Adopting West Virginia
BY: Thomas J. Long CEC AAC
When I read the e-mail in February about being offered the opportunity to go on a US Navy Submarine for 4-5 days in late May I got one of those chills that everyone experiences a few times in their life. Chef Michael Harants CEC CCE AAC had sent me invitations before. Some didn’t have enough notice or there was always a prior commitment that I couldn’t accept, but this was different. It was well in advance, it really had my curiosity, and at the same time I thought why not.
I remember talking to one of my ladies I work with at Holy Spirit Hospital, and I said “Well I have about three days to make my mind up about going on a submarine to teach the Navy cooks better cooking techniques.” She’s about 65 years old and she just looked at me and said “What’s there to think about? When do you think that’s going to happen again?”
After finally agreeing to go, I had to write a brief biography, and fill out paper work for clearances, and what not. I was carving ice one day when my cell phone rang and it was the supply officer from The West Virginia Eng Matt Miller. He introduced himself and it started a series of conversations that has led to this day.
When I went to the airport yesterday my flight was delayed and I was rerouted to Charlotte, NC instead of going through Philadelphia. I had to call Matt because he was picking me up at the Jacksonville Airport, and now I wasn’t going to be arriving until 11:00 PM.
I slept in Matt’s guest room that night and we left for the base around 5:40 am. His wife and six year old son rode with us. It was a treat for Patrick( Matt’s son) to stop at McDonald’s on the way. Matt’s wife Amoreena was very nice and talkative on the way. We had to stop out side the base to get a security badge made up for me. This had to go with me everywhere on the trip.
The biggest thing I remember about this is directly below the spot you stand to get your picture taken under the counter is a poster with all the warning signs of suicide to look for in a person. I didn’t ask any questions but it did register.
Upon going through the check points I looked around but there was only so much to see. We drove past one spot and Mrs. Miller pointed out that was where she worked. We drove down through the base and I remember seeing all these big birds feeding on a road kill of some kind of animal along the side of the road, and thinking I didn’t remember seeing birds like that before.
As we parked Matt’s truck near our Sub Barn, there was a large radio tower with about 50 of these large birds perched on it. I asked Eng. Miller what they were he said “Vultures” I said “What are they waiting for?” he said “Us” Matt gave his family a long hug and we proceeded through another check point. I did not know until this time but the West Virginia was going on a 60 day patrol. I truly thought it was four days or a week of maneuvers. I then felt bad for being at Matt’s house on his last night at home.
We boarded the boat about 7 am. The MP’s looked through my luggage and down the hole we went. It was not easy to do the ladder climb down, I was dressed in chef whites and wore clogs. Matt showed me around the boat to the parts I could see, and introduced me to the food service staff, the CO- Owen M. Travis, and the XO ( next in line to the captain). We were to pull out around 10:00 am. Something was not working on one of the torpedo chambers, and it was decided to delay until it could be repaired.
This meant we were not leaving port until tomorrow, and that my return home was now pushed back until Friday. I called home to my wife and talked to her from one of the boats phones. I also called my GM at the hospital and both were fine with the change in plans. One thing I learned about the navy is plans change and dates change all the time. Matt offered me a chance to go back to his house to sleep on Monday night. I told him you don’t need me hanging around if your going out for 60 days. I figured I might as well get used to my surroundings, and get to know the crew. Petty officer Myers offered me a chance to have my butt kicked in Play Station. So I took him up on it.
We played for about an hour or so and just as we were finishing I got to see the crew in action as an alarm went off. A collision alarm went off , and you want to talk about fast movement. I just stood back and watched. I knew it was a serious thing because of the warp speed. These guys were well trained and ready to respond. The only thing was we weren’t moving. We were still in port. It puzzled the crew and an announcement came over the ship intercom to disregard the alarm. I never did hear what happened.
The cooks on the boat all have a function to do when an alarm or siren goes off. They don’t just keep cooking. Some are firemen, some are EMT’s some secure Emergency breathing apparatus(EBA).
