Tanks for Washington Square Residents

There are a few reasons why I sat down to write this paper. For one I wanted to sit down, and while I was at it I might as well have written something. Then there is the issue that the residents of Washington Square in downtown Manhattan know absolutely nothing about tanks which in-and-of-itself is hardly an issue if it was not for the fact that I have a very close daughter that opted to move from her dorm across the street from Washington Square to the Negev Desert to play with tanks for a couple of years. Foreseeing how frustrating it could be to explain to the friends she left behind on campus what her new life would be like, I drew from my experience on both sides of the fence in order to define common terminology that bridges the knowledge gap between the student that was and the soldier she is to be. To have a fruitful discussion we should focus on ergonomics and leave tactics, ballistics, hydraulics, ammunition, metallurgy, mechanics, optics, logistics, lasers, thermodynamics, computers, explosives and electronics for another day.

Ergonomics is the science of designing things for efficient use by people. In this light both dorms and tanks are a living space shared by four people. There is also an underlying assumption that these people had damn well be able to get along which each other. How well people get along is a function of their characters and their proximity. Character works in favor of being closer; proximity stretches character to the limit. In other words rotten characters are best kept far apart. While many students do not realize it, a dorm is much larger than what can be considered a minimal living space. For example a dorm’s five hundred square foot living space is at times large enough for there to be only one or two suckers that do the dishes and clean the toilet while the others pretend to be busy in their rooms, sneaking out only to leave their pizza to rot under the suckers’ beds. In a tank it doesn’t work that way for the simple reason that there is no toilet and there are no beds either. In a tank all four people share less than fifty square feet of ‘maneuvering’ space which happens to be the ‘living’ space as well. There is another important difference. People living in dorms do not use earplugs, because it’s considered unsocial. People living in tanks as social as they would like to be cannot live without them.

Four people living in fifty square feet are a type of congestion might be a little hard to envision from inside a roomy dorm. In order to better understand these ergonomics it would be better to go down to the street and find two phone booths, a telephone pole and a manhole. The phone booths have to be adjacent to each other. The telephone pole has to be positioned between the phone booths, so close that it is actually touching their facing panels. The manhole needs to be in front of the telephone pole. One might be puzzled by the fact that these are only three living spaces and we have four people. One wrong assumption is that people take turns living up on the telephone pole. No, that is not how it works. Two people share the right phone booth. The two remaining people split the manhole and the left phone booth. Who gets the manhole has to be decided up front, because whoever goes down there has no way of switching positions once the cover is shut. As for the telephone pole, we’ll get to it shortly.

Let’s start with the manhole. Envision yourself getting into one, if you have never done it you would at least have had the opportunity to see Bruce Willis or Arnold disappear into one as they go after the bad guys who tend to escape-down and emerge-from the sewers through manholes. Getting into a manhole is very straight downward you lift the cover and slide down, resting you body weight on your arms which are resting on the rims of the hole. You bend your elbows slightly as you dangle your feet looking for a foot rest so that you do not drop down the pier to splatter on its gooey bottom. Fortunately in our machine the manhole is shallow less than four feet deep and there is a cushioned seat on the bottom. Well, the chair is not exactly on the bottom. The chair is attached to the side of the pier, very much like the chairs that the air crews use on passenger aircraft. The chair folds out sideways from the side of the manhole. The trick is to step down on it and force it open as the body slides into the manhole. Failing to open the seat on the way down makes it almost impossible to open once you are in the manhole because one’s midsection is where the chair needs to be. If this happens your best course of action is to climb back out and start over. You want to slide in with your back facing the phone booths because you want to sit facing the road, not the sidewalk. Once you are seated in the hole, it is your responsibility to close the lid over your head. Being the social creature that got you living in such confined quarters to begin with, you do not want to sit alone in manholes, let alone closed manholes which passersby assume are empty, separated from the unsuspecting world by a two inch thick steel cover. That’s why you have a head-set and a microphone, all conveniently packed into a ‘light alloy’ helmet which you want to put on before you close the lid so you can use the light shining from above to find it. To your right you will find a switch which turns on the power to your manhole and the phone booths above. Once you turn that switch on you will be able to talk and listen to your fellow residents above you. To sum up your first few steps as the man holed in the manhole: slither half way in, kick the seat down, slither all the way down, sit, turn on the power, PUT IN YOUR EARPLUGS, slip on your helmet and close the lid above you.

One word about earplugs they are small and difficult to stuff into your ears when you have gloves on so practice. Carry spares in case you lose some on the bottom of your manhole, you’ll find them all during weekly maintenance. Whatever you do do it with your earplugs plugged in place. If you’re persistent about it they’ll become second nature to you. If you do not clean them they will even become part of you either way you win, and will get to keep your hearing.

