Sunday, November 13, 2011

God’s Own Chow Runner of Death


The way the U.S. Navy boot camp works, allowing others might be wildly different as I’ve never bothered to ask anyone, is that they bring in recruits like collecting bushels for Noah’s ark, pairs of groups of 80 collected and called “Divisions” every few days, such that each pair of Divisions were offset enough the various supporting faculty and facilities could facilitate the deluge of farm boys and urban have nots. Eventually enough Divisions would form for administration to set a graduation date for the lot of us, and while that meant we would all be getting out of boot camp, the date had a very loose and liberal definition of date, not like the prison terms so many of the recruits had dodged to enlist.

I lucked into a grouping that initiated a brand spanking new graduation cache. That meant I would finish boot camp, then get to enjoy a week or three of ancillary service before the actual, technical graduation happened. For the part of our division that volunteered (or were “volun-told”) to participate in the marching presentational portions of the graduation ceremony, this early slate meant they’d be front of the phalanx of new sailors paraded before whoever came to populate the bandstands for photo opportunities and / or book signings. In July. On asphalt. In San Diego. During a record high summer. Bonsai.

For the rest of us schleps quick to step backwards when volunteers were summoned, other tasks were assigned on the Idle Hands principle. Sensing my childhood in industrial scale kitchens with my parents, perhaps smelling the soap suds forever whetted into my very marrow, I got a carbon copy blue on fallow while paper scrap assignment, verily my first ever post boot camp completion orders, to muster at the back delivery dock of the base mess hall the next day at revelry, meaning, 4 am. I had to venture looking more stupid than the sunburn on my forehead already did for me and ask when the revelry actually occurred since the paper melting in my hand didn’t specify a time. The military is all about economy. Why update to Xerox machines if technology might go handheld and digital someday? And why specify a specific time for an occasion when the time might be subject to change, while the occasion never will?

As a House Yeoman, capitalization fully a self-worth assessment there, I already had the dubious honor of last to bed, first to rise. Until that point, first to rise translated into 5 am. Rest of the boys, aside from the two on watch for our tidy little “Ship”, were up at 6. Muster at 4 am meant up at 3 to shower and shave and dress. Shaving, there’s a funny thing. They required you to pass inspection by anyone of rank or title at any time for being clean shaven, and if you were a hairy sort, that could mean ducking into the barracks for a second shave mid-day to maintain your baby butt façade. Trouble is, when you’re late teens or early twenties, and in the last year of the almighty John Hughes aka 1989, shaving more than once a week with only a wish and a disposable Bic as your options means you break out like crazy, especially the beard at puberty set. Navy solution? Not reduce the inspection requirements, no way, not budging on that. Instead, afford anyone with a severe reaction to overly dragging a cheap, chipped blade across their cheeks every day at an hour earlier than their eyes can function a little slip of carbon copied paper that absolves them of the duty to shave until such time as their skin can be deemed field ready for a fresh barrage of navy blue (irony noted) plastic-handled Bic brand safety razors. Since skin gets all the more agitated about getting scraped in hot climates, a good two thirds of my Division sport wonderful, albeit youthful, Feel Real G.I. Joe beards and Movember ‘staches through a fair amount of my boot camp. Might have only been a handful of really delicate epidermal cases, however there were enough for me to resent them, because while my skin grew agitated and pimpled a bit too, I simply didn’t have the summer coat to bristle up enough acne to muster a staff doctor’s pity for a pass permitting my pubescent version of a pithy plumage.

The role of a House Yeoman is a strange thing I should take a moment to explain. Being fair, I’d gotten a tip from someone along the recruitment line, or might’ve been Reggie come to think of it, since he’d done the Army / National Guard version of boot camp, and surely they have their version of yeoman as well? Any rate, I had the term with little sense of what it meant firmly ensconced in my melon from the moment I stepped of the blue school bus in the dead of night to be stripped clean of belongings, dignity, personal style, and individuality. I clung to the word “yeoman” like a particularly buoyant bit of vessel left over from the Titanic my life had thus far turned out to be. And when given a chance to give the word some voice, some sound before the teeming masses, or as it were, before 79 other exhausted and delirious recruits and a few official types as yet unidentified clearly to the raggedy lot of us, when asked if any of us had ambitions, had desires from our enrollment into the nations Naval Forces, I exclaimed sure as thunder, “Yeoman!” Then amended, recalling Full Metal Jacket, “Yeoman, sir! Yes, sir!”

This, folks, is what both the terms “Tool” and “Keener” mean to infer, nigh, describe.