Today I spent time with the cooks on thickening techniques, pastry bag techniques, and some different types of rolls. All of the food service staff take their jobs very seriously. I sometimes forget all things I had to learn to be a successful chef. I hit the rack around 10:00 pm. Sleeping on a rack is a whole experience in itself. It’s like sleeping in a coffin with a side exit. It you sat up quick you would be injured.
After spending my first night in the sub I got up before reveille, and went down to see breakfast in action. The night baker comes in at 7:30 pm and bakes overnight and then serves breakfast at 5:00 am. He then finishes his shift at 7:30 am. Breakfast was finished and the CS1(Culinary Specialist 1) who has a Mexican or Latino heritage was in the kitchen for Taco Tuesday. He made a killer warm slaw, a toasted Mexican rice and a very lose salsa that the crew loved. We served tortilla soup, and fajitas, and I enjoyed a fajita salad for lunch. Eating on a boat isn’t much different until the boat moves.
After lunch I did an in-service on recipes. One of the things I noticed was the crew was not as familiar with the recipes as they should have been. I suggested to the chief that they pull their cards the day before and read them so they knew what they were doing when they to got in the galley. I don’t think some of the crew appreciated the extra work, but I expect the same from my staff.
After my in-service I was summoned to control. That’s the area were all the decision are made for the sub. Matt Miller met me there and got me up on the bridge. The bridge is were you climb up through the sail and perch yourself on the top and view the ocean. I witnessed the captain on training one of his officers on communicating with a pleasure craft that was about 4 miles away. I also saw the sub hit a school of flying fish. That’s something I’ll never forget.
I went back down to the galley and started working on dinner. It’s been a while since I’ve worked with freshly made bread dough and it was nice to revisit the technique. I did some braising training, and how to make a pan sauce. The sauce went over really well and I had the best jambalaya I’ve had in a long time.
After the galley was cleaned up I did a full one hour training session on knives and knife skills. The crew was very receptive and responsive. Right before dinner went out I was summoned to control again. This time it was to witness the dive. It was a full scale 30 minute procedure of triple checks and documentation, of down periscope, check radar, and sounding the dive alarm. By the time I hit the rack I was cooking and training for 17 hours.
I again was up before reveille, and came in to the galley with Chief Thomson on the breakfast line. The sub carries a crew of about 170, and they have about an hour to eat. Not all of them eat breakfast some, are just getting off their watch and hitting their rack. Eggs and omelets to order plus some kind of breakfast side and pancakes or French toast were the normal offering.
I was scheduled to make a soup today as a treat. I made my stromboli soup that I’ve made for the last twenty years, I figured with a crew of hungry sailors it would be a hit. It was a big hit, a lot of the crew came up to me and gave me kudos and thanked me for coming aboard.. Lunch was delayed by a flooding drill, a battle stations drill, and a fire drill. The crew is very prepared for anything, it is awesome to see our nations finest in action and to help make their everyday life better by being here.
We were scheduled to do angles and dangles today. Angles and dangles is an up and down adventure under water, that prepares the crew for sudden turns. I keep hearing about it from the kitchen staff. I have seen some angles, the biggest being about 7 degrees. And I’m told when we do angles it’s about 15-25 degrees up or down. They say stuff just starts flying every where. For now angles and dangles is scheduled for tomorrow.
Well today is scheduled to be my last full day on the sub. I have enjoyed myself and I’ve made a few friends. The cast of characters is endless but the ones I directly affected are quite a group
Matt “Chop” Miller
Chop is a confident well spoken young man who came from surface ships( I think). He is in charge of all the supplies on the boat. Quite a job when you put all the nuts and bolts and equipment and tools together. He really made sure I was taken care of and took all kinds of pictures for me to bring home on a CD. His famous line was “See you on the Surface”
The first person I spent time with was CS2 Ernest Birden or Bird for short. Bird just came off a six week apprenticeship at Jacksonville Country Club kitchen and felt like a new man. He acquired some new and improved knife skills and had a whole new sense for the culinary world. So me coming in was like icing on the cake. He was an enjoyable person who had a great sense of humor and was a very hard working individual. He referred to his time there as the “celebrity cruise.” He would pick out members of the crew and give them names of celebrities who he thought they resembled. First he would tell me the celebrity’s name and then he would point out the crew member later. It was amazing, and it kind of made the time go by. I gave Bird my bath robe before I left, I needed room in my suit case and he was glad to have it. He was also very well educated about the navy, and a fine ambassador for our country. I think he was getting off the patrol by the end of June to go into a recruiting position. He will do well.
