Dave’s Bakery


Life on a submarine is… well, different. The Navy marketed itself as not just a job, but an adventure. Which is true. It is an adventure. And just like any adventure movie it can exciting and dangerous. At times. At few times. Submarine duty is termed the silent service, which is apt as the entire point of a submarine is that it shouldn’t be heard. Kind of defeats the purpose. Along with that is the seen part as well. Which means when you serve on a submarine, you will at sea and under the water as much as possible.

I’ve heard, from multiple sources, that former submarine sailors are proposed for long duration space flights. I don’t know if that is actually true though. Anyone can be trained to endure the solitude of separation. Although we were not actually trained. We were just young. We were all young men. Boys really. By the way, I understand the Navy has started letting women serve on submarines now, a change I am very much for. But back to the post. As young folks, we were quite adaptable, felt immortal, and full of spit and vinegar. Could get by on much less sleep than most also, which was invaluable. I recall one time when I saw the Captain claiming down a ladder and in my head I remarked at just how old he was. The old man was an apt title for him I thought. In hindsight, I think the Captain was maybe thirty-six years old. In comparison to today, that is oh so young. So I think it is that vitality of youth that even made it possible to withstand the pressure (pun only loosely intended) of serving in the Navy’s elite fleet.

Everyone on the ship had a critical job. There are no windows, so we were sort of flying blind. “But what about sonar?” You may say. Yes, of course submarines have sonar. Both kinds. Active and passive. Active sonar is what you hear in every movie scene where a submarine appears on the screen. And it rarely sounds like that. Passive sonar is where the system just listens. Now. Let’s say your purpose is to remain undetected. Which of those two systems would you employ. Yep, you guessed it. Passive. We just listened. We navigated by the Navy’s detailed charts, so all of the navigators and all of our navigation equipment was key to our survival. On one occasion it didn’t work out so well. Being a warship in the U. S. Navy, obviously we had weapons systems as well. These have to work. No boxer would dare enter the ring if they were not prepared to strike or counter strike at a moment’s notice. Then there was my job. The engine room. I was part of the crew who operated the nuclear reactor and other systems to power the ship, and move it through the water.

Sonar, navigation, our weapons systems, and of course that power plant that gave us life. One big family, each doing their part. The work was relentless at times. If we weren’t doing something that required extreme silence, we were training. And by training I mostly mean running drills. We trained/drilled on everything from weapons emergencies to radioactive spills to reactor issues forcing us to shut that teakettle down. All of this while most of us were actually living eighteen hour days. Our day was broken into three six hour segments. First everyone had some watch station, mean place they had to be to monitor or control some system or set of systems. Many of these were stationary. Sitting or standing in front of some panel or gauge board. For six hours. And if everyone was doing their jobs, those meters and gauges rarely changed. For. Six. Hours. Typically the most excitement was at the top of the hour when you got to pick up your clipboard and write down what each gauge or meter indicated. Exciting times. Remember the adventure I mentioned? And since a submarine is a military vessel with a particular military mission which meshed with the initiative of the entire U. S. Strategy, we often needed to be silent. Those six hours of on watch were followed by six hours of standby, in case anything needed to be attended to by a non-watchstander. Followed by six hours to sleep. If nothing needed tending to, you could sleep for up to, say, eleven hours. Followed by that six hours of staring at a cold grey panel. Monotonous is not even a strong enough word for this.

There are two limiting factors on a nuclear submarine. Food and people. The people part is based on our mental health. The monotony, the lack of environmental stimuli, the separation from the rest of the world. These things took a toll on our young minds. When I served, there wasn’t yet the possibility of email. And being on a submarine, we didn’t have routine access to receiving bags of mail. We truly felt disconnected. I can’t imagine feeling that level of disconnect today. Monotony, tedium, boredom, isolation, the same small group of people over and over. It definitely took its toll. The one respite, which coincidentally is the second limiting factor was food. Oh glorious food.

The food part is important. And the submarine fleet has taken pride in touting the food it serves to its sailors. And indeed the food was good. Really good. It was indeed comfort food. And did provide comfort to us. The toll our crew endured on long deployments was countered by the most important group of the crew. The cooks. Culinary Specialists they were called. And we bowed to them. As you’ll recall, the majority of the crew worked an eighteen hour day. Broken into six hour watches. But the submarine itself operated on the standard twenty-four hour day. This means that every six hours roughly a third of the crew is waking to eat and relieve the current watches, and then those relieved watch standers will come eat to continue their routine. Every six hours there’s a tumultuous event. Presided over by a tiny number of beloved shipmates. Maybe two or three cooks to guide the pandemonium. And these cooks were indeed specialists at providing a tasty repast. To drive home that second limiting factor I must point out something that isn’t always obvious. On a submarine there is no such thing as fresh foods. No fresh vegetables. No fresh fruits. No fresh milk. The cooks were talented at what they did, such as most always making sure there was a full container of milk in the cafeteria-sized milk dispenser, but that was it. No more milk in the cooler. And as far as fruits and veggies, there was no use in even trying. After the milk dispenser was empty, powdered milk it was. If you ate eggs for the breakfast meal, you could ask for over easy, but the powdered eggs were prepared as omelets. It’s just the way it was. We did one long-duration deployment while I was on the ship, and when we did our supply load out, we put cans of food everywhere. In our bunk rooms, called crew berthing, the floors were lined with number ten cans. All identically sized. One must wear flip flops when walking to the head (the bathroom) from your bunk. Ouch! And those Culinary Specialists continued their art as our choices dwindled. There was one particular staple that we never seemed to run out of. Canned ham. During our time in the Indian Ocean, we got to the point where it was some form of canned ham at almost every meal. You may be gagging at the moment. But just you wait. The best part of this post is coming up.

Recall that we brought no fresh food when we did a load out. This also includes bread. What did we do without bread? Well we didn’t do without bread. Because the entire crew wasn’t on that eighteen hour day, the midnight meal (mid-rats, short for midnight rations) was the quietest of the meals. And so the cook who worked the midnight shift took care of mid-rats, and was also the night baker. He would prepare all of the breads needed for the next day’s menu. Which was kicked off by breakfast. Omelets to be sure, but oh my. Mana from heaven, ambrosia, the food of the gods… sticky buns! Oh yes. Sticky buns, or you may know them as cinnamon buns. We also called them fat pills. The title of this post alludes to our greatest asset while on the USS Phoenix (SSN-702). Dave, the night baker. Dave could make the best sticky buns on earth. That was a talent. A gift from those aforementioned gods. But his greatest talent was… … … timing. Oh I smile, and almost weep today, almost forty years later, at the thought of being relieved from watch in the engine room, making my way forward and coming through the oval hatch into the mess deck area. That smell of those sticky buns just being pulled from the oven. The tedium would melt away, like the sweet nectar icing melting and glazing onto the roll. All of the cares, the monotony, the melancholy and separation anxiety would be put away, replaced by a smile at knowing that I would soon be able to rejoice at the pleasure of Dave’s sticky buns. Yes I know what that sounds like.

This wasn’t just my sentiment. The crew felt the same way. We made up a sign to put over the doorway into Dave’s sanctum sanctorum. “Dave’s Bakery” it said, and it described our love for Dave. And his sticky buns.

Peace and love
And don’t forget to be kind to one another

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: