The Mid Watch Revisited

The Mid Watch

What does it feel like to be alone?

I am sure that many people are starting to feel alone with the current condition of social distancing. In the interest of slowing down the spread of the Corona Virus, whole cities are being asked to isolate themselves from others. Since close proximity seems to be the most prevalent way the virus spreads, staying apart just makes sense for the time being. Hopefully our brilliant scientific minds will work together and find a vaccine for this new infestation very soon.

But I was thinking this morning about some of the times in my life when I truly felt alone. Certain memories came back to me.

When I was sent to the Fleet Ballistic Missile Training Center in Charleston SC, I got a small taste of it. Up until that point in my life, I had grown up in a room with three other brothers (two bunkbeds), surrounded by brand new sailors in Boot Camp and Machinist Mate A School and Sub School in New London. None of these counted as “alone” in any sense of the word. To be honest, it was actually a good experience in many ways. Learning about people and their mannerisms has been a gift that has helped me throughout my adult life.

The only exception was the odd times when I was assigned to a Mid Watch.

Mid Watch was the watch where someone had to be awake and alert to guard a building or barracks between the hours of twelve and four. To be honest, with the way the system worked, it actually started at 11:30 and went to 3:30. And the end time was entirely dependent on whether or not the guy who was reliving you was on time. In too many cases, that was not the case.

Guarding an empty building in Great Lakes Naval Training Center in mid-December with three feet of snow on the ground made about as much sense as standing watch over a pile of manure in the center of Kansas. Who in their right mind would want to go there in the first place and what the hell was there to steal?

There I was in my undress blues with my Peacoat on trying to stay warm. The white web belt with the nightstick also felt pretty useless. I was inside the hall but there was very minimal heat. Walking up and down the corridors was the only way to stay somewhat warm. Plus, I had forgotten to get up in time to eat. Now I also felt the pangs of hunger as well as the freezing chill in my bones. Somehow, I thought guarding the world from communism was going to be a little more exciting than this. And of course, my relief came about a half hour late.

Fast forward a few years and I discover what alone really means. My first two patrols on the George Washington went pretty quick. Mess cooking and standing watch as a helmsman/planesmen meant that I was never really alone. The sound of my shipmate’s voices spinning wild sea stories and the smell of cigarettes was never far away. Both the mess decks and the control room are very active twenty four hours a day. Even when you are going low and slow through the water, you have company. In some ways, it was one of the most social activities I can remember in life. Especially since you are so close.

By the third patrol, I was needed someplace else. I had qualified to operate the Oxygen Generator and I had already trained to run the CO2 Scrubbers and COH2 Burners so my next stop was standing watch in the Air Regenerating Room (otherwise known as the Auxiliary Machinery Room). Qualifying didn’t take long since there were only a few of us that were certified to operate the Bomb (Oxygen Generator). Once qualified, you were on your own.

It was busy in many ways. The “Burners” pretty much took care of themselves. Simple in design, they just sat off in a corner. The scrubbers took a bit more work since they used up water and had to get refills of monoethanolamine (MEA) and water from time to time. I hated chemistry in high school but learned to measure and analyze pretty well as we managed the strength of the solution in the machine. The Bomb (Oxygen Generator) got most of my attention. It was fickle and finicky and had some bad habits. But after a while, you just learned to keep things in control.

The Mid watch was the worst. You pretty much knew that no one was going to accidently wander through and strike up a conversation with you. After the first hour, the clock seemed to grow cement legs. What should have been ten minutes seemed to take forever. Your ears grew wary from listening to every creak, groan, hiss, and pop as the machines purified the air and made the life giving oxygen.

Your imagination goes a little crazy too by the second hour. You start thinking of days from the past and old girlfriends and anything at all to help you pass the time. If you were lucky, a passing roving watch might take pity on you and bring you some coffee. That and endless rounds of cigarettes did their best to keep you awake.

By 0300, your eyes are fighting a constant battle with your common sense. They are tired and want to close. But common sense tells you that the minute they close, two things will happen. One of the machines will do something bad or a restless Chief will choose that time to come and do a walk about in your space.

Staying awake is only the second hardest part. Did I mention that there is also no head in the space?

Yep. If you hear the call of nature, you are limited in your options. Those who have stood a watch in an isolated space know that there are no worse tortures than needing to go and not having a relief available. Anyone who has ever stood watch in the Auxiliary Machinery Room knows that there is one bilge area just forward of the reactor compartment. In that bilge are was a small recessed area where the auxiliary drain pump took a suction. I will just say that that area was a very useful place but my least favorite to have to field day.

On some submarines, in isolated areas, desperate times called for desperate measures. This created someone called the “Phantom Shitter”. Legends have been recorded about this person. I will leave those legends to the experts. But needless to say, no one routinely confessed to being said person.

