What goes down must surely come up?

In my last post, I waxed nostalgic about a picture of me and my buddies standing in front of our newly constructed submarine.  The fact that the nearest water of any size was the swimming hole in the creek about a quarter mile away didn’t deter us one whit.  What mattered was that we’d created it.  My mom agreed to take the picture because, I am sure, she didn’t think it would ever be launched.  Little did she know.

The idea of building – something – was conceived one very hot summer Saturday morning in my back yard.  It was one of those days that dawns brassy and stays that way all day until you feel your eyeballs begin to boil.  Washington, D.C. can do that to you; and does every summer.  A bunch of us guys (no girls) were hanging around the little gazebo in the back yard that my dad had finally finished.  There were all sorts of boards, nails, glue pots, little metal thingies, and empty (or nearly so) paint cans.

We’d become really exhausted from jumping over boards placed on paint cans with our bikes and were now relaxing around an upturned washtub with cold water and a few ice cubes in it.  Warm bottles of Coke were trying their best to cool themselves in the tepid water.  I’m not sure which of us got the original idea, but suddenly we were all talking about how the paint cans would hold water.  We carried that even further to the end that they would also hold air and support a board placed in water.

This got us thinking along the lines of a raft or something like that.  We listlessly kicked around all sorts of wild schemes until one guys says “what about a submarine?”  There was the usual jeering but then died out as we thought harder about it.  We discusses all sorts of ways to make something like that work, but couldn’t come up with anything that satisfied the actual working premise of a submarine: it sinks, and then it comes back up.

The actual sinking was no problem at all.  Pull the plug and down you’d go.  It was the coming back up that had us stumped.  We must have sat around that galvanized tub for most of the afternoon before my brother, of all people, suggested that we use a hose and blow air back into whatever we use for flotation.  That idea had merit.

Over the rest of the afternoon we sketched plans on a pad of paper I brought out.  Some of them were pretty far out there, but a couple of them just might work.  Basically, we settled on a design with a frame of wood resting over tubs with paint cans for extra buoyancy.  We all trooped up into our bathroom to weigh ourselves so we’d know how much weight it was expected to carry.  My mom was concerned that some sort of mass hysteria had gripped us and we all had to pee at the same time, but we reassured her that all was well.  Mystified, she went along on her way doing mom stuff.

With absolutely no thought about how we were going to get this thing all the way down to the creek, we began construction.  One of us had found a really nice oval copper horse trough in a field.  It looked abandoned, so we appropriated it.  That became our central tank.  A couple more were liberated from their normal spots and pressed into service also until we had the big one in the middle and two further towards the pointy end and one somewhat larger one at the other end.

Disaster struck almost at once.  One guy, who shall remain nameless (not me, of course), began nailing boards across the 2×4 and used nails a bit too long.  Two of them pierced the tub.  After a little discussion (and a knuckle sandwich) it was determined that pine sap, melted and dripped into the little holes, would seal them.  We scattered into the little woods next to my house and brought home sappy sticks to melt.  Darned if it didn’t work.

Once the basic flooring was placed, we formed two oarlocks, one on each side, with huge spikes driven in at an angle to enclose the oars we’d filched from one of the guy’s dad’s rowboat (“aw, he never goes fishing any more anyway”).  Another guy’s dad was a plumber.  This was what we needed from him: some copper pipe, a shut-off valve, and some way to solder the pipes up.  He’d been watching his dad for years so he volunteered to do the soldering.  We watched in awe as he pumped up his dad’s blowtorch and drew a flame about three feet long when he first fired it up.  “Heh, heh, it’s a bit tricky at first.  Heh, heh” was all he said.

With only minor burns, and acid holes in our jeans, we finished the delicate piping that we would rely on for our submergence (and, hopefully, reemergence) gear.  It was also mentioned, and jeered at, that we may need some sort of air pump to get air back under the tubs (which were inverted).  This suggestion was pooh-poohed and he quietly slunk away.

Instead of a conning tower, we just stuck five 2×4’s vertically upward from the frame to hold on to.  During our planning stage, we went down to the creek and measured the depth of the hole itself.  At the most, it was twelve feet deep; and this hole extended approximately 40 feet in one direction and 60 feet in another.  A fine briny deep.  Since I was the tallest, we calculated that even if we grounded on the bottom, as least I would be able to hold my head up out of the water.  The others could chin themselves on the crossbars we put on the conning boards.

