Let Us Speak of Playing with Wolves

In which the author speaks of childhood beasts of war.

Let Us Speak of Playing with Wolves

We begin with two words:

“Wolf Packs”

It was one of those phrases that captured my imagination as a child. Yes, I drew wolves and worgs growing up – they joined falcons, snakes, and sharks as the animals that fascinated me most. And my older sister even painted a little picture of a wolf howling at the moon that I still have (somewhere).

But I’m not talking about beasts of flesh and blood when I say, “Wolf Packs.” I’m remembering the Second World War.

The image of a pack of submarines, prowling beneath the waves of the Atlantic, stalking Allied shipping convoys, striking from ambush with torpedoes under the cover of darkness – it was mesmerizing.

Time Life published a series of books from 1988 to 1991, called The Third Reich. They were thin, hardcover volumes: black traced with red and silver, and a black and white photo on the cover. I still have a number of the series – I thought I owned the whole thing but where the rest of it has gotten to, I can’t say.

I would have been between 5-8 years old when the books were being released. And I have a memory of each volume arriving in the mail. I think it was the second set of books that I subscribed to (the first being the Rourke Dinosaur Library.)

I was quite proud of that collection, the first serious section of my library.

Wolf Packs was one of those books. Volume 4, released in 1989. I didn’t really read it – well maybe a few pages here and there. But I pored over the pictures: the theater of war maps, the technical drawings, the uniforms, the sinking ships billowing smoke.

Submarines aren’t made for a stand-up fight. They’re assassins of the deep. Snipers who strike from beyond sight only to melt away. And I have always preferred that kind of warfare: Specialized, dramatic, fragile.

At the beginning of WWII they were lone wolves. In 1939, their commander, Captain Karl Dönitz, had only 56 submarines under his command with which to wage a high seas war with the British. He had wanted at least 300.

But by war’s end his wolves would sink 14 million tons of Allied and neutral shipping. Most of it intended for Britain. So fierce was the onslaught that Churchill once said:

The only thing that ever really frightened my during the war was the U-boat peril.

As a child, I would sit with paper and pencil, drawing submarines firing torpedos at unsuspecting ships. To me the submarine could tangle with as many battleships as could be found. Torpedos were the ultimate weapon. Submarine captains the most daring warriors.

My older brother had a copy of Axis & Allies, and it had little gray, German submarines in there. So of course I played with them on the game board. Along with the tanks, infantry, fighters, bombers, battleships, and so on. I ended up losing so many pieces over the course of playing Axis & Allies my way, that my parents bought a new version of the game for my brother. (It’s still in its shrink-wrap, up in a closet.)

Red October and Birds-of-Prey

From the realm of books we move to films.

We turn first to The Hunt for the Red October, released in 1990. Yes, it’s a different war – but it was the story of a submarine. I love that scene when our heroes are navigating the Laurentian Abyss with a torpedo chasing them, racing towards the Neptune Massif and that fateful turn.

Those charts, the red marker, the pocket watch, the calculations, the tension at the moment of decision when Captain Ramius barks, “Right full rudder! Reverse starboard engine!” – dodging the torpedo.

I watched that film excessively. One hit is all it would take to sink them. But that one hit never lands, so skillfully is the sub handled at every hazard. It's thrilling.

From the past and the sea, we fly quickly to the stars and the future.

The Klingon Bird-of-Prey is also not a ship made for stand-up fights. With a crew of 12, it’s not exactly a major warship in the Star Trek universe. But it can cloak and it's fast – and it strikes without warning.

In both Star Trek III: The Search for Spook and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Bird-of-Prey is the primary antagonist the Enterprise must tangle with. And unlike Commander Kruge’s Bird-of-Prey in Star Trek III, General Kang’s ship in VI can fire while cloaked.

This isn’t watching two ships of the line tangle, where the opponents square off over the distance and lob shells at each other. This is The Enemy Below. This is Balance of Terror. The Enterprise crouches in wait, scanning anxiously for their unseen foe, red alert sounding, torpedo bays flooded, phasers charged, shields up (if Kirk hasn't been caught unawares).

And out there, a predator pounces – belching forth fiery death.

It is fascinating to me that I have never written a story involving a submarine or a cloaked space ship. But that’s one of the reasons I’ve been engaging in these recovery exercises, going down the dark well of memory.

Submarines and their space kin are “sacred objects” in my imagination, to use W.H. Auden’s term. So, I’ll be exploring these abyssal waters further…

Ah, Dear Reader, let us sail for home. It is time to let such things rest.

Best regards,


Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

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