The manhole locked and loaded, we can get back to our remaining three tenants. In case you are feeling happy for them, thinking that they can do away with slithering into their compartments, don’t these phone booths have hatches on the roof instead of doors. Not only do you have to slide into a manhole which in this case is six feet deep, you have to climb to its roof in order to do so. Actually the Israeli army was smart and installed a back door entry from the street level, but we don’t want to talk about luxury tanks in this introductory lesson there are plenty of American made tanks which to this day follow the entry-from-the-top-double-hatch-double-phone-booth model. The hatch makes the phone booths a lot like manholes whose silos have been extracted from the ground. What makes them even more like manholes is the fact that they are not made of glass, they are made of steel, and steel as we all know is not transparent. The person on the left lives alone so he (or she) can go into the left hatch in any order that they choose this person can either be first or last. This is not true for the right phone booth where the living arrangement is vertical with one person sitting on top of the other. The bottom person has to get in first, and the top person has to get out first it is a simple people stacking logic which means ‘first-in-last-out’ or ‘last-in-first-out’. The procedure of entering the manhole-booths is very similar to that described above. The left tenant has a seat which folds out from the left wall of the booth, about four feet from the top. The left tenant can also elect to stand upright on the floor as long as they are not taller than five feet and ten inches. Taller people have to leave the hatch open which is ok because this is not a submarine. The top-right tenant has a seat folding out from the back of the right booth, also positioned about four feet from the top. The bottom-right tenant has a trickier path to follow her target being a stool on the floor positioned one foot in front of the front rim of the hatch which means a diagonal decent. It is not simple to descend diagonally into a manhole, which requires mastering a slithering-while-swinging-forward technique which every bottom right tenant perfects over time. All tenants of the phone booths follow the ear-plugs and helmet drills. The top right tenant is the one who is responsible for making sure that everyone can speak and be heard through the head sets for this reason this person is nicknames the ‘commander’ a title which the military takes very seriously.

Once everyone in their living quarters and able to communicate we can describe what it is that they do in there which is where the fun starts. Cramped as all four of them are, each has their own video game the type you either sit in front of or stand in front of in the arcades. Not only are they personal stations with no one standing in line eager to throw you out, they do not operate on quarters the army pays for everything including the earplugs. The station in the manhole is a driving-around-the-world station. It comes with a gas pedal, a brake, a steering wheel, an ignition switch, and a semi-automatic stick shift. A semi-automatic stick shift is one where you do not need to let go of the gas and disengage the transmission with the clutch to shift gears, all you have to do is move the stick. The manhole also has three little periscopes hanging from the top of the manhole, beneath the rim, positioned at eye level at the ten, twelve and two o’clock positions around the ‘drivers’ head allowing the person in the manhole to see where she is going assuming that a manhole can actually go somewhere.

The play stations in the phone booths are designed around the concept that the telephone pole is cannon. You shoot at what the tip of the pole points at. For this to make sense we first have to lay the phone pole horizontally between the two booths. To do this we need a massive hinge attached to the front of the phone booths a little above their ‘waist line’ three quarters of the way between the floor and the hatches in the ceiling. This creates a balance problem, with less than three feet of pole on one side on the hinge and more than twenty five feet on the other. The solution is to make the shorter side of the phone pole very heavy. In order to do that we replace it with the breach of a cannon made out of a hefty lump of steal. However the lump of steal is wider than the width of the original phone pole so we have to tear down the walls between the left and right phone booths creating an ‘open space’ which has the backend of a cannon decorating the middle of its interior. The front of the phone pole is still too heavy so it is shortened to fifteen feet and made much narrower. There are two narrower designs for the exterior decorators to choose from: a smooth-bore-120-millimeter design and helix-grooved-bore-105-millimeter design. I believe the smooth-bore is considered more modern compared to the more traditional helix-grooved-bore design. Either design works well in terms of balance, so now we can add the joy-sticks that point it wherever we want. The guys on the right side of the cannon are the ones that have the joy sticks. The person on the left has to load the cannon and does not get to play which is not really fair but then neither is life. To make it up to the guy on the left they put in a machine gun on the left hand side of the cannon for him to play with. With the machine gun in the left side of the compartment there is hardly any room in which to play so it’s only a token gesture. Once again it is the guys on the right that control the machine gun trigger through an electric solenoid. The bottom line is that the guys on the right have most of the fun. In order to make sure that they don’t start fighting over which way they want the cannon to point, the ‘commander’ (top right tenant) has a master switch on his joystick which makes him all the more important. The master switch can neutralize the lower tenant’s joystick causing it to droop. When that happens all the lower right tenant can do is scream to get the controls back, which he eventually will because the top right tenant has other things to worry about, primarily figuring out where he wants the three arcade stations to go.

