and the aircraft powers serenely into the blue yonder..
As aircraft went, ours was quite small, but it was much larger than any of the fighter planes that we had filmed taking off, these massively powerful war planes had been hooked up to the sling. Run their engines up to max power permitted, held back on their brakes and when ready the deck man would give a signal to both pilot and the catapult man and the combined forces of engine and catapult would throw the plane into the sky, an awesome operation.
Best seen from afar as a spectator.
Like sheep unto the slaughter my crew were herded across the deck and quickly kitted out in flight survival jackets, flight helmets, goggles.
Then we were boarded on the rear of the plane, the seats were all facing the tailgate ..we were told to take a brace position on take off and we did. The gear was stowed. The door was locked and now there was no escape.
The plane was trundled over to the end of the catapult section and attached. Looking out of the very small window I noticed we had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers.
Dozens of Navy folk were standing around peering at us, thumbs up signs etc were in abundance. I had the feeling that I had suddenly been invited to go into a big stone circular ring with some hungry lions licking heir lips at the other end.
I watched through the small window at the deck control man who I had filmed many times over the last few days giving his usual signals to the pilot, it normally consisted of spinning his index finger at ever growing speeds. This digital movement was copied on board the plane by the engines being revved to ear splitting level, the plane was threatening to tear itself apart as the engines reached maximum revs and then came the executioners moment. The deckman stopped his murderous spinning and pointed forward with what I thought was a flamboyant gesture .At that moment I hated that man.
But I had no time to dwell on how I wanted to kill him as I was being propelled into the air at a limb wrenching speed ..and suddenly we were airborne, we soared away from the deck which I could see rapidly dwindling in the small window..
Brilliant…no doubt this was an exhilarating moment.
And then we stopped flying…
Apparently this is normal. .But I didn’t know it.
As we went rapidly down towards the ocean the aircraft made a valiant attempt to reach airspeed, it transpired that the catapult actually throws the plane off the deck at a much higher speed than the plane can fly at and it really just starts to fall into the sea.
The screeching from the engines was now overwhelming and the plane appeared to resemble a million rivets flying in loose formation.
The glistening ocean was fast approaching and I made all of my prayers, in Urdu, Hebrew, Christian , Rastafarian and all of the rest…this was it, the end. The Big End…it was just a few hundred feet away and arriving quickly. Bye Bye life, Sex, Boozing, Watching Footie, and then as we were about to impact we started to lift.. we were actually flying… we seemed to just skim over the top before we began a stately ascent to a safer altitude.
Now it became clear to me why all those big body building, gluttonous, money saving mechanics never left the ship on its two year cruise. This was the only way off. They should all retire as rich men.,
Two short footnotes to this story.
The Cargo master who had flown with us told me they had lost two of these aircraft recently and it always drew a good audience of ghouls on the Nimitz to see if we could make it. He happily confessed that he had a death wish… Thanks fellas.
We were landed at an airbase on an Italian island, Sicily I think, and we were transported to our hotel by a Navy driver who had a big blue bus. On the way into the town, in the local rush hour we were struck a number of times by other vehicles. Our driver seemed completely unfazed, I asked him why. He said “Its always like this, none of these guys have ever learned how to drive, they have been driving like this FOR SEVERAL HUNDRED YEARS and aint got the hang of the motor car yet”
I guess he didn’t graduate with a major in history from his high school..
Still, as usual was a pleasure to have completed another little adventure with the American Forces.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Italian Diaries ..Number one.

After much prodding from friends and colleagues I have finall decided to enthrall the world with my daily experiences of Italian life.
These tales will not be consecutive or even form a pattern but will be random recalls from memory...sometimes from very dark recesses of memory.

Ok, here we go..
Buying a house in Italy:

My partner on the Reelshow, Mary Lou Brown and I, decided in circa 2000 to take some time out and visit the place where she had spent some great holidays as a child, Lignano Sabbiadoro. Italy.

This seaside resort is situated on the northernmost part of the Adriatic sea and is just along the coast from Venice.
It is indeed a great place for a summer holiday, great beaches ,bars ,restaurants, clubs, yachts etc.We liked it so much we rented an apartment there for a year...during that time we wrote a number of screenplays  and had a great time.
We  enjoyed ourselves so much we decided to buy a permanent place there so that we could just drop in at any time, as most of our work was sourced from the UK.

The original apartment we had rented for the year belonged to a prominent local family who had several apartment blocks in the area.We decided to take a short term rental with them until we found a place to buy..good idea we thought..and sure enough it turned out quite well..

The Father of the family knocked on our door one day to say he had an apartment for us to look at, it was for sale and was a new build, not on the coast but on the lagoon behind the peninsula .. a very pretty location.

The apartment was short drive away, 3 or four minutes, and our landlord kindly offered to take us to see it in his car...It was terrific, three bedrooms ,massive garden,large covered terraces. two car garage , parking area, secure entry..all of the things one needs....we decided to go ahead.

I will leave out the amazing problems of trying to raise a mortgage in a foreign country,particularly when one is a freelance, but eventually we managd it. The money was there.

We duly arrived at the lawyers office for the signing and handover.
This is a complex arrangement in in which the officiating lawyer must leave the room whilst large brown envelopes .stuffed full of bank notes are trasferred from one party to another.

This has all to do with black money, tax money, real money,asking price money and the final sum...which is anybody's guess and may not be entirely legal...hence the missing lawyer.
Anyway the transaction is done..hands are shaken..keys and deeds handed over.

Mary Lou and I  were a little mystified by the presence of our generous landlord who had turned up at the office and who had sat through the entire procedure , and he was the first one to shake our hands, he was there as we had a celebratory glass of prossecco and he was there as we left the building , he was there  as we went to the car park and he followed us all the way his apartment block. He was not quite so gushing  as we arrived as he had been all day and with a very curt nod he left us.
The following morning  we opened the front door to find a large bunch of flowers and a little note, saying our landlord would be visiting shortly to discuss the matter we had avoided yesterday....Mystified again, we waited and he duly drop a bombshell.

Apparently he was due a fee...a finders fee...of five thousand Euros  about 4k$ US .

This fee was just for driving us to see the apartment...nothing else..we of course demurred in very anglo saxon terms  and then he enlighrtened us to what our lives would be like if we did not cough up.

We made enquiries locally and found that the fee musr be was  'The Way"

We paid up.

So buyers beware of the offer to escort you to look at a property from a kind neighbour in Italy.

More to come...lots more..