We tread water—two bodies drifting in a blue pool—and my mother tells me how, as a teenaged babysitter, she would watch submarine movies late into the night. Especially Run Silent, Run Deep, which she never saw start to finish, but caught in random glimpses, piecing the plot together over time. She is at her most talkative here in the water, but there is much she doesn’t say. Though submarine movies are marketed as war stories or adventures at sea, they are really family dramas; the heroes endure a life of conflict and comradery in a secretive home, then they escape it (sometimes by drowning). We watched other movies together, she reminds me, lots of them.
Memories too are aquatic, diving and surfacing at intervals. I didn’t remember any of the films until I started researching submarines in an attempt to stop writing poems about airplanes. Now I wonder if I inherited this fascination from my mother. Once, possibly while watching Hostile Waters, I complained that there were no women on board and she, a psychoanalyst, told me that the woman in a submarine movie is always the submarine itself. At eleven, I wasn’t sure what to make of this claim. Decades later, I am still evaluating it. Is it an obvious Freudian take or old seafaring myth, a linguistic holdover?
Meanwhile, our arms skate over the water’s surface and our legs churn steadily as we talk. The trick she once taught me is not to confuse speed with efficacy, not to flail. We can last about an hour this way—sometimes making small orbits around one another for variety. We, like submarines, can’t easily hover in place, but must either travel through space or make constant, small adjustments to maintain our location. We are the only women in the water. The rest are sunbathing. Then a group of teenaged girls jumps cannonball style into the pool. Relieved, we cede the watch to them.
At first, submarines were the underdogs and ugly ducklings of naval fleets—not only did they lack the visual pomp and ceremony of destroyers, but their use for spying on and sinking surface ships was considered shameful and devious. In a few centuries, submarines have evolved to claim their rank as the Navy’s most valuable and deadly vessels. The Turtle, a Revolutionary War submarine, was basically a large wooden egg with a small windowed conning tower—its single crewman could crank the propellers by hand for approximately fifteen minutes before he ran out of air; he was supposed to use this interval to sabotage a British ship, but, unsurprisingly, did not succeed. The GUPPY (greater underwater propulsion power) subs of the 1950s needed to rise to snorkel depth every twenty-four hours in order to vent their air supply and recharge their batteries by running a loud diesel engine; even under cover of night, this risked drawing an attack from the very ships and submarines they were attempting to stalk. A nuclear submarine, though, can remain submerged for months, as long as the crew’s food supplies last, and, if ordered to launch its warheads, could obliterate twenty-four cities within minutes. Despite their immense size (the USS Wyoming is 560 feet long and displaces over 18,000 tons when fully submerged) nuclear submarines are far quieter than their diesel forerunners and capable of great stealth.
U.S. submarines slipped undetected in and out of the Sea of Okhotsk, deep in Russian territorial waters, throughout the 1970s, to conduct operation “Ivy Bells,” an extensive wiretap on an undersea communications cable between two Soviet naval bases. On each mission, a submarine would anchor on the seafloor and send out teams of divers to install or remove six-ton recording pods. In the Barents Sea (and likely other locations), submarine wiretapping continued through at least 1992, and probably longer. Both British and American security agencies continue to monitor the undersea cables that make up the hidden infrastructure of the web; in 2016, Vice Admiral James Foggo warned that Russian submarines might attempt to sever our transatlantic internet cables and likened this threat to a fourth Battle of the Atlantic. Depending on whether they choose to make their presence known, submarines can serve as clandestine agents or massive weapons of deterrence.
I laid the keel for this essay in 2019. Now, in this spring of dangerous surfaces and pervasive uncertainty, some retrofitting is required. Our homes are submarines. We open our hatches only to execute necessary errands. Transiting a new reality, we must be scrupulous risk-takers—self-reliant and simultaneously dependent upon our machines, our fellow humans’ caution. This essay has become a series of drills. As in films, time is strangely fluid.
