THE SNIPE'S LAMENT
Boiler technicians lighting a ship's boiler from Boiler Room Big Mo
Now each of us from time to time has gazed upon the sea
and watched the mighty warships pulling out to keep this country free.
And most of us have read a book or heard a lusty tale,
about these men who sail these ships through lightning, wind and hail.
But there's a place within each ship that legend's fail to teach.
It's down below the water-line and it takes a living toll
- - a hot metal living hell, that sailors call the "Hole."
It houses engines run with steam that makes the shafts go round.
A place of fire, noise, and heat that beats your spirits down.
Where boilers like a hellish heart, with blood of angry steam,
are molded gods without remorse, are nightmares in a dream.
Whose threat from the fires roar, is like a living doubt,
that at any moment with such scorn, might escape and crush you out.
Where turbines scream like tortured souls, alone and lost in Hell,
are ordered from above somewhere, they answer every bell.
The men who keep the fires lit and make the engines run,
are strangers to the light and rarely see the sun.
They have no time for man or God, no tolerance for fear,
their aspect pays no living thing a tribute of a tear.
For there's not much that men can do that these men haven't done,
beneath the decks, deep in the hole, to make the engines run.
And every hour of every day they keep the watch in Hell,
for if the fires ever fail their ship's a useless shell.
When ships converge to have a war upon an angry sea,
the men below just grimly smile at what their fate will be.
They're locked below like men fore-doomed, who hear no battle cry,
it's well assumed that if they're hit men below will die.
For every day's a war down there when gauges all read red,
twelve-hundred pounds of heated steam can kill you mighty dead.
So if you ever write their songs or try to tell their tale,
the very words would make you hear a fired furnace's wail.
And people as a general rule don't hear of these men of steel,
so little heard about this place that sailors call the "Hole."
But I can sing about this place and try to make you see,
the hardened life of the men down there, 'cause one of them is me.
I've seen these sweat-soaked heroes fight in superheated air,
to keep their ship alive and right, though no one knows they're there.
And thus they'll fight for ages on till warships sail no more,
amid the boiler's mighty heat and the turbine's hellish roar.
So when you see a ship pull out to meet a war-like foe,
remember faintly if you can, "The Men Who Sail Below."
Blogger's note: This is hardly an example of great poetry, and never do I ever think of it in that context, in fact it's more a personal thing than anything else. One of the proudest possessions I have is a plaque that has this poem on it. This was presented to me after a particularly difficult tour of duty as an engineer and it was presented to me by the senior enlisted men I worked with and that meant a great deal to me - you were getting it from the guys who really did the work, who were the true engineers or "hole snipes", and having their acknowledgement and respect was more important than pretty much anything else.
More than a few engineers have told me that they didn't particularly care for this poem, and indeed there's enough about it to not like with its over-extended metaphors and general melodrama, but then it catches more of what men who work below actually go through than anything else I've ever encountered, and there are few poems to grimy engineers who dwell in the hells below. Today the "hell" below isn't quite what it once was, where you stood your four, or six hour watch if you were unlucky and had a port and starboard watch rotation, in a space that easily reached over 100 degrees in many spots and where the only cooling you received was from an air vent blowing outside air into the space - if you were in hot climes at the time the only advantage to this was relatively cooling are flowing over your body and if it was humid outside there was little to be gotten from this. Today the amenities for watchstanders often include air conditioned booths where the watch stander keeps most of his or her watch, and much, much more is computerized. Today's engineers would in many ways have a hard time understanding the Snipe's Lament as it reaches back to a day not quite in their experience, with fewer and fewer Navy ships running on steam at all, much less 1200 lb steam.