Adam Turek was the second person I spent time in the kitchen with, he’s a young guy who is out on his first patrol. I told him, we had that in common and he also was originally from PA. Turek was not only learning how to cook in the navy, he was learning how to cook on a submarine and he was spending every waking hour to work on his Qualification card to earn His Dolphins. Dolphins are the insignia that are on your uniform you earn once you are an official submariner. It is a very tight fraternity and some guys get it in one patrol, but most take longer. They have to know everything there is about their boat, and be able to fill in for another person in an emergency. I know Turek will do well, Bird calls him Tim Allen from Home Improvement.
Dewaye Myers is from Omaha, Nebraska and is working on his CS2. Bird says he looks like Lou Rawls. He does. Myers is about 20-21 years old and is quite a jokester. He works over in the cold food section and the wardroom( were the officers eat) He also helps out on hot foods.
CS1 Guadalupe Aldaco
He was the sous chef person on the boat. He was working toward ACF certification and asked me a lot of questions about the outside industry. He is in his 17th year in the service and is an extremely capable baker, and well organized in the administrative part of the job. He showed me some great Mexican ideas and I showed him some new soups. I spent my last night on the sub help him do scratch English Muffins for breakfast, and had a great time.
CS1 Jason Crivea
Crivea is the receiver and break out person for all the food supplies. The freezers were packed for 60 days and he knew were everything was. Getting into the freezer on the sub was an ordeal. It had to be a well planned out maneuver and everything that came out had to be put back. Crivea also worked in the wardroom and cold prep. Bird said he looked like Fred Flintstone, and at a certain angle, I kind of agreed.
CSC/SS Chief Thomson
Chief was very excited about me coming aboard. He was like the food service director for the sub, but he also had to have all the culinary skills to go with it. Chief and I had some good conversations. When I got there he said he would prefer if I did as much OJT ( on the job training) as possible. I usually checked with him before I changed anything and he knew a lot about subs. His whole career was under water. Bird won’t tell me who he thinks the chief looks like.
Mike Collins was the night baker/ breakfast cook. I worked with him on pie dough, cake presentations, and recipe organization. He was a quick learner, and seemed to want to learn more, I’m not sure what his rank was, but he had just re-enlisted. His apple pie was a picture after our crimping lesson.
I spent the morning Working with CS1 Aldaco on Italian wedding soup. He had never made it before and I help him see the vision of the final product. One thing about cooking on a boat is you become very flexible with ingredients, collard greens work well in wedding soup.
I was just about half way through my bowl of soup when an announcement came over the ships Intercom. The USS West Virginia was being put on Alert. All riders on the Sub were to be made comfortable and any plans to exit the sub were now put off until next week. Chief Thompson got to me first, he said I don’t know if you heard the announcement, but it basically means your not going home tomorrow. Your probably not going home until Monday or Tuesday. I had about 10 minutes of high anxiety. Matt Miller got to me next and said “The captain wants your wife’s phone number so we can contact her and tell her you won’t be home as expected and to reassure her you were okay. Also if there are any other numbers that need called such as work, now is the time. I had to think quick.
I wasn’t sure how the sending message thing worked under water, but I knew this was about national security and I was reassured my message would be the first to go out. I did as they said and went back to my soup, then suddenly I remembered I had an Ice Carving to deliver when I got home for a local Country Club. I had to find Matt and get this added to my message so my wife knew about it. I made it just in the nick of time. All out going messages have to be approved by the CO. Matt signed off on my change.
