The Longest Day
During our fourth week of U.S. Navy boot camp, we found ourselves in the service of the mess hall. The navy called it Service Week, and we’d been warned about it for the previous three weeks. Everyone said it would be a sweet little piece of hell made up of the most interminable days imaginable. To the carefree civilian, we were told, eight weeks in boot camp might seem like nothing, but to the recruit, Service Week was like a month of decades.
Still, we wondered if what we’d been told about Service Week was just another example of our collective leg being pulled. Getting a break from being berated and yelled at sounded appealing, after all, and it would only be seven days in the mess hall. Sure, we’d be working from 4:00 in the morning until 9:00 at night, but a day was a day, right? How long could a day possibly last?
03:30-The first morning of service week is a Sunday, and we stand bleary-eyed in front our beds being propositioned by our company commander. By this point in my short navy career, I’ve already learned to ignore these kinds of remarks. Honestly, I have a hard time believing my company commander wants to have sex with all of us. For one thing, I don’t think he has the stamina.
04:15-Now that our company commander has blown off some sexual frustration, we’ve all marched down to the base mess hall. It begins to rain, and we all look toward the front doors of the building to see if we’ll be let in. Our company commander strolls up to the entrance, rings a bell and is admitted. He walks in and sits down at a table with some of his buddies, pouring himself a cup of coffee. We watch him through the window and try to enjoy the rain.
04:25-A forklift rounds the corner of the building. The woman driving it yells for us to follow her, also beseeching God to ask what she did to be stuck with such a group of sorry bastards on a rainy morning. We break ranks and follow her.
04:26-Our company commander, incensed that we’ve broken ranks without his permission, steps back outside and tells us that, were it not raining, he would come into the parking lot and personally kick each one of our individual asses. Since it’s raining, though, he settles for making us all drop to the pavement to do push-ups for a while.
04:27-The forklift driver exchanges a long distance high five with our commander and then sits, waiting, chomping on what looks like a cigar.
05:00-The forklift driver—a woman we’ve come to know as Tugboat Mary—has decided we’ve been on the ground long enough, so she screams at us to get up. Our collective hesitation only aggravates her, and she orders us to run laps around the parking lot.
05:01-We run laps around the parking lot, while Tugboat Mary chases us with her forklift.
05:02-Our company commander stands under the awning with his steaming cup of coffee, howling at us to run faster.
05:15-Tugboat Mary herds us into a loading dock that smells like rotten cabbage and diesel exhaust. A crew of five petty officers descends upon us and screams at us for being wet, demanding to know why we would come to their spotless mess hall wet and dripping. They also say they have a good mind to send us all back to week one of boot camp for our stupidity.
05:25-Apparently, the mess hall’s need for a service crew has outweighed the petty officers’ anger. They’ve decided to let us stay.
05:30-We’ve been instructed to take our shirts off and toss them into a laundry basket. For the next seven days, we’re told, our Service Week uniform will be our t-shirt, dungaree pants, and a paper hat. Anyone caught wearing anything else will be court-martialed, shot, or blown up.
05:35-Now that we’re dry and dressed appropriately, everyone has been sorted into teams. Actually, the watch crew chose team captains from our company and they, in turn, picked the teams, so it’s all like being back in high school PE class.
05:40-Also like PE class, I’ve been designated a floater, which means I’ll stay with the watch captain and remain available to do jobs for other guys who are either too sick or too absent to perform. I wonder how often people actually get sick during service week.
06:00-As it turns out, quite a few people go absent during service week, most of them on the first day. Okay, it can’t just be 6:00 a.m.
06:01-Good news. All mess hall workers get to go to the front of the chow line.
06:02-Breakfast is over. Back to work.
06:03-I can’t recall what my bed looks like.
06:30-I’m filling in for a guy named Peterson who got caught sniffing Brasso in the salad prep room. One of the watch captains found him passed out behind a tub of cole slaw with a piece of steel wool sticking out of his nose. Peterson claims to have “fallen” on the steel wool, but no one is buying it. Now, I’m learning to make navy cole slaw, which consists of equal parts cabbage, mayonnaise, and sugar.
07:15-I’m brewing a fifty-gallon pot of split pea soup with a guy named Taylor, who’s also educating me on the many uses of Brasso. Having lived a sheltered life, I wasn’t even aware someone could get stoned from sniffing metal polish. Taylor informs me there’s no limit to the things on board a ship that can get you high, but I’ve decided to leave the chemical roulette to braver souls. The morning is dragging.
09:00-I’m taking over for two guys in the bakeshop who, according to the baker, “got caught doing something nasty to the bread dough.” Details are sketchy, and I don’t know the violators’ names, but I will say I’m considering never eating any kind of white bread again. For good measure, I’m also regretting the half of a biscuit I ate for breakfast.
11:00-The scullery is as humid as a gym shower, and the temperature is around ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit. It reminds me of Alabama. The previous dishwasher, a guy named Kowalski, embarked on a plan to ditch Service Week by stowing away in the back of a garbage truck. Shore Patrol found him on top of a ton of three-week-old potato peels and marched him down to the brig, where I can only assume he’ll be court-martialed, shot, or blown up.
12:15-Five minutes ago, I fell asleep while washing a plastic cup.
13:00-I’m back in the bakeshop. After receiving a call about mice, the watch captain has dispatched me here with a broom and a bucket.
13:05-There are no mice in the bakeshop, but I did locate three empty Brasso bottles and a suspicious lump of bread dough.
14:00-Per circulating rumors, we all somehow forgot to eat lunch at 12:30.
15:15-Fifty of us are out in the parking lot, unloading a truck full of fruit and vegetables. My arms and legs feel like I’ve dog paddled across Lake Michigan and back. Still, it’s better than doing pushups.
16:30-Our company commander has returned, and we’re now doing pushups in the parking lot. According to my calculations, I’ve been awake thirty-three years.
17:00-Apparently, during Service Week, we routinely skip dinner. This would’ve been a good thing to know while we were forgetting to eat lunch.
18:00-Someone called about mice again, so I’m back in the bake shop with my broom and bucket. No one will admit to being the one who called, but everyone is having a grand time scarfing down the day’s leftover bread. I’m glad I skipped dinner.
18:10-While pretending to search for mice, I’ve run across a case of individual packs of melba toast in a pantry. If I weren’t so tired, I might rip one open and have a bite.
20:15-On my way to return my mouse-hunting bucket and broom to the tool locker, I realize I’ve lost my paper hat. Huddling in a corner, I begin to weep.
20:25-I wake up on the loading dock with a burning cigarette between my fingers and melba toast crumbs on my t-shirt. Just outside the parking lot lights, Tugboat Mary watches me from her forklift. In better news, my paper hat has returned.
20:50-The first day of Service Week is almost over. I know I should be happy, but I don’t think I can remember how.
21:00-Our day is done, and Tugboat Mary has kindly offered to escort us back to our barracks with her forklift. For some reason, she’s also offered to give us a two-minute head start.