on a "black skillet" THE U.S.S CORAL SEA
by Perry Garfinkel
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
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
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
Perry Garfinkel is an Oakland-based journalist and wringing instructor
whose stories have appeared in National Geographic, Travel & Leisure,
You also learn there is the right way, the wrong way, and the navy
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.
Raymond now works with his wife Debra
full time as a photographer at