Don't Need No Stinkin’ Badges
From C-C-Cold War Syndrome
Moments after being almost welcomed with a laurel and a hardy handshake, the new sheriff, who turns out to be black, is about to be gunned down by the assembled townsfolk. The quick-thinking sheriff draws his own gun, sticks it under his chin, takes himself hostage and drags himself out of danger. Sheriff Bart lives to fight another day.
You may recognize this as a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles, starring Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart. It’s showing in a movie theater so exclusive that only eight of us have been allowed in to see it.
As the scene plays out on the screen, the whole theater abruptly tilts 30 degrees to the right. Then it shudders and rolls in the opposite direction to a point 30 degrees off kilter to the left.
The setting is the wardroom of an American nuclear-powered submarine 60 miles out of New London, Connecticut, and headed further out to sea. The sub, an attack boat 365 feet long, is on the surface and rolling like a proverbial log. It will be another 40 miles—sometime around midnight—before it clears the Continental Shelf and is able to dive to smooth water.
Two of us, both P-3 pilots assigned to naval intelligence in the Pentagon, are in the first few hours of the week we will spend on board as special passengers, along for an indoctrination ride. Having often exercised with American submarines and tangled with Soviet subs from the air, we are here to learn more about the operating capabilities of these most elusive of “adversaries.”
Neither of us has been to sea on a submarine before and both of us, accustomed to the limitless spaces of the wild blue yonder, worry that we might not be able to survive an entire week in such confined quarters with our sanity in tact—that we might literally go bonkers, suffering claustrophobia-induced nervous breakdowns that might reduce us to pathetic, whimpering, quivering masses of spineless jellyfish. We share horrific visions of being carted ignominiously away in straight jackets, babbling incoherently, when the sub eventually returns to port.
Happily the first thing you notice inside a modern, nuclear-powered American submarine is not how confined, but how roomy it is. The hull is roughly 30 feet in diameter. There are four decks. You can stand in the engineering spaces and, through the steel mesh flooring, see other decks below you with machinery running and people working down there.
Not that the “walls” never close in. During dives, we’re told, the steel hull actually compresses to a measurably smaller diameter. A rope tied taut between opposite bulkheads while on the surface will droop noticeably in the middle as the ship descends to operational depths.
Further forward the ship’s decks are covered in linoleum tile and the walls in simulated wood paneling. You feel as though you’re walking around in a very large mobile home. Which, come to think of it, you are. It’s just that outside this one, there’s a big flood all over the place, wherever you look.
Of course, the only time you can look is when the periscope is up or when the sub is on the surface and you’re invited to climb the 30-foot ladder that ascends to the top of the sail from within. What an incredible view it is from up there, especially when the ship is underway at night. Looking down, you see the water slipping over the top of its massive, round black hull, most of which is riding just below the surface.
All around you is the sea, dark, cold and uninviting. You’re acutely aware that the nearest land is straight down, some hundreds or thousands of feet below. There is nothing but the occasional cloud to obstruct your view of the stars. Sometimes, the lights of a ship appear on the distant horizon as a single white spot. And you know that, while you can see that ship, you are completely invisible to it. You also know that, anytime you want or need to, you can just close the hatch, “pull the plug” and go deep. It makes you feel invulnerable, as though you own the entire ocean.
Back in the officers’ wardroom, Blazing Saddles blazes on. Led by a nitwit named Taggert (portrayed by Slim Pickens, whose character in Dr. Strangelove, a cowboy B-52 pilot, ends up riding an atomic bomb like a bucking bronco as it plummets to nuclear oblivion over the Soviet Union), the bad guys sit around the campfire eating beans and depressurizing in manly, if inharmoniously, musical fashion.
We’re eating too. Snacking, anyway, from a large silver bowl that the wardroom mess specialist (who would have been referred to as a steward not so many years ago) has filled with mixed nuts and placed in the center of the wardroom table. It is the same table at which, an hour or so before the showing of the film, we had taken our first on-board meal—an experience worthy of mention.
The wardroom is large enough to seat only eight officers at a time. Because there were 12 officers on board, dinner was served in two sittings. My companion and I were in the first group along with the ship’s commanding officer.
