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Silent Service

Updated: May 20, 2021

Every so often someone asks about the Zippo in my pipe photos. Most photos of pipes for sale include something to give an idea of scale. Is there anyone who doesn’t know how big a Zippo is?

I am fond of Zippo lighters. Their only failing is that the hinges wear out eventually. They are rugged and inexpensive; they always work, even in wind, and they are attractive in a purposeful sort of way. They are historically significant, they are still made right here in Pennsylvania, and they are guaranteed for life.

I’m also fascinated by submarines, have been since I was a lad. One of the first movies I recall seeing — I don’t need to specify “in the theatre” because there WAS nowhere else to see a movie — was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I remember seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Love Bug too, but meh. That submarine was badass. I read Lowell Thomas’s “Run Silent, Run Deep," which started me working through all the books on submarines in the public library. The more I learned, the more intriguing and terrifying submarines became. When I discovered nuclear sub Zippos, a small collection resulted.

So you can imagine my delight when, on a chamber music tour some years ago that took me through northern Virginia, I wound up staying at the home of a retired commander of a fast attack nuclear sub during the cold war, who rose to the rank of Admiral in charge of the Pacific fleet. I had read about him.

Of course, I was bursting with curiosity, but understood that most of what a nuclear sub did couldn’t be talked about, ever, and the Admiral was practiced in parrying anything that might possibly be a question. His service had been fairly uneventful, he said. Nothing memorable. I thought maybe his interview with the formidable and unpredictable Hyman Rickover might be unclassified, but he said he didn’t remember it being particularly interesting.

His wife, however, had no security clearance, and was free to talk about a life where her husband would simply disappear for months at a time. It would not be until the boat reappeared at the dock that she knew he was alive. In fact, she spoke at length of waiting with the families the day that Thresher was scheduled to return from patrol and never did. I had read all about Thresher. I already knew the Admiral’s name because he had been the young commander in the simulator as the investigation team ran scenarios trying to figure out what had happened. And there he was, sitting across the coffee table in his living room. It was useless to ask questions, though. Rude, even.

Perhaps sensing my quandry, the Admiral’s wife leaned forward. “You know, we never knew where they went or what they were doing, and he hever talked about it. Once, when he returned from patrol, I asked him if, fifty years from now, he would tell me where he had been.”

“He said, ‘If I remember.’”

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