I always feel awkward in social situations with strangers. I guess everybody does. But for some reason when I find myself at that point, my reaction is beyond control: I start lying like a madman.
When I find myself getting self-conscious, I tell complete strangers that I was involved in some vague military operation where I was living on a submarine. I don’t know how this started. Before I can stop and think, I make a bunch of statements that I cannot walk back. The truth is, I have never even seen an actual submarine, much less been in one.
I am a big fan of pop culture, and when I was a kid, I watched old reruns of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” on a retro TV channel. What I learned from the show is all I know about submarines. Somebody asks me about myself and I say “well, I was in the military and spent a lot of time on board some big submarines.”
From that moment on, I am totally, irrevocably screwed.
Tonight it happened again, at a work party I almost didn’t attend. I made my usual opening statement and from that point on I was on my heels, scrambling for my life. In a state of panic, I tried to remember every detail about the TV show. Keeping it vague was the key.
“What branch of the military were you in? Did you serve in the Navy?”
”Uh, yes, it must have been the Navy.”
“You’re not sure?”
I often made a misstep of this sort, sounding uncertain, and from that point on, I was in the thick of it.
“Yes, Navy, yes. Underwater, mostly. I was most of the time under the water. Serving, I mean. I served underwater.”
Ridiculous. But then more questions, and it got worse.
“What did your submarine do?”
“Oh, not that much exactly. You know. Snuck around underwater, trying to spy on other people by getting into their own private water without them knowing about it.”
“Wow. You mean like the Russians? Did that work?”
“Well not mostly. Sometimes but generally they would find us with big ships on the surface and then there would be hell to pay.”
“Well they would start by dropping depth charges at us. They were like big barrels of toxic waste that would explode. But the enemy wasn’t very good with them, they mostly blew up too soon or too late.”
“What was your job on the submarine?”
“Me? Oh, uh . . . it varied. This and that.”
“Like give me an example.”
“Well, sometimes it was the, uh, the periscope. I was in charge of periscope stuff.”
“Like being a lookout? How exciting!”
“Yeah, but no. I mean, it wasn’t that exciting. And a lot of what I did was more like maintenance on the thing. Sometimes I got to look through it just a little bit.”
“How fascinating. Was it the mechanical stuff, like hydraulics? Or was your job computer related, like software programming?”
Red flag. I didn’t know anything about computers and I could shoot myself down in just seconds on that subject, so I tried for whatever else I could grasp.
“Oh, no, not computer stuff really. It was more like . . . well, lubrication.”
“Yeah, like we would grease up the pole really good so the periscope could go up and down and in and out, real smooth like. The captain, I mean the admiral, he would call me on the big bullhorn thing and he would say, “Private, get down here and grease this pole!”
“He actually said that?”
“Hell, yeah he did. He was really bossy. And old, with a grim look on his face all the time.”
“Did they call you a private in the Navy? I thought that was the army.”
“Hell. I don’t think I am supposed to comment on that. It might be classified information, actually.”
“Did your submarine have a name?”
Then I really stepped in it. “It was the Nautilus. No, wait, I mean the Proteus. It got – uh, it got changed.”
“What about torpedoes? Did you ever fire any of them?”
“No, no . . . I didn’t like to shoot at things. Still don’t.”
“So, you weren’t in battle.”
One guy turned to call to his friend. “Hey, Charlie! Come over here and listen to this guy, he is telling us some really interesting shit!” I winced.
“But people tried to blow you up with depth charges. Didn’t that make you mad?”
“I guess it didn’t at the time. It does now, thinking back, but the admiral, he was always so calm, it kind of rubbed off on the rest of us.”
A high-pitched voice came from behind me.
“Excuse me . . . just curious.”
I turned around and was looking at the top of a young woman’s head. She had to be five feet tall at the most. “What’s that?” I asked.
She looked up and smiled. She was pretty in a quirky, energetic sort of way, with long brown hair and eyeglasses shaped like birds’ feet. She reminded me of a cartoon character.
“Just wondering,” she said, “when you were on the Seaview, greasing the pole of the captain for that rock bottom base naval salary, were you on the movie version with Walter Pidgeon, or the TV version with Richard Basehart?”
“Uh, I, uh . . . well.”
I nearly dropped a depth charge in my shorts.
