Where Boats Go To Die

by Fred Weller

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
– W.B. Yeats

And sometimes, things must be torn apart.

Every day I commute by ferry to work, then take the bus across the shipyard. A few months out of the year, it’s still light enough to see the activity as The Yard comes to life. The other half of the year, the shipyard is a patchwork of darkness split randomly by sickly yellowish colored flood lights. Everything seems irregular and chaotic, at first glance.

It’s a incongruous mixture of old and new, clean and dirt. Activity and death.

The masonry buildings built a hundred years ago are always undergoing some seismic retrofit. Their aged, dark red facades are latticed by steel scaffolding. Bricks are missing, windows removed. Large green dumpsters are staged conveniently nearby. Most of the asbestos was removed long ago. So we are told.

Along the docks, huge cranes cast their imposing presence over those working below. They move slowly along specially designed tracks, looking much like a mechanical version of beasts from millions of years ago. But instead of lifting vegetation from the swamp, these creatures swing crates and pallets of machinery.

My bus stops by one of the newer buildings. It is an ugly grey and glass edifice, with all the character and charm of 1950s’ Soviet architecture. The office workers get off to take station at their cubicles. I know most of them are high-level GS workers, and make a lot of money. Some may have a nice view of The Yard. Perks of being in the Politburo. Still, you couldn’t pay me to work in a hamster cage like that.

As my bus bounces along, I can just barely make out the reason we’re all here. Next to the cranes, behind the old buildings are big holes in the ground. These are the dry docks.
Their operation is quite simple. A ship floats in, water is pumped out. The vessel rests on giant blocks / stands and scaffolding is constructed around it. Work begins.

We don’t build ships where I work. Folks over on the other coast do that. We are responsible for routine maintenance, periodic refits and upgrades.
And decommissioning.

The Navy calls vessels that sail ON the water ships. Those that sail BELOW are boats.
Never call a ship a boat, it tweaks those squids something awful.

The carriers and support ships rarely get decommissioned at our yard. The big carriers do get alot of TLC. Their silhouettes dominate The Yard when they are in port. The carriers fly their colorful signal flags, and their numbers are lit-up brightly on their structure. Like an all-seeing eye, their radar masts spin high above our heads. The thousands of carrier sailors clog the poorly maintained parking lots and roads. They are the Belle at The Ball, awaited on diligently by their attentive court.

The submarines, in contrast, sit low in their dry docks. You don’t even see them unless you’re right next to the boat. They are surrounded by pallets, forklifts and assorted machinery. The overall appearance is undignified chaos. Most times, The Navy uses this thick white plastic wrap to cover sensitive areas being worked on (almost always the propeller ‘screw’ is covered). Jarheads (Marines) are stationed at strategic locations, their rifles at the ready. You can’t miss the Marines. They’re the only ones in green, next to the friendly signs reading “Use of Force Authorized”.

The dry docks themselves serve multiple functions. Sometimes they’re your local doctor’s office for vessels. Other times they are urgent care. Quite often, they are the emergency room. Then they are hospice and the morgue. Euthanasia for the most deadly machines ever created.

I never know which boats are going to die. I’m just a supply guy, and it’s not in my job description to know such things. However, I do see them every day. It’s hard to place the exact moment when I can tell that the sub won’t be leaving again. The screw is removed from the stern. Those are Top Secret national security… things. Usually, I know the End is Near when you see those flashes of the cutting torches. They’re not bothering to hide behind that thick plastic sheeting anymore. It’s all over, but the cutting.

It takes a long time. Month after month, crossing season to season. The boat gets smaller. It is meticulously gutted, with all that “sensitive” stuff catalogued and shipped-off under armed guard. The grey paint on the exterior fades and oxidizes. I know at some point, a “Decommissioning Ceremony” is held. The former Captain and officers bid adieu. They get a plaque and a flag. They already have their memories.

I’ve known a few submarine crewman. It’s a helluva life, definitely takes a special person. They develop a love-hate relationship with their boat. The sub is an unforgiving mistress. Sometimes a bitch. You never take her for granted. ‘Til Death Do You Part.

Eventually, the sub no longer resembles a machine, but the carcass of a Leviathan. The curved metal support structures look like ribs supporting sagging skin. The workers that crawl over it, seem as ants dismembering road-kill. It’s hardly recognizable as a vessel any longer.

After the radiological and chemical geeks give the “all clear”, large segments of what was the sub are lifted out of the dock and placed on rail cars. That premium grade scrap will be unceremoniously carried off to somewhere, where it’s new owner will make a tidy profit. Building and maintaining killing machines isn’t cheap, and neither is the process for scrapping them. Trying to recoup a few bucks only makes sense.

Riding my motorcycle to work one day, I saw a chunk of sub sitting on a flatbed by the Main Gate. Someone told me later that the piece was being sent off to a playground somewhere. For kids to play on. Instead of “bringing home the bacon”, some Congressman was bringing home a hunk of old steel and titanium. That housed ICBMs. Cool, but at the same time, creepy as Hell.

I’m on the bus again, and the dry dock is now empty. But it won’t be for long.
I hear that the “City of Corpus Christi” is ready for the torch soon. The most ironically named boat in history.
And soon it will be history. As will we all.

Enough bus rides and we’re not watching the cutting torch any more. We’re in our own dry dock. Newer, better models are launched every day. Gotta make room.
Things fall apart, or are torn asunder. And anarchy is loose once again… just beneath the waves.


About the author:

Fred Weller has been a regular contributor to The Writing Forums for over six years. His works have included speculative fiction and prose, but his main body of work is focused on commentary and opinion. Mr. Weller has continued to post installments of his “Ponder the Unthinkable” series, instructing the casual reader in the details and importance of disaster preparedness.

Mr. Weller lives in Northwest Washington State, where he enjoys homesteading with his family, and working with his hands at the nearby shipyard. He finds his story ideas everywhere. Blessed by a rich and vibrant environment, Mr. Weller sees the opportunities around him, not on a screen, but in the real world.

While currently employed as a heavy equipment operator, previous careers include US Marine Infantry, Youth Counselor, Correctional Supervisor, Manager, and In-Home Service Technician. He has found the best stories include the best characters. And the way to write the best characters is to go out and meet them yourself.

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