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