The explorers began their descent. Beneath them the hole disappeared into the abyss – one slip and it would all be over. But overcoming their fear, they continued on, enticed by the wonders that awaited them below.
We were aboard the mighty PELELIU, and we were headed to shaft alley.
The hatch leading to the access ladder was inocuous enough, barely large enough for a “fully developed” man to crawl through. Once inside, we were met with four floors of ladder leading to an unseen compartment. My companion, a hearty and polite Petty Officer, scampered down like one who had done it before. By the time I got my foot on the first rung he was already halfway down.
Did I mention I’m scared of heights?
Every ten feet or so someone had strung a cargo net to grab ahold of if/when you fall. At first this annoyed me. But after about 20 feet, when my leg began shaking uncontrollably, I began to take great comfort in the thoughtful safety feature.
As I neared the bottom, relief was immediately replaced by the realization that I’d have to climb up again, only this time without gravity working for me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At the bottom was another hatch, but this one led sideways. My guide – we’ll call him Short Straw, because that’s what he must have drawn to get stuck with me – grabbed a bar and shot his legs into the opening and disappeared. He made it look so easy.
Appearances can be deceiving.
I tried and got stuck halfway. Only with great effort and a few grunts did I work my legs far enough into the next room. I looked like an earthworm moving backwards.
When I stood up, there it was. The shaft.
It rotated smoothly and quietly, with nary a quiver. It was hypnotic. Short Straw explained the mechanics and I tried to imagine the monstrous screw working just a few feet behind us, propelling the huge ship through the Pacific waters.
The experience was worth the trip. You have to see shipboard machinery first hand to really appreciate its size and power.
When we left, I felt like a school kid, including the grin that comes from experiencing something special.
Then I remembered the ladder.