It’s 1982 and I’ve got a gig on a Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger. I climb aboard at Coronado Island across the San Diego Bay and get off seven days later in Honolulu, Hawaii. Three or four layers below deck I set up a portable portrait studio: three strobes on stands with a battery pack—two with umbrellas and one to spot the painted backdrop. I have an adjustable posing stool and a Beattie Coleman Portronic camera with a 100-foot roll of 70-millimeter color negative film. The Portronic sits on a roller tripod and has a slot for cards to ID the negatives. Approximately 3,000 men, who for the most part are still just boys, are slated for their yearbook portraits. These lucky sailors will hopefully purchase prints for the proud parents and girls in waiting back home in Dudvillie. I’ve borrowed the equipment from the storeroom of a portrait studio where I worked for a while and somehow ended up with my own key. I’m hoping to make a bundle.
The USS Ranger is a bustling city of men, many of whom live like cave dwellers and go for weeks at a time without seeing natural light. I think they’re all a bunch of idiots, but I can be quick to judge and tend to bristle around people in uniform. Enclosed in gloppy gray gloom, everything is narrow and riveted together. Heavy metal clanks echo from the walls but voices remain stationary. I eat with the officers in the mess hall and I’ve gone exploring and been lost three times by the second day.
While working, telling the guys turn your head this way and tilt that way and smile as though you made all the right choices, every so often I ask them to twirl around and face the background. I unplug the sync cord from the Portronic and plug it into my Nikon loaded with Tri-X. I focus on their crowns and tell them to smile again. And they do smile; I can see it from the movement below their ears.
There’s also a platoon or squad or gaggle of marines on board. They call me sir and refuse to smile and don’t contribute to casual conversation. The navy guys tell me the marines are all assholes who police the swabbies and look for any excuse to fuck them up. They say if an officer tells a marine to jump off the back of the boat the marine will jump off the back of the boat. If a marine is ordered to shoot the photographer the marine will shoot the photographer. They tell me if a marine yells, “hit the deck” I should hit the deck posthaste, without question. Some of the navy guys turn out to be pretty cool and I amend earlier judgments when I photograph a guy who trades me some hash for a portrait package: two five-by-sevens and a sheet of wallet-size.
On night about 15 of us are watching a moviein the officer’s lounge—The Rose, with Bette Midler and Frederic Forrest. I’m out of cigarettes so when it’s time to change the reels on the reel-to-reel projector, I take a walk back to my room where I have a carton of Kools. I share quarters with another civilian—the yearbook salesman who set up this gig and chews tobacco. He’s not there. I grab a pack of smokes. I put a hit of hash between two match heads, set it aflame for a five count, then blow it out and snort the thick smoke until it ignites the back wall of my skull and creases my face with mirth.
Walking through the long hallways back to the lounge I feel like I’m looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Crossways, colorless claustrophobic tunnels go right and left. I’m whistling “Mack the Knife” when I hear in the distance, “Hit the deck.” When I get to the next corner I see, about half a block away, a couple of marines with rifles maneuvering toward me, yelling, “Hit the deck!” I step backwards out of the intersection and put my back to the wall to wait for these brave young men to pass by and one does but the other one jumps around the corner landing directly in front of me, holding his rifle like he might use the butt to brain me. He’s about my size so we’re face to face and he tells me to hit the deck.
“What, you mean like on the floor?”
“HIT THE DECK! NOW!”
I get to the floor faster than I’ve ever gotten to the floor before and the jarhead points his rifle at me and says “bang bang bang bang.”
I curl and grab my imaginary gunshot wounds, saying “Ouch, uhh, you got me.” He growls down at me and I think maybe he’s going to stomp on my face so I close my eyes and play dead until he goes away. Back in the makeshift theater I’ve missed about five minutes of The Rose. After the movie I tell one of the senior sailors what happened and he cracks up and tells me I’m lucky I still have my teeth. I agree I’m a lucky guy and when he offers me a snort of whisky in a Styrofoam cup I tell him yes, thank you.
Walking around in the middle of the night I find myself alone in a massive room of jet airplanes; sleek as 1950s jazz and evil as the history of war. The lights are set low, shallow yellow pools on the hard grey floor. I’ve got my camera around my neck and I know I should be making exposures for posterity but I just don’t care. Across the room, a football field away, the ship’s door is open and it’s wider than a B-52 wingspan and taller than a two-story barn. I can’t see anything beyond the rim so I take a walk to get a closer look. I stand with my toes on the edge. In front me, above and below me a black nothing, not even a discernible sound. I’m a single step from the end of the world. I smoke a cigarette and when I’m done I flip it into the void.