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.
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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.