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Life on a "black skillet" THE U.S.S CORAL SEA
by Perry Garfinkel

Reproduced from the September 1983 issue of San Francisco Magazine

Raymond Malkiewicz was a 19-year-old busboy in Las Vegas who wanted to be a traveling photographer. Since he was broke, he decided to "join the Navy and see the world." And suddenly he found himself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on the U.S.S Coral Sea.

How can you prepare for being stranded on a floating metal island in virtual lock-step with 4,500 other men? Like them or not, you eat, sleep, work, and play together.

Except for a few unscheduled wrestling matches to blow off some stem, the men get along with on another. That's not so surprising, though, when lives depend on cooperative effort in close quarters and under high pressure. You become part of a finely tuned machine that must function as smoothly as the ship itself.

The physical setting of this contained community is a thing to wonder at. A 63,000-ton leviathan, 973 feet long, with a deck as large as three football fields, this aircraft carrier accommodates 78 aircraft. Its mission is "to launch, recover, and move aircraft." Besides the glamorous air division, there are weapons, operations, navigation, supply, medical/dental, legal, personnel, and communication divisions. There's even a religious division, a shipboard police force, five ship stores, two barbershops, and a tailoring and laundry service.

While the ship is "burning holes" - going in circles 50 miles off the coast between San Francisco and San Diego-the crew drills and trains, and drills and trains again. Moments of drama like the hones Hollywood staged on the Coral Sea in filming The Right Stuff are few and far between.

Boys of 19 and 20 soon look 40. There's a stare you begin to recognize. Call it burn-out or space-out or zone-out, it means the same: "I don't want to be here." You lose track of the day, then the month. Sometimes you stay "in the hole" (below deck) four or five days in a row. You live with incessant noise: the rumble of the engine, the clatter of pots and plates, the blast of jets taking off, and the clash of the their landings.

The sea becomes an object of meditation and a lesson in loneliness. Mail call is a stampede, just like in the movies. You miss family, friends, lovers. At shipping-out time, you can expect long lines and pockets full of change at the phone booths.

You and the gang spend seven months on a tour of the western Pacific-Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Thailand. The exotic ports of call are why you joined up, yet even they are bittersweet reminder of the life you left behind.


Then there's a stretch of 102 days straight with out a port of call. Here's where you really learn whet it means to be at sea. The fantasy fades and you are left with two facts of life, boredom and the lack of women.

To ward off the former there are lots of activities: closed circuit TV, a gym, completive sports, video games, musical groups, and shooting the breeze. There are flight deck barbecues know as "steel beach parties," and Shellback Day, a ritual performed when crossing the equator that makes fraternity hazing seem like a rearward for good behavior. None of it, though, is sufficient distraction for the latter fact of life at sea. The subject of women surfaces an almost every conversation.
San Francisco Magazine 9/83

USS Coral Sea CV43

NAS Alameda Phone booths 1983


Hurricane Iwa photographed from the deck of the USS Coral Sea by Raymond Malkiewicz - EverafterImages.Com


Perry Garfinkel is an Oakland-based journalist and wringing instructor whose stories have appeared in National Geographic, Travel & Leisure, Psychology Today.
You also learn there is the right way, the wrong way, and the navy way.
The navy way, you are a sailor first and everything else- husband, father, aspiring photojournalist - after. Raymond Malkiewicz learned this the hard way, after four years of service. Hoping of a one-year leave to attend photojournalism school and another 15 years in the navy, he was instead assigned to mess cook duty. Six months later , when his hitch was up, he received an honorable discharge. Now a civilian free-lance photographer, he has all the pictures to prove it, but sometimes wonders if he was ever really there.

Inside the USS Coral Sea
Raymond now works with his wife Debra
full time as a photographer at
EverafterImages.Com
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