The Strangest Day of my Life

By Steve Stone

I was a Sailor, once upon a time.  Not just any Sailor, either. I was an enlisted nuke for seven years. That means for a good 10% of my life I was one of “Rickover’s Babies.” I grew up with Admiral Hyman Rickover as my overlord. My world was designed and ruled by him. He was something akin to a demigod in the universe I inhabited. He was unquestionably the most powerful individual in the nuclear submarine world for the entire duration of my first adventure in the Navy. I never saw him then, but I did know whenever he was expected to be nearby. Everyone knew the signs of a potential Admiral Rickover visit.  

I remember all the famous Rickover quotes. I also remember how we used to manufacture them and post them around the engine room. Something tells me he might not have liked a lot of them. The only one I remember for certain was in the after part of the engine room where we had our maintenance status board. Above it was a paper ribbon inscribed, “You’re nearer to God at PD – HG Rickover.” I always thought that was humorous. I have no idea what the Admiral would have thought.

The second time I was in the Navy I found myself back on a submarine again. It’s like my first boat in that both are now totally gone – scrapped! But I remember the day I was in my Executive Officer’s (XO) stateroom looking for some storage space for our boat’s presentation silver collection. I had opened a wall locker above my head and saw a stack of books. I asked my XO if they were his. His answer didn’t surprise me. I’d been around too long for surprises by that time. He said, “No, those aren’t mine. I was told those were on Admiral Rickover’s reading list when this boat went on sea trials. They were here when I got aboard, and I’m pretty certain they’ll be there when the boat gets decommissioned.” My XO was the third to hold his position on that boat.

Nothing you read above was strange in the least if you ever heard the legends of Admiral Rickover. I remember reading Norman Polmar’s outstanding biography of the man and recalled every single one of the interview stories found there. They were all told in my classrooms at nuke basic school at Mare Island. My instructors were used to students demanding they share their personal tales. Strange stories and the Admiral were very much like bread and butter – they just went together as integral parts of the same puzzle that was Hyman Rickover.

My strangest day in the Navy; definitely one of the strangest of my life, occurred in Groton, CT, at the US Navy Submarine Base. I was attending the Submarine Officer Basic Indoctrination Course (SOBIC) and was selected to be an usher at the commissioning of USS RICKOVER (SSN 709) on 21 July 1984. I remember that day like it was yesterday.

The party of ushers, side boys, ropeline attendants and everyone else who was “working” the event that day gathered at the head of the pier an hour before the commissioning started. We were all in our dress uniforms. It was the last time I ever wore my “choker” whites. I remember the lowering skies and intermittent spatters of rain. I was certain we were in for a soaker and was hoping it would hold off at least until we were done with the event. But that was not to be.

The guests began to arrive about thirty minutes before the start of the program, first in twos and threes, then in small groups. I was busy showing them to their seating and keeping an eye on the skies. About a third of the guests were carrying umbrellas. The seating area on the pier was not covered at all. As usual the platform on the bow of the boat was fully protected.  

I was working the event with a Lieutenant Supply Officer, the RICKOVER‘s first Pork Chop. If you find the SUBASE DOLPHIN that covered the commissioning, there’s a photo in it of me and that Lieutenant standing at parade rest while one of the speakers was at the rostrum in front of us.

The official party began to arrive. I don’t remember who all was there but do remember the principal speaker was Admiral Stephen A. White, the last Chief of Naval Material Command (CNAVMAT), before the big Navy HQ reorganization that created the current Systems Commands.  I knew of Admiral White already. He was well known by the Supply Corps because for the entire time he was an Admiral he always had a Pork Chop as his aide.  The Supply Corps considered him a friend.

After most of the official party was on the platform, I saw a big black limousine pull up. The door opened and the great Admiral himself stepped out. It was the first time I’d seen Hyman Rickover in person. As you all know, he was retired at that point. In some respects, he was akin to a TRIDENT missile with the warhead removed; still powerful, but no longer deadly.

As soon as the Admiral set foot outside the limo things seemed to get really weird. The sky opened up. It didn’t just rain, it poured buckets. I saw the Admiral bend over to offer his hand to his bride, retired Navy CDR Eleonore Bednowicz Rickover. He helped her out of the limo as two aides with umbrellas stood on either side of the door, trying to keep them from being soaked. After Mrs. Rickover was on his arm the Admiral escorted her across the brow and up to the platform. She was the ship’s sponsor and on the list of speakers just before Admiral White.  

I stood in that driving rain alongside the ship’s Pork Chop, learning something really special about Certified Navy Twill (CNT) choker whites. I learned that rain goes right through them, then runs along your skin and settles in those lovely white shoes we wore. By the end of that ceremony, I had water overflowing my shoes, but to all who saw me I looked perfectly dry. Not happy, mind you, but dry.

I remember the preliminary parts of the ceremony; the National Anthem, the prayer by the SUBASE Chaplain, the obligatory politician and his prattle. I remember Mrs. Rickover making a pretty decent speech, and I remember Admiral White’s remarks about the Navy’s future and how our nuclear submarines were the sharp point of the spear of defense and that attack submarines were at the very tippy top of that point. Considering Admiral White’s oversight included every single class of ships being built for the Navy I appreciated his words and hoped they were his actual sentiment.

Okay, I admit, I’m dawdling a bit and not giving this story a straight-ahead presentation. So, to the strange part…

That Pork Chop Lieutenant and I stood at either attention or parade rest for the better part of an hour while each speaker droned on. All the while the sky continued to dump buckets of rain on our heads. I don’t recall ever seeing such a continuous downpour in Connecticut before. I’ve seen many such rain events in the deep south, but never before in Groton. You have to picture this part. Think of it; Admiral Rickover exited his limousine and immediately the sky opened up, it rained continuously through the entire commissioning ceremony, and didn’t let up until something else happened. At the end of Admiral White’s speech, the Chaplain closed out the ceremony with a prayer, then the Emcee announced there would be a brief reception held for the platform guests in the ship’s wardroom, followed by a reception for all invited attendees at the Officer’s Club on Upper Base. The band started playing as the official party began to step off the platform. Mrs. Rickover and the Admiral were the first ones off and headed for the Weapon’s Shipping Hatch, covered by several ship’s crewmen holding umbrellas. Mrs. Rickover was helped down the ladder, then the Admiral put his foot on the top rung. He went down the ladder and just as soon as the top of his head disappeared from view the rain stopped completely.

I was immediately stunned. I looked at the Lieutenant beside me and said, “Did you get what just happened?” He nodded at me and said, “That was the strangest thing I ever saw. It was SO obvious what happened.” I nodded, then slogged away in my water-filled white shoes. Yes, it was weird, a very strange end to a very strange day.

You can make up your own mind about what happened. I made my mind up on that very day. I would love to know Admiral Rickover’s thoughts about it. But how would I ever hear of it? Perhaps one of you who are reading this knows. If so, let me know what he said. It might be important to all of us.