|What Difference Does 6 Feet Make?
|What Difference Does 6 Feet Make?
by Mike Bailey
What Difference Does 6 Feet Make?
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I have always been fascinated (in a weird way, I suppose) of what the difference of a few feet
means to me and others in some cases. When things (as we see them) appear to be say 6 feet or
longer away from us, our body’s alarm system tends to be silent and only springs into action when
something or a place becomes closer than that to us or to something that we care about.
For example, when you walk up to the railing at an overlook at the Grand Canyon, all seems normal as
you are enjoying the majestic views before your eyes. All is well until you cross over that imaginary
6 foot line and come within just a few feet of the railing. Now that view that was just inspiring you
immediately turns to an alarm state as your body and senses scream out at you, “Freeze brother,
it’s a long way to the bottom!”
Consider the following from 50 years ago this month as another more detailed example of what
difference of a few feet can make. If you took 20 old metal outside trash cans, laid them on their
sides and all together in a row and then drug a heavy logging chain across them from one end of the
pile to the other, you might get the idea of what the sound was like that I simply describe
below as “clang.”
Clang, clang, clang, clang, clang -- as soon as the noise started reverberating throughout the hull of
my aging WWII submarine, the heartbeats of all the men onboard froze in time.
Snooping around in a black ops enabled diesel submarine -– one especially outfitted with the latest
high tech surveillance equipment the US Navy and NSA could come up with at the time – was reason
enough to be on edge or alarmed at various times while on patrol. This was especially true like when
snooping off the coastlines of Northern Europe. It was also true even while snooping around in
friendly waters like the sunny and ever beautiful Mediterranean Sea.
On this particular night, we were already on edge as earlier in the day, we had encountered an
overly aggressive fishing boat -- read that to be a fully qualified, equipped, and manned Russian
Over a period of many hours, the fishing vessel had constantly plotted and steered courses that
would put us in jeopardy of ramming their vessel if we didn't abruptly change our course
Generally, these taunting efforts by our known adversary in the waters of the Mediterranean were
almost welcomed as they provided for real-life scenarios of dangerous encounters and the possible
outcomes that could occur if things were not handled correctly or in a timely manner. Sometimes,
we even were close enough to see the faces of our counterparts and were able to give them a
friendly one-finger salute as we passed by their vessels.
By nightfall, we welcomed the darkness and the rain storm that had come upon us and thankfully,
had made the seas rough enough to encourage our friendly fishing vessel companion to leave us
alone and seek shelter in some nearby port.
Around midnight while cruising along at periscope depth with some of our high tech specialty
antennas deployed so that we could seek out and listen to and/or record coded electronic signals
and messages being sent by “anyone within listening range,” we had to make a sudden and hard
(make that full left rudder) change in our course.
Out of nowhere it seemed, an unlit and junky old cargo ship was bearing down on us and would have
rammed over us if we had not performed an emergency turn and dive to a deeper depth in the
water. While the cargo ship was not all that big and was probably running on some old dilapidated
motor that made it sound like a small, low draft fishing vessel, it would have caused substantial
damage to our sub if it had run over the top of us.
Not long after we heard the screws (propeller noise) of the ship pass away into the quietness of the
seas again, we heard the bone chilling noise that made all our hearts stop.
It sounded just like someone was outside our sub and was dragging a heavy metal chain across our
deck. Clang, clang, clang, clang went the ever louder noise with the sound of something touching our
sub changing to a higher pitch with each clang.
“ALL STOP … EMERGENCY BACK!” shouted the Chief of the Watch in the Control Room over the
communication speaker to the Maneuvering Room as he hit the collision alarm that immediately
filled the air with its high pitch sound that all onboard never wanted to heard while submerged.
Without hesitation, the men on watch in the Maneuvering Room slammed the motor propulsion
levers into reverse and immediately we could feel the whole sub shaking from the drastic change
in our speed and direction of travel.
The sounds of the chain-like dragging noise immediately slowed down but continued on at a much
slower pace as our sub came to a stop in our forward motion. The continuing dragging sound had
seemed to linger on forever in our minds as we all awaited the unknown end of our current situation.
Finally, all was quiet … no more dragging sounds could be heard.
“Maintain depth with no propulsion” was shouted out to the crew members in the Control Room by
the dive officer. All eyes were on the depth gage as the crew members on the trim manifolds
pumped out water or flooded water into special ballast talks that allowed us to basically just float
there in place under water.
“What the hell is going on?” shouted the Captain as he rushed over to stand behind the trim
Our Chief of the Boat was an old WWII Navy submarine sailor and he said in a clear and alarming
voice, “Sounds like we have snagged an old submerged tethered mine, sir.”
Our Navigation Officer upon hearing those words, immediately opened up a special container there
in the Control Room that had old navigation maps stored in it. He frantically searched for an old
one that showed our area of operation and found one dated sometime around 1944.
“Oh my God,” he blurted out, “That emergency course change caused us to enter into an old,
abandoned tethered submerged floating mine area that protected the harbor entrance here … one
that was supposed to have been cleared after the war was over.”
We all then immediately knew what our mysterious clanging dragging noise was and instinctively
knew that the noise possibly had deadly consequences if it continued.
The alarming noise was that of a chain of a possibly still alive (even after 22 years) tethered
floating mine that had snagged somehow on something on our outside structure and since the
tethering chain was secured to the bottom of the sea, we were dragging the mine closer and closer
to our sub with every foot of forward momentum we maintained.
Dead silence filled the Control Room.
“I need two divers out the forward escape hatch now,” shouted the Captain over the communication
speaker to the men in the Forward Torpedo Room. Within minutes, two special crew members with
scuba gear and a huge bolt cutter were inside the escape hatch enclosure, had the pumps going full
blast to flood it so once filled, they could then safely open a side hatch door and swim out into the
sea around us.
Twenty five heart pounding, agonizing minutes later, we heard the tap, tap, tap of one of the divers
signaling us with his dive knife that they were returning and all was secure.
As it turned out, we had entered the outer edge of the old abandoned mine area and had snagged
one of the outermost mines. Luckily for our divers, they didn't have to cut the chain on the mine
but only unhook it from where it had snagged around a loose railing on the side of our sail (upper
superstructure on sub that surrounds the Coning Tower where the periscopes are located). We all
about passed out when the divers told us that we had dragged the mine to within 6 feet of our sub.
Once free of our sail, the mine drifted back up to its original position above the sea floor. The
divers told the Captain it was clear for us to back up from our position and safely leave the area.
Of course there is no way of knowing what would have happened if we had not stopped the dragging
of the chain when we did but to this day, I am always thankful and keenly aware of what just 6 feet
in distance can have on our daily lives.