Life Aboard an Aircraft Carrier

Mj 618_348_life aboard the uss george h w bush
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.

NEXT >>> Intimidation at the Gym

II. The Gym

There was a line to get in to the gym and there wasn’t a lot of space once you got in. It wasn’t just that the room was small – there was also the small matter of every person in it being the size of two people. Arms were as big as legs, necks the size of waists, and so on. Three guys were running marathons – on treadmills. The rest were inflating themselves with weights. They favored baggy shorts and T-shirts or singlets, to prove that however big they got there was always room for further expansion. Even the guys who didn’t look that big were plenty big. The bald guys looked like their skulls were pumped. Inked and slinky, the mermaid on a bicep had become six months pregnant by the time a set of reps had been completed.

I’ve always been intimidated by gyms, have never been able to enjoy the towel-round-the-shoulder confidence of somebody who knows he can bench-press 150 pounds, or even knows what that means or how much 150 pounds actually weighs. I just know I don’t like lifting heavy things, especially since I had this wrist injury which stopped me playing tennis and which means that I’ve gone from being fit and thin-looking to just a feeble streak of unshouldered manhood whose only saving grace is that he doesn’t take up much space, who leaves plenty of room for others – especially now that I was several days into a quasi-hunger strike. I slunk in the corner like a whupped pup, wondering if a visible tat would have made me look more or less weak. The room was bursting with straining flesh and grimacing biceps. Breath came in fierce snorts. There was the clank of heavy metal being laid roughly to rest. I was conscious that I was staring at these Tom-of-Finland arms and chests with an intensity that might have been construed as homoerotic. (There were a couple of women jacked into to their iPods, working out, but it was overwhelmingly male in there.) Anthony Bang, the Fit Boss, was standing next to me, wearing a T-shirt and biceps. He had grown up in a military family but was actually a civilian, supervising the exercise program on ship. From what I could see his job resembled that of a bouncer, stopping people getting in. The gym was filled to capacity so he was operating the one-in-one-out policy that you get at overcrowded nightclubs. I didn’t know what to say but, feeling I ought to ask a question, said,

“How big can a human arm become before it stops being a limb and morphs into something else?”

“Excuse me?” he said, and so I changed my tune and came up with a different question, still physical, but less meta.

“Are you the fittest person on the boat?” I said.

“Lot of people fitter than me.”

“Lot of people fatter than me,” I quipped back. Then, fearing the conversation was taking on a slightly unhinged quality, I asked him about the food, its compatibility or otherwise with fitness and well-being.

“Most people eat healthier on the ship than they do at home,” he said. This seemed stodgily plausible. I nodded in a way I hoped would not seem tofu-snooty. We stood without speaking, arms folded – his massively, mine meagerly – like spectators at a muscular orgy.

“Well, better make room for somebody else,” I said after a while, squeezing past him as though I’d just shattered the world bench press and reps record.

NEXT >>> Troubles With the Head

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.”

NEXT >>> Taking Flight at Night

IV. The Catapult

“Have you ever had to eject?” I asked a pilot (call sign “Disney”), wondering, too late, if such a question broke a taboo, tempted fate.

“I have not.”

“Ever got close?”

“I guess it depends on your definition of close. But I, uh, managed to salvage the situation well before I reached an envelope where I had to think about getting out.”

Envelope! Love it! We’d been talking a few minutes earlier about the beauty of flying at night, as though through deep space, and now we were back within the linguistic envelope of the pilot’s routinely laconic argot. And the downside of flying at night, Disney reminded me, was that you often had to land at night too.

“Nights like these where there’s a moon out so you can see what’s going on – that’s less stressful. But a dark night with terrible weather, low cloud, the boat pitching and you can’t see it till the last seconds – that is a terrifying experience. You have instruments telling you what’s going on but it’s just a postage stamp of a boat down there. Even with all the technology we’re still very visual and what you can’t see terrifies you. You’ll land and have trouble getting out of the aircraft because your legs are shaking so much and you’re like What in the hell am I doing this for? That was just stupid.”

“How about taking off at night? Is that more straightforward?”

“In some ways I hate the night catapult shot more than I hate the night landing. You sit there, they dim the lights down but your eyes take time to adjust. They shoot you off the front end and on a dark night you’ve got no visual reference, no idea where the horizon is. It’s like getting shot into a black hole. You only have your instruments to trust. On the way down, even on a dark night, you can often see the lights of the ship out in front of you. But when you get shot off Catapult One, the edge lights go and you’re in the dark. So you climb, get your night vision on, try to figure out what’s going on.”

The odd thing about this was that Disney seemed completely unfazed by what he was saying. Routine, lyricism, terror – all of it was recounted in the same slow, unexcited drawl.

Everything about taking off and landing from a carrier had gotten safer but Disney said something I would hear elsewhere on the carrier. “A lot of our lessons are written in blood. It’s not necessarily a dangerous business, just terribly unforgiving of mistakes.”

  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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