We’d survived our death-defying, two-whiffs-then-a-bulls-eye landing aboard the naval aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Nimitz. My comrades—former Bond Chick, saucy minx, and all around gamer, Serena Scott Thomas, along with actor Jonathan Tucker and producer David Wally—regained our digestive cool in time for a quick photo-op with some of the onboard brass before being whisked below for a lunch in the officers’ lounge with ship’s Captain Ted Branch. Over a delightful meal, Captain Branch proudly implored us to travel anywhere on his ship (but for the nuclear plant which powers the thousand-foot behemoth) and to please stop and engage any of the five thousand crew members. Essentially the invite was tantamount to mi aircraft carrier es su aircaft carrier. We said gracias and were off to tour.
First I needed to see if my cargo had made it safely aboard. Along with my overnight bag I’d packed a brand new DVD player still in the Styrofoam protected box. I flashed back to weeks earlier and a pre-tailhook conversation with Lt. Brad Fagan.
“We’re planning on running your movie in the main mess hall if that’s cool,” Brad said. “We can set up a screen and a video projector.”
“Very cool,” I’d said. “How about audio?”
“We’ll figure out somethin’. We’ve got AV guys on board,” he said. “Your movie’s on VHS, right?”
“DVD,” I answered flatly, certain Lt. Brad had just tongue-slipped back to 1985.
“The Nimitz only has VHS.”
“Ha. Seriously,” I said.
“Seriously. VHS is all we got.”
“Lemme get this straight. Your multibillion dollar aircraft carrier that launches jets operating with Lord only knows how much secret technology that the Chinese want to steal… doesn’t have one DVD player?”
“All VHS,” Lt. Brad said flatly. “Got a couple of decks in the AV room. They use ‘em to run movies on the closed circuit TV.”
Now, I could’ve told Lt. Brad that it was 2006 and VHS was a dead format. As far as I knew, movies were no longer released in VHS. I’d junked my own players along with my Sony Walkman and floppy disks.
Then there was this little factoid. I’d pretty much had to deposit a pair of healthy kidneys with Harvey Weinstein and his Miramax acolytes in order to score a DVD copy of Hostage—which at the time had only been released in theaters for a week. I’d argued that the screening was for a good cause. For the hard-working men and women in service to our country and all that. I’d practically had to sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic before my request got any traction.
“Brad, the movie will be on DVD and only DVD. Is there anything in the military code of conduct that prevents me from buying the U.S. Navy a DVD player?”
“Don’t think so,” said Lt. Brad.
So I’d bought the navy a DVD player. Once I’d confirmed it had survived our flight, the adventure could continue.
This is the part where I surrender all attempts to aptly encapsulate our Nimitz tour. Words seem so damned flimsy. The carrier is a massive enterprise. Four stories above the flight deck, another five below. A technological testament to military imagination and engineering. But all those bells and whistles are mere adornments when compared to the men and women who make it run. When at sea, the crew works seven days week—twelve hours on, twelve hours off. Usually without leave. Not a day of rest. From the Navy pilots to the seamen who polish the brass in each and every stairwell, they were classy, open to conversation, homespun to their shoelaces, and proud as hell of their ship and their mission. And but for some officers or the occasional jet jockey, they were all under twenty-three years of age. We were all astonished.
We wrapped up our day with a front-row seat to some twilight landing and take-off gymnastics by dozens of F-18s. Followed by a quick bite and our eight o’clock show time.
The Nimitz mess hall is five floors below the flight deck and, to those toil away down there, may as well be parked inside a submarine. It is without windows of any kind, artificially ventilated, and swathed by huge banks of fluorescent lighting. It seats four hundred for meals. But for this occasion, some six hundred navy personnel had crammed themselves onto the tables and benches. The sense of anticipation was palpable. The event was shaping up to be as special for the crew as it was for us.
I was relieved to find the Navy’s newest DVD player was primed and ready to spin with a basic PA system set up to pump up the volume. And though the screen itself was pretty small when considering the room size, I was pleased enough. We were ready to go.
Then I was asked to say a few words.
I had nothing prepared. This is when Tucker gave a friendly shove and said, “Don’t choke, pal.” I laughed it off and took the mic without a glimmer of what to say.