Shocked and bemused expressions abound, a few annoyed and more still puzzled. One cat named John looked me square in the eye and nodded slowly. He knew what I was on about, and raised his hand. A Master Chief, though not the submariner we’d eventually get saddled with, audibly sighed and pointed at John. “Yes?” John did this bob thing with his nose, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with a practiced swipe of his southpaw, and said, “Me too, sir, if the spot isn’t filled already.” He waved a hand my way to indicate the prospective filler.

This had every recruit riveted, because while most of them had no idea what a Yeoman consist of, and frankly, neither had I, they all spot a pre-reality show conflict coming on, and welcomed a few moments wherein the focus of all authority figures had clearly become focused elsewhere.

The Master Chief calmly regard each of us, one after another with the slightest of eye and head swivel, before raising his gaze to speak such that the whole 80 and the next Division besides could hear, “Who here has been to college?”

Enough silence passed for me to think, “Anyone? Anyone? Beuller?” Pretty cutting edge sub-referencing for 1989. I hid my snicker and raised my hand. A few others popped up, though scant few, depressingly few, maybe five out of the eighty boys gathered there.

In the military, guess what happens when you have more education coming in than others? You get put in charge. John had a year on me, he became Field Yeoman with greater responsibilities, and as such, more hours to sleep and permanent exemption from watch duty. Another kid, tall handsome fireman from Roxanne fellow from one of those north east cities where everyone talks through their nose like a Kennedy, had a few months on me but passed on Yeoman and became a lead of some sort, a role that turned out to change hands as regularly as the people wearing the dubious mantel disappointed management. To his credit, the kid served that role the most, and when we finally graduated and marched across the Sahara parking lot before the well shaded bandstand, he held the mantel and had the expansive chest to make it look natural, and well earned. I had two years of college, didn’t matter a lick what I’d studied, as none of that had any relevance really to anything boot camp might instill. Or install. Just a measure of maturity, really, as was the following weight test that identified my studious ass to be morbidly obese and sent me to special fat boy afternoon workout sessions on an insane timeframe every afternoon for the following several weeks wherein I worked out with Navy Seals and Master Divers enjoying their rotations inland for low stress duty before rotating back out to the worst hellholes the world might manage to part cheeks to reveal.

Two years of college meant I could snap up the yeoman role the handsome bastard had passed on, and I became the new House Yeoman. A black kid from Mississippi whispered behind me, “Soun’ like he say house nigga to me.” I whispered back over my shoulder, “Like Uncle Tom.” Thinking I might’ve found a kindred spirit of something in the face of our collective adversity. “Like who?” He replied sounding annoyed. I’m pretty sure he ended up being the guy that stole my extra dress socks from the laundry cart, but who knows, could’ve been anybody...

House Yeoman is a strange role. While the Field Yeoman gets to always march at the head of the Division, gets to carry a snappy metal box with a clipboard for a lid that contains everything vital to anyone about our group or the individuals therein. He is the go to guy when the group is on the go, and getting to know him better over the subsequent weeks, he most certainly was the right man for the job, anyone else from our lot would have crumpled under the constant barrage of demands and requests, myself at 19 included.

House Yeoman has a vastly different laundry list of accountabilities. I then romanticized the job as being something like Radar’s role on M.A.S.H., though that projection later proved true as I began to liaison with other House Yeoman’s to swap and trade for various precious goods. Prison has cigarettes, lip gloss, and bad wine. Navy boot camp is far less nefarious, however after a few weeks away from easy access to the mall or Mom’s kitchen, things like coffee start to really matter, and those who have the beans control the universe. I facilitated exchanges of surplus toilet paper for extra carbon copied Chits, small squares of paper seemingly worth a Seaman’s weight in gold to any recruit nervously checking their front left pocket of their regulation denim shirt to discover they’ve lost, misplaced, or worse, given the laundry services one or both of their precious Chits.

Chits were just pieces of paper with spots for someone of authority to fill in your name, company, and then turn over to your Division authorities to let them know you were doing something wrong or stupid or otherwise unbecoming somewhere out on the base. However Chits were also like having the right papers for the Gestapo. Should anyone, for any whim or reason, stop you and you fail to furnish them two pristine folded Chits for them to peruse, you will face summary punishment well exceeding that of simply having your Chit pulled by an annoyed Chief looking to teach some snot nose a life lesson. Failure to provide both chits at any time meant negligence, and when one of the prime objectives of boot camp is teaching all the kids attention to detail, negligence is just short of murder.

