IN 1973 I was eighteen and on the Orion, AS-18
a submarine tender
tied to a pier at Charleston's Navy Base.
Assigned to and trained by Radiological Controls,
'RadCon Division', one of my duties was weekly,
surveys, radiation, of every deck and hall
and hold and crevice of the craft.
We serviced nuclear subs. Repairs performed by
our sailors sometimes incurred some risk
of Cobalt 60 contamination—crud from reactors.
Crud, we called it, crud going afield, tracked back
to our ship. Mishaps never happened.
I was, however, that kid, gung-ho to make a great
rank-increasing, radiation-astray discovery;
preferably leading to major fallout.
During radcon surveys, boring, always
in the small night hours of Orion's workshops,
departments, lockers, holds, in impossible places,
I thought, 'Where will I find my fame?'
So it was I, with a standard detector, who found
our ship's foundry had on board a load of mold-
makers' sand bearing uranium ore.
Emanations tapped the meter
needle. I showed this result to my RadCon shipmates.
They thought it interesting, mildly, glad they worked
not in the foundry.
On the particular survey, the point of
this recounting, I entered the closet-sized Watch Repair Shop.
Our ship was commissioned in '43.
On the steel wall was a time-only clock in a black case
with a swing-open, round Bakelite-rimmed cover glass.
The face bore an anchor and 1943, the date of commission,
a radium dial—noted
this sentinel, ticking off figures.
I thought. I opened the bezel. I presented the detector probe to the face.
Beta particles pegged the meter. I closed the clock and
wrote a report.
My boss directed, "Bag it. Take it to DeCon", the decontamination room.
That place was a pit in Orion's bowels. DeCon, a watertight, airtight
compartment, from which nothing untoward ever escaped. DeCon
swept by slight negative pressure to contain and catch any airborne mischief.
"Absolute filters", which were just that, discharged Decon air
from atop of Orion's tallest mast—a system to stem
bad acting results.
With my prize of pride, that clock, yellow-bagged, I scampered down
to DeCon. With my mate Walter Crowe in observance, I prepared to plunk
the clock in a drum, wherein all hot waste, cloth wipers and widgets were
stuffed for eventual transport
to be buried in Utah.
"Walter, this is the hottest thing I've ever found."
"How bad can that be?"
So I unbagged the clock, opened the glass, reached for the AN for the last-rites
reading to convince incredulous Walter
all of hell expelled WHOOP WHOOOP WHOOOOP
through every loudspeaker horn aboard.
Orion's global radiation alarm; the key sensor in DeCon's air exhaust
flue scanning all manners of radiations; hadn't heard this siren before.
What had happened? Radon gas, a whiff,
from the clock upon the bench.
That glowering face at decommission caused instant lock-down of ship operations
fifteen minutes defluxed for six hundred men. One hundred and fifty were lost !
—lost man-hours of time.
I flew the ladders to the RadCon chiefs' office—word to my superiors.
Chief Woods looked as if he might chop me.
He paused, didn't soften, barked:
'Welch, don't do that ever again.'
And so—the end—a shame, to bury that clock;
in its way, the wiser watchman.