Saturday, August 30, 2008

Food, or a Reasonable Fascimile Thereof

Traditionally, there were two separate food operations on a destroyer-sized ship. The enlisted men ate in the ship's mess ("mess" being the term for a kitchen operation). The officers ate in the wardroom mess. The chief petty officers often ate in the Chief's Mess, but they had the same menu and food the crew did.

The money came from the BAS, or the Basic Allowance for Subsistence. For enlisted men, the ship received their BAS (sailors on shore duty and not living in the barracks were paid a BAS) and used that to buy food. The officers were paid their BAS and they, in turn, had to collectively pay for their food. Until the Spruance and the Perry classes of warships came into the Fleet, the wardroom mess was a completely separate operation. At sea, the wardroom mess bought its foodstuffs from the Supply Department. In port, while the wardroom mess usually bought most of its foodstuffs from the ship, they could and often did buy things directly from civilian markets.

Both the wardroom and the crew's messes had full kitchens, although since the wardroom mess was feeding 17 officers (plus the wardroom cooks) and the crew's mess was feeding over 200, the crew's galley was a lot larger.

Breakfast was from 0630 to 0715, lunch was 1130-1230 and dinner was 1730-1830. Those who had to eat earlier in order to go on watch could eat 15 minutes earlier at "early chow." There was a limited selection of food put out at 2330 for those going on watch; usually lunchmeats and bread with mustard and mayonnaise. This light meal was called "midrats" (for "midwatch rations"). Sometimes the no-loads in the Supply and X departments came to poach midrats, as did those sailors who had stayed up past Taps in order to play Dungeons and Nerds in some equipment space.

The food was as good or as lousy as the cooks were. The rated cooks were the Mess Specialists. The sailors known as "mess cooks" were junior enlisted men sent by their divisions for three month tours of duty in the galley; they were often referred to as "mess cranks" or "cranks" and the tour of duty was known as "cranking." (Cranking was the equivalent to KP duty in the Army.) Sailors were only supposed to do one tour as a mess cook, but if there was not a steady flow of new sailors, repeat tours did occur, and those sailors sent to repeat cranking were usually the ones that their home divisions could most afford to lose. Rated petty officers were not supposed to be sent cranking, but "push button thirds," the ones who were promoted to E-4 during their school training, could be sent cranking.

One of the worst items on the menu were brussel sprouts that had been frozen a long time before, probably during the Vietnam War. Those were sometimes called "little green balls of death." French fires were also sent frozen and they were often terribly freezer-burned. Poultry meat, for some unknown reason, was shredded before it was frozen and sent to the ships; it was sometimes called "blasted chicken," for the suspicion that the carcasses had been de-boned with explosives. Pasta was made on board, if the cooks could do it.

When the cooks were not skilled or imaginative, the food was awful. A good cook could do a lot of things with the ingredients the Navy provided. The Navy cookbook was a deck of recipe cards, on how to cook large batches of food. The bad cooks could barely follow the recipe cards. The good cooks could follow them. The excellent cooks could transcend them.

If the cooks were bad, then you had eggs or pancakes for breakfast, chicken for lunch and beef for dinner. The next day would be beef for lunch and chicken for dinner. A month or two of that could be a real morale-killer; when the ship came home, you could see the single sailors crowding the Italian and seafood restaurants. (The married ones, when asked "what do you want for dinner, honey," would say "anything other than beef or chicken.") I heard of more than one Supply Officer who was told "either you get your goddamn cooks to start doing their jobs properly or I will find someone who will."

Quality control of the food was done by having an officer eat on the mess decks for each meal and then write an evaluation for the meal. The food was served cafeteria style, so the cooks couldn't set the really good stuff aside and rig the evaluation. It was more than the food, the evaluator had to look at the cleanliness of the mess decks and the utensils provided. The officer doing the evaluations had to be from outside the Supply Department to avoid undue influence. That sometimes led to contentious scenes when the Supply Officer had to answer to the Captain because a junior officer had written "if I had tried to feed this meal to a pig, I'd have been arrested for animal abuse" on the evaluation form.