Now it was time to sit back and reflect on what just happened. I was enjoying the reality show of being on a US Navy sub and supporting our military, and I got a lot of satisfaction from the comments the crew had passed on to me but the cold hard facts were I was on a US war ship and we are at War. I suddenly missed my family very much. We don’t appreciate the freedoms we have, or the privileges we expect enough. We can change jobs or move to another house, or wear our hair and dress the way we see fit, but it’s all there because we have people protecting us who have chosen that as a way of life in order the keep America free. I became depressed for about two hours. I felt bad that the decision I had made was going to affect other people and put a burden on them. I had to remind myself why I was there and to lean on my faith for strength. I was hoping to go home Monday.
I slept in a little bit today until 8:00. I was a little tired, and emotionally drained. I have tried to spend as much time with each of the food service staff as possible, and yesterday I noticed one of the cold food workers cut himself on the mandolin. I brought a cutting glove with me and thought this would be a good time to step up the knife skills training. I did a thorough demonstration on basic cuts, the mandolin, and garnishing tools. This took about an hour and the crew was into it. I didn’t mind that I stuck under water and got a lot of pleasure out the training opportunity.
Today’s menu was pretty good. We did fresh fried chicken, beef stew and drop biscuits, carrot cake, and of course fresh rolls. It’s too bad more places don’t do scratch baking any more. It’s great to have fresh bread, and for storage purposes on a boat, flour is easier to keep than frozen brown and serve rolls. I looked at the clock around 3:00 and thought I would have been going home at this time. It’s an amazing commitment by our military to be away from your family for a long length of time, and an amazing commitment from the spouses and children who at home waiting for them to return home.
Today at 6:00 revelry blew and announced all hands out of their racks for field day. I wasn’t sure what field was but I soon found out. It meant cleaning day. And I mean every crack and crevice. You always hear about how the military cleans but coming from healthcare I can appreciate it. I heard today if all goes well I’m scheduled to leave the sub @ 1600 on Tuesday. Which probably means I won’t get home until late Tuesday or some time Wednesday.
We did sliders (cheeseburgers w/ grilled onions) and 100 lbs. of fresh cut french fries for lunch today. Tonight is pizza and movie night. The night baker makes fresh pizza dough and par- bakes about 70 shells. All the chiefs come into to the galley and sauce and cheese the pies, fire them off, and serve them to the crew. I thought that was kind of a great way of giving back, a good morale booster, and at the same time a stress reliever. We should all do that for our staff sometimes, they would talk about that for weeks.
5-28-06 Zulu Day
Well I had another curve ball thrown at me today. They decided to change the times on all the clocks today to Zulu Time. It has to do with getting ships that were in different time zones on the same time. I order to accommodate this in food service that changed the menu to a light meal at dinner and then a full meal much later. Our full meal was fresh cut rib-eye steaks, and shrimp scampi. I did a dry rub training for the steaks and they went over well.
One of the crew let me log onto their web sight to send an e-mail out. I sent it to my boss figuring she would see it and contact my wife with times and dates. I felt good. I knew the e-mail wouldn’t go out until we surfaced but at least I could get some information to my family. The communications officer came to me with my e-mail and told me I couldn’t put dates or times, or any information about when the sub was doing what. So pretty much my e-mail now had no information. I understood why, it was about national security.
I had some leftover bread dough from the hot rolls and started playing around with making a submarine model out of bread. It came out about 18 inch long and I had as many details that would work. When it baked off I lost some of the detail, but it was a pretty close replica. I then made a base to sit it on and put it in the serving window for the crew. They loved it. It became the talk of the ship.
5-30-06 Memorial Day
I didn’t know what to expect for Memorial Day on a US Navy war ship. If there was any observance of it was low key. I thought about my brother a lot today. He was Killed in Action in Viet Nam in September of 1969. He was one of the reasons I wanted to participate in adopt a ship. My mother became the National president for the American Gold Star Mothers in 1992-1993. She died in 1999. I know both of them were looking down on me today. I tried to get as much of the training finished up today so I could make sure all the guys got their educational credits. We were on Zulu time but I tried not to buy into it. I was supposed to be getting off the Sub in about 36 hours and I wanted to stay on my time.
