On Sunday, the USS George H. W. Bush arrived in the Persian Gulf to monitor the spread of Sunni insurgents in several Iraqi towns. In quieter times, Geoff Dyer spent two weeks on the aircraft carrier.
On the carrier, aside from working out there is not a lot to do after work. That expression ‘after work’ is a little misleading in any case since, for many crew members, there is no such thing. Fourteen-hour days are not unusual. And some of the sailors spend their spare time studying—which is what students call work. Then there’s the problem of where to go after work in a place that is essentially a giant workplace. Films are shown most nights on the big TV screens in the mess halls but Halloween had had a horrible effect on the scheduling:
Friday, October 28th: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Saturday, October 29th: The Exorcist
Sunday, October 30th: Halloween
Perhaps now, with Halloween out of the way, we’d move on to better films. Naturally, I would like to have guest-curated the films shown on the boat but no one asked me to get involved. Perhaps they feared an inappropriate programme of Tarkovsky and Antonioni when in fact I would have chosen films with a nautical theme, a special season of British Second World War films called something like "The War at Sea: A Tribute to John Mills." Or a week of submarine films ... But then it’s possible that, after six months at sea, they’d already screened every maritime film ever made, had lost track of the number of times they’d sat through Das Boot, Master and Commander, The Poseidon Adventure, Titanic ...
Apart from watching movies, people in the mess halls, most evenings, were just hanging out, playing cards or dominoes (popular with the Latinos) or sitting quietly. Unlike social life in pubs, restaurants and parties, the American naval variety lacked the essential ingredient that fuels the ascent from tentative initial exchanges to vehemently expressed opinions, to outpouring of affection, muddled thinking and eventual fisticuffs: alcohol! We’ve all been to parties and dinners where one or two people are not drinking but a party where everyone is off the sauce? Shit, you might as well convert to radical Islam and get intoxicated—git the high—on that.
Just as I’d assumed there would be Ping-Pong tables and badminton courts on board so I’d also hoped that there would be bars. Or at least a bar. That’s where I pictured myself hanging out after playing Ping-Pong, getting stories from tongue-loosened sailors like an old-fashioned Fleet Street hack, running up a tab and claiming it all on expenses back at the beach. A single day on board was enough to disabuse me of this fantasy; the idea of allowing booze on the boat seemed insane—though I gathered that British and Australian ships did permit a certain amount of drinking.
It wasn’t just that there was no booze—there were none of the trappings or decorations of alcohol, none of the things that make you want to linger in bars and pubs. This was not life as we know it or want it, where drinks at six or seven p.m. signal the transition from the working day to leisure time, to being free to do whatever you want (get fucked up!).
So there we were in an environment unconducive to carousing, watched always by armed security guys who kept an eye on things, making sure nothing got out of hand either competitively (dominoes is a potentially explosive pastime), argumentatively or romantically (the ‘Rules to Live By’ were prominently displayed).
The nearest thing to a bar was the Lone Star Café, a Starbucks concession serving decent coffee. It looked OK but whenever Paul proposed we go by it was closed or the opposite of closed in that the line was too long, or it was too late in the day for me to drink coffee without frying my brain. If, on the basis of my two-week residency, I ever get asked to design a carrier I’ll create more places like this, places that look properly like bars, cosy red-signed environments with lots of neon so you can feel like you’re in an episode of Cheers and enjoy a mirage of life back home.
Everyone talked of missing their families. If these guys were to be believed their families were the only things they missed about life back on the beach. No one said they missed restaurants or bars, meeting up with friends or going out to parties and nightclubs. But even though people on the boat had kids when they were young and got married even younger, plenty of people on board must have been childless and single, must have missed hanging out with their friends, going out and getting drunk, picking up girls—or boys—and having casual sex. And what about other things: windows with views, trees, weekends, going for a drive, sitting in a park reading a book, access to online porn, buying groceries from a stall at the market, trying on clothes in shops, walking home at night as it’s about to rain and getting to your door just as it starts pouring? No one mentioned this stuff—because they could not bear to? Because the torment of missing these things was so great that they could never be spoken of?
On the way back from one of my fruitless expeditions to the Lone Star Café with Paul and the snapper I bumped into the woman from the hangar deck with the luminous eyes and the ex-Marine husband. It was not the first time this had happened.
The story that I’d been told about two brothers serving on the same carrier for seven months without ever running into each other might have been a nautical urban legend. The carrier wasn’t that big and, in the course of a day, one ran into a lot of people—or I did, at least. My days, admittedly, were rather different from most people’s in that they involved tooling round the ship with Paul, meeting and greeting as though I were actually being groomed for some nonexistent mayoral office: Hi, how are you? What are the things about the ship that really concern you? I understand. These are exactly the things that concern me. I hope I can count on your vote. It was not just that I ran into a lot of people; I kept running into a lot of the same people. Not because I was confined to the business-class or officers-only section of the boat but because that’s the way it happened—that’s the way life happens.
In particular I kept bumping into the woman from the hangar bay. Maybe I ran into other people from her work detail or section as well, but I was only conscious of bumping into her. Her eyes always seemed to have a special I’m-happy-to-see-you glow about them, which may have been no more than a reflection of the extra wattage that seeing her always brought into my own eyes. I’m not deluded—there was no reason on earth why, with her ex-Marine husband and kid at home, her eyes should have lit up at the sight of this aged civilian (old enough to be her father, with probably five or ten years to spare). No, no reason at all. She was one of those people who have that extra glow but the fact is that I kept running into her and these meetings constituted one of my daily or bi-daily highlights.
This is an excerpt from ANOTHER GREAT DAY AT SEA: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer. Copyright © 2014 by Geoff Dyer. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.