Fri 24 Jun 2005
A day in the life aboard an aircraft carrier at sea.
0330 - the alarm goes off in a coffin rack in the Ops berthing. A hand gropes in the darkness behind the rack curtains to silence the alarm. The curtains serve as a demarcation line - they mark this space as the owners. This space is his only privacy, the only thing that is truly his own in a berthing area shared with 100 other men, themselves stacked in bunk beds three high, arrayed in cells that fade into the greater darkness.
He is only 19 years old, and a third class operations specialist and what he wants more than anything else in the world is to go back to sleep. All around him are the exhalations of 75 deeply tired, deeply sleeping men - the rest are on watch and it’s his task to relieve them in 30 minutes. When he gets there he has to be fully awake, so he turns the reading light on above his rack, hoping that the flicker and buzz of the light bulb as it starts up will help him shake off his torpor. He shares responsibility for the safety of the ship, and the 5000 people on board. Most of whom he does not know. Most of whom are still asleep, and will be for hours.
His rating is undermanned, but his watchstation is critical. The combination means that he stands “port and starboard” watches - six hours on, six hours off. For as long as the ship is at sea, or at least until more watchstanders can be trained. He will never in all that intervening time get more than five and one half hours of uninterrupted sleep. This has been his life now almost as far back as he can remember. It will be this way as far forward as he can see. His last time ashore - his last port visit - was over a month ago. The next one is three weeks away. Both are unimaginably distant at 0330 in the morning. The one passed seems to have happened in another life, to someone else. The one in the future seems… theoretical.
He looks at his wristwatch - 25 minutes until he must be on station. He sighs, rubs his face, and jumps down to the deck. Other Sailors move with him in the darkness, getting into their bathrobes, some merely putting on their coveralls. He heads to the showers. With so few people moving about, he might even take a “Hollywood” shower: Six or even seven minutes under the continuous flow of hot, fresh water. It would feel luxurious. It would feel like cheating. He smiles in the darkness, just thinking about it.
Once dressed, he skips the chow line - not enough time. He steps into the Combat Direction Center and lets his eyes adjust to the darkness, lit here and there by hooded fluorescent lights and blue-grey radar screens. The darkness makes it hard to stay alert, but the effect is countered in part by the cold air that is forced throughout the space to keep the computers and displays from overheating. And although his ship is in the Arabian Gulf in the summer time, and it’s still beastly hot on deck, even before the sunrise, he wears a pea coat at his watch station to keep from shivering.
He arrives at his watch console carrying a coke and a can of Pringles. The one will serve for him as coffee would for his elders, the chief on watch as Ship’s Weapons Coordinator, the Lieutenant serving as the Tactical Action Officer. The Pringles are his breakfast. Or maybe his dinner - he’s not sure which. He relieves the man on watch and settles into the freshly vacated seat. He runs his eyes across the console, places his hand upon the trackball and sees that all is as it should be. He sighs. Six more hours.