Some of the challenge with cooking under water is organization. The galley crew has to constantly keep items cleaned and secure. Every time you use the deep fryer you must notify Control and tell them the deep fryer is energized. A fire on the sub is the biggest concern of all the crew and something they drill for on almost a daily basis. The fryer itself has baskets with longer handles and a deeper well for angles. All the ovens and refrigerators have latches, and the dry goods room, and prep shelves all have securing bars to prevent spills. Baking a cake can be a challenge. Everywhere you go there are signs to remind you “We are the quiet service” . One time I slammed the door on the walk-in cooler and “Bird” nicely reminded me not to do so and called control to let them know the noise they just heard was the walk-in door.
Some of the other challenges are recipes. The chief tries to carry everything he needs to complete the menu but it’s not always available, and fresh fruits and vegetables(FFV) are the first thing to go. The other challenge is keeping the food fresh and appealing. One of the reasons the USS West Virginia wanted a chef to come aboard is to open them up to new ideas and techniques.
I’m told that the submariners pride themselves as to serving the best food in the navy. They actually compete for a food service award with the other subs, and Food on a sub is the biggest morale booster you provide for the crew. They had t-shirts for the Food Service Assistants (FSA) to wear that had printed on the back “Good food + Good Service = Great Morale”. That’s something I think all of us could apply in some way to our own operations.
No one wants to work in a place that serves poor quality food or has substandard service.
Getting My Dolphins
As Memorial Dday was starting to wind down the crew gathered in the dining area for a meeting. As I walked by one of the officers said to me “They’re talking about how they’re going to get you off the boat tomorrow.” The captain CO and XO were addressing the crew and had a topographical map hung up front for a point of reference. Chop Miller asked me if I was going to be around later and had said something about getting a group picture.
I went back to my rack room and got a clean chef coat. With my delayed departure a lot of the kitchen crew took turns washing some of my laundry to keep me going. When I got back I noticed they were removing the map and hanging an American flag up front, and I was now starting to get a feeling that something special was about to happen. One of the crew came to me and said they needed me in the dining room.
What was about to happen was one of the most unbelievable experiences in my life. The captain called me to the front and the XO read an award certificate To Make me “An Honorary Submariner.” I received a dolphin pin and was given a round of applause from the crew. I also was awarded a “Boomer Pin.” A boomer pin is awarded to any crew member who stands a minimum three day alert on a Boomer sub. Chief Thompson he would bet his life that there are less than ten civilians in the world who were ever awarded a Boomer pin.
The Captain also gave me a bronze West Virginia Plaque to have my pins mounted on and suitable for display. They took a group picture of the Culinary staff with me along with the CO and XO. Chief Thompson and Chop Miller had all involved sign it for me and framed it. I asked the captain if I could speak and to the group. I told them what a fine group he had on board, and that I was treated with the utmost respect, and that it was an honor for me to be there.
After the ceremony, a lot of the kitchen crew came up to congratulate me. I looked at the young sailor Turek and asked “What was so hard about getting these dolphins? It only took me nine days.” He laughed.
We surfaced that night at about a 15 degree angle. We went from 350 ft to surface in about 13 seconds. You could feel the sub come out of the water and land. We got tangled in some fishing nets upon surfacing, and the crew had to go out and cut them. Sleeping on the surface was kind of rocky. Some of the crew like it better. We were no longer on alert. Now the crew has to prepare to go back to stand by.
5-31-06 Channel Fever
Today is scheduled to be my last day on the sub. As much as I missed my family, a sadness came over me, because something very special that happened to me was about to come to an end. I learned a lot about life in my extended stay. We set ourselves up with over extended schedules, self induced stress, sometimes un-achievable standards, and make our life about money, and status. Make no mistake, these are the things we put in place to drive us, but when our schedule is instantly changed and interrupted, we don’t know how to handle it. The most important thing in your life is your relationships. When all of a sudden you can’t speak to or see those you love you think the next time your kid asks you to go to the park, or your spouse asks if you can come home early just because. You also appreciate an employer who recognizes these things for you.
