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When you are assigned to your very first submarine, you are a non-useful body, or NUB. That’s just the way it is. To assist you in becoming acclimated to the subtleties of submarine life, you are assigned a more senior submarine-qualified sailor, forever referred to as your Sea Daddy. The Sea Daddy’s job is to make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there. He makes sure you pack enough skivvies for your first underway. He ensures you know how to flush the toilet, smash trash, fight fires, and stop flooding. And, if he’s doing it right, he makes sure you don’t embarrass him when you’re finally ready for your submarine qualification board test.

Upon successful completion of your qualification board, you earn your Submarine Warfare insignia — commonly known as dolphins — which are pinned to your chest by the Skipper. After a day or so of qualified shipmates checking to make your dolphins are on straight, your Sea Daddy presents you with a small chain lanyard with a metal piece at the end. This is an emergency air breathing (EAB) manifold dust cover.

The dust cover is a fitting that can be found on several stored-air manifolds located throughout the submarine. If there’s an accident requiring the crew to breathe stored air, sailors don special EAB masks, remove the dust cover from the nearest manifold, and then plug the mask’s attached hose into the manifold. When (and sometimes if) your Sea Daddy presents you with a “spare” dust cover, it signifies that you are no longer a NUB.

My Sea Daddy presented this one to me on May 3, 1988. Today, after 20 years of active duty and over 30 involved with submarines, there’s still no forgetting that first boat. I keep the dust cover with me as a reminder of those early years, and a signifier to those who recognize it that they’re dealing with a proud bubblehead. From the relationships formed to the personality of the boat itself, shipmates will agree — that first one is special.