14 December 2006

Mess cooks

Sometime back, I made mention of "my two-bit senior chief on the Oly," and promised to explain that description of him. So....

As I understand it*, the Royal Navy, back in the days of wooden ships and iron men, divided those men (the ratings, that is, not the officers) into groups of four. When it came time for swill - excuse me, I mean "food" - to be served, rather than having the whole crew queue up, each of these groups-of-four would send a representative to collect the rations for himself and for the other three. Such a group of four men was called a "mess," and the chap who was doing the fetching was called a "mess cook." And when the newly established US Navy drew upon the Royal Navy for its traditions, mess-cooking was one of those it adopted.

Times change, and navies change, and men's duties change. In today's Navy, a mess cook** is a very junior person, recently reported in to his/her first ship, who is assigned temporarily (usually for a period of 90-120 days) to assist the cooks by doing things like dishwashing, veg prep, general cleanup, &c. On submarines, mess cooks also serve as waiters, fetching drinks and desserts for their shipmates, in order to cut down on the number of people moving around in the cramped confines of the crew's mess. Almost no-one escapes this duty.

(I, as it happens, did. My first boat was in new construction; it didn't even have a galley when I arrived. By the time the first person assigned as a mess cook - an A-gang FN from Massachusetts - started those duties, I was already a PO2, and I had my dolphins long before they ran out of E4-and-below and the first non-qual E5 was sent mess-cooking.*** But I digress....)

On the skimmer, it was unheard of for petty officers to mess cook. That was reserved for E3 and below. As soon as a mess cook was frocked Third, he was sent back to his division - even if he'd just reported to the mess decks a couple days earlier, and even if it meant recalling some poor E3 who'd already completed twice his normally allotted time as a mess cook, to take his place.

Now, a six-month deployment on a submarine can really drag on. One of the things that's done to make it more bearable is Halfway Night: A celebration held somewhere near the midpoint of the trip. The cooks prepare a special meal, and other events take place, such as Corn on the COB (a #10 can of cream-style corn is auctioned off, and the winning bidder gets to pour it over the COB's head) or Pie in the Eye (pie shells filled with whipped cream are auctioned off, and the winners get to shove them into the faces of the chief, JO, or other person of their choice).

One such traditional event is Crank Night. I have no idea when mess cooks were first called mess cranks - it was certainly long before I joined the Navy - but Crank Night is another auction, and the winners/victims take the place of the regular mess cooks during the Halfway Night meal. The bidding starts a week or few before the Night, and progress is closely monitored by all; very popular contestants, such as the Eng or the COB, can bring in a few hundred dollars each. (The money collected for this and for other auctions goes to the boat's rec committee, and is used for ship's picnics, the Xmas party, &c.) Normally five people are selected; the one with the most "votes" - almost invariably the Engineer (because he has the largest department to annoy) - gets trash-compactor duty, the next is assigned to the scullery, the next two work as waiters on the mess decks, and the fifth serves as wardroom steward for the evening.

So. 1988, and we're on our second WestPac - port calls in Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea and Guam. And somewhere in the middle of all that, we have Halfway Night. Crank Night bidding starts, and everyone thinks that RMCS is a very likely winner. The ETs take up a collection (back in those days the ETs, nav and ESM, were together in one division, separate from the RMs), and come up with the amazing sum of twenty-five cents, which they put down on RMCS. And there it stays - everyone is gunning for other targets, and no-one else puts any money on RMCS. And after a week or so of looking at the tally, I started referring to him as my Two-Bit Senior Chief. (His response was to accuse me of having orchestrated the whole affair, just so I could call him that, but it just warn't so.)

And that's the explanation.

But it's not really the end of the story, because we had another lengthy underway later in the deployment, and the command decided to hold another Crank Night. Engineering had gotten enough fun out of their boss during the first Crank Night, so this time the winners were, in order, the COB, the Nav, the Commo, RMCS (hey, look - it's my chain of command!) and one of the riders, who had managed to very seriously tick off the rest of the riders.

And so here we have the COB**** washing dishes, having escaped from the trash room, while the Nav brings out another stack of plates.

The guy in the yellow Hawaiian flowerdy shirt, scrubbing the deck, is the Commo. (As I've said before, I do better with given names than with surnames; he was an LT, and his name was Jon, but I can't for the life of me think what his last name was.)

And presenting RMCS, two-bit senior chief and mess cook extraordinaire, in all his glory (with Weird, Wild Wally laughing in the background).

* And there is, of course, no guarantee that I understand it correctly.

** Technically, there are no mess cooks in today's Navy. Apparently someone decided that was a pejorative term, and they are now officially known as "food service attendants," or FSAs. Pfui, as the great man would say.

*** It wasn't until I was on my third boat that I had a COB who kept people on the mess decks to finish out their time after they got their dolphins.

**** QMCM, with (at the time) just over 34 years on active duty. One of the two best COBs I've ever had.

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