Thursday, September 7, 2017

Josh Dean's "The Taking of K-129"

Josh Dean is a magazine journalist and author based in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Graham was always the smartest person in the meeting, a man who didn’t equivocate and who inspired awe in his employees. One of his best qualities as an employee and a collaborator was that he rarely said no, at least not right away. He never reflexively said an idea wasn’t possible, even if he believed that was the case. In his office, all ideas were entertained, and the architect never dismissed one until he’d done some scribbling on a napkin to test it out first.

Gradually, the team assigned to what had become known as the “Deep Ocean Mining Ship” expanded. Graham pulled in the best of what he called, endearingly, his “grunt engineers,” including Sherman Wetmore, a prodigy who had worked for Global Marine since 1961, when he graduated from college. Wetmore was involved as design engineer on all of the important drill ships, including Glomar II, III, IV, and V and the Challenger. Graham also drafted the mechanical engineers Jim McNary, Abe Person, and Charlie Johnson to work on ship and “mining” support systems.

In fairly short order, the group had designed a mining ship that, they thought, could do the work to fulfill the bizarre and increasingly onerous specs that Crooke was feeding them. In addition to being enormous—more than six hundred feet—with a moon pool the size of a college gymnasium, it would have dynamic positioning, a semiautomated pipe-handling system, and a set of sliding doors in the bottom of the hull through which seventeen thousand feet of steel pipe could be lowered and raised by the largest and most powerful heavy-lift system ever built—deployed from a rig floor atop a gimbaled A-frame derrick that could stay perfectly still even as the ship itself pitched in rough seas. The only thing missing was a mining machine—whatever was going to be on the end of the pipe to locate and suck in nodules. But that wasn’t John Graham’s responsibility. Lockheed Corporation had been hired to handle that part.

Eventually, Graham got his clearance—Parangosky had worked around the drinking issues—and when Crooke briefed him on the ship’s true purpose, Graham stared a hole through him. “I knew there was something screwy about this whole thing,” he said.
This is an epic story in every way, and as much as I tried to tell it in an intimate, character-driven way, the book covers a lot of ground. There was no way around that – it’s the story of the largest and most audacious covert operation in history, a project that took 5 years and included hundreds of participants. It’s very much a triumph of the nerds, too, since this was a victory for the CIA’s little-known Directorate of Science and Technology. I bet the average person doesn’t even know that the CIA has a huge division of scientists and engineers, but it does, and they achieved one incredible thing after another during the Cold War — creating, in short order, the U2 spy plane, the SR71 Blackbird, the world’s first spy satellite, and the Hughes Glomar Explorer, the enormous ship at the center of this story.

It's very much a book about men and machines, and page 99 turns out to be a perfect little microcosm of that. It’s in the middle of a chapter about John Graham, the Glomar Explorer’s brilliant naval architect, and introduces one of his key deputy engineers. It also, by luck, includes a paragraph that explains the ship and its unbelievable systems, explained (I hope) in the clear and conversational tone I tried to stroke throughout the book. You don’t get a lot of Graham here, but you do get a snippet of biography (he’s a reformed alcoholic, a fact that jeopardized his involvement) and the briefest sample of his personality, through a quote.

I’d never suggest that any one page truly represents a book — especially not a book this sprawling — but I gotta say, this one ain’t bad.
Visit Josh Dean's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Taking of K-129.

--Marshal Zeringue