At this point we can give the two connected phone booths a name the army calls it a turret which is in linguistic terms is a ‘revolving gun housing’. The turret and the manhole which is actually the driver’s compartment are all dug out of the ground and placed in a steel chassis with an engine, wheels and treads so it can drive around. In doing so the turret hatches end up eleven feet above the ground which gives the two tenants in the upper compartment quite a view of the road when riding with their hatches open. The entire contraption, chassis, wheels, treads, engine (did I mention engine), communication, turret and all are called a ‘tank’. At first it’s quite a confusing to work two different arcade stations simultaneously it is a concept not found in civilian life but then the military tests one’s limits. �The turret can revolve 360 degrees either clock wise or counter clock wise, while the chassis could be going in a straight line or turning is any radius in and direction moving either forward or backward. Working these two dimensional free moving massive parts in harmony is once again the responsibility of the ‘commander’ making him an even more important person. As powerful as the commander is, the turret control at his fingertips, the driver can go anywhere he wants and no one can catch him as long as he remains shut within his manhole. At times this can get quite hairy given that the driver cannot see much through his periscopes which are covered with sand and dust most of the time, let alone at night when no one can see anything. To make things even more interesting the turret is stabilized by a gyro which is a kind of cruise control that has a mind of its own. The gyro keeps the cannon pointed in the same direction no matter where the chassis is going. Consider driving North on Broadway from Wall Street to buy matinee tickets in time square. Once you get to 41st street you want to turn right. As the chassis turns right, the turret will swivel to the left so that the cannon remains pointed north in the direction of Broadway. This puts fifteen feet of cannon pointing sideways from the chassis as you head down 41st street which is not a good way to go through a two way street. You override the gyro using the turret joysticks to re-align the turret with the chassis. It’s a bit tricky to learn to do this in time while making sure that the driver does not over-steer you see the driver does not know when to stop turning something that civilians take for granted.

The term ‘tank’ is misleading if you think of tanks as receptacles for liquids. There are no receptacles for liquids inside a tank. If you need to pee, well, you should be able to figure out what to do with everything I told you up until now. Somehow you have to get everyone to agree to stop. You have to say that you have to pee into your microphone which everyone can hear. You have to get used to sharing information about body functions. Once the decision is made the driver needs to press on the brake which is where it needs to be and shift to neutral remember you have to do this manually the steering is semi automatic. Once stopped you have to open your hatch unless you are the bottom right dweller – in which case your up-chair neighbor has to do it for you and get out himself so you can reverse your slither-down-swing- forward motion with a lean-back-pull-up motion. Once out pick and side of the contraption to pee from and let the desert blossom. Always make a mental note of where the turret is relative to the chassis. It is not a good idea to walk off the front of the turret when it is pointing sideways, because you will find yourself in a Wile E. Coyote position over where the chassis isn’t. From there you still have eight feet of free fall which is quite marginal in terms of what your limbs are able to absorb without cracking or breaking. The sides of the turret just left and right of the hatches are the safest directions as they are always positioned above the chassis. Do not turn the turret when the driver is climbing out of the manhole. If you are the driver and see the cannon coming at you either from the right or from the left duck back in, after the cannon passes over you hit the main power to stop the turret from turning.

Now that you have a vague idea how to use your new toys with a smidgen of an inkling of the tip of the iceberg of all the safety rules that protect you and your roommates from hurting yourself you are ready to start cleaning the machine. The machine has to be cleaned because its interior is painted white snow-bone-china-baking-powder white.� The interior decoration is designed to reduce the claustrophobic sensation which some people can get in such close quarters with cannons, machine guns and joy sticks. The problem with white is that it shows dirt stains, and the military does not like dirt stains so you clean. You clean and it gets dirty again. It gets dirty because the machine has oil and grease in its veins, and these leak from every greasing value, hydraulic connection and gasket. Dripping oil to sand and dust are what candles are to mosquitoes eternal fatal attractions when they meet they bond forever in a smudge of death on the walls, ceiling, pipes, hinges, floor, levers, bolts, chains, wires, knobs, handles everything.� The natural thing to do when cleaning is to start at the top and wipe the dirt down to the floor. Once the dirt is on the floor civilians in dorms sweep it out the door not in the tank where the floors are buried inside the belly of the machine the only way out it up. Be careful when you collect the dirt and lift it out of the hatches if you slip you will have to start over, if you don’t slip you’ll start over anyway the desert winds and sand will see to that.

Don’t feel bad about the futility of cleaning a machine that is forever destined to be filthy and noisy and hot. The truth is that the cannon will continue to operate until you have five feet of sand in the turret, and the engine will start as long as the batteries which are six feet above the ground are not clogged with dust. There are five gallon water containers tied to the back of the turret use them to take showers. Learn to enjoy the simplicity of the basics. Remember that you can turn the turret in any directions as many times as you want, it will not unscrew itself from the chassis and fall down to the road leaving you stranded with a double-open-space phone booth and a telephone pole weighing fifteen tons in the middle of the road. A few weeks from now you will learn how this is possible. You will learn how to drive your play station over any terrain; you will learn to operate its firing systems, communications and optics. Learn how to use your monster toy well, humor yourself that it’s just a big toy, but do not ever cease to respect the complexity of the machine and the dangers of letting your guard down. Use your teaching skills to share your knowledge with others. Teach them to laugh at hardship and support each other in the fifty square feet which they will have to call home. Let’s hope that it does not ever become more than a toy; that none of you ever has to use it for what it was built to be. Watch your fingers when you close the hatches. Never ever forget your ear plugs.

Have a safe journey; we’ll see you back in Washington Square in two years.