Christmas on the Ronald Reagan
[USS Ronald Reagan, U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin B. Gray]
The USS Ronald Reagan is the ninth of ten Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest US Navy ships. Commissioned in 2003, it saw its first deployment in 2006, in the Persian Gulf. It is normally based in San Diego, but has spent the last year up this way at Naval Base Kitsap* being refurbished. In another month, it is due to return to San Diego.
*Naval Base Kitsap is the union of the Puget Sound naval shipyard in Bremerton and the submarine base in Bangor. Both are on Kitsap Peninsula, which lies west of Seattle across Puget Sound, with the Bangor base ten miles due north of Bremerton. But they are on entirely distinct bodies of water: an inlet of Puget Sound for Bremerton, Hood Canal for Bangor. And they serve entirely different purposes, Bremerton home to large ships and Bangor the Pacific home of the Trident nuclear-missile-equipped submarines. Nonetheless, they are now a single entity.
What does this have to do with us? Well, Jessica’s boyfriend serves on the Reagan, and we were invited aboard to join him for Christmas dinner. On a visit three months ago, we got a quick overview of the base, including a look from a short distance away at the Reagan in dry dock. It is now in the water, moored near the dry dock. This time we got a full tour.
We took the 12:35 PM ferry from Seattle to Bremerton, drove off around 1:30, and followed Bryan onto the base. Once parked, we had a five-minute walk to an area of higher security, where we passed through a gate and were given visitor badges. Signs forbade cameras, with a helpful explanation that anything that can take photos is a camera. Yes, that includes cell phones, which Bryan had instructed us to leave in the car. And that’s why I can’t illustrate this post with all the cool photos I had anticipated taking.
We approached the carrier from the bow, starboard side (which is to say, heading to the left of the front as pictured above). As you may know, below the flight deck is a deck that is one large hangar bay for storage of the planes. The Reagan has four elevators to lift the planes to the flight deck, three on starboard and one in the rear on the port side. The fore and aft starboard elevators were lowered, but the central elevator was raised. We entered by a ramp leading to the hangar deck below this elevator.
It’s difficult to get a proper sense of scale. The Reagan is just short of 1100 feet long, bow to stern. 3 2/3 football fields, or a modest par 4. The hangar deck ceiling is so far above that the deck length is not immediately apparent. Not to mention that with various items piled up (not planes—no planes are based on the carrier while it is being worked on), you can’t really see from one end to the other.
Dinner was served from 2:30 to 4:30. Or rather 14:30 to 16:30. We were in no hurry to eat, instead following Bryan around for an hour. Up and down stairs, fore and aft and fore again, in and out of dozens of nooks and crannies. His office. His colleagues’ offices. Fire safety equipment. Messes. Lounges. And everywhere, Ronald Reagan watching over us. Photos. Sculpture. Hollywood memorabilia.
About that fire safety equipment. The carrier is so fascinating a piece of design and engineering, one can momentarily forget that it is an instrument of war. Especially when it is not in active service, without its full complement of 3200 people running the ship and another 2400 for the airplanes. Fire can break out anywhere, for any number of reasons, including flight accidents (as occurred in the initial deployment). Safety is paramount. Everyone has fire training, oxygen, etc.
We wandered from compartment to compartment, pausing at 14:30 when the chaplain’s voice came over the ship PA system to pray for Christmas dinner. Then came the moment I was looking forward to, as we climbed up four flights and came out on the flight deck. Pretty spectacular view. No planes of course. Just maintenance equipment. Looking down at the elevators was exciting. And off the stern.
As we walked, Bryan bent down to pick up a small piece of garbage, then explained that it is daily protocol to line up the crew in lines on the deck, walking its length looking for stray debris to pick up. Even the tiniest item can damage a landing airplane.
We headed back down, and soon arrived at the aft mess deck to get on line for dinner. Here’s the menu.
The person just ahead of me on line got a few last turkey scraps, after which the server (whose face was hidden from view by the barrier that keeps diners from leaning over the food) spent a lot of time scraping and pulling more bits off the turkey carcass. It soon became clear that he was done serving until another turkey was brought over, so I moved on to the prime rib station and was served a couple of slices. A mashed potato tray arrived, just in time. I took that, sweet potatoes, glazed carrots, and a cheese biscuit. We reached the dessert display and moments later a tray filled with cheesecake servings was brought in. I took one of them.
