D. E. Larsen, DVM
The winter of 1968 in West Germany was cold, with multiple ice storms and plenty of snow. I had just been promoted to NCO in charge of the maintenance shop of a remote Army Security Agency Site at Wobeck.
Located in the middle of an ancient elm forest outside of the village of Schöningen. This site had been operational for ten to twelve years. It was responsible for the electronic intelligence of the Soviet and East German Armies across the border.
We had a small maintenance crew, and most of our work was done on the day shift. Eight-hour days were rare, and we often had one to two guys on night duty. This winter, Marsden was working at night. On this particular night, I had stayed to help with a problem on one of the main operations stations.
The site Operations were housed in a couple of old Quonset Huts. Stuffed with sophisticated equipment, these huts drew a lot of electricity.
Marsden and I were working on this station, and there was a sudden drop in power. Lights dimmed, some equipment clicked off, and there was an odd sound that we didn’t identify at the moment. This was a brief event, maybe a second or two at the most, and then everything was back to normal.
Marsden and I exchanged a puzzled glance. We waited a moment, but when everything returned to normal, we returned to work.
A few minutes later, it happened again. This time we could isolate the source of the sound. It came from where all the power input panels were located in the far corner of the operations bay.
Marsden and I went over and opened the panel. Everything appeared normal. When it happened again, the sound was that of an electrical arcing. And it was right at our feet.
“That has to be in the power input cable,” Marsden said.
We stepped out the back door into the cold. There were about six inches of snow on the ground. We moved around the corner to where we were outside the wall holding the electrical panels.
We were struck with a strong, unpleasant odor.
“What is that odor?” Marsden asked.
I sniffed again, “Piss,” I said. “Burnt piss.”
The arc happened again as we were standing there. We could almost see the arc this time. It was just under the surface of the snow.
“It has to be the main power cable,” I said. “Let’s get a shovel and see what we can find. We have to fix it tonight, or it will start frying equipment.”
“What the heck is going on,” Marsden asked. He was speaking more to himself than to me.
“It looks like guys are stepping out the back door, and instead of taking a hike to the outhouse, thirty yards across the snow, they are just stepping around the corner and pissing here.”
Once we found a shovel, we started to carefully dig into the problem.
“Keep your hands on the wooden handle,” I said.
With some careful digging, we uncovered the large buried power cable coming into the building. And then we found the problem. There was a splice in the cable just as it entered the building.
“Why would they put a splice in that cable?” I asked.
“My guess is they had some German contractors doing the electrical work, and they couldn’t go inside. So they ran the cable to this point, and the Army guys spliced it to the cable on the inside,” Marsden said.
I wiggled the cable with the shovel, and we were showered with sparks as the lines arced between themselves. Looking close, we could see that the tape between the lines had broken down with the moisture of the snow and the piss. The lines started arcing. We would have to redo the splice tonight.
“These jokers have no idea how lucky they are to be alive,” Marsden said. “Can you imagine the jolt if a stream of urine was hit with one of those arcs?”
“We are going to have to shut the site down for a brief time,” I told the NCO in charge. “We are going to have to repair the main power cable coming into the building.”
“There is no other option?” Sargent Duke asked.
“We can’t do it without turning off the power out front at the generator shed.”
“Okay, give us a few minutes to wind things down and make sure the comm center is not in the middle of a transmission.”
“Do you think I should call Lieutenant Lee?” I asked.
“No, if it is only going to be a few minutes, there is no need.”
We turned the power off, and then, with the aid of a few flashlights, we were able to clean up the cable and wrap the individual wires with rubber tape. These wires were the size of my thumb. When we had the individual wires wrapped, we covered the entire splice with rubber tape and electrical tape.
Everything worked fine when we turned the power back on. The site was down for less than twenty minutes.
“Sargent Duke, we are up and running,” I said. “All you have to do is make sure everyone uses the outhouse instead of pissing around the corner of the hut. And make sure they know how lucky they are to be alive if they were the ones doing it.”
“Let’s leave this open so we can recheck it in the daylight,” I said to Marsden. “I would guess the powers that be will want to make any final decisions about what to do.”
“They can discuss it all they want,” Marsden said. But short of replacing the whole cable, there is not much else to be done.”
“Now, the only thing we have to worry about is finding enough water around here to wash up. I think I am going to enjoy the shower tonight.”