Fantail Café (on USS Midway)

910 N. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego

"Honest! It's just like you're there, chasing the bad guys in the skies over the Middle East," said Hank the other day. "It's incredible."

I kind of "yeah yeah'd" him. And forgot about it.

But now -- funny how things coincide -- here I am, passing the Navy Pier. I can't help thinking, Hmm. Might be a kick to try it, just once.

So I walk up under the shadow of the USS Midway, this truly gi-normous whale of an aircraft carrier, and now I'm anteing up -- ow! -- 15 bucks to get aboard.

The hangar deck is cavernous. They've got planes and exhibits and guys in flight suits standing by flight simulators. But I keep walkin'.

"Watch out, there's two kinds of simulators," Hank had warned me. "The ones where you actually 'fly' the plane cost around $40. You want the one where you don't. 'Cause, man, that one actually moves, throws your butt about. It's something else. Plus, it's only six bucks."

Ah. Here it is, the "Navy Flight Simulator." A white "blind" cockpit sitting on six pneumatic rods, promising an operation over enemy desert territory. I go up to the counter, just as this guy in a flight suit sets up a little sign.

"Back at 2:30."

What? But...?

"Lunch," he says. And he's gone.

Which in a way is lucky, because I'm feeling peckish too. "Do they have, like, mess rooms here?" I ask another guy collecting audio-guides.

"No, but we have the Fantail Café, out on the, uh, fantail."


"The deck overlooking the stern."

"Oh right. Yeah. Of course. Which way is the...?"

"That way, through the souvenir shop."

Hey. What a surprise. An on-board café, just below the actual flight deck. It hangs out over the water at the shore end. Place has a yellow canopy, a dozen polished metal tables, ten big Old Glories fluttering over the stern, and hurricane wire-mesh fencing to make sure we don't fall overboard. It's a long way down to the sparkling blue waters.

You get to the counter 'round one huge windlass that has "115,000 Pounds as a Bit" written in raised iron on one side. You can just imagine it winding mega-ropes slowly in, pulling this ship into, say, her old homeport of Yokosuka, Japan.

"I can serve you now," says Sarah, the gal at the counter.

Uh, right. Actually, the choice is not that huge, but hey, this is a snack bar on a Navy carrier, not a five-star cruise ship. They have sandwiches, like oven-roasted turkey with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, or roast beef, or Black Forest ham (this comes with green apple slices to sex it up), all the same price, $7.95. Three-cheese pizza, nine inch, is $8.95. A chicken Caesar salad with Parmesan cheese goes for $8.95, and a bowl of beef chili is $5.95. Not the cheapest, but on the other hand, for tourist-trap fare, waddaya expect?

The "smokehouse roasted brisket" on a hoagie roll could be interesting. It's $8.95. They have a "Tomahawk" hot dog for $6.95. Add chili for a buck more. Everything comes with half a plate of chips.

"Most popular? Probably the American half-pound Angus Burger," says Sarah. That's $8.95. I notice the two Chinese characters tattooed onto her lower right arm. "One's 'dragon,'" she says, "because I was born in the year of the dragon. The other's 'loyalty.' Because I'm that kind of person.... Or how about the hot pastrami?"

I get the burger and a coffee ($2.00, $1.00 refills) and go find a table with a view. Look out the stern, and there, like ships steaming toward you in a battle line, I see downtown's high-rises. Look south, and Seaport Village, Coronado, and Mexico pop up like postcards.

"This was the spud locker down here on our carriers," says Bill Hall. He and his daughter Cathy are splitting a ham sandwich. Her son Chris, 28, is eating an Angus Burger. Grandfather Bill, turns out, was a carrier fighter pilot.

"I was on the Philippine Sea, and then the Valley Forge. We would come in with our wheels 15 feet above the spudlocker deckhead, cut power, and just drop onto the deck. Hit the spud locker, you'd ruin everybody's dinner."

He's come to show Cathy and Chris what it was like back then, when he was four years younger than Chris is now. "I flew Panthers, Corsairs, and Sky Raiders," he says. "This was the time of Korea. We sometimes took AA 50-caliber fire. You'd see the black smoke puff..."

Now here's the problem. I got my half-pounder burger, loaded with the hot patty, cheese, tomatoes, red onion, the works, plus an ocean of chips, all on a black plastic plate. I gunked ketchup and mustard in and chowed into it. Things were hunky-dory. Then I got talking with Bill. We were just at the part where the bullets ripped into his wing tank, when -- whack! -- I look up, my hamburger's gone. So's my coffee. Disappeared. Server must have whisked them off to the trash.

I'm about to make a big fantail fuss, except that it's 2:30, and I have a rendezvous with the skies over Iraq on the other side of the souvenir shop.

I get there. Another group's already flying a mission. Man! Just watching the way the six pneumatic rods toss that cabin around, I'm kinda glad I don't have a full stomach.

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