“Did you do some time on both?” She had the sweetest smile. She was skinning me alive.
The other two people I had been talking to looked on. One of them had an expression which told me he had figured out what was going on and was waiting for her to drop the anchor.
“Um . . . have you spent some time in submarines?” I asked.
“I actually live in one,” she said. “But same as you, I watched little toy models of them on television. Same – as – you.” With the last sentence she used her index finger to poke me in the chest, three times, once for each word.
One guy rolled his eyes and walked away. The other one didn’t seem to understand what we were talking about but he appeared to be losing interest.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“No, I don’t suppose. Not knowing what to say in strange social situations is probably your natural state.”
I tried to make a comeback, but was in uncharted territory. “Did you say you live on a submarine?”
“I did say that.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. I decided my best defense was a good offense. “Or maybe you fantasize your life inside of a Beatles song, the way I use the submarine TV show? Is your submarine yellow? Is your dad Admiral Halsey?”
The woman looked up at me with a big smile, and didn’t give an inch. “That’s two different songs, dude, and one of them technically is not even the Beatles.”
She had me completely at her mercy. After a long pause, she punched me in the shoulder.
“Don’t worry about any of this stuff,” she said. “Listen, you seem like an interesting guy. Weird, but interesting. Would you like to have a cup of coffee with me on my yellow submarine?”
It turned out, she did in fact live in a submarine.
However, it was what you would call in “dry dock”. It was sitting in the expansive back yard of a cluttered, junky, rundown old house on the west side of town. A nearby street lamp made enough light to maneuver through the junk.
There were old plastic milk crates piled up next to the sub. We used them to climb up to the top in order to get in. I said something about going in through the hatch. She giggled.
“It’s not a hatch, sailor boy. In America it’s called a sail, actually – in Great Britain, they call it a fin.” I hung my head. “Richard Basehart never went up there,” I muttered.
“This is my father’s property,” she said, standing atop the small vessel with the moonlight at her back. The breeze moved through her hair. I stood on the crates and admired her unusual beauty.
“What do you do if you are inside and somebody moves the crates so you can’t climb down to get out?” I asked. She laughed.
“Torpedo tubes,” she said. “Plus, they make good bunks.”
We descended the ladder into the old sub, which was actually nicely decorated. It showed the touch of a woman who went her own way. The floor was carpeted with old cloth flour bags, expertly sewn together in layers. She had fastened old record albums to the wall – not the sleeves, the plastic LPs themselves. There were dozens of them. They looked like shiny black portholes with labels.
“Looks like you have a near complete set of Herman’s Hermits on vinyl here,” I said as she brewed coffee. “Do you know how many middle names Peter Noone has?” I wasn’t sure she would recognize the real name of “Herman”, the front man for this sixties bubble gum rock group.
“I know that none of them are Herman,” she replied. Then she got on her tip-toes and kissed me. It was a quick kiss, but had some punch behind it. I staggered backwards a step.
“Peter Blair Denis Bernard Noone,” I mumbled, and she kissed me again, longer and harder. I managed to put the coffee cup down on . . . something . . . without dropping it.
“You are really a fan of 1960s pop culture, aren’t you?” she said softly. Her smile was overwhelming.
“This is the oddest . . . did you say your father owns this submarine? How did that come to be?” I was blathering. I realized as if for the first time that I was always blathering, I never stopped blathering. “I am very awkward when it comes to . . . situations with girls.” She was unbuttoning my shirt.
“I can see that,” she said. “My father was a junk man. He got this thing from the Navy Surplus somehow. I don’t really know. He died and my crazy stepmother lives in the house.”
“How fascinating,” I mumbled. She was starting to unbutton her own shirt.
“Yes, fascinating, isn’t it?” she said.
“I am really glad you came to that party; even though I ended up with you helping to make me look like a damned fool.”
She smiled and took the bird’s feet off her face. “Have you ever made love underwater?” she asked.
“I, uh . . . well no but we are not underwater – I mean, are we? And I need to tell you, I was going to tell you, I only have the one middle name.”
“I don’t even know your first name yet,” she said. She unbuckled my pants and they fell to the floor.
“I believe there is a name for the floor of a submarine,” I said. “But for the life of me, I don’t know what it is.”
Gently, like the explosion of an errant depth charge, she took me by the hand, and pulled me in the direction of the torpedo tubes.