A submarine is a weapon full of tubes and processes necessary to sustain life. Because of the humidity, the interior surfaces of a submarine, like human skin, sweat profusely, especially in tropical regions. The set designers of Last Resort—a short-lived 2012 drama set aboard the USS Colorado—made a point of hanging rolls of toilet paper around the conn for realism. The show also depicts a nuclear launch initiation procedure, which the Navy has designed as a cooperative, multi-person job. The Commander, the Executive Officer (XO), and the Weapons Officer must all confirm that the authentication code accompanying their orders matches the code on the cookie—a sealed card kept locked onboard; a total of four keys, kept in separate locations, are required to arm the missiles and initiate a launch. There is no procedure for confirming that the launch orders come from a leader of sound mind, no room onboard for ethical review. The Commander must turn two keys and, at a separate panel, the Officers must turn the other two; the panels are spaced beyond the span of any one person’s outstretched arms—typically equal to, or slightly longer than, height.
rites / measures
A fathom, a measure of depth in water, is six feet. It derives from the Old English foethm meaning “outstretched arms” or “embrace.” What we cannot hold, we cannot fathom—a distance or murkiness intervenes. On land, we bury our dead under one fathom of earth. We are learning to walk a fathom from strangers, to space ourselves out. We distance bodies with numbers.
words for bodies / boats
A submarine, regardless of size, is never called a ship. A sub is a paradox, a boat built to go under by deliberately taking on water. It breaks the general rule that a boat can fit on a ship, but a ship can’t fit on a boat (unless it is in a bottle). Submarines can carry other boats: inflatable rafts for emergencies, detachable submersibles for espionage or scientific expeditions. A ship sails or sinks. A sub dives and surfaces; it tends to roll at sea level, but glides smoothly at depth.
Because she loves being surrounded by water, my mother planned family vacations on islands in the Great Lakes. Madeline was named after a fur trader’s wife; Manitoulin resembles a sleeping woman. Our boats there were rafts and kayaks; our legs were ballasts and our arms, engines. I began these vacations by practicing an emergency protocol to follow if my kayak flipped: hold breath, slap the hull three times (for “I’m Okay”), untuck skirt at the front, summersault forward, and surface. The hardest part was learning to trust my lung capacity, not panicking, remembering I had plenty of time for what felt—when suddenly immersed in cold, darkness—like a complicated sequence. Above water, my siblings and I explored the bays, paddled along shore, found our own tiny islands. Life vests rendered us androgynous and buoyant. On a hot day, one of my half-sisters invented “raft jousting”—we balanced on the gunnels of two inflatable rafts and collided, trying to knock one another off. As the smaller party, I did most of the falling and soon learned to haul myself back over the gunnels.
animal / sympathies
I hold my breath while reading about accidents and decisions, while watching fictional crews maintain or break ultra-quiet mode. I make myself still and silent to observe each crisis. The dog sprawled at my feet has learned to ignore sonar pings, adapted to my obsession. Navies have used animals to safety-test and domesticate submarine interiors since the late nineteenth century, when submarines routinely kept a caged mouse onboard to monitor air quality—if the mouse keeled over, the crew would immediately surface and throw open the hatches. When wharf rats invaded Soviet submarines, many captains discretely adopted cats to tackle the problem. With limited wireless transmission capability during WWI, British submarines sent reports to shore via messenger pigeons, who doubled as mascots. And the U-boat that sank the Lusitania carried a dachshund, who had a litter of puppies at sea (though they were weaned and rehomed before the attack on the passenger liner).