So while my role meant getting up an hour before the rest of the recruits, and often getting to sleep a full hour or three after, I had in my possession an inexhaustible supply of Chits, and for all extents and purposes, that made me a sort of god. Not a major one demanding gifts or sacrifices or even kind words. Rather a minor deity that simply didn’t want to be hazed, or hit with bars of soap slung inside a sock, or pushed into the shower tree while my eyes were full of shampoo, or generally screwed with in any way. Having survived a childhood rife with neck-less bullies, I’d found my Chit security quite a wondrous thing, a power not to be taken for granted, nor exploited, just handled clearly, carefully, and with as much benign objectivity as I could muster. Simple rules, really. Replacement Chits weren’t given without questions. If taken, wait a week to see if the taker bothers to turn it in. Usually, I had on stern assurance from another Yeoman who was probably just guessing at basic human nature, the people taking Chits will simply throw them away and let a person get caught for being short a Chit, which punishes more severely anyway. Lost Chits would be replaced, however repeatedly lost Chits would not be. No one gets extra Chits. Having three on hand if stopped would sink us all. There were more rules and conditions, and yet it’s a wonder I never thought to turn a profit from the power I had. Apparently not being messed with or hazed sufficed. Definitely a life lesson in there somewhere.

The House Yeoman gets to know the managing staff better as well, particularly after hours, as that’s when they generally stay on hand to write up reports and check off check lists and whatnot. My Division had three, a First Class, a Master Diver, and over them a Master Chief dry docked from submarine duty and a bit scary to anyone who met him, though generally a very nice guy all told, maybe a bit lonely really, and definitely intimidated by the Master Diver. Ever seen Dirty Jobs? Imagine Mike Rowe as a blonde and you’d have the Master Diver. He warrants a blog post some other day, what a character. The First Class fellow, a really nice guy that could easily pass as Jimmy Smits’ cousin, he left his professional shot faux leather triptych fold up erotica photography shoot collectable keepsake of his wife in the top drawer of his desk, same desk where most of the Yeoman supplies were kept, something a group of young men in an office will of course tastefully discuss with all the best above board terms. Finding out later that he had been in the middle of a nasty divorce throughout the course of our 8 weeks plus of boot camp certainly added a strange twist to my perception of his strange faux leather fold out pin up. You’re getting a divorce from a woman, and you want to remember how sexy she could be? Different strokes, I guess, just left me feeling sad we’d ogled her or made any comments, especially since I’m the one that found it. I could have hidden it better, put it somewhere else, left the guy a polite note telling him the House Yeoman and Quartermaster also use that desk, and neither of us has seen a woman romantically or otherwise in a very long time, if ever. Certainly not one with a caboose like that. Or heels. Or that pink feather boa thing. Or what she was doing with it.  Ahem.

So after we’d completed our eight weeks of boot camp training, we were put into a holding pattern and given jobs. Mine entailed working in the mess hall kitchen. Fortunately, after my first week of mustering at 4am I moved to evening shift and no longer had to effectively go without sleep since I also had to maintain my admittedly far more lax Yeoman duties.

My first week, working predominantly with a fully immigrant Pilipino staff that were gaining citizenship through military service, I learned how to step, fetch, clear, move, deliver, and restock at a speed and capacity I’d previously never experienced or fathomed possible. Everywhere I turned something seemed ready to lunge out and scald, scour, scrape, slice, or slip me into a coma. I felt like a cartoon as I spun around busy, efficient staff cooks trying not to drop massive pans full of scrambled eggs from massive plastic sacks on their thankfully short stature head heights. I ran pans of still spitting and spattering bacon, pans of seething and frothing fried potatoes, strainers of steamed green beans, heaps of emptied, boiler broiled bins and pans and plates and utensils, seemingly catching them in slow motion, plucking them from the air as I passed busy stations like collecting spent shell casings, efficient as each trip delivered food one way, recovered emptied vessels and spent instruments the other.

After a week my proficiency and perceived lack of required supervision got me bumped to the evening shift. This moved me out of prep territory, as well as missing the breakfast riots all together. I showed up fresh for the lunch rush and stayed through to closing, working clean up instead of prep, and helping polish off any leftover food deemed too little or old to bother storing for the following day. Late shift meant sleeping in, meant missing breakfast, so leftovers were a welcome treat most days.

As with any service industry, there are active times, and lulls between. Ask anyone in the restaurant industry, or read some Anthony Bourdain, and you’ll quickly spot the insanity of the rush and lull mentality, the gallows’ humor disposition that existence inspires. After two months of alien living as a Navy recruit, I felt strangely at home in the kitchen, running chow and cleaning gear and subbing in to pump suds and flush countless trays and utensils through the mammoth dish washing machines. After a couple weeks in the kitchens, I thought I might have found my place, and after a couple more, I graduated and got sent to another kitchen to work on another leg of the base to wait for the next phase of my training to begin, the class that would teach me to hunt submarines from the surface, to kill the silent killers, sink the submerged, torpedo the titans.

