So it’s Thanksgiving time. Grandma Smith’s huge traditional holiday meals were amazing. These days, that would be considered "comfort food," the meals that one fondly remembers. Thus it was with some pining that I approached Thanksgiving the first time I was away from family in USS America (CV 66) in 1977. When I first went aboard and joined the mess, the buy-in and monthly fee was $120. These days that doesn’t sound like much for a month of meals, but compare that with the previous deployment’s buy-in and monthly fee of $65 and you may get a sense of some of the dismay we felt. In addition to that, we were pretty much living on grilled cheese sandwiches and other such meals that were the cheapest possible way to go. The explanation for the financial distress was that the mess treasurer had embezzled all the cash and gone AWOL. So, the Executive Officer, rather than employ the usual accounting tools that an Officer’s Mess might normally use, simply set the buy-in and monthly fee in order to rebuild the treasury. All of that palaver was just to set the tone of lousy meal expectations.
Imagine my surprise to find on Thanksgiving day a spread that exactly mimicked MaaMaa’s holiday feast. It was so exactly the same that the theme from “Twilight Zone” could have taken up the rest of the day. It was fabulous. It was amazing to discover that these Navy cooks could put together a really scrumptious meal; turkey, ham, jellied cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, string bean casserole, regular mashed potatoes with gravy, rolls, all the usual suspects –even the coffee was good. It was wonderful.
These days, we have come to have wine with all our holiday meals. Alas, on the ship, no wine.
While on USS America, the officer’s wardroom used two rooms, the “Clean Shirt” and the “Dirty Shirt,” on the second deck. They were ever so slightly attached by a single door in between them. The “Clean Shirt” was for all officers who were not working in a dirty environment requiring something other than the regular khaki uniform; flying, working the flight or hangar deck, etc. The XO, CDR Baker (if I remember correctly), was quite the stickler for wardroom decorum. If you were not in khakis, you dared not darken the door to the “Clean Shirt.” If you were in khakis, you were not allowed in the “Dirty Shirt.” The “Clean Shirt” was often overcrowded and presented a challenge to find a seat. Sometimes in desperation, we’d just drift over to the “Dirty Shirt” just to have a place to sit. Invariably, the XO would, in not good humor, chase us out of the “Dirty Shirt.” Thus, occasionally, we'd find ourselves wanting to change into flight suits just to make it easier to have a meal with buddies. One was also not allowed to wear a flight jacket when seated. It was always a bit of a worry to hang one’s coveted leather flight jacket up in a common area. Again, CDR Baker was relentless with these wardroom rules.
Another quirky thing about Wardroom One, the “Clean Shirt,” was the curious games the messmen would play. In the “Clean Shirt” we served ourselves from a steam table buffet line. The messmen would re-fill your beverage, and bring you the dessert. Once you got up, they would instantly clear your place. Recall the above complaint about seating space. Sometimes, we’d get a little impatient for that second cup of coffee or dessert and would ask a buddy to protect the spot while going for that serving. Invariably those messmen would be incredibly adept at clearing that spot in the short time it took to blink. More than that, the game they liked the best was to clear your space while you were still sitting there. Yes, you’d be enjoying your meal and good conversation, with fork in hand, turn to speak to your friend and start to stab at that last little bite only to find an empty spot where your plate had been. It didn’t matter whether it was the main course or dessert, if the plate looked close to being done and you were not paying close attention, it was gone! It was amazing, frustrating, occasionally infuriating; but, we had to admire their skill.
And today, Thanksgiving of 2008, we get a late start having slept in til well after nine. For Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years, I have the job of making MaaMaa's "refridgerator rolls" (the dough can be refridgerated and used for up to about a week). I made my batch of dough and had placed it in a slightly warmed oven for the first rising. Some time later, having returned from the store for a typical emergency grocery store run, Ash and Nancy were suddenly howling in dismay when they discovered that they had been pre-heating the oven to 400 not knowing about the dough. Alas, now we had a partially cooked glob of bread. Ash was very embarrassed. Not wanting to throw the dough away, we went on with the baking and it turned out to be quite good with a slice of cheshire cheese. Mmmm mmm, gooooood. Is this the beginning of new holiday tradition?