As for the officers, they paid into a fund and that was drawn upon by the Supply Department to buy food for the wardroom mess. In order to keep a check on those funds, a junior officer was elected by the other officers to be the Mess Treasurer, who reported to the Mess President (the Captain). The poor schmo elected Mess Treasurer kept the books and collected the monthly payment from the other officers. A fresh election was generally held every three months and few, if any, officers on a destroyer or frigate escaped that task. The mess bill was figured simply by dividing the cost of the food supplies by the number of officers (since the wardroom cooks ate the same food the officers did, their BAS was paid to the wardroom fund).

On cruisers, the Captain had his own mess and the Executive Officer was the President of the wardroom mess. Tradition was that anyone who came to eat after the main seating had to ask the President (or, if he was not at the table, the senior officer present) for "permission to join the mess." Similarly, when an officer was finished eating, he or she had to ask for "permission to leave the mess." It was a sit-down meal and food was either served by the wardroom mess crank or it was served family-style. Because it was sort of a formal setting and because it became evident that many people had no experience with formal dining, there was one class session at Officer Candidate School in how to conduct oneself at a wardroom table.

Nowadays, since the officers eat from the same menu as does the crew, there is no need for a full galley in the wardroom. I guess they just check off who eats what meals and they pay accordingly.

Ships could compete for who had the best food in a competition called the Ney Competition (there was no truth to the rumor that the name came from a cook who was skilled at disguising horsemeat). That was a tough contest and no ship could compete solely on its BAS funding; a captain who wanted to compete would have to cough up some of the discretionary funds from elsewhere. For a frigate 25 years or so ago, that would be about ten grand in additional funds to spruce up the mess deck (tables, chairs and all the trimmings).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mail Call!

Nowadays, ships have Internet access. While it is often cut off for reasons of operational security and for emission control, generally, the crew can send and receive e-mail and maybe make VOIP telephone calls.

It wasn't always that way. Formerly, the only way to make a call from a ship at sea was by the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS). To make a MARS call, the ship had to have an amateur radio set and at least one member of the crew with an amateur radio license (or ham). That person had to be off duty. And since the amateur band was a high-frequency band, the calls could be monitored by almost anyone with a suitable HF receiver set, which included the Soviet Union. Making a MARS call pinpointed the ship's location to the Russians, so most of the time, the station was shut down.

That left good old snail mail for most communications. When a ship was overseas, the words "mail call" were the most welcome. If a ship had its schedule changed, the mail might not catch up for as long as a month. A month with no mail was a serious morale-killer; I have heard ship's captains on the secure satellite UHF net screaming at the shore duty pukes about the screwups in getting the mail to that captain's ship.

Mail call brought real news, if rather dated. At sea, the news arrived by a daily three-page radio message; try to think of what it would be like to cover all of the news of the nation and the world in three pages of text. Most stories were a headline and two sentences, if even that.

Sailors and their families who had experience at long deployments learned to consecutively number the outside of their envelopes. You knew if you were seeing a letter out of sequence that the letter may amplify details of a story you knew nothing about. I knew of one case where some wives were friends; one wife was visiting another and saw that her hostess had received her 56th letter from her husband while she had only received 14 letters. You can guess as to what one of the topics was of her next letter.

Telephone calls had to wait until the ship pulled into port. At that time, the most popular place to visit, other than the bars, was the European establishment known as a "telephone exchange." This was sort of like a post office, but with telephones. You signed in, giving your name, and the telephone number you wanted to reach. After waiting anywhere from a few minutes to four hours, you were directed to a telephone booth for your call, and you had better hope your party was home. Which is why most sailors tried to time their calls for when they knew their loved ones would be home (and probably asleep).

I knew one junior officer who received a letter from his wife which alluded to her being pregnant, but it did not specifically say that. She was too new at the game to know to number her letters. When liberty call was announced, he ran three miles to the nearest telephone exchange to make a call home. (She was indeed pregnant.)

Mail call also brought "dear John" letters, the letters which announced the breakup of a marriage or relationship. The favorite timing for the letters seemed to be roughly half-way through the deployment, giving the sailor at least three months to stew about it.

And if you wanted to see morale crushed, all you had to do was look at the faces of sailors who endured mail call after mail call with no letters, especially if they were married. That often was resolved with the spouse back Stateside receiving a visit by the Red Cross to make sure she (or he) was alive, and that almost always was followed by another "dear John" letter.

What happened when the ships got back are stories for another time.