During my four weeks in the general mess hall, I wore paper hats that were similar to taking two legal envelopes and attaching their ends, then filling the gap between them with gauze mesh. After a week or so of wearing through those, I had the idea of drawing on them. The lull between lunch and dinner had little to do for the night crew, our cleanup from lunch with full staff went swiftly, and the rest of our big job came during and after dinner. The afternoons were an hour or so sitting around tables listening to Sinead O’Conner sing that sing Prince wrote for her every half hour while guys pushed the breeze around and wish aloud repeatedly that someone had a deck of cards or some dice.

I picked up a ballpoint pen somewhere along the way, not as easy a feat as you might suspect on a basic training military base where everything is disposed towards frugality and resource management, attrition is a lesson learned quickly, as is spatial management – who knew that much denim and cotton could fit into such tiny metal drawers or a single sea bag?

I began drawing on my hat, no real plan, thinking about running chow, how exhilarating that gig had actually proved to be, and that I liked skulls. Something you should appreciate about the military, we share a similar aesthetic disposition to strong iconography, the objectification of buxom beauties on the noses of notable machines, and a liberal use of skulls. And tentacles, the Navy Cargo Handlers have a patch design I completely have patch envy over. Half paying attention, half toe tapping to Sinead, I drew a Don Martin style sprinting skeleton seaman wearing his working denims and dog bowl cap running a tray of chow that trailed a stream of gunk well behind it. I looked up and noticed I had something of an audience. Couple days later, I had requests and a stack of hats waiting to be enhanced. And for all that art, all that goofy art, no one said a thing.

No one complained about breaking some foodie hat regulation, or that the drawings were obnoxious.

A few people mentioned they’d never seen anyone do that before, draw on their disposable hats, make them worth showing off. Especially after I realized my original had a short shelf life what with all the steam and sweat and grease and all. I recalled patching bits in Architecture studio with packaging tape before a jury to hide breaks and tears while shoring up structural integrity. I used my Yeoman powers to trade another Yeoman for a couple rolls of the stuff and scored some scissors from the mess hall supply closet, as well as more pens, and I recreated an improved replica of my dying original hat and taped it up to help preserve it’s freshness for prosperity. The packaging tape trick is a keeper, still use that today, just avoid the cheap stuff, it bubbles up and / or wrinkles on itself too much.

Before sealing up the illustration in a protective sheath of transparent adhesive tape, I added a monicker to my mayhem, “God’s Own Chow Runner of Death”. Strangely, the Pilipino shift wranglers I worked with and for loved that touch, maybe the Christian aspect, maybe the sarcasm over the quality of the chow. Who knows? Those hard working bastards found my stuff funny when they looked to really need a laugh, and they didn’t bust me down, win-win.

During my four weeks working in the mess hall, I probably contributed to some forty hats or more, and saw others take up the idea until one out of every three hats on the line had something on it. Not always something good, but something, and like nose art on bombs, there’s some great mirth evident throughout, even if the taste is utterly subjective. Other than genitalia or vulgarities, pretty much anything went on the embellishments. A lot of sports teams, though I enjoyed seeing teams I’d never heard of, local teams from whatever piss water Podunk town these crazy cretins had cruised, crawled, or crash landed in from.

Later when I moved on to the ASW base (Anti Submarine Warfare), and took on full time dish washing duties, I made a new hat called, “God’s Own Dishwasher of Death”. One night of high power suds took care of that hat despite the tape, steam is packaging tape’s mortal enemy after all.

I’ve attempted to homage / recreate the bookend images from memory, a fun exercise and strange sort of time travel, though I should try again to do it properly, maybe ask the culinary school by work if I can borrow a couple paper hats, a ballpoint, and a metal table for a couple hours sometime. Ambiance is everything, after all. Put some Sinead on the PA. I’m sorry I don’t have the originals, they would be far more interesting to see, I’m sure.

Couple links of note I had to refer to for some clarification. A very rosy though basically (pardon pun) accurate description of what Navy boot came is from geek legend Gamergirl; and a very spot on bit of information from a larger series on About Dot Com.

I went through all that and never clued in that the 80 kids were considered a Division, or that our bunkhouse was considered a Ship. Makes sense, just never caught on to that. Weird, considering how many other details are burned into my mind’s eye. The jokes about why we stenciled our names on our clothes, and where we placed them. The kid that looked like a young Michael Keaton and turned up with crabs pretty much to the day the Master Chief said folks would that shacked up with unscrupulous company before shipping out to boot camp. The awful painting of a hydrofoil ship I painted on one of our Division’s flags because the Master Chief Submariner didn’t want to be outdone by the other flag the Master Diver had picked, an Iron Maiden Trooper painted by a madly talented kid from Michigan I had no hopes of besting with my clumsy, cartoonish applications of acrylics.

But calling our long quarters a Ship? Nope, that is something brutally obvious that I never actually caught on to. So much for attention to detail.

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