Submarine designers, meanwhile, have looked to ocean animals for inspiration. John Holland, the inventor of what become the prototype for the attack submarine, mimicked the porpoise by putting a large diving plane at the “tail” of the Holland VI. As Jules Verne foresaw, witnesses of early submarine test dives sometimes thought the boats were strange and monstrous whales. For decades, the U.S. Navy named its submarines after sea animals—favoring predators, but also using edible fish and a few mythological creatures. Submarines, though, harm and disrupt aquatic life. While testing sonar’s ability to navigate around Arctic ice, Navy scientists discovered that a sonar ping resembles the mating call of a ringed seal; if a seal answered the ping, other seals and then walruses were likely to join in, generating a frenzied cacophony. In order to avoid alerting nearby Soviet vessels to their presence on future Arctic expeditions, the Navy redesigned sonar to be less alluring to seals. More troubling are sonar’s effects on whales. In the presence of active sonar, many species stop using their own echolocation capability to find food. Scientists theorize that the sonar sounds like a killer-whale and triggers an anti-predator response—if this stress reaction is prolonged, it may contribute to starvation. In extreme cases, a panicked whale surfaces too rapidly and dies of decompression sickness.
hunting / pronouns
In many ways, Moby Dick can be read as the mother of all submarine stories—a captain, haunted by past failures, becomes obsessed with locating and destroying an enemy vessel and drags the whole crew into a deadly game of cat and mouse. Many submarine movies show us both sides: the vengeful predator and the prey desperate to survive through flight or deception. The movies in which nuclear reactors begin to melt are emblematic riffs on Ahab’s will to power.
“There she blows,” the watch shouts when a whale breaches, but she becomes he in combat. No one wants to admit to killing a mother or imagining she might drown him. Submarines are similarly mutable in films. The captain’s own sub is she—an entity to be admired and governed. An enemy sub might also be she at first glance; but if the torpedo doors open, he, presumably the Captain, has blinked and the torpedo crew may be ordered to fire at him or them.
Can you endure solitude? Can I endure omnipresent risk? Are we equipped to survive this story? How does one sustain life in isolation? Amid shifting pronouncements and responses, how do we protect ourselves from invisible droplets and misinformation? How does a household navigate a world of currents and echoes? Can we trust the machines and protocols meant to keep us safe? Are we capable of holding one another’s lives in our hands?
In the driver’s seat, we approach the mixture of domestic and aggressive space that is a submarine. Identifiable by unique numbers on the license plates or hull, both vehicles can function as homes and weapons. On overcast days, cars resemble marine creatures; their headlights glow like the eyes of deep ocean animals, their taillights resemble spots or fins. In dark weather, I understand the impulse to name cars. My brother drives The Hulk. My older half-sisters christened their first car, a geriatric sedan, George. My own car remains stubbornly nameless, but greets me with a friendly chirp when I press unlock on the key fob. I am glad to hear it at night and suspect I will feel personally snubbed when the battery fails. I start the engine and let my brain assume a car shape, fill the space with music or news or silence. The car remains it, even as its momentum becomes an extension of my intent. Crossing the Wyoming–Nebraska border in a sudden downpour, though, with the wipers running at top speed, I say aloud, in terror, “we are under water.” As if the noise and blurriness made three (counting self, dog, and car) animals of us.
descent / psychology
A car is deadly, but small and mundane enough to identify with; it becomes a person’s or a family’s exoskeleton. Drivers feel they are in control, and the possibility of losing control—through hydroplaning or brake failure—is what terrifies. Then I could harm another car, kill a pedestrian, obliterate myself. At sixteen, I wanted to decline this power. My mother insisted I become capable of independent transit—in part because she wanted me to drive my younger siblings to and from school. I learned reluctantly to drive, then to appreciate a new autonomy of movement and thought. Going down steep hills or through heavy traffic still makes me anxious at times, but I have twice driven myself from Utah to Ohio and back. The expanse of distance unnerves me; it exposes hours and space for thinking. I think through my unease. Fear catalyzes awareness into something like power—dangerous, yes, but also, when harnessed, potent and useful.
A submarine is a vast container. Bodies held therein have surrendered the illusion of personal control; it takes a whole crew to operate a submarine. From the belly of the beast, so to speak, they rely on their vessel not just to move them through space, but to keep them alive in a hostile environment. At best, they are submerged in murky water. At times, they may be in the range of enemy torpedoes. And, while they depend on the submarine to protect them from the ocean, it could kill them with a malfunction. Should a submarine plummet to crush depth, its hull will crumple like a beer can (the default example in movies) from the extreme pressure. Before Swede Momsen pioneered the use of a diving bell for rescues in 1939, any submarine that got stranded on the seafloor doomed its crew to slow death by asphyxiation. Nuclear submarines are far safer than their steam and diesel forerunners, but contain the possibility, however remote, of a reactor meltdown and the prospect of being ordered to launch a nuclear strike.
