From its calm exterior you’d never guess that Sterling Elementary School was once a hotbed of naval architecture. During the mid-1960s the seventh and eighth grade classroom buzzed with the production of home-built submarine concepts, occupying all the spare time of a team of crack naval designers consisting of David Deitrick, Wayne McNutt, Dillon Kimple and Robert Eschleman. (There may have been more participants, but those four were the core members of the effort.) There are unfortunately no documents or drawings remaining from those countless boy-hours but I can personally attest to the several tree’s worth of paper we went through during the project.
What started us going? It could have been any number of things. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was in its second year of broadcast and as Star Trek would not start airing until the next fall our attention was firmly focused on inner instead of outer space. Most of us had read the same series of young yeader books like Tom Swift and the Mad Scientist Club–-but I’d also gotten a mental boost from the Edgar Rice Burroughs book Tarzan and the Forbidden City which prominently featured underwater activities as part of the plot
I also had a J.C. Whitney catalog that kept me inspired. The company sold auto parts by mail and their book had a section listing accessories and interior components like instrument gauges, switches and other items useful in tricking out a submarine’s interior. There was the school encyclopedia and our science textbooks for reference but as they dealt more with theory they weren’t much help. Robert Eschleman came up with an Edmund Scientific catalog which could be a great source for electrical components as well as lenses for the periscopes… but the most treasured source of information was a Revell scale model of a ballistic missile submarine I found at the second hand store that gave us some highly speculative information on a sub’s layout via a side opening in the model’s hull.
Many ideas were inspired by the incredible amount of junk laying around too – barrels, containers, and other nondescript machinery left over from either the extensive oil exploration going on in the area or the equally extensive military exercises in the state. One of the coolest items was a recovered aircraft drop-tank that I spied at a local garage–I must have dreamed up a dozen different uses for it before someone dragged it off to a most ignoble fate as a septic tank for a mobile home. There was also some sort of generator that sat out in our garage that I was sure could be used for something. It had a spark plug and cooling fins on what looked like a cylinder leading me to believe that its operation involved internal combustion in some way but as to what its ultimate function was I had no idea.
It didn’t matter. We had drawings. It was my firm belief that if I could draw something I could make it work, which was true… kind of. The snow sled ejection seat worked just like the plan I drew. The Spider-Man web made from fishing net and logging chain worked after a fashion as well, but drawings aside it is just as well that we never got to the actual submarine construction phase or you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog.
The cold heartlessness of reality never prevented us from imagining uses for items we saw all around us. I was completely stumped by the hatch-cover question until I watched my Mom use her pressure cooker to make New England boiled dinner one night. One look at all the screw-down knobs securing the lid and I knew the problem was solved, though I failed to address some of the problems involved with installation, like how I would be cutting the bottom of the pressure cooker off, how I would be securing it to the hull of the sub, getting through an opening with an 16” diameter and–most importantly–securing the screw-down knobs once I was in the submarine on the other side of said knobs.
Propulsion was a no-brainer; in fact, I was baffled that no one else had used the option I came up involving automotive starters and alternators. Starters are basically motors that need electricity to work while alternators are generators that make electricity when their shaft is rotated. My plan was to connect the electric motor to the generator, and route the power generated back to run the motor. I figured you’d have to turn the shaft over by hand once or twice to get it going and then the whole thing would run itself for as long as needed. I was ecstatic; not only had I devised a cheap method of propulsion, I had perpetual motion as a spin-off benefit from the program–kind of like Velcro, Tang and space pens.
Designing the hull was a continual challenge. At one point we thought the problem was licked when I found a derelict gasoline tanker trailer in the back lot of a local repair shop but we had no way to move it. None of us knew how to weld, but Dillon had read in Popular Mechanics about something called “marine plywood” and since we all had access to regular hand tools we figured that would work for the outer hull, with barrels attached (depending on the designer) either to the interior or exterior to provide ballast control.
I don’t think the issues involved with environmental support ever occurred to any of us. I remember the possibility of a snorkel was raised but it wasn’t pursued, because at about that point the Flying Sub was introduced on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and we went into a flurry or redesigning to accommodate flight into the performance requirements.
So, with all this work why can’t you find the hulk of a midget submarine on the bottom of Scout Lake? There are any number of reasons. The most obvious was the fact that we discovered girls and while very little actually done about pursuing them I know that a good portion of my day-dreaming evolved into variations of the scenario where I saved Kristi Fuhriman after she fell into the Kenai River and when we got to shore she smothered me with kisses in gratitude. It was also at this time that Fritz Hall introduced team sports at Sterling Elementary and that took up a lot of time as well. It was also a matter of all of us getting a little older too. None of us ever came out and openly called attention to the impractical nature of our designs, but Star Trek was a little easier to watch and enthuse over–no one could ever expect an eighth grader to make a starship.
Besides, none of us really understood how to use the more specialized tools necessary to shape and join metal. I learned about using wrenches from my dad talking about going out and “putting a wrench” on the old pick-up or the inoperative trolling motor that sat just inside the shop doors for a decade. I never actually saw him use the tools, so I thought that all you had to do was touch the tool to the object being worked on, like a fairy god mother tapping someone with her magic wand.
The submarine dream didn’t completely die though. Every once and awhile I am delighted to see something in Popular Science or Popular Mechanics about home-made submarines, in fact in the late seventies I found plans for a simple design using a central man-carrying unit hanging from pivoting PVC arms that got some serious thought to before the realities of finishing college and the birth of my first son intervened.
Now most daydreams about making my own sub are fulfilled watching videos of them on YouTube… but just in case I have the number of a store that sells marine plywood…