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Another ghost story? No...not this time...you can kill that spooky music, or let it run...if you like it. Though the title implies something ghostly, pathetic would be more descriptive. This is a true story, and takes place about thirty-years ago aboard the USNS Gilliss, a small vessel of one-thousand ton, 210 feet in length. The Gilliss was an "AGOR", or oceanographic research vessel. We begin this story in Norfolk, Virginia, so...let's get down to earth...at least sea-level.

We knew of this impending operation for some time, having a schedule of sponsor's ship time, and a brief description - if not classified, of what it was for, and in this case, to study how depth, and density effected light. Doom, or Deep Ocean Optic Measurement, was the name given to the operation. A few days before departure, we started loading the equipment that would be used, and setting up the winches on deck for it's special cable, etc. Though I had the name of the "Party Chief", I hadn't met him yet, expecting him not before a day or so before leaving. As usual, this fellow had a PHD in some science, or other, and would be addressed as Doctor...naturally. Ordinarily, one would be hard pressed to recognize any of these "doctors" in a group...appearance, or character-wise, but not in this case. Our "doctor" for this trip played the part to the hilt, though minus the stethoscope, he wore a white "butcher's coat". Doctors, and butchers, at least in Brooklyn always wore these frocks. Being a seaman, and always cautious about loose clothing that could be caught up in machinery, I saw wearing such apparel as strange as umbrellas aboard ship. Then again, we have in our profession, some ship's officers, including captains who feel naked on the bridge without a pair of binoculars draped around their neck...a badge of office I presume. Anyhow, to get back to our "doctor", I wouldn't see him until we got underway, having to wait until meal time to meet him. In an unusual set-up, he was not only the party-chief, but acting as SSOB, or Senior Scientist On Board for this trip. I guess the sponsor was giving our resident SSOB a voyage off.
Yes, you guessed correctly, our doctor scientist wore his "butcher's coat" to meals...he may have even slept in it, for I never saw him out of it.
It was custom to have the SSOB seated at the Captain's Table along with the other department heads like the Chief Mate, Chief Engineer, Radio Officer, etc.
The other tables reserved for the other officers, scientists, and their technicians. The unlicensed personnel had their own mess hall. All told, there was about forty in the ships staff, and fifteen in the scientific, or sponsors group, though seldom were there this many. On this trip, we only had the SSOB, his assistant, and a couple of technicians in his group. The ships deck force ran the deck gear - winches, "A" frames, and the like.
We departed Norfolk an hour or so after breakfast, dropping the pilot just around lunch time, setting course for our first "station" off the coast. Our scheduled next port being Bayonne, N.J.
Our butcher-coated doctor joined us for the first time at lunch, laying out his plan...though we knew it already, having the op-plan ourselves. We were to take a half-dozen or so "stations" off the coast, working our way eventually in  to the last station near Nantucket. One interesting aspect of this operation was that we would only work at night - well after sunset when it became night technically, and finish well before sunrise. Surprisingly, there was no "piggy-back" operation scheduled to use valuable ship-time during the day light periods. So...this meant, to our frocked doctor lots of time for quality fishing. Of course many of our own crew thought the same, but for the crew, on this type of ship spending alot of time dead in the water, with gear over the side most of the time, it was no big deal...so to speak. Ship time, or time away from the office or lab didn't come too often for alot of specialists like our doctor...ship time being at a premium. Though there were dozens of ships like the Gilliss now, thanks to the government's new geophysical attitude do to the "Cold War", there were hundreds of new ideas to test in the ocean, and above it...ships were booked a year, or two in advance. Possibly, this SSOB wouldn't see a ship again for a long time after this trip.
Not being very sociable, and short on small talk, our "doctor" made fast work of his meals, and either headed to his quarters, or the labratory aft to ready his equipment. So, we never got too friendly, which was a shame, as things might have turned out better for him if we had.
His "device" was quite large, and heavy...about the size of a Volkswagon Beetle of those days. From what was visible to us, it appeared as two stainless steel spheres, each several feet in diameter mounted on a frame. Bearing in mind that most of the weight was contained in the thickness of the shell,  these spheres had to be to with-stand the pressure of the sea water at extreme depths. Like two mini-bathyscaphs, but tethered. Most of us who supported scientists on these type vessels, were well aquainted with sea-pressure, having witnessed its effect when
devices collapsed. I can well remember retrieving a canister containing a tape recorder that had exceded its design depth...flat as a fire-hose. The canister was about five inches in diameter, the wall thickness at least an inch - stainless steel, with caps on each end of two-inch thick steel. Just for fun of it, someone cut open the tube, and retrieved the recorder, which was paper thin. Experiments with glass spheres proved interesting. Taking glass "balls", and attaching explosive charges on them, the deeper the "balls" went, the more explosives it took to implode them, until it didn't matter how much explosive was used, the glass crystals making up the balls become so compressed by the sea pressure, they became indestructable. Apparently, glass is the way to go...if there are no "seams".
Anyways, back to the "device". In one sphere was a light source...a light bulb. In the other, a receptor that would measure the light...for what...refraction, luminosity?....I don't know. I don't think it was checking for any change in "speed", as I think that's a constant. In any event, something to do with the beam of light from one sphere to the other would be recorded at different depths, and only at night.
The weather held perfect...it was summer time. No tropical storms forecast...nothing to interfere with the project. Outside the hundred-fathom curve, skirting the coast, we accomplished several stations, and were just about east of Barnegat Inlet, N.J. on this station when sometime around 2200, the "device" being only about one-third of its way down, orders came from the lab to stop lowering, and commence retrieving. With at least six or seven hours left, word got to the bridge that the device was on it's way up. Shortly thereafter, a request was made from the lab to proceed to the next station...up near Nantucket, a good days run. I happened to be on the bridge at the time, having my last cup of coffee, and chatting with the Third Mate - George Hope. George called the engine room, and ordered the engines started. I then told George to send one of his bridge watch to fetch the good "doctor"...I wanted to see what the problem was.
As expected, instead of our "butcher-coated" scientist, his "right-hand" man came to the bridge. Like Igor sometimes would open up to the young Doctor Frankenstein, giving details about his monster friend, this fellow, when asked what the problem was, gave it straight: "The light bulb is burned out.' he said.
"Oh.' I said. Then: "Well couldn't the bulb be replaced and we complete this "station"?'
"Nope! It can't be replaced...there's no spare.' Igor said.
"No spare? Then what are we going to the next "station" for?' I asked.
"To fish, and sunbathe.' said Igor.
"Fish, and sunbathe? George...when the engines are ready, shape 'er up for
Ambrose...we're goin' home!'
Igor dashed off the bridge...clumpity, clump, clump down the ladder...heading aft.
I got the Radio Office up to send a change in our movement report, and I turned in.
The next morning, at breakfast, the monster - er - "doctor" joined us at breakfast smiling, evidently not having spoken to Igor last night, but turning in himself. "Oh well, Cap'n...I guess we should be getting up to our last "station" later on today. We can't do any work, as we have some difficulties with the device, too technical to explain, but we can use up the rest of our time just lolling around fishing, and sunbathing.' he said. In fact, the most out of his mouth since the trip began.
"Look. Look out that port hole there doctor...see that tower goin' by? That's Ambrose light tower...we will be in Bayonne, and tied up before noon!' I said.
With that said, I excused myself, and went to the bridge to prepare to take on the pilot.
The last I saw of this fellow was him walking down the pier, his suitcase in hand, his butcher's coat billowing up around him in the afternoon breeze.
 
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GALLERIES