Q: When did you start as a submarine tour guide?
A: It was the spring of 1994. I had moved to Portland, Oregon, and was living in a basement and having my first Northwest winter. I was looking for a job and having no luck, when I saw this ad in the paper that said “Submarine Tour Guide.”
I remember I wrote this cover letter that said I come from a family of fishermen and I’ve never lived this far from the sea …
Q: Is that true?
A: Well … Not necessarily, but this job just seemed so weird and dreamy …
They called me in and there were dozens and dozens of applicants, most in their early 20s. I remember I was in the interview room with two guys who were physics majors and they were talking about ballast and buoyancy and nuclear reactors and I don’t even know what.
Then, for the interview, they started asking me what I knew about subs and I was like, “Well, they’re neat … And they go under the ice caps …” I didn’t even know if they did go under the ice, but I guess I have a voice that carries well.
Q: Did they give you the job that day?
A: No, it was weeks and I’d written it off and then, suddenly, I was in. It was a full-time job on this decommissioned Navy submarine that had been in use up until a few years before.
The sub hadn’t opened yet, though, and there was a massive crew of volunteers working to get it ready in time for the opening. All of the new tour guides got to go to the shipyard and see them working on it.
Q: Was there a reason it didn’t look the way it did when it was decommissioned?
A: When it was decommissioned the Navy took everything out. So they were putting in stuff from all sorts of eras, whatever they could find. Some of the staff were really into it.
Q: How many of you seemed to know a lot about submarines?
A: I’d say about 75 percent of us knew nothing.
Q: So how did you learn about submarines?
A: Before the sub opened we had a whole crash course where we learned as much as we could.
Also, the opening was a big thing in Portland; there were all these events and gala openings and all these sub vets were there. It was a great opportunity to just start talking to them. Within the first week, we’d amassed all these great stories.
Like the guy who tried to smuggle a goat on board, or the guy who flipped out on patrol and tried to make the sub emergency-surface, or ways guys would try to improve the smell on board.
Q: So the job was pretty interesting?
A: Once I mastered the basics of the tour, I was pretty quickly getting bored. I gave eight to nine tours per day and it just seemed so locked in. I started thinking, “I can’t keep doing this.”
There was a pivotal moment for me, though; invariably, one to two people per day would say, “How do you know all this? Were you in the Navy?” and they’d be disappointed that I wasn’t. I felt a little insulted. I learned all this stuff. I didn’t need to be in the Navy.
But there was this one woman whose face just fell.
So the next time someone asked if I was in the Navy I said sure. And they loved it. I started by saying I was just in the Navy, then eventually I said I was on subs.
Q: Were you ever the cook?
A: Maybe a couple of times. I think most of the time I was the junior quartermaster. It was basically the mellowest, most entry-level job. Sometimes I’d say “sonar,” but that was kind of advanced.
Q: Did anyone ever call you on it?
A: I don’t think anyone ever called me on anything. I used to think I was getting away with it, but later I wondered, “What would it take for me to call someone on something in this kind of situation?”
Q: What were some of the most commonly asked questions?
A: Where are the windows? Answer: There are none.
People would ask about its history: Was it in combat? It wasn’t. Though most of its service was through the Cold War, so it could have been involved in activities that have yet to be declassified. That’s what we told people.
It was in Vietnam, but it never fired a shot of anger. (That’s the official expression.)
Another top question: How long did people stay on board?
Between three and six months is pretty standard on most boats. This was not a nuclear sub, it was diesel-electric. Because of that, it spent most of its time up near the surface. Any non-nuclear sub is like a giant Prius. It either runs by storing power in batteries or by running on the engine. So, during the day, it might be down under the water and go three to four miles per hour, which is really slow, and then at night it would come to the surface and run on the diesel engine to recharge the batteries.
A nuclear submarine is nuclear-powered and basically has years and years of fuel on board. It has the technology to desalinate the water and make oxygen, so the only limit on how long it can stay at sea is food.
Our sub’s big claim to fame is that it was one of the stunt subs in The Hunt for Red October.
Q: Is the sub still there?
A: Yes. It may be the best place to work in Portland. It’s right on the water, a beautiful location. At night you’d see all the little boats with lights …
Q: Why did you leave the job?
A: By the end of the summer I calculated that I’d done over 1,000 tours. Or almost 1,000 tours. Basically, the situation in the house where I was living was getting so that I needed to move, so I had to decide if I wanted to stay in Portland …
When I decided to move out of Portland, I thought I’d do a tour of the country to try to figure out where to live. I didn’t have any real reason to go anywhere, but I thought I’d use the chance to view all the subs on tour throughout the country. I thought, “I want to see what the other sub tour guides have to offer.”
So I set out on this odyssey. At first I saw a bunch. Of course San Francisco, then the Upper Midwest, a little one in Omaha. Almost all subs on display are World War II subs that are the same model, so once you’ve seen one or two you’ve seen them all.
I saw one in Wisconsin that was probably my favorite. It had seen action and had bullet holes, and the guy doing the tour was very military. Our tours were always very science-based. But this guy was like: (in gravelly voice) “The gunner was over here, there was hot lead hitting the deck …” Things like that.
Eventually, I got to the one in Cleveland, and it was like 8 o’clock Sunday morning in early October. I’d been on the road for a couple of weeks and when I got there, there was a sign that said “Closed for the Season.” It had just closed the day before. That sort of stopped my quest.
Q: How many subs are on display in the U.S.? Hundreds?
A: No, no. Maybe 23 or 24.
Q: Have you been on a sub recently?
A: Maybe four to five years ago I went back to the one in Portland. I’m over it, though. It was both too different and too familiar.