Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush

Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush

2.5 9
by Geoff Dyer

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As a child Geoff Dyer spent long hours making and blotchily painting model fighter planes. So as an adult, naturally he jumped at the chance to spend a week onboard the aircraft carrier the USS George H.W. Bush. Part deft travelogue, part unerring social observation, and part finely honed comedy, Another Great Day at Sea is the inimitable

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As a child Geoff Dyer spent long hours making and blotchily painting model fighter planes. So as an adult, naturally he jumped at the chance to spend a week onboard the aircraft carrier the USS George H.W. Bush. Part deft travelogue, part unerring social observation, and part finely honed comedy, Another Great Day at Sea is the inimitable Dyer’s account of his time spent wandering the ship’s maze of walkways, hatches, and stairs, and talking with the crew—from the Captain to the ship’s dentists. A lanky Englishman in a deeply American world, Dyer brilliantly records daily life aboard this floating fortress, revealing it to be a prism for understanding a society where discipline and conformity become forms of self-expression. At the same time we are reminded why Dyer is celebrated as one of the most original voices in contemporary literature.

Editorial Reviews

"Looking at Constable's cloud studies in the Tate," wrote the British author and flâneur Geoff Dyer in a 1992 essay, "I find myself thinking how much better they would look with a Spitfire swooping down through the cumulus." The subject of that piece, "The Airfix Generation," was his obsession with model World War II aircraft. Dyer writes about anything and everything he wants to — art, literature, music, cinema, travel, warfare, comics, being an only child, doughnuts — and two years later, in 1994, what he wanted to write about was riding shotgun in a MiG- 29 fighter jet, so he arranged to do it ("The Wrong Stuff"). Two decades later, his passion for aeronautics still undiminished, Dyer has written Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H. W. Bush, about his experiences as a guest on an American aircraft carrier.

Unlike, say, a police ride-along, a holiday on a carrier isn't something just anyone can sign up for. Even Dyer, who seems to get to do whatever he wants and isn't always reluctant to gloat about it, had to wait to have his shoulder tapped by Alain de Botton. De Botton, the Swiss-British writer, is a director of the Writers in Residence program, a nonprofit that pairs outstanding writers and Magnum photographers with "key institutions of the modern world." Asked where he'd like to go, Dyer didn't have to do much daydreaming to arrive at an answer. The carrier "had to be American," not only because the British don't currently have one but also because, in Dyer's view, Britain is itself "a kind of gigantically expanded carrier." An American carrier, Dyer assumed, would faithfully reproduce small-town American life, American American-ness, "a source of pleasure and happiness."

Much is made by readers and critics of Dyer's genre-jumping or - bending or -inventing, his temperamental unwillingness to color inside the lines, but Another Great Day at Sea is an accessible book, even a conventional one: a fish-out-of-water narrative. Dyer is the tallest, skinniest, pickiest, whiniest, least- adaptable individual on the ship. He insists on a room of his own, though "[e]nlisted men and women are in berths of up to two hundred." The sound of jets taking off and landing "made a leaf- blower sound like...the kind of ambient CD played during a crystal-healing or reiki session." After learning of the "Bahrain bug," Dyer decides "never [to pass] up a chance to sanitize my hands as if we were docked at the harbour in Camus's Oran." Offered food by the captain's cook, Dyer feels that, having the most cruelly discriminating palate, he "deserved this meal more than anyone else on the boat."

Dyer may be one of the tallest men on board the carrier, but his incessant complaining and his scrupulous attention to discomfort render him Lilliputian alongside his hosts. Ultra-fit men clad in "cranials" (black-visored helmets) and chains, a look Dyer calls a mixture of sci-fi and medieval, don't exactly swagger: "[T]here was just the grace that comes from having to minimize effort if a task is to be properly done." Dyer's preceding book, Zona was nominally about the Russian film Stalker, but in large part really about Geoff Dyer; Another Great Day at Sea purports to be about an aircraft carrier but is really about tasks properly done, in a context where the consequences of even minor slip-ups can be catastrophic. Dyer does a better than expected job of subordinating his inimitable personality and prismatic style to the awe he feels in the presence of true competence:

