USS Carter Hall, At sea --
Some of the oldest memories I have growing up in Norfolk, Va., are of ships.
My father was in the Navy. When I was small, occasionally, I’d luck out, and he’d take me to his destroyer when he was visiting on a weekend to get something or other from his office when the ship was in port. I remember gray skies and walking up the ramp – the duty standing there at the brow of the ship – though I had no comprehension of his role at the time. I remember the smell of the ship – the AC and diesel fuel and oil and the water of Norfolk. I remember running around the bridge, very consciously avoiding touching anything. Being six or eight or five or however old I was, I was deathly afraid of turning something on and breaking everything. Credit that to my upbringing.
Suffice it to say, my mental image of ships has changed just a bit.
The concept of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit is a simple one: a complete Marine Air-Ground Task Force, mated to three Navy ships purpose built to support us, deployed to act as a quick-reaction force for the entire world. It allows the rapid and confident projection of power, a strategic reserve for the combatant commanders, that’s proved its worth a hundred times over.
But being on ship is still unusual.
It moves, for example. The big deck, the USS Kearsarge in our case, not so much. It’s a big ship, and it takes a lot to get it rolling around. But with the smaller decks, or the smaller ships, USS Carter Hall and USS San Antonio, you can always feel the waves to some extent or another. Eventually, your legs and your sense of equilibrium become accustomed and acclimated, but lying in your bed – your rack – at night, you can feel the boat gently rocking.
My old man still gives me grief for this, but I didn’t sign up to be in the Navy exactly. He did.
Corridors are white painted, fluorescent lit hamster mazes. Festooned with pipes and gauges and hoses and wires on all sides whose purpose I can only guess at, and chock-full of a thousand little protrusions to hit a head or an elbow or a shin on. At six foot, I’m at the upper limit of height for being able to walk about unimpeded. For anyone taller, proceeding about the ship involves a lot of hunching down and furtive expressions, hunted by hallways that seem to make an active effort to take a swing at your head.
Food is served at the mess deck. You get in a line, you get a tray and dishes, or one of those cafeteria trays you may recall from school cafeterias, depending on the ship. Food gets placed on it. You get a drink and utensils. You sit in a chair or on a bench, ship depending. You eat, with or without friends, sometimes in sight of a TV, sometimes not. You clean your tray off, separating food, paper, metal, bones and plastic into separate trash bags. Place your tray into the window where the dishwashers exist – the scullery.
It’s not uncommon for Marines to have a list of food they’re going to devour with some gusto upon returning. Prime rib and steak are usually the top of this list. I agree, though I personally wouldn’t mind a good loaf of French bread to accompany it. Pasta comes in a close second. Home cooked is the preference.
Berthing, or the bays, the rooms of beds, is likewise unusual. Marines are stacked 3 or 4 beds high, crammed into racks where it’s impossible for an individual of normal shoulder width to turn over without some considerable wriggling. The racks fold up for the storage of gear, and come with curtains as a small concession to privacy. It’s not something I was prepared for, my last deployment. I meant to pack a hiking hammock to string up somewhere, but in my frantic preparations for the deployment, I forget to pick one up.
Socially, it’s a peculiar place as well. Nowhere as on ship are you so close to so many people, and unable to escape. The ships are not that big. Even on the Kearsarge, at close to a thousand feet, you’re still on a ship with close to three thousand other people. You live in a berthing with dozens to hundreds of other people. Some Marines go days without seeing the sun, if they don’t smoke or have a job that involves them being outside. It’s a life of fluorescent lights and grey and white paint, steep stairs and narrow hallways. The outside of the ship is the ocean without bound, a hundred square miles visible from any given side, and yet, you’re on this ship, this floating amalgamation of steel and sailors and fuel and cables and lights and Marines and hallways. A floating labyrinth, though lacking a Minotaur. As far as I know; he may be lurking down in engineering.
There’s nothing I’ve ever done quite like it. It’s absolutely fascinating, this life at sea.