Years ago, junior sailors partied on Saturday nights at their local enlisted clubs.
Officers gathered at the officers' club on Sunday mornings for brunch with their families.
And the chiefs convened at their club on weeknights after work for drinks and discussion of Navy business.
But times have changed, and these clubs — once a pillar of Navy social life — are becoming relics. The Navy has an ever-shrinking number of them, and some that remain barely resemble the old-school drinking parlors from a generation ago.
"These operations have truly transformed into something much different from what you and I would picture as a traditional club," said Ed Cannon, the fleet readiness program director at Navy Installations Command.
The Navy has, technically, 74 clubs worldwide, but only three now operate as "clubs" in the true sense of charging membership dues. Many of the others have actually morphed into food court-style facilities with a Pizza Hut or a Subway attached. Others were renovated into bowling alleys or other "activity centers" — a combination known as "eatertainment," Cannon said.
The shift reflects dwindling popularity for the dining concept of sit-down meals with table service. Today's sailors, just like many civilians, prefer "fast-casual" restaurants like Chipotle or Panera, which require diners to order at a counter and carry their own food to a table, Cannon said.
One enlisted club in San Diego was recently converted from a traditional club with a sunken dance floor into a daytime-oriented space open to all ranks with a Starbucks coffee shop and a focus on services for single sailors, Cannon said.
Some former clubs are no longer rank-exclusive. For example, several bases are opening "brew pubs" or Irish-style pubs that focus on providing light snacks rather than formal dinners.
"These facilities … have learned to keep up with what the customer is looking for," he said.
In 1955, when Bob Rasmussen arrived in San Diego as a newly winged aviator, he spent most evenings hanging out in the officers' club, which was a shabby building attached to his barracks. There wasn't much else to do — he shared a room with three other junior officers, and nobody ever watched television.
"There was an awful lot of unit cohesion that was generated at those gatherings," recalled Rasmussen, a retired captain and director of the Navy's National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla.
"The officer clubs used to be very much the center of social life," he said.
That's simply not the case anymore. One lieutenant assigned to Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., when asked about the officers' club at his base, had to think for several minutes about whether it even had one. It does, he said, but he and most other officers rarely go there except for the occasional command functions.
The reasons for the slow and steady demise are many.
Big Navy's crackdown on alcohol-related recreation is among the key factors. Heavy drinking at an on-base bar is likely to cause problems. Many sailors and officers are leery of drunken-driving checkpoints targeting those leaving on-base clubs.
Also, Navy clubs now must be financially self-sufficient, unlike those a generation ago. A rule in the 1990s forced clubs to function like real businesses, and many have been unable to compete with off-base options, which have expanded compared with those available a few decades ago.
Liberty centers For the younger sailors, the Navy is opening "liberty centers," on-base facilities with computers and televisions that are not included in the Navy's 74 clubs.
Across the Navy, these centers aim to provide sailors with an alcohol-free place to socialize. They offer computers for checking e-mail, video game consoles, televisions and maybe a pool table.
Jeremy Arnold, a 20-year-old fireman in the Navy Ceremonial Guard in Washington, dropped by his local liberty center at Naval Support Facility Anacostia on July 7 to watch some television and eat a sandwich.
He likes having a place to relax in the early evening before a night watch. But he laments not having an enlisted club like those he's heard older sailors talk about.
"I'd probably have been there just about every night. People will come here and talk, but most of the people are playing video games or watching a movie. It's not a social club."