It was fitting that my Father’s Day gift arrived in a small, Priority Mail shipping container. The Navy ballcap emblazoned with “USS Cubera, SS-347″ barely fit inside its tight, cardboard quarters. The snugness reminded me of the way her crew must have felt, tightly sealed inside the smothering, steel hull of the Balao Class fast-attack submarine as she patrolled the waters of the Caribbean and the Atlantic during the Cold War, her eyes ever open for any sign of danger from Mother Bear.
And of course, the cap reminded me of my father, which, I suppose, was the whole point.
The USS Cubera, or the “Cubby Bear” as she was affectionately dubbed by her crew, was an undistinguished boat which, as far as I know, never fired a single torpedo at an enemy vessel. Launched and commissioned near the end of World War II, the Cubera was, as they say, “late for the party.” However, during the Cuban Missile Crisis and beyond, she was one of many sonar picket boats which harassed Soviet trawlers and submarines as they passed near that island nation, teasing the U.S. with the threat of nuclear extinction.
Cubera’s most important mission came a few years before, though, in the 1955 B-grade science fiction flick, It Came From Beneath the Sea. She was cast as a “nuclear” sub sent to dispatch a radioactive, mutant octopus which had been forced out of Mindinao Trench by hydrogen bomb testing and was now threatening to destroy the West Coast of the United States, including the Golden Gate Bridge. Although the customized torpedo designed to destroy the creature found its target and penetrated the thick skin of the leviathan, it failed to detonate. In last-ditch desperation, the Cubera moved in at close range and launched two suba divers who then proceeded to finish the job. Amazingly, both divers survived (the octopus did not), and the Cubera sailed home triumphantly, having destroyed the surly cephalopod and thereby saved the world as we know it.
But most of the time, the Cubera skipped around the Caribbean and the Atlantic, alternatively running from and then stalking US destroyer skippers who were learning anti-submarine tactics as part of Task Force Alpha. In other words, she was a tackling dummy for the better part of her career. In 1972, the Cubera was decommissioned and sold under the Security Assistance Program to Venezuela. She was renamed the ARV-Tiburon (S-12). Tiburon means “shark” in Spanish, a step up, I suppose, from being known merely as a large member of the snapper family. In 1989, she met an ignominous end as the Venezuelans scrapped her and subsequently sold the metal and parts to the highest bidder.
In the early 1950s, my father was a 20 year-old grocery clerk who knew that his number was nearly up–his draft number, that is. Rather than risk being drafted by the Army and spending the winter somewhere near the 38th parallel, he opted for warmer climes and joined the Navy. His dimunutive size (5’5″ and 135 lbs sopping wet), high common sense quotient and mechanical aptitude marked him as a perfect candidate for the submarine service. He went on to graduate from submarine school and eventually attained the rank of Engineman 3rd Class. The next several years found him deftly negotiating the tight nooks and crannies of the fore and aft engine rooms, greasing, coaxing and cajoling the Cubera’s diesel power plant on toward maximum performance.
He often remarked that his time in the submarine service had been well-spent and that he had learned many life skills and lessons that had served him well. He also said that he would “never want to do it again.” Dad saw and did many things, among them Havana pre-Castro, where he discovered that the perfect gift for that significant other back home is an alligator purse, thoughtfully adorned with a shrunken reptilian head resembling a dried-up prune. He learned his way around engines of all types, and I can recall handing him tools in later years as he worked on his 1960 Chevy Impala, listening to his constant refrain, “Son, I learned this in the Navy–‘The Right Tool for the Right Job.'”
And, needless to say, there was the time the Cubera lost power and almost ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic, becoming a steel coffin and last resting place for her officers and crew–or so he said. I never doubted him for a second, but I have since come to learn that just about every “old salt” submariner has that particular tale in his repertoire. As a child I can remember listening in awe as he told that story. I always imagined him as the hero who saved the day, drawing and twirling his wrench like a gunslinger as he jumpstarted the dying, diesel engines at the last possible second. In my reverie, he would stand there afterwards, the whites of his toothy grin set apart by the grease which covered him from head to toe, the joyful cheers of his relieved crewmates echoing salvation from one end of the steel tube to the other.
My father met men of all backgrounds, creeds and colors, all of whom worked together for the common good of ship and crew. In the tight confines of a Balao-Class submarine, there was no room for prejudice and racial discord–survival trumped segregation. I’ve often wondered about his unnamed black shipmate in the picture. Who is he, is he still alive, what is he doing now and would he remember my father if he heard his name?
I believe that seeds were planted during those years, for a decade later, as the Civil Rights Movement grew to white heat, my father became a vocal advocate for racial conciliation among Christians in Southwest Virginia. I can recall visiting black Churches of Christ with my father as he became an ambassador of sorts who attended their gospel meetings, invited them to ours and opened the doors of conversation that he hoped would one day lead to one body, under one roof, for all of enternity.
But what I think my father valued most from his Navy experience was the department store clerk, a young lady with an eye for a guy in uniform. He managed to grab her attention one day as he sauntered down the steps to the toy department of the Woolworths in downtown Roanoke, Virginia, his “Dixie Cap” slightly askew in the cool and confident manner of a sailor who has seen the world and then some. Forget all those so-called “ladies” in the various ports of call! He had found his catch, and he pursued her as doggedly as the Cubera chasing a Soviet sub across the Cayman Trench.
As a child, I used to enjoy “playing submarine” by putting on my father’s service ribbons, dolphins and dogtags and donning the “Dixie Cap” he bought for me at the commissary in Norfolk one weekend when he was on reserve duty. Looking back, I realize that it was my attempt to connect with my father–to see the world through his eyes–as much as it was harmless, fantasy play.
Today, I’m all grown-up (or so they say), but it occurs to me that some things haven’t changed very much. As I don my new cover on my ever-balding head, in my mind’s eye I see a young, pint-sized sailor standing watch on the deck of the Cubera in the halcyon days of high adventure. An endless sea stretches out before him with unlimited potential, like the days of his life. He stands somewhat taller in that brief, eternal moment, long before the responsibilities of family and career settle him down and stoop his shoulders, an eon before heart and kidney disease cut short his journey and claim his life at the age of forty-seven.
He scans the lights of Havana, dancing like a million fireflies in a summer field, and a soft, tropical breeze blows at his back, gently stirring the sea, clear as crystal, at his feet. Then he sees her, and there is a glint from the water which pools in the corners of his eyes, a memorial font to the sweetheart who waits for him in the hills of Southwest Virginia. It is half past midnight in 1955, and if all is not perfect, then all is certainly well.