The Layer, the Watch and the Wardroom

The Layer, the Watch and the Wardroom

I’m not old you know.  Not sitting in a rocking chair on my porch throwing verbal rocks at kids on my lawn and telling some hapless guest about how kids got it good these days.  I’m not.

But as a ‘recently-retired’ but ‘not old’ Navy guy, I get caught up sometimes thinking that the “new crew” has it easy.  It’s that easy drumbeat of waxing nostalgic about how hard you had it and think that everyone else should come up under that hardship to somehow be as good as you are. Or were.

But, I don’t think hardship for hardship’s sakes makes a better Sailor, Leader, or Citizen.

When I think of my first deployment, a lot of things seem comical now.  Actually, they seem downright hilarious.  How I didn’t get in trouble, or, more trouble, how I didn’t go crazy, and why I put up with it is a mystery. 

We had a LOT of sheet folding training in boot camp.  Having grown up with fitted sheets, there was a novelty to folding them. I got good at it. Really good.  Part of my 19-year-old, don’t know anything about the Navy career plan including having a squared away rack.  It made sense in my mind.  Shined shoes and a squared away rack.  I’d be fleet-dam-admiral in about 3 weeks.

I got a wad of sheets, blankets and pillow case from the master at arms office, and carried them down 3 decks. They smelled of..ship, that mixture of diesel, heavy duty detergent, and funk. I laid out my sheet on the mattress to fold those perfect 45-degree angles on one end, then noticed, the sheet wasn’t long enough.  I tried the other sheet, it wasn’t long enough.  With my 3rd class standing impatiently over me, I evened them out best as could be, and then put the second sheet on.  The sheets were like 100 grit sand paper, transparent mostly and had some odd stains on them.  The blanket was as itchy as a fake Santa beard.

My first night, the sheets became unraveled.  The bottom sheet came up, the bed sheet only fit if I went corner to corner, diamond shape.  If I rolled over, it was a cold breeze or wool.  You had to lay perfectly straight, toes pointed.  At some point, I drifted off, only to be woken up by what sounded like a nuclear bomb going off next to my head.  One that also knew more foul language than I did.  Apparently, a corner of the ill-fitting sheet had stuck out on the deck, and a first class Gunners Mate (guns) slipped on them as he attempted to climb into his middle rack.  Performing that David Copperfield magic trick, he yanked the sheets out from under me and threw them across the room.  GMG1 offered to “stomp a mud hole in me” if it ever happened again. 

I’m not a smart man, but I can sense danger.  That was the danger.

Then came the crime spree, blissfully learned by watching old Salts:  

1) Get more sheets, layer them 2 long on the mattress; ripped off during berthing inspection:  counseling chit for using more sheets than I was supposed to.  2 weeks of berthing cleaners.

2) Tie the corners together with a shot line, making an intricate web under the mattress; ripped off during berthing inspection:  counseling chit for stealing the shot line (I stood a mid-watch in trade to be fair), 2 weeks of berthing cleaners.

3) Take the sheets from Officer Country.  Of course, they’re labeled “Officer Country”.  Counseling chit: 2 weeks of berthing cleaners.

4) Sneak down to laundry and look for better sheets.  Run giddy back to berthing with an armful.  Get a counseling chit for using a table cloth for sheets, and 2 weeks cleaning berthing.

I cleaned a lot of berthing.  Thankfully, between work, watch, and life on board in general, I was tired enough for the first few months that sleep came easy, even if I had to keep my toes pointed exactly straight and wrap myself, burrito style, to keep from having that whole mud hole thing done to me.

I actually found a set of sheets that were miraculous in nature.  They fit.  They didn’t say “Officer Country”.  They didn’t have many weird stains.  They were somewhat soft.  I wrote my name on them.  After berthing inspection, I found cut out a piece of sheet where my name was.  The sheets were gone.

After a few months, I learned to accept the fact that I’d be wearing one-piece leather boots with rock hard soles, bell bottoms, and learn to sleep on a musty mattress with sheets that were more big napkin than anything else.  It was life.  It was what we had.  Mail came in batches, often out of date order.  We watched old movies on beta, repeatedly.  We ate kiwis for a week straight because we ran out of other fruit.  It got hot. Really hot.  We cut the legs off our dungarees.  AC was for electronic equipment spaces.  This was just life.  “Stay in?  You must be high!”.

What good came of that?  Sure, I learned to endure hardship.  I got tough.  If it was linen and wasn’t locked up, I ‘relocated’ that shit.  I got clever.  I learned to endure.  I was miserable.  I often worked hard just to spite the overall condition of things.  People retired broken and beat up.  Not from sheets, but the in general way of life of “let’s make due”.

So, when I think of a simple thing like custom fitted sheets.  Yeah, I think the ‘new crew’ are a bunch of lucky little fucks.  But, I think they’re deserving.  Remember, they’re not in sleeping at the Ritz.  They’re sleeping in a machine, thousands of miles from home, thousands of miles from family, and often in harm’s way.  They’re out there, standing the watch.  While I’m sitting on my porch, watching kids catch Pokemon on my lawn, they are standing the watch.  Let them rest well, when they get the chance.


William Karstens

Retired Chief Petty Officer & reformed linen thief



  • FCA3 Matt A.

    Loved this story. Thank you for sharing your experience

  • GMC Vic Tornero (Retired, USN)

    Good story. !!!

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