Watching the “Silent Service” with my Dad (1957-1958)
We got our first TV set in 1952 because my father wanted to be able to watch the presidential nominating conventions. That summer, the Democratic Convention nominated Adlai Stevenson and the Republicans Convention nominated Dwight Eisenhower.
The TV was a 15-inch screen, sitting on a brass-tube framed TV table on wheels. There were three TV stations available, one for each major network. It was a good set with a clear black-and-white picture and good sound. My father liked to brag (a little) on the good reception and sound.
I was on the very leading edge of the television couch potato generation. It was that transition period when children came home from school and immediately went outside to play or do chores, or grab a snack and settle in and watch television.
That fall, I soon grew into the habit of coming home from school and watching any number of black and white TV show. There was Wild Bill Hickok, Hopalong Cassidy, Superman, and of course the Howdy Doody show. It did not take long for my father to notice that I was spending way too much time watching television and the crackdown soon followed. My TV time was rationed—I had to pick one or two shows to watch. Correspondingly, my list of farm chores increased.
But my television watching was not severely restricted, so long as I watched what my parents were watching. After dinner, we all settled in to watch some program almost every evening. My requirement was to demonstrate that I had completed my school homework before watching any evening television.
The list of good shows was quite long and included such “classics” as Perry Mason, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Twilight Zone, Jack Benny, The Honeymooners, What’s My Line, Lawrence Welk, Sea Hunt, and the subject of this essay, the Silent Service.
In the 1950s, the United States was still a post-war nation, and shows based on World War II were very popular. We watched the legendary documentary series, Victory at Sea, every week. My father and I were both fascinated by military aircraft and ships.
When the Silent Service series came on, it became another of our “must-watch” programs. The series was a dramatized documentary. Most episodes were based on actual submarines and events that occurred during WWII or the Korean conflict. The name of the submarine and the cast changed with each episode. The Navy even provided a submarine for the production company to use in filming the series.
It was early fall, and my father and I finished dinner and settled in to watch the weekly episode of the Silent Service. This particular episode opened with a discussion about how the Navy was having difficulty with a specific model of torpedo. The torpedoes either did not track properly to their targets or did not detonate properly. The story opened with the submarine crew test firing several torpedoes. Each one failed to hit and destroy the test target.
As the story goes, a sailor or a junior engineer proposed what seemed like an improbable solution. Exasperated at this point, the development team was willing to try anything and they incorporated the proposed solution. Then it was time for testing.
The test firings began. The captain issued the firing command, and then the crew and the engineers would wait, listening for the results. Typically, there as an officer with a stop watch timing the torpedo to the target. This was theater designed to build high suspense.
At this point in the show, my dad and I are glued to the TV, listening with the crew to learn if the torpedo was going to hit the target. TV seconds tick down much more slowly than real-world seconds. We waited. The tension was high. After all, the Silent Service stories were based on real events.
The crewman holding the stopwatch began counting down the last seconds; “3…., 2….., 1…(pause),” then there was the sound of a tremendous explosion. The sound was intense, far louder than expected; even the windows in our house rattled and I was certain that I felt the shock wave. My dad looked at me and said, “Wow, that is good sound!”
My mother called in from the kitchen. “What was that!?”
“Just the television, Dear.” he replied.
About five minutes later in the story, the sub crew was preparing their second test of the improved system. They fired the torpedo, and again went through the stopwatch timing counting down to the target. We continued to watch, even more intently.
This time, when the torpedo detonated, there was an appropriate television sound of an explosion (no window rattling), followed, a second or two later, by another intense, window-rattling explosion.
“That was not the television,” my dad said. This raised an alarm. What had caused a blast strong enough to rattle our windows? The first thing that my father thought of was a case of dynamite stored in a shed on the lower end of the farm. We hurried out to the truck and drove the mile to the lower house, and the storage shed out back. There was no sign of damage. We checked the shed. The dynamite was intact and safe.
We returned to the house, thoroughly puzzled, but satisfied that whatever happened did not happen on the farm. Within half an hour, there were two more of these explosions.
As the postmaster at the local post office, my dad heard all of the community gossip and news. The next day he learned that Federal revenuers had blown up a huge whiskey still on Wilcox Neck, the peninsula directly across the river, not more than a quarter mile from the house as the crow flies. It was only a coincidence that the first blast was perfectly synchronized with the torpedo explosion on the TV.
The still that was destroyed was located on Wilcox Neck directly across the river from the house.
My father enjoyed telling this story and concluded, “I knew that TV set had good sound, but I was really impressed when it rattled the windows!”
Jeff Richmond (© 2014)