By now, my mom was pretty sure the two of us had gotten involved in yet another reason why she was finding grey hairs in her head every day.  We could see her watching us in the back yard while doing dishes or just tidying up the kitchen.  I think one of the reasons I am like I am today is that neither one of my parents really forbade us kids to do anything; at least things that weren’t really dangerous.  I’m sure that today, parents would have worried at the first hammer falling on a nail and rushed outside to ‘give us pointers’ on construction.  Maybe we were just lucky she was out shopping when Greg shot that flame across the yard.

Finally, we had completed the submarine.  It didn’t look like much, but, then, It really didn’t have to go anywhere either.  The creek current would provide the muscle to move us and we’d just guide it.  We have now arrived at the point at which my mom clicked the shutter.  When she walked back into the house there was a soft voice saying “hey, how are we going to get this down to the creek?”

“Ummm, that’s a really good question since I also see that the yard is enclosed by a picket fence and our sub is too wide to go through the gate.”  Opined another.

We kicked this around a while until I remembered that one section of the fence was removable.  My dad had done that so the tree guy could back his truck into the yard to plant a tree.  My brother and I went down into the basement and grabbed some tools.  Soon, a wide gap appeared in the fence.  Now, all we had to do was move the stupid thing.

This was accomplished by several guys running home and getting their wagons.  We managed to lift each edge of the sub and get a wagon under it.  Finally, we began pushing the whole contraption towards the creek.  Wagons, since they have steering wheels, tend to go whichever way they want to.  Amid cries of “wait a minute”, “hold up”, and “ARRRRRGHHH!” the beast was manhandled (actually, kidhandled) out of my yard, down the side of the little street, across a big field of grass, and deposited on the bank of the creek.  It only took us two hours to go about three of four hundred yards.

On our way down, we attracted the attention of other kids so, by the time we’d finally reached the hole, a crowd had formed.  We had a little help lifting it off the wagons and pushing it down the slope to the water.  Amazingly, it actually floated.  Dressed in our trunks/shorts/jeans we waded out with our last bottle of Coke.  When swung against the front 2×4, it exploded in a brown spray which cover all of us.  I’m not sure who got christened – us or it.

It was now time to try things out.  We pushed the sub out into deeper water until we were paddling along with it.  The slight current was taking us downstream, but not at an overly fast pace.  We hopped aboard and took our stations for diving.

Bernie popped the plug out of his aft tub and we could hear the air whooshing out.  We started going down by the stern.  My brother had a bit of trouble with his in the central tub but managed to finally free it.  We began to sink much more rapidly now.  When Peter pulled his two plugs on the bow we really dropped.  Soon, the entire sub was awash with the exception of the five 2×4’s sticking out from the deck.  We hung on to those as the deck sank below the surface of the pool.

Cheering rose up from the peanut gallery that had formed on the bank.  We all took a bow and then prepared to surface.  None of us had ever taken into account the physical fact that pressure increases when you go underwater so when we uncapped the tubes meant for us to blow air into the tubs we were immediately hit in the face with a blast of air as they released the last vestiges of trapped air below.

We huffed, puffed, and turned blue trying to get any air down those hoses and into the inverted tubs.  Nothing worked.  Finally, heads spinning, and gasping for air, we decided to give up.  The submerged craft rose slightly as each of us hopped off and into the water.  As it did, it also was pushed further downstream by the current until it lodged hard aground against the shore.  It was still underwater, but at least it wasn’t moving.

The crowd had thinned out to just a few kids with nothing better to do than watch a bunch of wet guys standing around holding a post mortem examination of what went wrong.  We managed to drag it higher on the bank and left it there while we went back to my house.  We never did come up with a way to force air down those hoses though.  About a week later, one of those huge thunderstorms that usually hit Washington in the high summer struck with a vengeance.  The creek began to rise and took our sub with it.  It floated down until it hit rocks which broke it up into small pieces.  All we found later was the four tubs and they were pretty bent up.

The owner of the horse trough was pretty bent up too and made us pay for it.



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