It takes a special kind of writer to make topics ranging from death to our gastrointestinal tract interesting (sometimes hilariously so), and pop science writer Mary Roach is always up to the task. In her latest book, Grunt*, she explores how our soldiers combat their non-gun-wielding opponents--panic, heat exhaustion, the runs, and more. It will give you a new appreciation not only for our men and women in uniform (and by the way, one of the innumerable things you’ll learn is how and why they choose the fabric for those uniforms), but for the unsung scientist-soldiers tasked with coming up with ways to keep the “grunts” alive and well. Here, she offers an interesting anecdote from her research aboard a ballistic missile submarine.
A ballistic missile submarine is a roving nuclear arsenal. It roams the ocean for months at a time, silent and mostly submerged and hundreds of miles from a supermarket. This means everything the crew of 100-plus will be eating has to be shopped for beforehand. Anything perishable – Steak-Eze and catfish fingers, pork loin logs and pillowcase-big bags of broccoli – is loaded like luggage into a freezer the size of an airplane cargo hold. Three times a day, the chef’s assistant – the “jack of the dust” -- pulls on gloves and a wool watch cap and heavy coat and enters the frozen landscape like a polar explorer, in search of ingredients for the next giant meal.
As part of the research for Grunt, I spent four days aboard the USS Tennessee. (I boarded at sea, eight hours out from King’s Bay, Georgia, with a group of prospective commanding officers undergoing a three-day practical exam.) I met the Tennessee’s “jack of the dust,” Davin Knutson, on pizza night. He was standing at the threshold to the freezer, consulting a map of the freezer’s contents. At his feet were the bacon slabs and bagged broccoli he’d pulled out in order to get to the pizza cheese (ten bags yellow, ten bags white). He was preparing to go back in, this time for sausage crumbles, which the map indicated were a fair distance in. I watched him ascend a four-foot-high heap of eggrolls and chicken wheels, then squirm headfirst into a narrow food-lined tunnel until all I could see of him were the soles of his boots. Then he used his feet to push his body along, like a seal. The crumbles were elusive. Sometimes things shift and collapse as the weeks progress and the provisions thin out. “Last week I had to dig all the way to the bottom of the ground beef to get to the lumpia,” he said.
Like polar exploration, it can be a dangerous undertaking. Knutson alerts the chef when he’s going in, and asks him to check on him if he hasn’t come out in fifteen minutes. Once the back of his coat got stuck on a hook. “I thought, ‘I’m going to die in here. They’re gonna find icicle-me clutching a bag of chicken wings.’” (His death would have been tragic but convenient. In the rare instance of a crew death, the freezer serves dual use as morgue.) Eventually Knutson calmed down and wriggled out of his shirt and jacket and dinner proceeded as it always does.
*Grunt is a Best of the Month selection.
- Subscribe to Omnivoracious: The Amazon Book Review for our picks of best books of the month, author interviews, reading recommendations, and more from the Amazon Books editors