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Crew Fights for Balance as Carrier Heads to Mideast

Hard-working sailors on the San Diego-based Constellation value quiet time and find ways to carve out space for their personal lives.

November 03, 2002|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION — Sometimes, when this giant aircraft carrier lurches in rough seas, sailors tumble out of their yoga poses. Delicate balances and calm minds are hard enough to achieve when not on a warship.

And as yoga teacher and ship doctor Lt. Errika Walker notes, the forward bomb assembly is "the least meditative place" for her class. But in a noisy floating behemoth where sailors sleep like sardines in three-tier bunk beds, it has to do.

Steaming toward possible combat in the Persian Gulf, the 5,500 men and three dozen women aboard grab their moments of peace and relaxation however they can.

After round-the-clock training exercises in the Pacific last week, the 41-year-old Constellation headed to sea Saturday from its San Diego base. The ship's six-month deployment, said Navy Rear Adm. Barry Costello, could put it "into harm's way."

Even without that prospect, days "underway" pass for most who live here in a haze of monotonous, dangerous, backbreaking work. The seasons slip by unnoticed in the windowless 13 stories beneath the 4.5-acre flight deck. Fresh fruit gives way to canned. Young children at home forget their traveling parents' faces.

These sailors make such sacrifices for love of country, or because the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks propelled them to a recruitment office or because they joined the Navy in peacetime and suddenly found the world turned upside down.

Still, they manage to carve out little spaces for personal life. Friendships are forged and tested, pranks abound and movies and video games flicker ceaselessly from the ship's thousands of television sets. There is a soccer team, a martial arts class, a band room for rock 'n' roll practice and near-constant access to e-mail for writing little white lies to mom, downplaying the perils of daily life.

Inevitably, as the roll of the ocean rocks them to sleep in their tightly packed quarters, the sailors find their thoughts turning to what many think could be a war with Iraq.

Mostly, however, they work. "It's not 12 hours," said Carol Paddock, 45, of Washington state. "It's 16 or 18."

On the wind-whipped flight deck, where the roar of jets taking off and landing rattles teeth and sucks breath from the body, the workers wear bright vests and shirts color-coded to tasks. Blue moves the planes. Brown maintains them. Green handles the catapults that thrust the aircraft into the sky. Purple fuels the jets; red loads the weapons. Yellow keeps everyone moving and white brings the planes in safely.

When the jets take off or land, the whole vessel shudders and clanks. The men and women work until their heads hurt and their muscles scream for a break. That's why they prize their stolen moments of recreation. Many of the women especially like yoga; they dislike the gym because of the male gazes that they say bore into them there.

Unlike newer, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the Constellation was built when war was for men only. Because the "Connie" is to be retired next year, officials decided it would be too expensive to reconfigure its living spaces and bathrooms to accommodate more women.

At first, many servicewomen say, they were stunned to find themselves in such a heavily male environment. Many had served on other carriers, such as the John C. Stennis, which sleeps hundreds of women.

But most say they have adjusted -- with a few concessions. Instead of sending their underwear to the ship's laundry, for example, they wash it themselves. Otherwise, it tends to go missing. And although most of the men are respectful, the women say, not everyone is.

"I got sniffed," Walker said, her voice rising in disbelief at the memory. A man walked up to her and sniffed the back of her neck, she said.

There are the inevitable requests for dates (though dating is not allowed). And as rumors whip through the ship's warren of hallways, a woman who makes friends with a man is assumed to be his lover.

And always, there are the eyes, hungrier as the ship is at sea longer, following the women wherever they go.

"It's almost easier to ignore it than to be the [shrew] on the ship," said Lt. Sarah Copeland of Minnesota.

Still, she said, these are minor annoyances, small sacrifices among many that she gladly makes for her country. "I'm very patriotic," she said, her blue eyes shining and her face becoming serious as she sat in her narrow stateroom next to an immaculate desk. "I'm doing a service for my country."

Capt. Mark Fox, commander of the ship's 72 aircraft, said that sense of service and sacrifice has grown visibly in recent months. "There's a much greater sense of mission," said the pilot, who chokes up as he discusses his responsibility to those under his command.

Down another claustrophobic hallway, Ensign Karen Gossard, 25, pondered the ship's mission. "You talk about it in jokes," she said. "You don't look at the big picture.... It would be so overwhelming."

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