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

III. The Head

I got used to showering in the noisy, smelly bathrooms - with my flip-flops on in case of verucas – but it was an experience devoid of pleasure. I never lingered, always tried to get out before anyone else came in. When it came to crapping I always picked a corner stall, figuring that a person on one side rather than both offered a 50 percent increase in privacy. It was awful, sitting there, to see a pair of heavy black boots beneath the door of the opposite stall or the panel separating me from the stall next door, knowing someone else was engaged in a facing or parallel dump. The contrast that I'd been so conscious of in the gym, between my scrawny limbs and those of the grunting pumpers also made itself felt here in the so-called head. Living on a subsistence diet, I alternated between manageable diarrhea and stringy little turds. The sailors who were tucking daily into their burgers and hot dogs, meanwhile, were sitting there solidly – feet planted on the ground, straining away like weightlifters – and depositing swollen bicep turds that put the vacuum system through its paces. The gym ethos permeated the ship: the food gave the digestive capacities of the body a daily workout; at times, faced with the sheer amount of grease and fat confronting it, the digestive system must have been tempted to call it a day, but then the military training kicked in and the body had to suck it up, had to start breaking this stuff down, translating it in to energy and power which was then put to work in the gyms and exercise classes until eventually the unusable residue – of which there was a vast amount – was bench-pressed into shape and passed on to the vacuum system which, in turn, was in the grips of a constant, system-threatening workout that frequently left it prostrate and constipated, in a state of total collapse.

I lost track of the number of times my local toilets were out of action. Often enough to make me approach them with a feeling of mounting anxiety which turned either to dread (what am I gonna do now?) when confronted with a notice on the locked door or relief (they're working!) when the door opened and the promise of a fully functioning toilet made itself pongily apparent.

The state of the toilets was the single biggest source of grievance while I was on the boat and it continued to be a contentious issue after I'd returned to the exquisite privacy of my owner-occupier lavatory at home. The mother of one of the sailors wrote a blog about the state of the toilets and how they were adversely affecting the mental and physical well-being of the crew (faced with a lack of toilet opportunities, they were drinking less and therefore becoming dehydrated). This blog found its way on to various media outlets, prompting the Captain to send a 1,500-word response on Facebook to family and friends of the crew. It's a remarkable document, notable for statistical precision, the vigor with which speed of repair is presented and defended, and the thoroughness with which causes of blockage are itemized:
• Inappropriate items that have been flushed down the commode and caused clogs during deployment include feminine hygiene products and their applicators, mop heads, t-shirts, underwear, towels, socks, hard boiled eggs, and eating utensils.
• There have been ZERO (0) clogs caused by toilet paper and human waste.
As for claims of "increased health issues, such as dehydration, and increased urinary tract infections," the Captain simultaneously rebuts the claim and offers an alternative explanation for why the last-mentioned might have arisen: "There have been 60 total cases of urinary tract infection during deployment with two major spikes occurring immediately following port visits."

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