Everywhere you looked, everyone was doing something, if not working on the planes then pushing or towing things on trolleys. It was like Whitman's "Song for Occupations" in an entirely military setting...a vision of a fulfilled and industrious America, each person indispensible to the workings of the larger enterprise, no friction between the person and the task. Which made me think: why not name an aircraft carrier after Whitman?
The occupations as described by Dyer run the gamut from the pulse-pounding to the mundane. There are the pilots, who must "land on a postage stamp," and also the personnel who operate the catapults and maintain the arresting gear for takeoff and landing — a job, one man deadpans, "that teaches you to deal with stress." Dyer meets the captain, the air wing commander, the lieutenant commander in charge of flight deck control, and a rear admiral ("[f]ive thousand people on the boat and she outranked them all"). None of these bigwigs is quite as memorable as the pilot "Disney," who quips, "Two-man planes are a pilot and a piece of self-loading baggage" and "Jacks," a woman Dyer is surprised to find "nice as pie." The brave souls toiling in the "IKEA of munitions" in the ship's basement inform Dyer that "if you ain't ordnance you ain't shit."

Again, though, Dyer meets everyone and observes everything he can, not just the people and procedures fit to make a kid's eyes go wide. He sees the "fit boss" and the senior medical officer; the cooks and the captain's chef; the petty officer in charge of the brig and a young woman who'd been on the wrong side of the rules; and even the substance abuse counselor and the dentist. He attends a Christian chapel service and shadows a foreign object debris (FOD) walk, a tedious but deadly serious search for any loose bit that might end up in a jet's air intake. Of the crew's attention to detail in all things, Dyer writes: "There was a lesson in this for the UK with its demoralizing, often spirit-sapping culture of health and safety. What we lack is the glamour of safety."

Along with the close quarters, the awful smells, the execrable food, and the commodes perpetually clogged with "mop heads, T-shirts, underwear, towels, socks, hard-boiled eggs, and eating utensils," Dyer hates the religiosity he finds on board the ship. His dismissal of the aforementioned chapel service, its Bible study a "low-level lit crit of a text that didn't merit any kind of serious scrutiny," would be petulant and embarrassing in an undergraduate, so what is it doing in this otherwise excellent book? It is there, one guesses, so that when the reader reaches the two set pieces in which Dyer's spiritual jadedness are most sorely tested, he will see the full effect that two weeks in the company of idealists has had on Dyer. Geoff hasn't scuttled his cynicism, but when we leave him it is listing badly.

Though Dyer gets in a dig here and there against what he perceives as the excesses or hypocrisies of U.S. foreign policy, he is unabashedly in love with our military — and also our optimism. Of the captain's daily refrain, that it's a great day to be at sea, Dyer writes: "There was something very American about this ability to dwell constantly in the realm of the improvable superlative." Indeed. Dyer's are the best eyes through which to view "carrier- world," in which a constant straight-faced deference to the walking absurdity that is Dyer becomes "a demonstration, at the level of courtesy, of a larger point: they were willing to lay down their lives for me, for us."

It is difficult as an American to read Dyer's book and to appreciate Chris Steele-Perkins's gorgeous photographs of the carrier without a flush of pride. Readers are free to disagree, even violently, with that sentiment, but if so they ought to thank the United States Navy first. Geoff Dyer certainly has.

A writer living in southern Connecticut, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications. He also writes a food blog, The Poor Mouth, which can be found at

