A. C. Raines knows what it's like to return to the Naval Academy after winter break.
Raines, a 1986 graduate, recalls dragging himself back to Annapolis each of his four Januaries to face a dark stretch of academic drudgery, when the wind kicks off the Severn River and slips through every opening in a midshipman's dark wool uniform.
Winter is known here as the "Dark Ages."
As head of the academy's cafeteria, Lieutenant Commander Raines thought he could help. His idea: Improve each Mid's morale through his or her stomach.
Raines hooked up with Glen Higgins at Higgins Crab House in St. Michaels. The order took two truckloads to deliver. It arrived yesterday morning at the academy kitchen's loading dock, where workers separated the seaweed from the goods.
Raines sent e-mail to the 4,000 returning midshipmen with a cryptic enticement: Tonight is not the night to order a pizza. Raines and his staff called it a "Beat the Dark Ages" feast.
The main attraction, Mids learned at 6: 15 last night: 4,500 fresh lobsters.
At a price equal to a Ferrari's, the lobsters shared plate space with roast tenderloin of beef, clam chowder, vegetables and, if Mids had room left, banana splits.
"This year we decided to go all out," Raines said.
It made for an unprecedented scene in the enormous T-shaped King Hall dining room where all the Mids eat: 4,000 uniformed officers-to-be wearing plastic bibs.
And after the chaplain's prayer -- "This meal is a symbol of good things to come, a light at the end of the tunnel" -- Mids who usually dine on hamburgers, spaghetti or chicken breasts dived in. They did "Hi, I'm Mr. Lobster" dances with their clawed guests. They cracked open tails and claws, spurting juice across tables, splattering clean uniforms.
'It's hard coming back'
The meal cost just under $100,000. It might have been the last few hours of fun until April.
"It's hard coming back," said Jesse Reed, a freshman from outside Kansas City, Kan. "It's a long way until Spring Break."
Mids agree, the Dark Ages are toughest on the freshmen, called "plebes."
They've survived plebe summer, when they're pummeled with a bazillion push-ups a day. They've survived the required subservience to upperclassmen during the fall. And at home during holiday break, they've worn civilian clothes for the first time since July.
Then in January, they return to grumpy upperclassmen who take frustrations out on them.
"This is nice. But tomorrow it'll be back to normal," Reed said.
'Big impact on morale'
Raines is hoping the effect will last longer. "Food has a big impact on morale," he said.
The academy has tried the approach before. There have been feasts of 26,000 crabs. Last January, Raines served 4,500 lobster tails. This was by far the biggest endeavor for his staff of 200, which boiled the lobsters all afternoon in giant stainless steel kettles.
Of the $600 a month Mids get from the Navy as a salary, $5.25 per day goes for food. Raines tries to shave pennies here and there to eke out an occasional special meal.
In an hour, it was all over. Left behind were mangled carcasses and juice-covered bibs.
Mids said the diversion was delectable, but it was just a diversion. Classes start today. Forecasters were predicting snow. Spring Break is centuries away.
Raines knows their pain. He's been there.
"There's not a lot to look forward to, except April," he said. "And that's a long way away."
Pub Date: 1/07/99