29 July, 2008

DV EmbarkVII: The Other Side


Same ship, different time, full airwing, familiar faces, and shots I wish I'd gotten...

Breakfast was an interesting experience. The petty officer warned us that we would be cutting in line "because we're on a tight schedule." But the looks we got from the long line of sailors waiting their turn almost made me defy the PO for the second time that morning. As he instructed a sailor to make room for us, the small tightening of the sailor's expression made his opinion clear despite the quick accommodation. I turned to look at all the sailors who would be behind us and they all had similar expressions. We began to apologize, and I said with a laugh. "We can't help it. He told us to. It's all his fault." Not a line in the hard expressions cracked in response.

Thinking of the sailor who had been hard at work before I even awoke, I wondered how many of those irritated faces and done the same that morning, and I felt horrible. If not for the knowledge that it would have caused further inconvenience and more of a scene, I would've refused my place and gone to the back of the line. I truly felt that terrible.

It didn't help that I was constantly in the way at breakfast--heading in the wrong direction after getting my food, standing in the middle of the juice and bread selections while sailors rushed around me, lost and overwhelmed by all the people who seemed to know what they were doing... before I turned and nearly knocked someone's tray out of his hands. Fortunately the Warrant Officer who had volunteered to shepherd us spotted me and waded through the crowd to point me in the right direction.

The cafeteria-style seating was very industrial, reminding me of the worst of a high school cafeteria, or even what you seen on TV of jailhouse settings. There was a giant flat-screen TV blaring CNN as sailors of all shapes and sizes in blue coveralls and other functional clothing sat over their formed trays of food. The topic was Scott McClellan, which of course meant it was a lot of discussion about "White House lies" and "how President Bush lied us into war" (I couldn't help overhearing throughout breakfast, and it was a particularly unappetizing accompaniment to my food).

Feeling like I'd been enough of a spectacle, I looked for the first familiar face and plopped myself down next to a fellow visitor who was sitting with two sailors. The youngest was from Kansas. A small town, even! He said there were more people on the ship than in his entire town, and that he was an engineer. He was young and gangly, still growing; I couldn't even be certain he yet needed to shave.

At first I sat and listened, not asking any questions. I also couldn't help but compare this setting to what I'd experienced at dinner the night before and elsewhere on the ship so far. Somehow I doubted that this young man's berthing was right next door to a hatch that opened up to a chest-level view of the flight deck, or that he had spent the night in a two-person stateroom. And I wasn't betting on his work in engineering giving him a lot of opportunities for fresh air and sunshine.

But pity was not what he inspired. Instead, earnest enthusiasm for his job shone from everything he said. He mentioned he'd been on the fantail when the ship had done its speed trials recently. "We were going so fast she was putting out a gigantic rooster tail!" he enthused. It reminded me of this video, so I asked him if he'd ever had he chance to be on the deck during high-speed navigation tests. "Oh no," he assured me. "They don't let us do that." I told him about the video, and he asked me which ship it was.

"I think it was U.S.S. REAGAN," I said uncertainly (erroneously). His face cleared with recognition, followed quickly by almost a longing and then dismissal. "Of course. REAGAN is known for doing crazy things like that," he said calmly.

"They are?"

"Oh, yes. All the time," he answered with matter-of-fact assurance.

Thinking of what I've heard through the grapevine and what I've experienced in my official interactions with the ship from my post at the USO, I laughed, which he seemed to find odd.

When asked what his job was, he told us about how careful he had to be with dirt at his station, which involved work on the ship's diesel "backup" engines, and shared sea stories about how dirt could magically get into the wrong places despite all their best efforts and most careful work. He said he had been disappointed to be assigned to a carrier, since the diesel engines he specialized in were so rarely called upon on a nuclear-powered ship. He also spoke matter of factly and without self-pity about difficult schedules, losing track of the days and nights, and how long he had sometimes gone without seeing daylight. He almost seemed to find it amusing rather than upsetting or frustrating.

Despite not being where he would've preferred, despite the austere conditions, despite his lowly position, he shone. I came away from the conversation impressed by his dedication, adaptability, professionalism, and sense of responsibility. He didn't find his situation ideal, but he obviously gave it his all because he saw his contribution as important and valuable.

Perhaps all those people in line had not been "morning people," because when I carried my used tray out of the eating area people seemed friendlier and more alert. I found myself lost and disoriented again, but managed to figure out what to do by following everyone else. Leftovers, metal and plastics were all carefully separated from the trays, which were then handed to dishwashers after the cups were placed in washing racks. Not really the most appetizing way to end a meal, but orderly and thorough.

All-in-all it wasn't unpleasant, but the contrast between it and what we had experienced previously couldn't have been more stark. I couldn't imagine eating meal after meal in that atmosphere for months at a time, and decided that perhaps that was part of why ships at sea are filled with young people.

Fresh from the contrast between the austerity of breakfast and the relative luxury of dinner, we were well-primed for our next stop: meeting the Command Master Chief, the senior enlisted man on the ship.