Reviewer: Stefan Beck

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 6
For the duration of my stay the carrier remained a three-dimensional maze of walkways, stairs and hatches but at some point we always ended up back in the hangar bay—the second most interesting place on the boat (after the flight deck).  We passed through there straight after our tour of the kitchen and would do so later the same day, after dark, when it was illuminated by a pale yellow light (less visible from a distance). Now the Arabian sun was peeking through the open expanse of the elevator bay, eager to get a glimpse of whatever was going on in this outpost of industrial America.
Like a buffalo brought down by a lion who then summons the rest of her pride to tuck in, an F-18 was being pecked, prodded and taken apart by a gang of mechanics and engineers. They swarmed over it, drawing metallic entrails from the fuselage, digging into its cockpit and burrowing away in the bowels of the engine. They did this with the utmost care, many of them wearing the soft suede or chamois over-shoes I’d noticed earlier—the heavy industrial equivalent of carpet slippers—to prevent damage to the plane’s delicate skin. The concern was reciprocated: little padded pouches were tied to the sharp edges of the plane’s fins and wings so that heads were not gashed as people hurried by.
A brown-shirted woman was perched on the wing, cross-legged as if at a festival of future archaeology, concentrating closely on the all-important part she was unscrewing. Having taken the component out of the wing she was now coating it with some kind of grease, glue, anti-freeze, lube or whatever. I apologize for the discrepancy between the precision of the task and the imprecision of my description of that task. I have never liked anything that involves engines, oil or fiddly intricate work even though it is, in a way, in my blood. My dad served his apprenticeship and worked at Gloster Aircraft Company, where one of the first operational jet fighters, the Gloster Meteor, was built. Some days he and his workmates would eat lunch outside, munching their bread-rationed sandwiches, watching planes take off and fly around the shirey skies. (My parents were much on my mind while I was on the boat; my mum had died four months before I came on board; my dad would die, quite suddenly, three weeks after I got back.)
A couple of planes away a fuel cell bladder was being replaced. It looked like a cross between a black python and a massively deflated paddling pool. The work was being overseen by a civilian who, like almost all the civilians on the boat, was ex-military (a Vietnam vet from helicopters, search and rescue). If you met him in the street you would guess straightaway that he had been in the military: a directness, a strength (physical, yes, but also of purpose and identity), an instinct for straight talking that is manifest even when (especially when) silent. A young woman was curled up yoga-ishly on the wing of this plane too, replacing something. The fact that she was wearing a cranial and an oil-smeared brown jersey made her eyes even more luminous. I was glad to have an excuse to talk with her. She wiped her face with the back of her hand, as you do when your fingers are oily. It wasn’t exactly a gender-reversal thing going on, but the essential choreography of the scene was being acted out in garages throughout the world: a woman being told what’s wrong with her car, in terms barely comprehensible, by a swarthy grease monkey confident of his knowledge and not embarrassed about the oil-smudged pictures of chicks, mainly blonde, who provide a silent chorus of assent when the complexity of the repair and its estimated cost is eventually revealed. No pin-ups like that here, of course: less, I think, because the women on board might find such things offensive than because any man who even considered such forms of decoration would instantly feel like a total dick. A limp dick at that. It’s striking how many of the world’s little problems—and many of its big ones too—are eliminated by the simplest of solutions: having women around. Just over a fifth of the ship’s company were women. Only men in senior positions were old enough to remember what it was like to have men-only boats. One of these explained to me that the main difference, after women came aboard, was ‘that the boat smelled a bit nicer because the guys showered more.’ Other than that, what surprised him was the speed with which resistance to the idea of gender integration was followed by two related and equally baffling questions: what had all the fuss been about—and why didn’t we do this earlier?*
A stranger to the workplace, I needed only a short time on the boat to realize that the workplace—not pubs, parties or clubs—is the great breeding ground of crushes. Over the years I’d developed a strong idea of all the things about office life that I could not tolerate—like using a shared toilet—but it occurred to me now that I couldn’t take the drain and strain of having crushes on my co-workers. One was spared that at home alone—but one was missing out on it too.

We chatted some more, me and the bright-eyed mechanic who, it turned out, was from Wyoming. (‘Wyoming!’ I trilled. ‘Really?’) It also turned out that another part of our meeting failed to conform to the usual woman-with-car-talking-to-manly-mechanic scenario. Namely that this mechanic had a husband at home who was an ex-Marine. Ah. And they had a four-year-old daughter. Her dad—the dad of the woman I was talking to, grandfather of the four-year-old—was a mechanic and she’d always wanted to be a mechanic herself. It was easy to imagine her as a teenage tomboy, able to mend punctures or tighten a climbing frame that had gone wonky. She was twenty-two now and, looking at her (which I had no desire not to do) I found it difficult to imagine anyone doing what they were doing more contentedly. I dismissed this as soon as I thought it, as soon as I looked around at everyone else, at all the other mechanics and engineers who were going about their business with such concentrated contentment. Even the people who weren’t working were working out, on the exercise bikes or in one of the fitness classes which seemed a 24/7 feature of the hangar deck. Everywhere you looked, everyone was doing something, if not working on the planes then pushing or towing things on trolleys. It was like Whitman’s ‘Song for Occupations’ in an entirely military setting (with a special emphasis on avionics): a vision of a fulfilled and industrious America, each person indispensable to the workings of the larger enterprise, no friction between the person and the task. Which made me think: why not name an aircraft carrier after Whitman? And why stop at Walt? Why not re-brand all the carriers and give them the names of poets? Show me one good reason why the USS Ronald Reagan shouldn’t be called the USS Emily Dickinson.
* I have recorded what I saw and heard, and my impressions of what I saw and heard. For an investigation of sexual abuse in the US military see Kirby Dick’s documentary The Invisible War.

