Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Feed the Crew Part 1

WARNING!!! The following blog post has a tremendous amount of gratuitous profanity. Including liberal applications of the f-word. Normally, I do not use overly foul language on this blog. The furthest I go is the rare use of the word 'shit.' And I have never used any derogatory words for women, sexual organs or any other objectionable language here. But this post deals with a subject of which I am very familiar, i.e., a semi-fictional account of a day in the life of a cook on a Navy ship. And Navy cooks, at least the ones I worked with, swear...a lot, like, uh, sailors. And as much as I hate to say it, the sound of a bunch of crazy, wound up cookies using terms like "Golly, gee", and "That's neat" would not be in the least authentic. So if you are easily offended by coarse language uttered by young men in their 20's working under heavy stress in a difficult job, then you should skip this post and come back when I've posted something more family-friendly. Otherwise, read on. You have been warned.

The ship named in this piece is modeled after a ship I served on while I was in the Navy from 1984 to 1986. The ship is no longer in commission, but still I have changed its name to the USS Alameda, and the names of my crew mates are also psuedonyms. The time frame for this story is set for 1984, the ship is tied up at the pier at the Naval Base from which it takes its name, Naval Air Station Alameda in Alameda, CA. The base has since been closed. Most of the descriptions in this account are pretty accurate. There is more than a little exaggeration, but the basics are true. If you're wondering why I do not mention women as part of either the ship's or the galley crew, keep in mind that in the mid-'80s, women did not serve on combat ships as they do now. I have decided to write this piece in multiple parts so that I can add as much detail as possible. Even though this blog is known for its long form posts, if I were to stuff the entirety of the piece into one post, the writing would suffer, so it's better to spread it out over multiple posts to keep the writing fresh.

Up at 0400. Shit! I just got to sleep not three hours before. I had come back aboard Alameda at 0100 after a night of heavy drinking with the guys on my watch. We had hit this dingy-ass dive on the Strip and had gotten royally fucked up. What was the name of that shithole again? The Dragon Palace??? I was drinking San Miguel and it was coming back to bite me in the ass. Fucking flip brew!!! Stumbled across the quarterdeck, hit the head long enough to take a wiz and splash some water on my face before collapsing in my rack.

Next thing I knew, I saw the ugly puss of my watch captain, Mitch, telling me to get my ass out of the rack and turn to. I thought to myself "This is why I spent six weeks in San Diego??" Goddamn that second class PN in reclassification at Great Lakes. Railroading me into becoming an MS. Then again. it was my fault for fucking up that great shot at becoming a DS. If I had worked my ass off like I should have in BE&E school, I wouldn't be in this shit. Oh well, nothing I can do about it now. I hit the head for a quick shower and threw on a set of cook's whites. Grabbing an apron and my favorite 16 ounce ceramic tankard, I head out of S-2 berthing and make my way down the red-lighted passageways towards the galley. It's dead quiet on the decks as it should be for a ship tied up on the pier. A minute later, I hit the messdecks and stop at the coffee machine for the first of many cups of coffee to get my cranky ass through the day. The rancid taste of Filipino beer was still in my cotton-dry mouth, and I needed some good ol' Navy joe to wash that shit out. Now the stuff in the coffee urn, had once been coffee, about 18 hours ago. Now it was transformed into a pitch-black bitter swill that had the taste of battery acid, and looked like the shit that was dredged off the bottom of the fuel oil tanks. It tasted awful, but it provided the caffeine jolt I needed to get the alcohol induce fog out of my head and ready for another 16 hour day.

It was Tuesday, and we, the port watch, were on the dog ass end of a 5 and 2 week. We relieved the starboard watch section, the other cook shift, after breakfast yesterday so they could get some liberty after working the weekend. We turned and burned all day Monday cooking lunch and dinner and then cleaned up the galley. Once released, we hit the beach for some serious drinking, and womanizing and lurched back to the ship. Now, we had to pull a full shift today working breakfast, lunch and dinner before we could roll out about 2000. We then had to drag our asses back in at 0430 tomorrow to work breakfast, before the rested and refreshed starboard crew would come in and relieve us. We then had Wednesday and Thursday off before coming back in Friday to work the weekend shift. Next week, the situation would be reversed. Off Monday and Tuesday, work Wednesday and Thursday and off again on the weekend. Fortunately, for us we had payday on our rotation, and we'd be getting paid on our weekend off.
But that was an eternity away. We had at least sixteen hours of ass-kicking work ahead of us. We had to put out over 1,200 meals during the breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And the galley we worked in conspired to make the job that much harder.

I don't know who the dumbass was in charge of designing the space where the Alameda cooks worked, but clearly they, nor anyone they gave a shit about never intended to work there. The galley, or kitchen, for non-squids, was located on the port side of the ship, while the messdecks themselves were on the centerline. In port, this was not a big deal, but at sea was a different copper of fish. The Alameda was a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser, essentially a bulked-up destroyer, which meant that at sea, she would roll under even the calmest of waters. If we were in rough seas, she would do fifteen and twenty degree rolls with ease. Cooking under those conditions was fun to say the least. We had to lash down the shitcans, or else they'd be chasing the cooks all over the galley. The poor bastard who had to work the fryers during a meal had to hope and pray that the ship didn't roll too much or else he'd have about seven gallons of 300+ degree frying oil in his lap. When the galley decks got wet, they were as slippery as ice and once in a while a cook who wasn't careful would go flying ass over teakettle with a six inch pan of soup, splashing it all over the fucking place. During high seas it was common to see guys and their food sliding around the messdecks and dropped trays of food were commonplace. Honestly, I don't know how the hell we didn't get anyone killed in that space, what with all the gear that could either cut or burn people to death. But that was not a problem while we were alongside the pier.

The location of the galley, not withstanding, the rest of the machinery in the galley also challenged us in our constant battle to put out decent chow. The Alameda galley had four convection ovens, but only three of them worked. Of those, one barely got above 250 degrees and the other two were at least 100 degrees out of calibration. We could never remember whether they were high or low. The four steam jacketed kettles, or coppers, where the cooks would make their soups, sauces, or any other food that had to be cooked there were controlled by four separate steam valves that when working could allow each copper to adjusted as needed or shut off entirely. That is, when the steam valves worked. They leaked constantly, and never turned off completely. The only way the coppers could be controlled at all was through the main steam valve which turned them all on or off at the same time. Of course this would complicate things as cooks who had to have a copper going for one dish had to make sure that they didn't overcook or undercook whatever was in one of the other coppers. Now because the coppers were always on, that caused the safety valves to constantly blow filling the galley with a deafening roar of hot steam, which raised the already high temperature of the galley and its cooks another 20 degrees. The two electric griddles were foul-tempered bitches in and of themselves. Both of them were out of calibration by at least 50 degrees and had numerous hot and cold spots. Knowing where they were and how to use them required skills that we had definitely not learned in "A" school. About the only thing that worked halfway decent in the whole damn galley was the deep fat fryers. The only thing wrong with them was that the heating elements didn't swing out of the way which made cleaning them even more of a pain in the ass than usual. The whole fucking mess was a torture chamber personally designed by deSade himself. Despite all that, both watches were able to put out pretty decent chow. We got the usual complaints, and the quality of the food and the maintenance of the galley would not have qualified us for the Ney award, but we managed. To survive in Alameda's galley, we had to know how to improvise and use equipment in ways they weren't meant to be used. Otherwise, the meal didn't get out and that was the most important thing--getting the fucking meal out.

End of Part One.

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