When I was in the Navy, the Powers That Be decided I was suited to a technical rating. I didn't agree but who was I, a mere cog in the engine of life, to challenge them? So I went along with it, faking it all the way.
When I enlisted, the recruiter (an archaic military term meaning "I lie like your ex-girlfriend but do it with sincerity") showed me a book which had blurbs (and pictures, I liked the pictures) about the various jobs one could have in the Navy. None particularly overwhelmed me, I was just interested in getting on a ship and going somewhere, anywhere. The recruiter was not happy when I chose "Boatswain's Mate" (by the way, that is pronounced "Bos'n's Mate" with a long "oh"). He thought I should have strived for something more important than what he considered "sea fodder" so he suggested I go in as "unrated". Which, ironically, is how I felt most of my life.
In any event, after a longish interview in Boot Camp on what was laughingly called "career day", it was mutually decided that I should be a Sonarman*. I say "mutually" even though I had no real say in the choice. That is one of the first important lessons of the military; the last choice you actually had was to enlist. After that, all decisions will be made for you. And you will be happy with them, regardless.
After Boot Camp (subject for another time, another post), I went through a basic electricity/electronics prep course (BEEP school in the parlance) and then was sent to learn how to be a Sonarman. In the Navy, the courses are set up as Lessons. At the beginning of each Lesson is a summary of what will be taught. However, it is clearly stated in this manner:
In this lesson, you will learn how sound is propagated.
In this lesson, you will become proficient in tuning the SQS-23 SONAR scope.
Nothing was anything other than an order. Therefore, you could not fail because failing was disobedience of an order and you could be sent to the brig for that. Or so we believed. We later found that it just meant they would not recognize gross incompetence and pass you anyway.
There is more to Sonar than just having a good ear, there is also the maintenance and repair of the electronic equipment involved. In school, they teach you all about the equipment, how to fine tune it and how to repair it when it (inevitably) breaks. What they don't talk about is the importance of the Magic Smoke.
You see, inside of every piece of equipment that has electrical components is something called "Magic Smoke". It is the secret to all electronic and electrical devices. I learned this once I was out in the fleet from the more experienced Sonarmen.
You could always repair, tune, or otherwise maintain any piece of electronic gear that retained its Magic Smoke. It was sometimes possible to repair equipment that had leaked a small amount of the Magic Smoke. A good technician was one who could tell by the amount of Magic Smoke that was released whether there was a Snowball's Chance (technical term) of salvaging the item in question.
The important thing to know, also, is how to be "somewhere else" when the Magic Smoke is released. This is not because the Magic Smoke is toxic, or harmful in any way to humans, but because you could not be blamed for its release if you were "somewhere else" at the time. You strived to be "nowhere around" at all times of trouble with the equipment. This was not only practiced within our particular group but within all divisions onboard. It was most amazing to learn that no one was ever around when something went wrong anywhere on the ship.
You could always tell when the Magic Smoke had leaked out. First, something would have stopped working. Second, there was that odor of burnt plastic or insulation in the air. Since the equipment was housed together in a room (ironically called the "equipment room", making it easy to find), one could wander around that room, surreptitiously sniffing the air for the strongest scent of it, to find the offending device. This impressed officers that might be getting in the way trying to look important and necessary.
You would then point at the equipment, announce that it was the culprit, and determine if it was safe to open it up. At this point the officer who followed you into the room would ask the inevitable question, "How long to repair it?" My standard answer was "15 minutes, sir." Followed quickly by "It might take several hours to find out what exactly needs to be repaired, though." This bit of humor was lost on officers who actually thought they had asked a rational question. Sometimes we told them we would have to replace the Magic Smoke and hope for the best, most nodded sagely and left after that. Do not laugh, these guys were college educated. You could not hope to fool the Chief Petty Officer, who barely got through high school, with that one.
Sometimes, when you screwed up and were in the vicinity rather than "somewhere else", you actually saw the Magic Smoke get out. This was bad. It meant that you might be responsible and that you would likely be tasked to repair it. That always seemed strange to me, why would you want the guy who broke it to attempt the repair? Didn't he just reveal his lack of competence?
Sometimes, the repair was simple. Simply replacing the component from which the Magic Smoke had escaped with a new component which still had the Magic Smoke safely inside was sufficient. The replaced component was then tested to see if it could be repaired also. The best way to do that, I learned, was to perform the "Float Test". This was done easily out at sea. You took the suspect component to the rail and dropped it into the ocean. If it did not float, it was deemed unrepairable.
I have probably violated all kinds of security laws by revealing these closely guarded military secrets.
* SONAR stands SOund Navigation And Ranging. The Navy loves acronyms. The military, in general, loves acronyms. This is because all titles, all names, are complex and lengthy and impossible to rattle off authoritatively. So, someone like the Secretary of the Navy becomes "SecNav" or the Commander of the US Navy Pacific Fleet is called "CINCPACFLT" (pronounced "sync-pack-fleet", and so on. Of course, we in the fleet always had our own names for these things, which were more descriptive but not acceptable in family friendly forums.
A Night Unremembered
2 years ago