Underwater, encased in metal, it grows difficult to maintain equilibrium. As we hear early in Das Boot, “now it all turns psychological.” Immersed in risk, the distinction between inner and outer worlds rarely holds watertight. Some leakage is inevitable, some audible drips as a seal is formed. Lacking an exterior perspective, our subconscious looms fearful. Echoes behave strangely, and hallucinations arise if the air supply fouls. Uncertainty lurks. This would be a good moment to quote Dickinson—“The Brain is deeper than the sea”—but she doesn’t fit anywhere in the naval hierarchy. Poems don’t compartmentalize well; they are vehicles for uncontainment. Submarines contain life by withstanding a whole ocean; our boat must stop taking on water in order to achieve neutral buoyancy at the correct depth.
Now sound becomes sight—and stealth, a weapon. A skilled hydrophone operator can read the engine noises of nearby vessels like human fingerprints and interpret changes in sound as changes in movement. A submarine might stalk another boat by gliding quietly in its acoustic shadow. The crew, meanwhile, adapt to the loss of sunlight and weather, maintain the wake-and-sleep rhythm of their assigned watches.
kitchens / conns
In part to make up for the sensory deprivation of living in a confined space, the U.S. Navy has long prided itself on providing top quality meals for submariners. Our lockdown-induced cooking obsessions replicate this strategy. During the Cold War, submarines used escape trunks to store vegetables, and their kitchens were equipped with ice-cream makers, super-efficient dishwashers, and cooks who scaled up recipes from their captains’ wives. Still, I doubt that a kitchen would ever be described as the heart of a submarine. The heart (or perhaps brain) of a submarine is the conn—both a place (the conning platform) and a duty (to have the conn is to hold sole responsibility for the sub’s movement); here signals are monitored, threats assessed, decisions made. Filmmakers like to stage arguments about right and wrong, skepticism versus obedience, etc. in the conn because the glow from all the equipment casts a dramatic light across everyone’s face.
I work from my parents’ kitchen, spreading my books and laptop across the breakfast island. Here, I’m immersed in chaos—generated by our four dogs, the comings and goings of my siblings, my father cooking a pot of minestrone soup “big enough for the Russian Army,” a pile of dirty dishes—and trying to hold myself apart from it. Amid my family, going unnoticed is a tactic for avoiding disruption. I take a corner chair and refrain from commenting. When a submarine is running silent, all self-noise must be reduced—even heavy footsteps and the rattling of cutlery are discouraged. In movies, the soundtrack will go silent, as if in sympathy, and so that we can hear the men’s ragged breath and the ping of enemy sonar. Often someone will drop a tool and someone else will catch it or fail to catch it—in which case it will hit the floor with a resounding clatter.
Daisy wakes and whines. On duty, I leap up to take the dogs out before anyone pees indoors.
Returning, I consider the kitchen again. Given the pile of charging cellphones, the chiming of the house alarm system whenever a package is delivered, and the constant surge of CNN’s breaking news alerts from the overhead television, the kitchen resembles a conn. Now that periscopes have been replaced by photonics masts, submarines monitor the surface through flat screens. Even our battle of the remote (I mute the news and my father unmutes it at regular intervals) is like a minor point of contention between two officers.
I drink coffee and attempt to think strategically. My mug has an old vacation photograph printed around it. My siblings and I are perched, all five of us windswept and happy, across two benches on a ferry. We squint into the light and stretch our arms around one another. My brother and one sister are giving us bunny ears, their fingers rising like tiny periscopes behind our heads. I can’t recognize the lake we are crossing but think we must be in Wisconsin rather than Ontario, an earlier trip, because my brother still has pudding-bowl hair. When we last gathered for dinner, we bore a fleeting resemblance to the selves caught here.