I started a countdown about noon when I knew that this time it was for real. This is referred to as “Channel Fever”. The sub has to go through a channel to reach it’s home port in King’s Bay GA. As a lot of the crew came through the serving line today they thanked me for the good food and for coming aboard. There was a small mound of bread dough left on the table, so I made a plaque out of dough that fit on a half size sheet pan, that had a decorated edge and just read “Thanks.” I baked it off and glazed it to give it a sheen.
Before I left the galley I mounted it in the serving window as my way to say good bye. I packed my bags, and double checked my rack for anything I may have left behind. I went around to all the guys I spent time with and gave them a business card with my personal contact information. Some of them asked if they could visit when they come through Pennsylvania, others asked if I minded an e-mail or letter. Several of the staff asked me if I could take some mail ashore. I was honored to do so. I mailed Chop Miller’s wife’s birthday card 18 days after I got home so she could get it on her birthday. Like I said relationships are important.
About 3:15 an announcement come over the intercom for the riders who are exiting the boat to make their way back to the third level of the machine room. The crew had already removed our bags from our rack room. Before I went back I went through one last time to say good bye.
One of the crew came and asked my to pose with the bread sculptures for a picture. He said they would make sure I got a copy. Chop came through and said be careful out there when you leave to go on the tug, It can be tricky sometimes. He said he would be watching me from the periscope. I thanked him for the last minute scare.
As the sub prepared to BSP (Brief Stay Personnel) us off the boat, we prepared for our exit. The crew that went top side had to have full protection, plus heavy ropes and clips that slid down through a track that ran the length of the submarine. Two armed guards were stationed top side to great the tug. The tug was a boat called a C-tractor. It brought in FFV for the kitchen staff and some new crew members to replace the departing ones. Leaving with me was five officers who I shared a bunk room with that took particularly good care of me while I was in limbo.
Once the top side crew was ready, you had to climb up the same three ladders you came down, only now it’s with a full life vest and while the sub is rocking back and forth. You make your way across the top of the sub onto a metal swing bridge from the tug to the sub. Once I was over I made my way into the cabin of the Tug and looked back. It was an unbelievable feeling to stand there and watch the crew finish up their duties, and to imagine that I had just spent the last nine days aboard something so powerful.
The ride in on the Tug took about two hours, I managed to make contact with my wife, and family from the deck of the tug via cell phone. She took care of my ice delivery and held down the phone calls for me until I got home. It was great to talk to her, and I couldn’t wait to tell her about my experience.
I had three messages from Chef Harants on my cell. I called him back and he told me of my flight arrangements for Wednesday and that he and spoken to my work place and my wife. He apologized for being delayed and felt bad for not finding out about the delay until today. I told him briefly about the events and It turns out I was the first chef to go underway on a Sub for Adopt a Ship. I was also the first to put on alert. Nothing like making naval history.
The days after I got home were crazy. Between the TV station and the newspaper, word got out. There were lots of phone calls, and congratulations from friends and neighbors. I bought some post cards of different subs in the store on base to bring home. My youngest daughter took them to school to show her friends were I had been. Chef Harants and Commander Watts from the naval supply center in Mechanicsburg, PA came over to visit me and present appreciation certificates to the hospital food service department for superior support, and to myself for participation, and support. Cmdr Watts also had a personal letter for me, thanking me for staying positive in an difficult situation.
Food Management Magazine saw the newspaper article on the internet . They interviewed me for their Guest Chef article for July. I had people approach me for weeks asking “What was it like” . When I was on the sub and we were put on alert, I kept thinking I was on the “wrong boat at the wrong time.”
But looking back with those chills everyone experiences at certain times in their lives, I was on “The right boat at the right time.”