Here’s a leadership problem for you: how do you get 134 people fed in under an hour, three times a day? If you’ve ever tried to organize lunch for ten people or more, you know that it’s like herding cats to get everyone on the same page at the same time and to stick to your timeframe. But the military does it all the time. How? The tight meal.
First of all, you start with a disciplined population that will follow orders. That’s what we’ve been learning every second of every day since getting here. Then you assign different groups different dining priorities (i.e., eating times); the three flights in my squadron eat at five minutes after the hour—breakfast at 0705, lunch at 1205, and dinner at 1705. The other squadrons have dining priorities on the hour and ten minutes after the hour. The flights march to the chow hall early enough to make their dining priorities and check in with a mess checker, who determines whether they have arrived on time. If a flight is on time, it can eat at the chow hall. If not, those trainees get MREs. (See my prior post about MREs if you want to know what I think of them.)
Once the trainees get inside, the tight meal starts. Here are the rules, off the top of my head:
1. You stand at attention while waiting in line to get your tray.
2. Once you get your tray, you proceed through the service area to get your food.
3. You never talk in the service area except when ordering food or saying excuse me.
4. As you proceed through the service area, you bring your heels together after each step.
5. After paying for your food, you enter the dining area and proceed to the furthest table.
6. When you arrive at your 2.5-foot square table, take position 1, 2, 3 or 4, in that order.
7. Position 1 faces the service area.
8. Position 2 is to the right of Position 1.
9. Position 3 is across from Position 2.
10. Position 4 is across from Position 1.
11. All trainees stand at attention behind their chair until the table is filled.
12. If 20 seconds pass without another trainee joining the table, the trainees there may sit.
13. Once the table is filled, the person at Position 4 says be seated.
14. All trainees remove their jackets and sit down at the position of modified attention.
15. Modified attention means sitting up straight on the front third of the chair, hands in lap and heels together.
16. Once all parties are sitting, Position 3 hands a napkin to Position 1 and takes one for himself/herself, and Position 2 does the same for Position 4.
17. Position 4 ensures that everyone gets a moment of silence for prayer.
18. Once prayer is over, Position 4 says enjoy your meal.
19. The trainees eat without talking, keeping their heels together.
20. During each meal trainees must drink three full glasses of water, juice, or milk.
21. Once the table is finished (which should be not long after the table seated immediately prior to your table finishes), Positions 2 and 3 pass their dishes and trays to Positions 1 and 4, who stack them.
22. Once the trays are stacked, all parties stand up and put their jackets on.
23. Positions 1 and 4 pick up the trays.
24. Position 2 picks up the napkin holder.
25. Position 3 wipes down the table with a napkin and then puts the napkin on one of the trays.
26. All parties exit by proceeding away from the service area to the back of the room and walking clockwise to reach the exit.
27. On the way out, Positions 1 and 4 stack the trays in a large receptacle, from the bottom up.
28. All trainees exit and form up with their flights to march to their next class or to the dorm.
That’s a heck of a lot of rules, right? When I first read about tight meals in my OTSMAN, I was floored. All this just to get people to eat? But after doing it a couple of times I understood the purpose of the tight meal. To get a huge group to eat efficiently, you have to establish rules. Moreover, having these rules allows the OTS staff to reinforce the discipline and training we are learning by marching everywhere. It’s an extension of the same concept, really: to move a large group of people from one area to another efficiently, the group needs to be disciplined, focused, and follow certain rules. To get that same group to eat efficiently, the group needs to be disciplined, focused, and follow certain rules.Of course, it can’t be healthy to eat as quickly as I have since getting here. I estimate that I’ve spent only about 6 or 7 minutes eating each meal since I arrived. That includes downing three full glasses of water with each meal, which I often do in one fell swoop at the end, leaving me with a stomach ache. But those are the rules.