Reading this week:

  • Where the Evidence Leads by Dick Thornburgh

An informal survey of the dates associated with the google search results (and I guess some trend analysis) indicates there’s been a recent uptick in sandwich-related scholarship. I’m not going to claim to be treading new ground here. But I have a blog to fill and I haven’t been able to travel lately to bring you more colorful stories), so I wanted to talk about sandwiches.

The first time I thought seriously about sandwiches was when my Spanish roommate Francisco brought them up. Our senior year at the Naval Academy, my buddy Tom and I had grandiose plans for a two-man room, a privilege earned by our several years of continuing to exist at the Naval Academy. Lo and behold, when we went to go move back in for our final year, we discovered we would be placed in a three-man room, which as you’ll recall is one more man than Tom and I put together. Our mysterious new roommate, who neither of us had been consulted about, was… “Spain.”

Or apparently only that country’s representative. The Naval Academy has international exchange students, and Francisco was one of them, from the Spanish Naval Academy. He was quite the character. He was 29, and back then, in my youth, therefore unimaginably old. He was married, which is prohibited for American midshipmen, and so was quite an exotic status to have. The first night we were together, when we had barely known each other for a few hours and our biggest adventure together had thus far been finding Francisco a blanket, he was telling us the many stories of his worldly travel when his eye adopted a particular glimmer.

“Ah yes, Rio,” he said, “how do you say – I fell in love with Rio.”

“In Rio,” he explained, “you can fuck a girl for twenty dollars. For the whole night.” And, he emphasized, “including the hotel.”

Our most heartfelt moment of cultural exchange was probably his birthday. He had mentioned off-hand I think that he was missing olive oil, so I managed to track down a bottle of “Spanish” (so said the label) olive oil, and presented it to him as a gift from me and Tom. A few days later, Francisco pulled me aside. He wanted to thank me for my thoughtfulness and generosity. After I had given him the olive oil, he had gathered all the other Spanish exchange students, and together in King Hall they had all had salad – with olive oil. I think the man was nearly in tears, he missed olive oil so much.

In return for my gift, Francisco shattered my entire world. I don’t think he knew what he was doing. It was simply that one day, he said to me (apropos of something, not exactly out of the blue) “Americans – all you eat is sandwiches.”

And with that my world was quite simply ruined. The curse of knowledge was downright unbearable. He was right! I think the very next day, the Naval Academy served us breakfast sandwiches, followed by roast beef sandwiches for lunch, and then with hamburgers for dinner. I began to count the sandwiches in the weekly meals. Seven days in a week, three meals a day, for a total of 21 meals, and out of those, 15 or 16 – or more! – would be sandwiches. This is why you get to know other cultures, people.

I mean, I love sandwiches, but once you think about your tongue, you know? After the Naval Academy, in honor of Francisco, and to buck the trend, I scrubbed sandwiches from my diet. Scrubbed them! Sorta anyways. I would avoid making a sandwich. I packed my lunch most days to go to nuke school, and whatever I made, it would never be a sandwich. I would, however, happily go to East Bay Deli (my favorite Charleston deli) all the time, typically getting the Reuben. But… I would think about Francisco.

The next time where I wound up thinking about sandwiches a lot was probably Prototype. After nuke school, which is classroom stuff, comes Prototype. “Prototype” has long been a misnomer, but it is where you spend six months operating a real nuclear reactor. Very little of the second half of that last sentence is true, but the important part here is that Prototype (in Charleston anyway) has a very large building in which you spend much of your time. I spent a total of eight months at Prototype on rotating shift work with 12-hour shifts, largely unmoored from rational time or normal conventions. This building is no ordinary building. It is a half mile away from a weapons loading dock that is rated to have I think half a kiloton of explosives on it, or something like that, and so the building is built to withstand the blast from half a kiloton of high explosive from a half mile away.

This renders the building in a very literal way fortress-like. It is large, it is beige, and it is windowless. You arrive and after parking your car trek you to this government fortress and to enter you heave open these heavy not-quite-blast doors that lead to a small lobby. Forward through the lobby is the building proper. Once you enter through these doors for your shift you are not supposed to leave for twelve hours. Like I said, I usually packed lunch, but not everyone did, and I didn’t always. So, how did they feed us?

If you ever enter the building, the answer will be obvious. Every single day as you show up for your shift, lugging your nuclear-strained propium to this ominous citadel, dragging open the weighted gates, it’s the first thing you smell, and on your way out, as you ooze your mashed lucidity back to your car, it’s the last thing you smell, the smell which is to me one of the most recognizable smells in all of these blessed United States: the smell of a Subway sandwich shop.

That’s right, at Prototype in Charleston right inside the building the only option to obtain anything resembling nourishment during your many many many hours there is Subway. It’s open very nearly 24/7, closed I think only on Christmas and New Year’s. Your only respite from the world of neutrons and pipes is the jarring green and yellow color scheme of the sandwich-based universe that is Subway. I ate a lot of breakfast sandwiches while I was at Prototype. It was the only solid excuse for a break. I didn’t really mind at all. But for years, and even somewhat to this day, when I walk by the open doors of a Subway, catching just a hint of that smell, I get shivers.

But what is the moral of this story, a story very loosely held together with the thread of sandwiches? I made an egg salad sandwich yesterday. It’s pictured up top. It wasn’t perfect, but I thought it was pretty good. It had olives. And that, my friend, is the story I came here to tell.