When the Dream Goes Grey – On Board the USS Theodore Roosevelt
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The time is 2200 Zulu – GMT to civilians. Our first hours on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt are coming to a close. It is May 1999 and the seas are calm as the 97,000 tonne aircraft carrier moves gently through the North Ionian Sea, somewhere off the coast of Italy. We are not allowed to know exactly where.

The vibrating of the engines and the low-intensity red light in the tiny cabin create a quasi-foetal security. But twenty decks below, two nuclear reactors are on the boil – making steam for the ship’s turbines. Just like an enormous kettle, one sailor said, by way of reassurance. A nuclear kettle nonetheless.

The Roosevelt is 1000 feet long and the height of a 24-storey building. The queen bee of America’s eighth Carrier Air Wing (CVW-8), its fire-power is pretty well equal to the entire Royal Air Force. America has at least six of these Nimitz-class monsters wandering the world in perpetual rotation. The first was named for the great Admiral (Nimitz) but subsequently many were christened after Presidents – JFK, Washington and Eisenhower. The USS Reagan is already under construction. When Washington decides it wants to bomb something – Libya, Iraq, Kosovo or a Bin Laden bomb factory – the Oval Office asks: ‘Where is the nearest carrier?’

There are only two places to smoke on board and they were designed with giving up in mind. They are called the ‘crack houses’. Each is 40 feet square and too dark to see from one side to the other. An opening at one end looks out to sea. The only light is red, so we don’t show ourselves to the enemy. Outside is Jennifer’s walkway. It is a relief to feel the wind. In spite of its size, the Roosevelt is claustrophobic. Only outside do you get a sense of how massive she is.

Inside the ‘Crack House’, there are a couple of engine mechanics on a break. They accept a tax-free Marlboro and we ask about what really goes on – the stuff excluded from the glossy brochure we were given when we came on board.

They answer that most people don’t have the energy for sex but they put something in the food to keep you down, just in case. Anyway, the women have to pass an ‘ugly test’ before they’re let on board. Some people do it, sure, in the dark places like the fan rooms or store cupboards. One couple did it in the engine cowling of a F18, I heard, but that’s bullshit. It’s a serious rap. Lose half a stripe. Or half a month’s pay for two months and see the captain. Drugs? No way. I’ve been tested one time this cruise already. Alcohol? Sometimes. But don’t go telling anyone this shit. Who did you say you were? Reporters. You’d better be.

The hangar deck, where the mechanics maintain the jets, is the size of a football field. Two Tomcats have their electronic entrails hanging out. A Hornet has lost a wing. In a small clearing among drop-tanks and replacement nose-cones, fifteen fat men and women in monogrammed USS ROOSEVELT shorts and t-shirts are doing starjumps. The fitness instructor calls out the time – ee-hup, ee-hup, ee-hup – while the class tries to keep up. The bi-annual fitness test requires sailors to complete a mile and a half run within a set time, adjusted according to age. A 41-year-old is given 18 minutes. All these sailors have failed.

Below decks, televisions hang from the walls, showing movies and MTV. Tonight the main movie is a Hammer horror. The news channel only covers road rage incidents in Tennessee and the baseball scores. Elsewhere, the ship’s gospel choir is belting out hymns and alleluias. The bible study group is tackling a passage from St John. A sailor, just off shift, has his ear-plugs in and is reading a Tom Clancy thriller in his bunk. In the ship’s recreation arcade, a couple of young guys are shoving quarters into the video games. Two more play table-tennis. A girl playing battleships whoops when she scores a direct hit on her opponent’s carrier. Another sailor teaches a friend to play chess. Explaining the knight is proving tricky.

The chief medical officer says the war situation has helped with psychological problems this cruise. There have still been self-mutilations, but you get that on every ship. They have a special observation ward for the bad cases. The surgeon keeps busy doing vasectomies. Very popular this tour of duty – five since leaving port and still two months to go. Could be a record. Most of the time it’s just bumps on the head from the bulkheads and sprained ankles from slipping in the shower. Only nutcases and pregnant women, five so far, get a ticket home.


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