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Subject to Change by Rudy Yniguez: Flasher on my mind

May 10, 2002

In October, it will be 22 years since I was honorably discharged from this country's Naval service. I wish I could figure out why it is that I find myself thinking about those eight years of active duty.

I guess part of it has to do with the interview I did with the principal deputy associate director for energy and environment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. Our discussion was not limited to the lab's proposal for helping the Salton Sea. We also briefly, very briefly, talked about Navy nuclear power and how the lab has hired a number of ex-Navy nucs. Two of those are friends of mine; if I can call them friends after not seeing them for many years.

Their names are Stevie Tanner and Billy Shea.

Tanner and Shea are two affable guys. Both are about 5 feet 7 inches tall, both have dark hair, both are married. Shea was an electrician's mate in the Navy, Tanner, an electronics technician. In nuclear power terms, Shea was an electrical operator — as was yours truly — and Tanner was a reactor operator. Of course, eventually even electrical operators become shutdown reactor operators. It was our senior watch station in port.

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There isn't much I remember about Tanner, except for one incident. In March of 1975, I caught up with the USS Flasher SSN 613 at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. She had just begun a two-year refueling overhaul. She was already in dry dock. Shipyard workers were everywhere. They were cutting huge holes in the side and top of the boat to remove some of the larger ship's components, including the two motor-generator sets, the main engines and the reactor top hat.

When one arrives aboard a new command, as I had, the first thing you do is begin engineering department qualifications. The first so-called watch station you qualify at is phone talker and site glass watcher. For about the next year or more you are continually studying to qualify at something, and before long you start your ship's qualifications, where you study fluid and pneumatic systems on the forward end of the boat.

Now imagine trying to do that while the boat is being ripped apart, when many of the important components are missing, along with the steel decking to walk on. Imagine the incredible noise as cutting wheels, grinders, air arc cutting and cranes are all in action 24 hours a day.

Well, I reached the point where I thought I couldn't do it, and I wanted to quit. I couldn't even think with all of that going on, let along find and study major and minor system components.

So one day while on duty, I told Tanner I couldn't take it anymore, and I was actually thinking of walking away from it all. I don't remember what Stevie told me, but after it was all said and done, I stuck it out and eventually made it through the overhaul and went on to become one of the senior electricians in the division.

Of course, at the time, Billy was one of the senior EMs. The funny thing about Billy is that, despite being smart — everybody in the nuclear power program is smart — he couldn't be trusted to work on a live electrical circuit because he would always get shocked. I remember once I was on watch in the maneuvering room and Shea informed me he was going to pull some meters from the electric plant control bench board. (The meters can only be pulled while the board is hot because there is no way to completely de-energize it.)

Well, it didn't take long before I heard Billy say "Ow, ow!" It was clear he was getting shocked. So I told him to get the hell out of my panel, which he did. I then told him to take over in maneuvering, and I went and pulled the meters. I loved Billy for his inability to work on live circuits, because, dammit, he would try, and would only give up when a junior guy, me, would ridicule him, forcing him to let me do it.

Despite my shortcomings as a reporter, I was always an outstanding electrician-mechanic.

Other outstanding electricians and shipmates onboard Flasher were Phil Madsen, who has the highest work ethic of anybody I know, along with Charlie Bouffard, a former nuclear machinist mate; Micky DePompa; Jeff Burnett, who is from Thermal; Howard Chang, who spent many hours re-teaching me motor theory so I could take advancement tests and the only Asian I ever saw in the nuclear program; and Brent Reeder, the smartest guy I have ever met.

Reeder was the only person on board Flasher who could fix the boat's variable frequency, variable voltage drain pump. Not even the factory rep could fix it. When my 1974 BMW 2002 ate a transmission bearing, it was Reeder who took it apart and successfully put it back together again. In both instances he had no need for a tech manual.

Of course, none of this explains why I'm reminded of these guys.

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