Now protocol dictates that the C.O. is the last to arrive. The other officers stand behind their chairs around the table, which is laid formally with china and silver on linen, awaiting his entrance. The seat at the head of the table is reserved for him. When he strides into the room, everyone comes to attention and holds that position until he pulls out his chair and says something like, “At ease, gentlemen. Have a seat.”
At least it works that way when the sub is submerged and the going is smooth. But on this occasion, we’re still a log on the surface, rolling dramatically left, right then left again. It’s a wonder we have appetites at all. Additionally, the wardroom steward is a rookie. He has yet to learn the Navy way to set a table aboard a ship operating in heavy seas. It’s simple. You just spill a little water on the tablecloth, creating a wet spot wherever something is to be placed. You also fill cups and glasses only halfway so their contents don’t slosh out. Our rookie steward has set a dry table.
Precisely at the moment when the door swings open and the C.O. enters the wardroom, the ship rolls hard to the right. Everything on the table—china dinner plates, soup bowls, cups, saucers, glasses and silverware—slides rapidly “downhill,” heading for the skipper’s unattended place and ultimately for the deck. Rather than coming to attention, all of us dive headlong over the backs of our chairs to corral the runaway dinnerware. We succeed, but end up all cattywampus across the table. At first bemused and then amused, the C.O. shrugs his shoulders helplessly. “So much for formality,” he says. Then we all sit down, wet our places and redistribute the dishes.
In Blazing Saddles, Governor William J. Le Petomane (Mel Brooks) tends to the “affairs of state,” mainly his affair with Miss Stein, his generously-implanted secretary, whose office attire consists only of a demi-bra and panties. Meanwhile his attorney general, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), plots to take over the peaceful township of Rock Ridge. Somehow this is reminiscent of the Soviet threat to world peace as personified by its “blue water” navy, now deployed at great distances from Mother Russia. Ironically the submarine in which we are watching the film serves much the same purpose in the real-world context as does Sheriff Bart in the film as he struggles to defend Rock Ridge from its external threat.
Almost as ironically my aviator colleague bears an uncanny resemblance to Mel Brooks, so much so that I have always called him “Mel.” Watching Blazing Saddles with him sitting at the same table is like watching Governor Le Petomane watching himself on the screen. Our Mel only wishes he had a secretary like Miss Stein.
Madeline Kahn plays the part of the Bavarian Bombshell, saloon singer Lili Von Shtupp. Working for Hedley Lamarr, she attempts to seduce Sheriff Bart. But when she asks him, “Is it twue what they say about you people?” then proceeds to reach into his pants to check out the angle of his dangle, it is she who is smitten.
Which provides the perfect segue for a description of “angles and dangles,” the most exciting evolution we will experience during our sub ride. When submariners practice emergency dives and emergency surfacing, at least some of them call it doing “angles and dangles.” Because these drills involve diving at a 30-degree down angle and racing to the surface at a 30-degree up angle, the first step is to put away all the dishes and everything else that’s adrift. Crewmembers must find something to hold on to. But what makes this exciting for us is that “Mel” and I are invited to take the controls, basically to “fly” the ship.
The controls are like yokes in an aircraft. There are two of them—one for the sail planes and one for the rudder planes—situated side by side. Under the watchful eye of the C.O., a team of experienced crewmembers does the critical work of directing water or air into the ballast tanks to cause the ship to rise or sink on demand. But “Mel” and I are manning the yokes, controlling the sub’s up or down angle by moving the planes. During the emergency ascent, the 6,500-ton submarine rises so rapidly and so steeply that it literally shoots bow-first out of the water, then plunges back heavily onto the surface, its oscillations eventually dampening out. What a rush!
The emergency dive is a completely different sort of adventure, especially for a couple of pilots more familiar with the handling characteristics of aircraft. We’re holding the planes in position to maintain a 30-degree down angle. The depth gage is unwinding rapidly. If we dive too deeply, the sub will be crushed like an empty beer can by the powerful and quickly increasing water pressure. As we approach our assigned depth, the C.O. directs us to level off. We draw the yokes back gently, as we would pull an aircraft out of a high-speed dive so as to avoid overstressing the airframe. Nothing happens! The depth gage continues to unwind as before.