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Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush 2.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
TexasFlyer More than 1 year ago
This book is just about as terrible as it gets when it comes to first hand reporting from a war zone/ship at sea. I was deployed on the BUSH and I thought it would be interesting to read a book from an outsiders perspective about something I lived through and about people I know personally, boy was that a mistake. Overall this is a quick read (took me a little over 3 hours one evening) but all I really took away was: 1. Mr. Dyer is high maintenance!!! He was absolutely appalled at the ideal of sleeping in a room with someone else (seriously, you are crammed on a ship with 5,500 people, a two man stateroom is a luxury) let alone going to he head (bathroom) with someone else. 2. Mr. Dyer has no clue about the military (he actually thought the ship had a bar, places to play ping pong or Badminton). While this may seem trivial to me it shows how he really did not prepare at all for this assignment, basically all he cared about was getting a single man stateroom and I guess he would figure out everything else when he landed. If he actually cared to know what he was getting himself into a quick google or youtube search would have answered all his questions. 3. The food is terrible and apparently he complained enough to where he finally got to eat with the Captain and have the CO's chief make him some food. 4. Apparently he was quasi stalking a married enlisted mechanic, he mentions her numerous times in the book, the be honest its a little creepy to read and seems more like page filler (I hope to god she never reads this book) Overall Mr. Dyer did nothing for this great ship or its crew by writing this book. From an insiders perspective (I actually helped host a few Distinguished Visitors (DV'S) during my tour) Mr. Dyer was given the standard DV tour but instead of the usual 1 day trip that most DV's get his was spread out over 2 weeks and I think the boredom shows. After 24 hours the excitement that comes from being on an aircraft carrier wares out and the daily grind sets in, I am not sure what his intentions were when he originally set out to write this book but with pretty much nothing to do but walk around and talk to random people it shows by the way this book just floats around with no real purpose or direction. Basically his publisher told him he needed 200+ pages to collect his check so he filled 208 pages with meaningless ramblings. If you want to actually read a book about what its like on board an carrier please don't get this book!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This outsider's look into the operations of a modern US aircraft carrier does an excellent job telling the people side of the equation. The author's final chapter shows how much he bonded with the USN crew and I gather he might have wished to stay aboard for a longer cruise. I highly recommend this book both for peering into that technical world but also to see the interplay from lowest Deck Division sailor to Naval Aviators and the Captain himself, all of whom make the book, and ship, live.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It only took a few pages before I realized I had wasted money buying this book. However, I did read the entire book, hoping that there would be some redeeming literary contributions somewhere, but alas, none came forward. From the initial issues (I need my own room, the VIP room I got was to noisy, the food stinks the delays for e-mail) ) to the British slang (the "snapper" the "scran" "scoff") the references to English literature,. What could have been an interesting understanding of one of the largest warships in the world, was a hard to read, yet sophomoric account of a few weeks at sea. The author is critical of everything, and certainly showed that he is a prima donna, and that he wasn't treated right on this ship. Best advice - If it's free, say no thanks and don't waste your time
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
B-2 More than 1 year ago
Not what I expected. The book is written by a British author who spent 2 weeks onboard of US carrier “George H.W.Bush”. It is irreverent and witty in the British way, but otherwise… Well, it centered  not so much on the warship and its crew (the stuff I’d personally be interested in) as on author’s own experience. More impressionist and introspective than insightful and informative.  I grade books as Buy and Keep ( BK), Read a Library Copy (RLC) and Once-I-Put-It-Down-I-Couldn’t-Pick-It-Up (OIPD-ICPU).  This one is a weakfish RLC, but if you skip it you won’t miss much. 
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a veteran of USS Nimitz, I thought this book would be interesting. Wrong. Dyer is a prima donna who has little to no appreciation for where he is or the real purpose of an aircraft carrier. I'm not sure how the crew didn't cut his "tour" short and send him packing. BTW - I had to give it one star or B&N wouldn't let the review post.