It went something like this:
“When you make a movie,” I began, “You work for months and months, sometimes years even, nonstop, putting in what feels like a Herculean effort just to get the damn thing made. And it feels pretty impressive when it finally happens. And, in turn, you feel pretty impressive about yourself having made the movie. Maybe you get the movie reviewed. Your name gets mentioned in the papers. Yeah. Pretty damn impressive… or so we thought until we showed up on the Nimitz. What we, in Hollywood, call or think is impressive is nothing compared to what you all do every day. I’m totally serious. And I think I speak for the four of us when I saw we are humbled.”
If my little speech sounds pithy, well, it was. And the only reason I recall it so well is because it was such a total accident that I didn’t stutter or trip over an audio cable. This is one of the reasons I’m a writer. Because if I don’t like the way something reads the first or second or third time around, I can rewrite it again. What can I say? I was either inspired or plain lucky. Either way, it earned me applause from the troops and a high-five from my Bond Girl.
“Nice,” she said with an encouraging smile.
Timing being everything, I signaled for the lights to extinguish and the show to start. Thus began the chain reaction. Lt. Brad signaled to the AV guy on the video projector who turned to signal to… well. He didn’t know who to signal to get the lights turned off.
Meanwhile, I’d seated myself amongst a group of sailors from Arkansas. Was trading thanks, shaking hands, accepting congratulations as a way of calming my nerves while somebody attended to the issue of the lights. This is when Lt. Brad approached me.
“Uh…” whispered Lt. Brad. “Nobody knows how to turn off the lights.”
“Whaddayou mean nobody knows how to turn off the lights?” I said.
“We’ve put in a call to engineering,” assured the good lieutenant. “Should be handled quick enough.”
So we waited. Me, Tucker, Wally, and our comely Bond Girl, Serena. We mingled and shared conversation with a crowd that had every right to boo and hiss. Instead, they all sat, chatted, joked, and were far more patient than yours truly. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen, then twenty. Eventually, Lt. Brad introduced me to one of the Navy engineers.
“You see,” said the engineer. “This is a nuclear-powered ship. That means, twenty-four seven, it’s under power. So in some situations, there ain’t no on and off switch.”
“And the mess hall…” I said.
“Open all day and all night for the hungry sailor,” joked the engineer. “But don’t worry. Any minute now we’re gonna start pullin’ panels.”
“Just don’t pull power to the projection,” warned Lt. Brad.
“No promises,” grinned the engineer.
Thus began a series of electronic fits and stalls. Lights out. But projection also out. Half the lights on, half the lights off. The other half off but with no sound. The sound on, but projection off…
Eventually we settled for a few bank of lights at the rear of the mess hall to remain on with all illumination at the front of the house switched to dark. And with both projection and sound fully operable, we were finally underway.
Up to that point I’d lived with the picture for over a year and a half. I’d attended every private and test screening and only days earlier, the premier at the famed Zeigfeld Theatre in New York City. But, to this very day, I can attest that the movie never played better than it did in that packed mess hall on the U.S.S. Nimitz. They laughed, they were thrilled, and they cheered in all the right places. Mission success. I could breathe again.
Along with the DVD player, we’d packed something like four hundred movie one-sheets to give away. And wouldn’t you know it, about half our audience hung around and calmly stood in line while we signed posters until our fingers were black with indelible ink.
It was some night. Lt. Brad broke out some whiskey. We toasted, hit our bunks, and slept like babies.
At six AM the following morning we were rousted to share breakfast in the same chow hall where we’d screened the movie. We were greeted by some of the fine crew we’d met the night before and others we hadn’t met. All night long, they’d run the DVD of Hostage over the ship’s closed circuit TV system. We received many kind words.
In the final hour before we were to disembark, Lt. Brad, knowing I’d smuggled aboard some contraband cigars, snuck us onto the officer’s private smoking deck. The “lounge” is an open portal near the bow, right beneath where the jets are launched into the air. It’s aptly decorated with just a patch of discarded Astroturf and rickety lawn chairs. There, we lit up and mixed Cuban tobacco with the sweet aroma of an ocean breeze and spent jet fuel. It was, as I recall, utterly intoxicating.
Soon after, we were packed again into our beloved, twin-engine COD, and steam-catapulted out and into the blue skies over a wide open Pacific. It was just like being shot out of a canon. Sadly for us, though, our twenty-four hours with the circus was over.
“Time of my life,” said the Bond Girl.
“Mine too,” I said. “Mine too.”