The Godlike Power of Engineers

Authored by: Jim Allen  former U.S. Army engineer

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I once served as an engineer in the U.S. Army's navy. During that time, the engine room crew of a particular vessel, one that shall remain nameless even though all it wore was a number, discovered an almost Godlike power. Nothing as mundane as life or death. Oh no! We controlled the heads! While servicing the pump that supplied raw water for flushing, we discovered a peculiarity in our vessel's plumbing. When air was introduced into the pipes, it would circulate to certain sections and lie in wait for the next flush. When it reached the short leg between the main line and the valve at the bowl, the bubble of compressed air had a tendency to send the material in the bowl up, rather than down when the head was flushed. After the first unfortunate "incident" we discovered that we could artificially induce this phenomenon at almost any of the vesselıs numerous heads. After swearing a small group to absolute secrecy, a number of grudges were settled against members of the deck department, and others. I have to admit, we went a little crazy.

We began a month-long research project on the ways people flush heads. We learned that some people flush while still seated. Some flush while leaning over the bowl. Others use their legs. Some begin to fear the flush and surely we hatched a strange phobia or two. Not totally trusting each other, we all carried cut off broomsticks for flushing, which were explained away as insulators for electrical work (damn, those deckies were dumb!). Our Chief Engineer and Bull Oiler, not a part of the inner circle, began taking regular high-temperature roastings from various members of the deck department, and the Skipper. Yes, the engineering staff's apparent inability to properly bleed the lines resulted in an increased amount of strife between the deck and engineering departments. We berthed in the same compartments and several near fistfights broke out. We were never quite stupid enough to "do" the skipper or the mates, but because heat (and other stuff) has a tendency to head downhill, we soon decided to put a stop to our antics. Though we claimed ignorance and a seeming insurmountable technical problem, we began to fear that our secret would slip out. The deckies carried knives and, after all, we had to sleep sometime. The degradation of our reputation was also a concern. The "miracle worker" syndrome is strong in snipes, after all.

Some months later, in our normal home port, a couple of us found an occasion to use our power again. Our vessel normally berthed near the harbormaster's office in a certain Army port area. The NCOs that comprised the harbormaster team worked in a relatively primitive temporary building
and had the habit of preferring to stroll over and do their "business" in our heads. Quite often, this was the officerıs heads. With most officers ashore while we were in port, we all tended to stray there occasionally. The formerly enlisted will understand the unexplainable pleasure in doing so. Considering the harbormaster's office had little more than a Porta-Potty, we really didn't begrudge the guys on duty there a more pleasant "sit-down." The unfortunate part was that one particular individual regarded harassing the watches as a peculiar verbal laxative, taken just prior to entering the head. The gangway watch usually bore the brunt, but if the generator watch was outta the hole, he usually got reamed as well. While this guy wasnıt directly in our chain of command, a sufficient number of complaints or a sufficiently serious complaint could make life difficult. Though he occasionally caught us in a legitimate transgression, overall, we considered his lack of gratitude as the most serious affront. I had the graveyard generator watch one night and happened to be standing at the gangway station catching part of a late night movie. Another of the engine room staff had just returned from a late night out and was unwinding in front of the TV and regaling us with tales of conquest. It was then that our buddy, the ungrateful harbormaster, chose to pay us a visit. I received the usual ration of Bovine Scatology for being outta my cage and the gangway watch got a share for general principle. Once again, I explained that I was allowed 10 minutes out of the engine room every hour and mentioned that a General Motors 6-110 genset can run at least that long on it's own. As usual, the explanations went unheeded, but the exchange must have had the desired effect on the ungrateful harbormasterıs bowels and he left for his date with the officer's heads.

Most of us have felt the sting that comes from an unjustified chewing out, but this time was different. We had a weapon. One that could not be easily traced. I exchanged a look with my fellow snipe and simultaneously, we came to the same idea. No words were exchanged. In mere seconds, we had bolted for the engineering spaces, leaving the gangway deckie slack jawed and clueless. Though a bit rusty, we still managed break a record for doing
our setup routine, hoping we were in time. Returning some minutes later, breathless, we wondered silently if our little trick worked on the officer's heads. This was an experiment. We had never actually tried it there. Quite some time passed before the harbormaster returned. When he did, his fatigue shirt was soaking wet and had obviously been wrung out. The upper part of his trousers were also wet and small flecks of fecal matter adhered in different places. Even his hat was wet and had been wrung out.Red faced and fuming, the harbormaster's eyes were glued firmly to the deck as he rapidly and silently exited the ship. He never returned, obviously preferring the one-holer outhouse to the unpredictable travails of exploding toilets and the true meaning of "shitfaced."

Curiosity finally overcame revulsion and we went to view the site of the disaster. Our first sight inspired an awestruck silence. Quite obviously, the effect was somewhat magnified in the officer's head, for it was as if a fecal grenade had gone off in the compartment. The first thing you saw was a two-foot length of wet, soiled toilet paper hanging from the overhead. This served to draw the eyes towards a clear area, just over the head and roughly in the shape of a human torso, around which there was a halo of brown. Smeared, brown handprints lead to the shower, where the temporarily blinded harbormaster had obviously groped his way. It was somewhat reminiscent of a grisly murder scene, with the red blood replaced by brown. It was a sight burned into memory.

Epilog:

The harbormaster did get some measure of unintentional revenge in the end. My co-conspirator and I made the difficult decision to clean up the scene of the crime. We weren't worried about the harbormaster talking. Such an event would be too shameful to ever speak of, except perhaps in the privacy of the psychiatristıs office as he sobbed uncontrollably, but if the officers found their head in such a condition, the fallout would be difficult for the engineers. The cleanup was one of the most distasteful experiences of my life.

We never used our secret weapon again. It was kinda like having control of nuclear weapons and we viewed our power with equal seriousness. We could
"nuke" anyone with sufficient cause, but as we carefully considered each offense against us, we never again found a just reason to do it. As the inner circle left, one by one, for other assignments or civilian life, the knowledge was finally left with me, the last remaining member. I had moved up into the Bull Oiler slot by then, and as my time to leave came close, I considered imparting the knowledge onto another. In the end, I decided it was too much power for anyone to wield alone and took the secret home with me. I have often wondered if succeeding snipes ever discovered the secret.

There was almost 30 more years until the ship was finally retired, so I think it likely. I hope they used the power wisely. God help the deckies!

Submitted September 2002