Ladies and Gentlemen, please proceed through the gate…

I was supposed to be learning about the colorful career of the USS Cobia during her many WWII battles. The Cobia is berthed in a channel off Lake Michigan at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, where I was visiting last week.

However, my attention was totally fixed on the tour guide who led our group through the moored submarine. He was a burping, head-scratching information machine named Kevin. He looked all of 20, maybe 21, but not older.

With what seemed to be the knowledge of an expert submariner, Kevin, belching now and then, motored through his lines so fast that his sentences and paragraphs often ran together in a blurry jumble. Because he so quickly recited facts and figures about the Cobia's capabilities and crew, what he was saying was difficult to follow at times.

"Welcome to the USS Cobia, which was named to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1970. The Cobia fought in WWII, downing Japanese freighters and ships."

It didn't take long for Kevin to become the center of attention.

"The USS Cobia reached Pearl Harbor June 3, 1944. On June 26, she was put to sea on her first war patrol."

As I followed our small tour group of seven adults through the sub's narrow passages, I grew accustomed to Kevin's long paragraphs, which he recited with eyes tightly closed.

"On July 13, July 17 and July 18 in 1944, the Cobia sank Japanese freighters. The last was a troop transport carrying a Japanese tank regiment to Iwo Jima."

It was as though he might lose his place if he opened his eyes or stopped to catch his breath.

"On July 20, 1944, the USS Cobia sank three small armed ships in a running gun battle. One of them rammed the Cobia, causing minor damage. But the submarine continued her mission, sinking a converted yacht of 500 tons on August 5."

There was nothing elegant or profound about Kevin's tour-guide persona. Even his airline attendant-like arm and hand motions directing our attention around the submarine's interior seemed mechanical.

"What's this valve used for?" one tourist asked.

"That valve allows water to enter the ballast tanks, while the enclosed air escapes through the open main vents at the top of the tanks."

"What are these instruments called?" another tourist inquires, pointing to an intricate series of dials and meters.

"Those are used for radar. The Cobia houses the oldest operating radar set in the world."

At times, Kevin did not immediately know the answers to our questions, which raised my suspicion about his expertise, like the one about the crank in a giant gearbox…

"What's this for?" the tourist with a southern drawl asked.

Kevin fell silent for the first time in 45 minutes. "Hmm," he uttered, scratching his beardless chin. "That's uh." No answer. "That's uh." Still no answer.

He paused cocking his head and scratching it, too. "That's uh – a detection gear called a hydrophone," he exclaimed self-assuredly. "Hydrophones," he continued, "are extremely simple in concept. A microphone is extended through the bottom of the vessel. By rotating the microphone, the sound operator is able to listen for propeller and machinery noises that might indicate the presence of a submarine."

While crouched with our tour group in the sub's cramped quarters, I listened to Kevin rattle on about the life and times of the USS Cobia and observed his boyish demeanor, which was in sharp contrast to the sophisticated pieces of machinery he was describing.

Whatever it was that he possessed – expertise or an uncanny ability to make stuff up – I was in awe.
 
A resident of Southeast South Dakota, Paula Damon is a national award-winning columnist. Her columns have won first-place in National Federation of Press Women, South Dakota Press Women and Iowa Press Women Communications Contests. In the 2009 South Dakota Press Women Communications Contest, Paula's columns took three first-place awards. To contact Paula, email pauladamon@iw.net, follow her blog at www.my-story-your-story.blogspot.com and find her on Facebook.
2009© Paula Damon

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