From Ohio, I miss the austere quarters of my apartment, where the blinds are drawn against the Utah sun and I can work uninterrupted for hours. In the mornings, I leave my phone silenced and my Wi-Fi unplugged and write by hand into the quiet—a kind of dead reckoning with thought and language. In the afternoons, I surface and search through oceans of data, following hints, checking definitions. This is how I navigate the world. Disinclined toward emotional compartmentalization, I divide time instead. I split my days into tasks; I spend semesters in Salt Lake City and breaks in Cincinnati each year. I am not sure anymore which is sea and which is harbor, but I continue to move between them.
Our minds are moored on the sea floor, waiting out danger. Or drifting into an unknown future.
interior / conditions
Surrounded by family, I try to keep my wish for solitude in perspective; modern nuclear subs are palatial compared to the early single-chamber submarines of the nineteenth century, but they are still sealed communities with rigid hierarchies and limited privacy. Diesel boats like the one in Run Silent, Run Deep were even worse. Hot-bunking—time-sharing a mattress with a crew-mate on a different shift—was common during WWII; so was sleeping in empty torpedo racks (as some of the crew do in the film). With a limited supply of fresh water, bathing was rarely feasible. And flushing the toilet could be a public and potentially hazardous business. The smells of engine fumes and the unwashed collective would be inescapable, even when the submarine surfaced to vent and obtain a fresh air supply. I would not function well on any submarine, expect perhaps Verne’s fictional Nautilus with its extensive library and wide windows. On land, I can slip out for a run anytime I want.
listening / spooks
In headphones, my ears are hulled. I wear them while running, keeping the music low, but letting it act as a kind of buffer between my thoughts and surroundings. Covering your ears creates the illusion of being less visible, less exposed to the rest of the world. Headphones facilitate selective listening—they are a way of ignoring the remarks of strangers, the whistles of men. I travel a few miles under music and then peel them off, let my sense of hearing surface.
Oceans of static filled the headphones of submarine spooks who listened for sounds of approaching threats and attempted to decode foreign transmissions. Spooks, or cryptologic technicians, were integral to Cold War espionage missions, but not to the crews of submarines. The ultimate inside-outsiders, they spent their duty hours in curtained cubicles and were discouraged from socializing with the crew to prevent them from accidentally sharing confidential information. Navy Intelligence reassigned spooks to new submarines after each mission to prevent them from developing loyalty to any one captain. Their work was tedious and crucial. Disembodied by sedentary hours and cut off from the comradery of the crew, they operated as ghosts and mediums—gathering auditory fragments and clues for Navy Intelligence to piece together.
women in submarines / films
If you watch and listen closely, there are three women in Run Silent, Run Deep. First, Commander Richardson’s wife, played by Mary LaRoche, who serves lemonade and small talk at an awkward first meeting between Richardson and his second-in-command. Second, the “lucky” pinup girl whose poster the men pat on their way to fire torpedoes. Third, Tokyo Rose, the English-speaking radio broadcaster of Japanese propaganda who startles and unnerves the crew by announcing that their submarine, the Nerka, has been sunk. Fourth, for my mother, the Nerka, who patiently, quietly, survives both external attacks and the conflict between captain and XO, and who carries the crew safely home.
Women officers began serving in U.S. submarines in 2011. Their integration, though largely successful, was shadowed by a scandal on the USS Wyoming; in 2014, twelve sailors were accused of using cellphones (which are banned on the Wyoming) to secretly record women in showers and changing rooms on a daily basis over the course of two patrols. Women submariners also appear in YouTube videos promoting the Enlisted Women in Submarines Initiative and depicting life onboard the Wyoming; they joke about poopy suits and describe their crew as a team, one cooperative and close-knit as a family.
