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North Huntingdon resident, former submariner details life on the high seas

| Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
Michael Durkota
Michael Durkota

Michael Durkota's first novel is ostensibly about the lives of submariners in the U.S. Navy.

A closer reading of “Once in a Blue Year” (Rogue 13, $13) reveals a more nuanced tale. Durkota, a North Huntingdon resident, is equally interested in exploring the dynamics of the home lives of military families as he is life on the sea-going vessels.

“It's really hard for the sailors,” Durkota says, “but it's harder for the wives or husbands or whoever's left behind. A lot of the anguish they go through is not knowing (the status of loved ones).”

That fear of the unknown permeates “Once in a Blue Year.” Set during the first Gulf War, the story follows three men serving together on a submarine, and is drawn from Durkota's experiences on the submarines the USS Pittsburgh and the USS Maine from 1989 through 1996.

One of the issues Durkota addresses is how the claustrophobic living conditions affect submariners. He coped by “trying not to think about it at all.”

“I spend a lot of time reading and telling stories and talking,” he says. “It kind of gets dark for human interaction and you're kind of force fed this group of guys. … You create a core unit of friends that you get really close to. You play cards and watch movies together. It creates sort of your own family unit.”

Within that unit are all the subsets of humanity. There are heroes and villains, friends and people held at arm's length. And, as in most social enclaves, there's a joker who provides comic relief. In Durkota's novel that character is Jags, who copes via his off-kilter sense of humor.

“I served on two different submarines,” Durkota says. “The crews turn over when you're there for a couple years and there's a heavy rotation of people. And there's always a Jags, always that guy who is aloof and free-spirited and plays by his own rules and does things for shock value, maybe for the attention. He's the class clown everybody went to high school with.”

After the Navy, Kurkota enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, where his lifelong love of reading and writing was stoked by creative writing professors, including Chuck Kinder and the late Lewis “Buddy” Nordan. As he wrote “Once in a Blue Year” as his master's thesis, there were times he became overwhelmed when revisiting life onboard a submarine.

“I knew I was physically safe in an office with a laptop or somewhere with a notebook,” Durkota says, “but you kind of forget that for a moment here and there. You get shocked back to reality. There were times when I was finishing my master's and it was my primary focus in life to finish this novel, doing that day after day, night after night, and I somewhat became catatonic, completely contained in the story. In many ways, I was suffocated by it almost the way you would be on the ship.”

After finishing the first draft during grad school, Durkota put the novel aside, only occasionally working on it. At one point the manuscript went untouched for years until a friend of his mother's found and read an early draft. That spurred Durkota to renew his efforts to revise and rework “Once in a Blue Year.”

He's satisfied to see it finished.

“When I wrote this, the first couple of stories were almost an apology,” he says. “I was making amends for things I wished I could have done differently, or things I didn't finish, or relationships I didn't close or didn't allow to occur. My exit from the Navy was due to a medical discharge. It was a career interrupted and I had unfinished business as part of my naval career. (Writing the book) helped me get closure on a lot of those things.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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