Life Aboard an Aircraft Carrier
Credit: Chris Steele-Perkins / Magnum Photos

I. The Kitchens

Breakfast in the Ward Room was a fried reek of congealed eggs, bacon, and other horrors avoided – if not ignored - in favor of cereals, tinned fruit, and yogurt. After that we went right to the source, to the kitchens where it had all been prepared. Showing us round was Charles Jake from New York City. He was African American, and had spent 25 of his 44 years in the Navy. In a way that I was becoming accustomed to Charles ran – as opposed to walked or strolled – through a description of his mission and his routines. He was in charge of 112 cooks and 180 food attendants, serving seven places to eat on ship. Increasing quantities of the stuff served in these venues were pre-prepared rather than cooked from scratch (which saved money and time, cut down on staff and accounted, in part, for why meals on the boat were less than appetizing).

The idea, Charles explained, was to go 45 days without running out of anything. And 20 days without running out of fruit and veg. He took us into a freezer – the size of a Manhattan apartment – and talked us through its contents. Eight thousand pounds of chicken, 5,000 pounds of steak, 4,000 pounds of hamburger. Waiters in American restaurants always employ the first-person singular when announcing and describing the day's specials. "I have a lamb casserole with a radish reduction," they will say, as though this interesting-sounding confection has been summoned into existence by his or her descriptive efforts alone. In Charles's case this grammatical habit took on gargantuan proportions.

"I aim to eat my way through everything on the boat," he said. "So, going back to the U.S., I got a million dollars or less left for the last forty-five days." It made Paul Newman's boast in Cool Hand Luke – "I can eat fifty eggs" – seem pitiful, the equivalent of ordering a single boiled egg on toast, lightly poached. Speaking of eggs, we moved from freezer to fridge to gaze at 230 boxes of them, which made a total of 575 dozen eggs. This looked like a lot but I calculated that it added up to only just over one egg per person; hence Charles's eagerness to offer reassurance. "These are not the only eggs. Most the eggs are frozen. These here are just backup." Good to know.

En route to one of the storerooms, we passed another chill box which was actually the morgue. "Ain't nobody in there at the moment," he said. "And if there was there'd be a guard outside." That was good to know too.

As we entered the storeroom Charles warned that things were in a seriously depleted condition. At the beginning of the deployment stuff would have been piled so high we would not be able to see over the stacks. Now, near the end of deployment which, he hoped, would clean the place out, they were rarely more than four feet high.

First thing we saw was a low-level expanse of popcorn ("they just love popcorn round here"). Beyond the popcorn were six-pound tins (like big pots of paint) of Country Sausage Gravy, Great Northern Beans, Victory Garden Pork and Beans, Popeye Leaf Spinach, Heinz Kosher Sandwich slices . . .

Like a mother whose son has turned up unexpectedly Charles kept stressing that levels were this low because we only had 50 days at sea left, that, relatively speaking, there was almost nothing to eat.

Before moving into the bakery we donned little paper Nehru hats. The bakers, from New York, Texas, Chicago, and California, were lined up to meet us. They bake 8,000 cakes a day, not counting the ones made for special ceremonies in port (epic cakes iced in the colors of the American flag and the flag of the host country). It was incredibly hot in here - hot, as Philip Larkin remarked in a different context, as a bakery.

"You're not troubled by the heat in here?" I said.

"Uh-uh," said one of the bakers. "Sometimes it gets pretty hot."

"This is not hot?"

"This a really cool day."

From the bakery we moved into one of the real kitchens: the heart (attack) of the whole feeding operation where Charles resumed his narrative of singular endeavor: "I aim to prepare maybe four thousand . . . ," "When I've eaten twenty-five hundred pounds of . . ." I'd got it in to my head that this was not just a figure of speech, and now found it impossible to shake off the image of the genial and willing Charles scarfing his way through piles of meat, potatoes, and vegetables, gorging his body beyond its performance envelope, a Sisyphus scrambling up a mountain of food, a calorie-intensive reincarnation of the Ancient Mariner. In its way it was a far more impressive feat of solo perseverance than even the pilots could imagine.

All around were boiling vats as round and deep as kettledrums. A lot of meat was being prepared, plastic bags stuffed full of barbecue chopped pork.

"Hmm, smells good," I said, instinctively remembering that nine times out of 10 the most charming thing to say in any given situation will be the exact opposite of what one really feels. The truth was the smell was a sustained and nauseated appeal on the behalf of the Meat-Is-Murder Coalition or the Transnational Vegan Alliance. But what can you expect when you're in the middle of the ocean with 5,000 hungry mouths to stuff, most of them needing plenty of calorie-fuel to power their workouts at the gym?

 


This is an excerpt from ANOTHER GREAT DAY AT SEA: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer. Copyright © 2014 by Geoff Dyer. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

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