Bill Nowicki’s Submarine Stories is a new podcast about life aboard a submarine during the Cold War. Bill interviews fellow submariners, and recounts (in rich detail) the often humorous, sometimes disturbing, reality of spending months at a time in an underwater vessel. With show titles like, KGB Stalker and Drunk on Grapes, listeners have come to expect the details, worts and all. For example, did you know fresh air smells like a toilet after you’ve been in a sub for months? Bill revealed that and more to me when we chatted this week about “the tube” and why he chose podcasting to explore his past.
So what is it like to “spend the cold war under water with 100 other guys”?
Very different than real life. We were young, lonely, stressed, tired, working hard, and [eventually] very bored. We learned to find people’s hot buttons very quickly. It was very important not to show weakness or be jumpy. For example, one of the first times underwater, one of the machinists grabbed me and gave me a big kiss. If I would have pulled away or tightened up, he would have done it every time he saw me. So a lot of times you did the opposite of the way you felt to make sure it did not happen again. That was one of those times.
Also, the cold war was very real. The ability to stay quiet was paramount, we felt we had the quietest subs in the world which gave us a great advantage to do the types of things we did. It almost felt like a really long game of hide and seek in the dark…
When and how was the podcast born?
I have been listening to podcasts for several years. I listened to Adam Carolla, The Moth, Snap Judgment, and a couple of entrepreneur ones like The Unmistakeable Creative and Inspiring Innovation. At around the same time, I started seeing a career coach who I shared some ideas with me, especially around videos and learning to speak better in public and find my voice. He told me I should hang around like-minded people, so I sent an email to Meron Bareket of Inspiring Innovation, and he emailed me back. I thought a great way to reach people is to do a podcast. I also loved telling [stories about life at sea].
Meron allowed me to join his Beta testers for his Podcast Bootcamp … This ended up being the turning point. I set a date for launch, April 1st; Braden Sweeten in Utah did my logo; Matt Young in England did my intro voice over and several others helped me setup my website.
With a little marketing help fro Meron, it was “New and Noteworthy” in iTunes. I actually made it to 100 in all categories podcasts at one point. (If others want to sign up, contact me I will get them started.)
You went super niche with this show, but it has broad appeal somehow. Well done. Are you starting see a bump in your non-Navy listenership?
Yes. I think people are fascinated with submarines and the Cold War. I also think I have had some great guests who really bring make the life aboard a submarine real. My guests explain things that help dispel myths: the food is actually great, for example.
I never will forget the smell of fresh air after being underwater for 74 days–smelled like someone just did number two in the bathroom and you walked in. Sorry, it’s the truth. The air is so purified, regular air smells horrible! My second episode, Jody Durham talks about driving the boat as the first watch station after he arrived on board. He saw a buddy on leave who said he was driving a $100 K tractor and Jody told him, he was driving a $1 billion sub!
What movie do you think depicts submarine life most accurately?
I LOVE Das Boat. I could not imagine what those guys went through on the WW2 boats, but the scenes where it is hot and smelly, you could almost feel it. The other popular ones were too Hollywood to me. Plus, I would always notice the mistakes and couldn’t really concentrate on the story. I do love Gene Hackman’s character in Crimson Tide. I interviewed a ballistic missile submariner, and he said you could never really consider the implications of actually firing nuke warheads–too scary. That was an interesting episode.
If you could tell only one of your personal submarine stories what would it be?
Despite the perception people have of the military back then, we had a guy who was openly gay on board. He was actively pursuing getting a sex change (he told some of the guys) and was applying some kind of medication to get his chest to sprout boobs. I think the only reason we kept him/her was we did not have a replacement for his job. This was long before “don’t ask/don’t tell.” Man, what a great interview–if I could find her.
What’s the rest of 2014 looking like for Submarine Sea Stories?
The next episode is a very powerful one and a departure from the normal format. I interview two brothers who came from an alcoholic family and how they felt safe on the submarine. Crazy stuff. As for the rest of the year, I’m just seeing what happens next. I’m trying to find women submariners, and some Russian submariners for obvious reasons.