Gaeta, Italy is a quaint little Italian town just south of Rome and I knew it as home for a little while. The USS Belknap, flagship of the US Sixth Fleet, called Gaeta her home port. I remember watching the pier, and the rocks I had sat upon so many times, drift away for the last time as we left Gaeta for the last time in November of 1994. Those rocks had become my solace. I would sit on those rocks, high above the rolling tide of the ocean’s waves, and listen to my Sony Discman while scratching out plots for short stories, writing poetry, or just daydreaming about anything and everything.
We were heading back to the United States, and Belknap was heading for the mothball fleet. We passed the Rock of Gibraltar which, after all I had heard about it, was a bit of a disappointment. I remember being excited about going out on the Atlantic for the first time; my first ‘crossing of the Pond,’ as sailors like to say. Let me just say this here, ‘Crossing the Pond’ in November—especially the North Atlantic—is not for the faint of heart. The waves were fierce, tossing the ship about like a cork in a bathtub. The ship pitched and rolled in ways I never imagined something that big could. She lurched and bounced as the entire might of the ocean pounded against the hull.
It was during this time that I started my ‘mess-crank’ duties. What in the world is a ‘mess-crank’ you ask. I’ll be more than happy to explain that little detail of Navy life. In some movies, indeed in the television show M*A*S*H, we see folks assigned to the more familiar term, “KP” or “KP Duty” as punishment. Well, nearly every sailor on a ship has to spend a certain amount of time as a mess-crank, and no, it’s not punishment, but it’s not necessarily fun either. Most people never really consider the time and effort it takes to cook, feed, and clean up after the crew. Belknap had a crew of about 350 or so. Now, imagine if you will, cooking and cleaning up after 350 of the worst, most disgusting neighbors you’ve ever known. They chuck their trays into the scullery with the intentions of splattering the remnants of their meal on the unlucky chump who pulled scullery duty that day. They don’t think about the mess they left on their table when they’re done because the mess-cranks will be around to clean it up; after all, they’ve got nothing better to do. Thus, the life of a mess-crank is one of long hours, menial degradation, and counting down the days left on your sentence in the mess hall. Mess hall—or Mess Decks as it is known aboard ship—is very aptly named, now that I think about it.
I believe—I say believe because the details are sort of hazy about that time because it sucked so badly—I worked on the general mess decks for three days before someone realized that I wasn’t the average deck ape. I didn’t let the flinging of leftover food get to me, I didn’t let the tables stay dirty for any longer than it took me to reach them and wipe them off, and I didn’t let the ketchup or (God forbid) the Tabasco sauce run empty. The chief in charge of the mess decks pulled me out of the scullery on the evening of the third day and escorted me to the Chief’s mess. Now, folks, I’m here to tell you, the Chief’s mess is the way to mess crank. I didn’t even know there were mess-cranks assigned only to the Chief’s mess, but I was really glad it worked out that way.
As it turns out, the Chief’s mess is a separate eating area for the Chiefs. “What’s a Chief?” you ask. Aren’t they the ones who wear the really big feathers and lead the war parties? No.. wrong culture. We’re talking about a Navy Chief here, and Navy Chiefs are the backbone of the Navy in many respects. A Chief is someone who has risen through the enlisted ranks and done his time in the fleet, most of the time anyway (There are those really cushy jobs where you don’t see much sea time at all) A Chief has experience, and a lot of it. He or she has literally been there and done that, probably more times than they would care to admit. (probably has the T-shirt too...) Now, as I said, the Chief is the backbone of the Navy, why? Because of all that experience. They’re accustomed to getting new, know-it-all, dickhead junior officers aboard who have History degrees, or even the dreaded English degree. (dum-dum-da-dum) These officers are usually fresh out of college, don’t know the bow of the ship from the stern, and couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag without someone holding their hand—which is what the Chief is there to do. The Chief uses his years of experience to help that new officer get his head out of his ass while simultaneously maintaining the day-to-day operations of the sailors in his division with the aid of the senior petty officers.
With all that experience floating around the Chief’s Mess, it’s definitely an interesting place to be. Now, unlike the Officer’s Wardroom, the Chiefs eat the same food the rest of the crew does, they just have a separate dining area—which means we have to go down to the mess decks and haul the food up to the Chief’s mess. Let me just say, that’s easier said than done when the ship is pitching up and down and rolling so hard that you’re bumping into the walls while walking through the passageways.
It was a particularly rough day at sea, and we were serving chili-macaroni—among other things. I went down to the main galley with a large stainless steel container, probably five or six-quart capacity, and loaded it full of this mixture. While on my way back to the Chief’s mess, the ship rolled to starboard and I fell into the starboard bulkhead while my container of chili-macaroni went flying and landed all over the deck. Not Fun! After I cleaned up the mess and got a new container, I returned to the galley to get another large container of the “Chili-Mac.” Now, if you’ve never been on a Navy ship, you know the galley floor usually gets greasy throughout the day, and it stays that way until mopped up by us mess-cranks in the evening. Well, greasy decks and rough seas make for some interesting times. After filling my new container, I managed to take two steps before we rolled again. My feet slipped on the greasy deck and the second container of chili-mac went flying. The third container of chili-mac finally made it to the Chief’s Mess, but the container of salad dressings, sadly, did not. That was a fun mess to clean up. Seven bottles of various types of salad dressing, mostly glass bottles, went flying to shatter against the deck.
Even though mess-cranking in the Chief’s Mess was challenging, it was rewarding as well. I found myself talking with the Chiefs from different departments, learning little things here and there that made my adjustment to shipboard life much easier.
Eventually we made it to Norfolk, Virginia, and I, officially, had my first pond crossing under my belt. After a couple weeks in Norfolk, we got underway again—headed for Naval Weapons Station Earle, in Earle, New Jersey. This trip was uneventful, but my next trip to Earle, New Jersey, aboard the USS Mississippi, was much more interesting…but that’s a story for another time. After offloading our weapons, we returned to Norfolk and began the process of closing out spaces on the ship. The crew moved to a barge parked near the ship and within a few weeks the Belknap died. I remember going aboard to remove some items with a working party and I have never forgotten the feeling of death that I felt upon boarding that ship again. It was like the spirit of the ship left after the crew disembarked. She was just a lifeless hulk at that point. I walked off the gangway of that ship for the last time with tears in my eyes. It was like losing a family member. It’s amazing how an inanimate object can take on such a life of its own.
A little history on the USS Belknap (CG-26)--on November 22, 1975 the USS Belknap and the aircraft carrier, USS John F. Kennedy, were involved in a collision. A fire broke out, burning so hot that her aluminum superstructer melted. Seven sailors on the Belknap and one on the Kennedy were killed in that accident.
Fair Winds and Following Seas, Shipmates.