What I didn’t yet understand was that once we got to the dining area, we could choose from additional eating options that surrounded the dining tables. A salad and fruit bar on one side. A station where egg nog and punch were being served, with the assorted nuts and candy spread out on the table. In the far corner, the ice cream bar. On the way there, another table with a giant rectangular cake, some pieces having been cut and put on plates, like at a wedding.
Our trays were full in any case. We grabbed silverware, water, looked for seats. The basic dining room furniture is a table with four attached chairs in opposing pairs. If free standing, it would allow each diner to take a seat from the outside edge. But the table-chair units were lined up side-to-side in long rows, making access from the outside edge of a given unit impossible if someone was sitting at the adjoining unit table. We found one empty table and an empty seat to one side. To the other side, was a family of four, a Navy person, his wife, their two daughters. I tried to take my seat next to him, soon discovering that entering into an empty seat from the middle, with the metalworks getting in the way of my feet, required a level of flexibility that I apparently lacked. On my third effort, I squeezed in, but I had to lean right so as not to be right up against my neighbor. Joel sat next to me, Gail opposite me, Jessica opposite Joel, and Bryan on her far side. Next to Joel (across from Bryan) was a young woman, another Navy person.
Once I ate everything, quite happily I should add, I contemplated what would be involved in getting back on line for turkey. Or getting a salad. Or some fruit. I was prepared to skip the ice cream. But I wouldn’t have minded just a little taste of the turkey supplemented by fruit and salad. Plus, where was that cornbread everyone seemed to have on their trays? That looked good.
The dilemma: was it worth trying to unfold myself from the table to get food, only to have to figure out once again how to squeeze back in? And none of the rest of the family was making any moves for more.
Curiosity got the best of me. And I discovered that I could climb right over the back of my seat. Getting out was easy. I toured the mess, bringing back samples from my forays. Carrots, cucumbers, chow mein noodles, and jalapeños from the salad bar; melon, pineapple, and grapes from the fruit bar; a piece of that wedding cake; a roll. I never did see the potato salad or cornbread.
I squeezed back in, with greater confidence this time, and resumed eating. Joel had struck up a conversation with the young woman next to him. During a lull, I leaned over and asked the basics. Where is she from, how long has she been in the Navy? Tennessee, near Nashville, second year. I don’t really know the etiquette, whether Navy people want to be pestered by random civilians who happen to be sharing Christmas dinner with them.
Once done, we headed out along with the Tennessean. Scraped the plates clean in garbage bins under the eye of two Naval personnel, turned plates in at one window, silverware and trays at another.
Time for more touring, starting with a male berthing compartment. Crew members sleep in bunks three high, each with a light above and a locker. And we saw a head. Then we moved forward to a large compartment in the bow where the anchor chains are stored and let out. That’s quite a sight. Those are big chains. And the clamps that keep the chains from sliding are impressive too.
Off to starboard was one of the ropes that was in use holding the ship in place. It exited out a huge hole in the side and ran downward to the dock. As Jessica observed, one could fall right out that hole. To which I noted that there are many ways to accidentally kill oneself on the ship, Bryan pointing out that getting caught up in the rope would be bad. There’s good reason to drill, drill, drill. It’s a dangerous workplace.
We came back out to the hangar deck, saw the Ronald Reagan statue, peered in at the (closed) ship museum, wandered around the deck some more, then headed down the ramp to shore. As we walked toward the bow, sunset came. Taps was played through the ship, the flag on the bow of the flight deck was lowered, and the exterior lights came on.
Parallel to the ship’s bay is the dry dock. Bryan, Joel, and I wandered in that direction. As we peered down at the current dry dock occupant, a Navy police van came racing over, lights flashing. Out jumped two women, telling us we needed to leave, then a man explaining that we needed to stay by our ship. Oops. I’ll say no more about what I saw.
We turned in our guest badges, left the secure area, walked back in the light rain to the car, said our thanks and farewells to Bryan, drove off the base, and back to the ferry terminal nearby in downtown Bremerton. Forty minutes later, we drove on board a much smaller ship and sailed toward Seattle.
A memorable Christmas outing.