“No, No!” shouts the skipper. “All the way back in your lap!”
When we do that, the sub finally levels off. We are duly impressed that it’s a much different world down here.
The movie goes on. Hedley Lamarr recruits an army of dregs—“vicious criminals, bushwhackers...Mexican bandits and Methodists”—to flush the frightened townsfolk (all members of the Howard Johnson family) out of Rock Ridge. When he offers badges to the Mexican bandits, one of them responds, “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”
But unlike them, we do need stinkin’ badges. Our jobs in the Undersea Warfare section of the Navy Command Center in the Pentagon require special stinkin’ badges to get in. And on board this submarine, we must wear another kind of special stinkin’ badge, one that measures our exposure to stinkin’ nuclear radiation. It seems an overly conservative precaution—that is, until we are invited to view the ship’s nuclear reactor in operation.
Incredibly you just peer through a small round window, made of something like thick Plexiglass, and there they are, the reactor’s control rods moving slowly up and down in the heart of its white-hot core. We take turns looking through the sight glass.
“Wow,” we exclaim in turn.
Then our guide speaks. “They tell us there’s not much danger in looking into the reactor like that—unless you do it too long. So we tend to avoid doing it at all.”
“Mel” and I exchange fretful looks.
“They say only the spherical body parts are at risk,” our escort explains. “If you’re overexposed—even for a second—the ‘sphericals’ tend to shrivel up and detach from your body within 72 hours. So if your vision starts getting blurry or if you notice any shrinkage down below in the next day or so, tell the doc. He can’t really do anything, but he has to file a report of some kind.”
We gulp, we involuntarily check to ensure that our lower spherical body parts are still there and, from that moment on, we keep our upper spherical body parts glued to those stinkin’ radiation badges.
As Taggert and his army of bushwhackers, Mexican bandits and Methodists ride toward Rock Ridge on their mission of destruction, Sheriff Bart and his sidekick, the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), help the residents create a diversion. They hurriedly construct a mock-up of the town, buildings made only of false fronts, several miles away. The bad guys fall for the trick and are blown to bits by dynamite buried in the streets when they arrive and start shooting up the fake town.
Another irony. This is an old Russian trick. Two centuries ago, moveable false-front towns called “Potemkin Villages” were erected along the banks of the Volga River to mislead Queen Catherine. Their purpose was to make her believe as she cruised past them that conditions in her domain were better than they really were. The Potemkin Village mentality persists in Russian culture to this day, surfacing within the Soviet military as fake hardware—cardboard tanks, phony artillery, even inflatable submarines—all intended to fool our spy satellites. But they have plenty of real hardware too, including plenty of real submarines, which the ship we are now on board is training to fight if necessary.
At the end of Blazing Saddles, after Rock Ridge is made safe for all the Johnsons—Howard, Van, Dr. Samuel and the rest—Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid ride away on horseback, heading west. When they reach the edge of town, they dismount and climb into a waiting limousine, which whisks them off into the sunset.
The end of our weeklong submarine voyage is somewhat similar. Within the space of a few hours, we travel both beneath and on the surface of the water, then by minibus, by air from Groton, Connecticut, back to Washington, then by Metro-rail from the airport to the Pentagon, and, finally, the rest of the way home by car. Sheriff Bart, eat your heart out.
We’ve gained a priceless appreciation for what the U.S. Navy’s submarine force can do. The Soviets would be wise not to mess with them. And, I’m happy to report, our brief exposure to life inside a sealed, seagoing steel tube has been a comfortable, even enjoyable respite from the workaday Pentagon routine. Maybe that’s because we knew we’d be going home after a week. Those who spend months—and ultimately years—in such an environment might have a different perspective.
But most importantly as far as we are concerned, “Mel” and I get home with our sanity and with all of our spherical body parts intact. Thanks in part to those stinkin’ badges.
In 1923, the American submarine S-1, carrying a disassembled seaplane inside an on-board tank, assembled the plane and launched it by submerging the submarine. On July 28, 1926, the same submarine surfaced, launched and recovered a seaplane, then submerged again.
—Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
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