Let there be sheet cake – Lane Brown – Medium
I tried to map the exact distance between our old house on the base in Twentynine Palms, California and the air base where my husband was delpoyed. Google maps cannot offer you directions between the two, it just shows you a zoomed-out image of planet earth, so for our purposes here we will say it was roughly 8,000 miles away.
My husband was at this 8,000 or so mile distance in the middle of the desert on an air base in Kuwait, and the first official photo I saw was of him standing around a sheet cake with a bunch of Navy personnel celebrating the Navy’s 242nd birthday. He and his colleagues looked a little ragged from traveling across the globe and they were all wearing their desert-shade camouflage uniforms as they posed around the confection.
Of course there was sheet cake. It reminded me of the Monty Python sketch from “Meaning of Life” during which a group of soldiers in the trenches of WWI wants to celebrate their head officer at an inopportune time, when they should be trying to seek shelter from incoming German artillery fire. Despite his courteous protests, they present him with a series of gifts, above all a cake made from the rations of one of the soldiers. As the sketch rattles on, soldiers are picked off by gun fire as the Captain and his men argue about whether or not he has shown enough gratitude for the gifts. The final decision is made that they will break out the tablecloth and place settings and eat the cake. It’s the only respectable thing to do.
I felt like this photo was is a weird re-enactment of the sketch. The group was taking time away from their specific mission to ingest a sheet cake, which no one particularly needs, despite its kind recognition of the branch of the military for which they all serve. And before they were allowed to ingest the sheet cake, they needed to make it an official celebration and take a photo for posterity’s sake.
On the first birthday I celebrated after we moved to Twentynine Palms, I bought myself a small tray of sushi and a box of Little Debbie Cake Rolls from the commissary on base. I was still a little shocked to be living in the middle of the desert, to have my windows rattled by artillery fire from the shooting range, to pause for colors in the morning and evening, and to hear the coyotes howling to Taps every night. After dinner, I unwrapped each cake roll in the box, stacked them into a little cake roll pyramid on a plate, poked candles into the tops and then we sang. This kind of quaint celebration was more of what I was expecting to see from the pictures on my husband’s deployment.
After the Navy birthday sheet cake, my husband enjoyed more sheet cake a month later at a Marine Corps birthday celebration in Iraq. Meanwhile, back on the home front I was watching my friend’s kids slice a sheet cake in their kitchen with their father’s saber from his dress uniform.
The Department of the Navy loves its sheet cake. I imagine it is hard for service members to ingest sheet cake for as many celebrations that they do — changes of command, retirements, promotions, anniversaries, heritage events, birthdays of people and/or institutions— and still maintain the physique of a war fighter.
I’ve seen more sheet cake during my husband’s six years on active duty than perhaps in my entire life before then. It is everywhere. I offered the ceremonial first cut into a sheet cake at the graduation of a two-day long spouse orientation in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I enjoyed a piece of sheet cake after passing a course familiarizing spouses with Marine Corps life. At formal balls celebrating military anniversaries, there are sheet cakes to feed five hundred people rolled out onto the dance floor for adoration ahead of the cutting ceremony. I never thought about cake-cutting protocol prior to our military experience.
Reviewing my life before the military, I also realize that I never ate this much sheet cake related to my career. I never celebrated a new executive replacing another one with a sheet cake. None of the companies I worked for celebrated their founding each year with a sheet cake. I never wrapped a two-day optional professional training course with a celebratory sheet cake. We perhaps should do more of this in the civilian world, but we just don’t.
In military life, there are lots of pauses for ceremony. The military ascribes a great level of value to its ceremonies. And with each ceremony comes a presentation and a cutting of a sheet cake. The sheet cake somehow alerts service members, and their families who accompany them, that we will pause to celebrate something or someone worthy of being recognized. Perhaps this is a planned Pavlovian response to encourage people to stand a little taller and listen up. And I will say that the 100th cake cutting ceremony you watch seems to be taken as seriously as the 1st. Sheet cake is a wonderful thing, recognizing service and honor are great, however, it is exasperating at times to think about how much frosting we can safely ingest each year.
In a story I am writing about a character struggling with PTSD, I wrote in a scene where his girlfriend hears him banging around in the kitchen, and finds him making muffins in the middle of the night. At first it seems entirely bizarre to her, until she breaks down a little of what goes into the baking process. The recipe gives clear instructions and measuring an exact amount for each ingredient is comforting to him. What he puts in is controlled and contained, and what comes out is expected. I felt like a nut writing the scene originally, but for some reason I have not changed it yet.
I think somewhere subconsciously the mystique of the sheet cake gave me pause and inspired the scene.
When my husband was deployed during my birthday, a friend bought me a tray of Lofthouse sugar cookies. Those are the kind dressed in colorful frosting that looks suspiciously like foam sealant. To celebrate, I shoved an entire one in my mouth — no cake cutting involved — and looked forward to another year ahead.