When I am at work in my office building, Sam has three direct ways to reach me: email, my cell phone, and my office phone. When I’m at a meeting, I turn my cell phone off, unless I’m expecting an important call either from him or a colleague. If that meeting needs to be interrupted, then no one bats an eye. In fact, I have interrupted multiple important meetings in order to go talk to Sam when he pops up in port.
When a submarine is in port, the men working inside it have no cell phone access, and there are no more than a small handful of land lines on the boat for a crew of 100+ men. Very recently, I learned that the guys also can access Gmail on one computer on the boat, though Sam has only used this once, when looking for news of whether I reached a foreign destination safely.
What does this mean? It means that when I do want or need to reach Sam, I feel really awkward. Usually it is not he who picks up, and the officer who does disappears for a few minutes to find Sam before telling me that he is unavailable. Now, when you call your partner at work, it’s often not because you just want to chat a bit: there are usually questions or news, about a trip you are scheduling, you or a family member not feeling well, a conflict at work or something else that happened that made you frustrated. Sometimes you’re just exhausted and you want to hear his voice. You don’t always want to talk to a strange man who responds to you with monotone indifference and will tell you your partner cannot come to the phone.
Today, after a particularly long day of meetings for work, I just wanted to chat with Sam. Normally my tendency is to wait for him to call, when he is out of work or at least up on the pier, outside the submarine. This evening, I decided, to hell with it, I’m calling the damn boat as though it were any other workplace. The officer who answered the phone and rattled off his long title gave a short little laugh when I told him it was Sam’s fiancé calling, and asked me to hold on. A second later, I heard Sam’s voice on the phone, low and tense. He told me that he couldn’t talk, and he would call back in a few minutes.
When he did call back, he apologized for not being able to talk. Then he told me that there were about 15 minutes during that day when it would be a bad time for me to
call, and I called during that time. He explained that his captain was giving a tour of the ship to some senior officers, and that when the phone rang, the only other sound in the room was the captain speaking. In short, I had embarrassed him. I am fairly sure that Sam meant his comment to be an apologetic way of explaining why he could not talk to me. Yet given the context, I felt like the inappropriate intruder.
What context do I mean? I mean how much submariners are already cut off and out of contact: the multiple wire fences and concrete walls of the base surrounding their boats; the six month deployments; the 16-hour days; the lack of any but the most
superficial, procedural information about what exactly it is they do each day. When you deign to interrupt their all-male, steel-encrusted secret society, you do not want to be told that you are getting in the way.