Lunch, served with precision Meal: Attendance is mandatory at the midday meal, which acts as practice for shipboard careers.

April 01, 1997|By Kristina M. Schurr | Kristina M. Schurr,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

At noon, King Hall is nearly deserted.

In less than 15 minutes, though, thousands of midshipmen will report for lunch, filling the cavernous dining hall at the Naval Academy in Annapolis with talk and laughter.

But now, the quietest footfall rises to the arched ceiling and reverberates through the three huge wings.

Midshipmen's lunch in King Hall is more than a meal. It is a tradition that dates back as far as anyone can remember, it is training for shipboard careers, and it is a carefully deployed exercise in efficiency that somehow manages to nourish 4,000 midshipmen in about 10 minutes.

Attendance is mandatory -- the only authorized excuses are illness or travel with a sports team. Absences are noted by squad leaders when midshipmen report at 12: 10 to their companies' assigned tables in King Hall. An unauthorized absence from lunch is a conduct violation for which midshipmen can be punished.

Mids don't just enter the building; they flood in through every entrance. They laugh and talk with friends, but their target -- their assigned table -- keeps them walking steadily in their assigned walkways.

Plebes and youngsters, or freshmen and sophomores, are permitted to walk down only certain aisles between the tables. Firsties, or seniors, may walk in any row they choose.

The rule is part of academy lore, unwritten and enforced only by upperclassmen shouting at underclassmen careless about the paths they take to food. It establishes guidelines for the younger students aimed at showing them that freedom increases with age and experience, that junior officers often will need to do without questioning what senior officers ask of them.

By 12: 15 p.m., most midshipmen have reached seats at 372 tables, alternately covered with navy or gold-colored cloths. Each table is set identically with condiments at one end and cartons of milk and juice, and sometimes ice cream from the Naval Academy dairy in Gambrills, in the center.

On this day, pitchers of lentil soup and trays of turkey club sandwiches on each table await the Mids. Other days, Mids eat chicken tenders, personal pan pizzas or hamburgers. Peanut butter and jelly is set out with the butter and salt.

Midshipmen wait for Brigade Executive Officer Robert Belcher, Class of 1997, to grab the microphone and rattle off the announcements. One recent lunch was special: Texas billionaire Ross Perot, Class of 1953, was visiting.

Perot, who helped create what today's Mids know as the Honor Staff -- the board of firsties that hears and adjudicates cases when midshipmen are accused of lying, cheating or stealing -- was to eat lunch in King Hall just as he did for four years 40 years ago.

The Mids are used to celebrities and public figures because the academy likes to show the lunch ritual to guests. Steven Spielberg and President Clinton have been among the more notable diners in recent years, but the academy regularly is host to visiting Pentagon officials. Mids treat all visitors gallantly, addressing them as "sir" or "ma'am" and passing them the platters first.

The chaplain prays, the plebe on watch rings the brass bell, and it's time to eat. Midshipmen pull out their chairs and sit down in unison.

Today, Mids will eat 240 to 260 gallons of lentil soup, about 1,500 pounds of sliced turkey breast and bacon, 800 pounds of lettuce and tomatoes and 4,000 rolls.

Hours of work go into feeding the midshipmen breakfast, lunch and dinner -- about 11,000 meals per day. Sixty waiters begin setting up King Hall for lunch immediately after they start clearing the breakfast dishes at 7: 30 a.m.

As soon as the plebe on watch rings the 10-minute bell, most Mids begin to rush out of King Hall, scrambling to get to debate team meetings, to their rooms to study for quizzes or to the bookstore for coffee, because it isn't served at lunch.

By 12: 50 p.m., King Hall is deserted again. The tables are littered with empty milk cartons, empty breadbaskets and half-eaten club sandwiches.

It will take more than 1 1/2 hours to clean up King Hall. And by 2: 30 p.m. it will be time to start dinner.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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