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The instant the light went out, I knew.

A feeling _ not panic, but something close _ welled up inside.

"I've got to get out of here," I said.

Moments after climbing into my tiny bed aboard the U.S. Navy's nuclear attack submarine USS Springfield, I hopped out, startled by an unpleasant sensation I had never felt before.

There would be no sleep that night. There was no way I was going to climb back into that tiny enclosure, coiled pipes just inches above my eyes. It was unnerving enough with a small reading light on. In the darkness, it felt like a coffin.

I trudged wearily to the sub's galley to thumb through old paperbacks and drink coffee.

Space is at a premium on a submarine. Every machine, and every human, gets only what is needed. That much I had known. But I was not prepared for how it would feel to give up the personal space we take for granted, to live literally shoulder to shoulder with other men, even for just a couple of days.

To call the horizontal box I tried to sleep in a "small bed," for example, is to flatter the thing. Sailors don't call them beds; they call them racks. They are not much wider than a man's shoulders. The Navy stacks them three deep, then jams three such stacks into one small room. The top rack is extremely close to what sailors call the overhead _ the ceiling.

Sneeze, you bump your head. Don't even think about turning over.

My first thought, as I checked out this "berthing area," is that it was made for young and very limber men. I am neither. But I am also not claustrophobic; at least, I didn't think I was. A submarine, I learned that night, is a great place for self-discovery.

For years, submariners earned their "Silent Service" nickname, in peace as well as during war. Their work called for them to be secretive and remain hidden, and it seemed the less said about them the better.

No longer. The Navy is downsizing, Congress is trimming, and submariners want their story told. Sometimes, therefore, the Navy lets media representatives hitch a ride on a short trip. In this case, the Springfield was headed from New London, Conn., to Newport News, Va., where it would take part in exercises. Cmdr. Pat Bloomfield and a gracious crew welcomed Times photographer Bill Serne and myself aboard for the 36-hour trip.

They were great hosts, and their vessel most impressive, but I couldn't wait to get back on shore.

Modern submarines are faster, more powerful, have greater range and can dive much deeper than their World War II counterparts. They are, however, still cramped steel tubes with few allowances made for creature comfort.

Upon climbing down the vertical shaft that connects the outdoors with the honeycomb interior of the Springfield, my first impression was that I had suddenly become very clumsy _ at least, more so than usual.

Unaccustomed to the tight spaces, I bumped into things _ tables, doorways, elbows, posteriors. Narrow hallways, called passageways, do not allow two men to pass without at least one turning sideways. I didn't see one fat man on the whole trip. I doubt one would be able to make his way around the ship.

Living and working in such close quarters _ for weeks at a time, sometimes longer _ requires a special kind of sailor. Patience and an acceptance of your fellow man are essential. A sense of humor, helpful in any setting, is golden here. For better or worse, there simply isn't room to segregate the sexes aboard a submarine, and so there are no women.

Under way from New London to Newport News, Springfield stayed on the surface until the water depth reached about 600 feet. Then, just like in movies, a horn sounded and a voice called "Dive! Dive!" Sea water flooded the ballast tanks and down we went.

Six hundred feet sounds like a lot of water. But when you consider that the Springfield is more than half as long as the water is deep, and that it zips along at about 30 knots at this depth, there's not a large margin of error. Should the submarine come too slowly out of a descent, it would not be long before it would bury its nose in the sand.

Nevertheless, Cmdr. Bloomfield put Springfield through its paces for his guests. Running at high speed, he pointed the sub's nose down and it descended steeply. He pointed it upward, and we shot toward the surface, the men in the control room leaning forward at so sharp an angle that their noses seemed pointed at the deck.

Throughout all this, Springfield remains extremely quiet, at least inside. Only a deep, steady murmur suggests that somewhere nearby a nuclear reactor is boiling water and making steam, and somewhere huge propellers are cutting the sea.

Even to the untrained eye, extremely high standards for construction are evident throughout the submarine. Joints are not just welded. They are welded, welded again, and welded again. Everything is tight. Nothing wiggles. Nothing wobbles. Where a piece of steel equipment is connected to the steel deck, rubber or some other cushioning material prevents scrapes and squeaks. A submarine must be quiet, if it is to survive.

Pipes, cables, ducts and wires run everywhere throughout the submarine, but most often overhead.

This meant that in my rack, the top one, a collection of large pipes was a few inches above my face. I could move my head around, but there would be no tossing and turning, however fitful my sleep.

Nevertheless, it was after midnight, and I was tired.

I managed, with difficulty, to get into the bed. Serne and his cameras, thankfully, were elsewhere. There are no footholds for climbing, and only a tiny reading light helped me avoid stepping on my two sleeping shipmates' faces and hands as I climbed part way up.

Then, grasping the edge of a rack with one hand, and a handle on a metal locker with the other, I sort of vaulted the lower half of myself, feet first, into the rack.

It took a few moments to catch my breath.

Then I turned out the light.