Photographs of women haunt submarines. In movies, they are meant to humanize the uniformed crew—these daughters and sweethearts, these talismans stowed in lockers, framed on the captain’s desk—and to relieve the audience of responsibility for grief. We can observe mass death and leave the emotional consequences to the women whose faces burn in the aftermath of an explosion or float as water fills a compartment. If the sub is lost, it becomes a flooded home and the photographs are the scattered remains of a family album. Sometimes a battery leaks toxic gas and the families themselves appear as the hallucinations of dying officers.
submarines in movies / myths
Fiction grants us a periscope view, limited and refracted, but it, too, is a long-standing submarine tactic. Actors playing captains sometimes train on (and take honorary command of) commissioned submarines. U.S. admirals vetted Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October before its publication; after some debate, they decided to clear it, on the grounds that, since only two-thirds of the technological information was accurate and since the inaccuracies overstated the capabilities of American submarines, the novel (and later the movie) would help intimidate and deter the Soviets. On screen the early 90s are both real and fuzzy; all the actors are young, the special effects not as sleek as they would be today. Watching, I am pulled into the peculiar sense of déjà vu that accompanies movies made during my childhood. A familiar alienation. At first, I’m sure I’ve seen it before, then I’m sure that I haven’t. Then I think I’ve fallen asleep between my two half-sisters watching it during one of their visits with Dad—when Mom allowed me to stay up late—but this memory could be of any story with water and shouting.
The Odyssey, too, is a blueprint: the confident and flawed commander of swift black ships struggles ambivalently homeward, sometimes powered by the mysterious force in Aeolus’s bag of winds. The whole sea is enemy territory. It takes bravery and guile to reach safe harbor.
One of my sisters lives in Canada. The border between us is closed; we remain unsure when and how she might be able to visit home again.
nuclear options / reactors
A nuclear submarine has a potentially infinite range because its reactors power the sub and replenish its air and water supplies. A nuclear family is supposed to be a self-contained unit of parents and offspring. When my brother says he wants there to be a nuclear option, he means for there to be Trident submarines lurking out of sight and mind, waiting for orders to strike, a system of deterrence or vengeance. When my younger sister says she wants a nuclear event she means, for once, a holiday dinner with just the three of us and our parents, and not our half-sisters with their families and their mother and all the conflicting loyalties and stacks of dishes and unspoken things they bring in their wake. I too feel nuclear by New Years, and guilty. Instead of discussing this with our sisters, we try to parse their texts and silences for signs of resentment or appreciation.
I learned to read moods during the tail end of the Cold War—a toddler to my teenage sisters, who filled the house with noise and drama during their visits, who scolded me for not being ready on time or patiently read aloud to me for hours. Sometimes, for reasons beyond my grasp, they mutinied against our father, and my mother and I, afraid to listen, searched the backyard for fossils. Submarines, I see now, are like dinosaurs—older and vaster beings that might annihilate or precede us depending on how we understand them. Or how we accept our inability to fully comprehend them. My siblings and I love one another in our deep, wary, generous way. When we gather, we try to give off appropriate signals, to avoid collisions and misfires. Ours is a not-nuclear fleet with a powerful complication at its core, one that sustains itself as long as we protect it from overheating.
My favorite scenes in submarine movies are not the dramatic showdowns or the clever maneuvers, but the first dives. Inside, a calm, doublyscripted protocol unfolds. Outside, a rush of water engulfs the boat; everything is simultaneously turbulent and still. The dark hull blends in with the dark waves, but the periscope leaves a temporary white feather on the surface. Soon, we know, chaos will erupt within the sub. This sequence inverts and then matches my usual experience of outer quiet and inner bewilderment. And I like being reminded briefly of early submarine inventions, the ones that ran blind and awash like children learning to snorkel, bravely letting water sweep over their backs and hoping their air hoses wouldn’t be swamped by a sudden wave—surface creatures beginning to face the depths.
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CERIDWEN HALL is a poet, editor, and educator from Ohio. She completed her PhD at the University of Utah. Her chapbook, Automotive, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her work has appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, Pembroke Magazine, Tar River Poetry, the Cincinnati Review, and other journals.