At the end of the watch, blessed relief. A sleepy eyed sailor would show up around 5:35 and you would rapidly go through a list of things that were going on. A few short signatures later and you headed forward for a blissful sleep. By that time, I had graduated from hot racking and had my own designated bed. Sometimes I would even remember to get out of my poopy suit. Often it was just a short nap before the day started with drills and field days. My wife is still stunned when I say I am going to take a quick nap and fifteen minutes later I emerge ready to go. It’s a lifelong habit I never got out of.

To be honest, I got used to being alone. It was peaceful without all the drama. But being a person who likes people, I can only take alone for short bursts. Maybe its life’s drama that fills the empty places our imagination can’t.

I know what it will feel like when all the restrictions are lifted. I think it will be like emerging from a long patrol. We will all go on with our lives as if nothing ever happened. When we wake up after this mid watch is over, I am sure that it will all seem just like a dream.

I do wonder sometimes if I am back on the old Georgefish just dreaming all of this right now…

Mister Mac


14 thoughts on “The Mid Watch Revisited

  1. Your article brought back memories of mid watch’s in the radio shack of diesel and nuclear attack subs. It was always a one man watch. I have very pleasant memories of standing watches on the helm or planes as it was as part of a team.

  2. AMR LL Have bucket and large Ziploc bags. I have heard from reliable sources that a healthy crap can fit into plastic ziplock bag. Said bag is then to be dumped in toilet bowl with ball valve shut. Seal said bag and place in trash bag. Note: Do not Do not put filled bag in trash can. Said bag may end up in trash compactor with terrible results for person doing trash.

    1. Glad I never had duty with the TDU or mess-cooking (one of the very few benefits of being a nuke). On the Laugh-a-lot the ERS or EWS would relieve the Auxilliary MM to go to the head in AMR-2 UL

  3. I know a number of sub sailors who can nap anywhere for any length of time. It’s a skill we all learned on the boat: top off the Z’s at every opportunity. Now, if i could only figure out how to teach other people to do it, I’d be rich and insomnia would be a thing of the past.

    I was on a 640-class boat, and we had a head in the Missile Compartment that the A-ganger on watch would use when things got really desperate. Also, a number of us Weaponeers that stood roving watch in the Missile Compartment also qualified as AMR1 watchstanders, just for such an occasion, so we could step in in an emergency. The aft bunk cubicle (out of 5 total) in the Missile Compartment was for the underway AMR1 watchstanders.

  4. Former nuc electrician and when I reported aboard the Laugh-a-lot (Lafayette) as the junior EM, I was awarded the task of helping the Auxilliary MM monitor the bombs. I was terrified! The guy who had been the bomb tech had all manner of stories to tell me about how this thing could explode in flame with little to no warning. I devoured the tech manuals seeking some secret knowledge to help forestall such an eventuality (the Aux MM was little help as he fed into the horror stories). My first watch station Aux Electrician Aft included touring AMR-1 where the bombs sat in the middle level. I literally tip-toed around these things! By the end of the first patrol I had lost the terror, but always had real respect for these things. Yeah, I continued the tradition of terrifying the next junior EM; it’s what is done.

  5. Your story of the midwatch at Great Lakes brought back memories. I had to do similar duty while attending electrician’s mate A school there. I stood mid watches at the nearby journalists school. The corridor lights were always switched to just a few emergency lights. As I paced through the dimly lit corridors I could hear the crunching sound of my feet stepping on cockroaches trying to find an evening meal!

  6. As a nuke electrician I spent a lot of time in the upper level of AMR1 on a 640 class SSBM. I was always blowing carbon dust out of the armatures of the 30/10 mg sets. I was good friends with the auxiliary men. But they weren’t happy when I came by with my blower!!!

  7. Loved being sonar sup…SSBN 659, gold…mid-watch…smell of fresh bread….was in good with the night baker….always had warm rolls around 03:30

    1. According to the internet, you are close. On submarines, CO 2 is removed with a chemical scrubber, called monoethanolamine. MEA is supplied in liquid form, although it may be a solid dissolved in water. When cold, MEA takes in CO 2 , when heated, MEA gives up the CO 2. For more than 30 years, CEPEDA has designed, manufactured, tested, serviced, and refurbished carbon dioxide (CO2) scrubbers for the U.S. Navy. These units utilize monoethanolamine (MEA) to remove CO2 from enclosed atmospheres.

      I have adjusted the article to reflect the manufacturer’s spelling.

  8. Having spent some time as the SRO, Shutdown Reactor Operator, in an enclosed space, manuvering compartment, I feel your pain! The isolation, the only respite, is the roving mechanical watchstander approaching manuvering with his foreskin clamped in a giant paperclip, will never be forgotten!

    1. Oh , yes. Many times. Especially since one or two of my commands may or may not have been haunted. USS Los Alamos in Scotland had a ghost roving watch.

  9. For sure Bootcamp and A School midwatches were the worst, I remember having to relieve the quartedeck midwatch in the SubSchool Building in Groton in the middle of winter during a blizzard in my dress blues. Howling wind, snow up to my waist while climbing up the stairs outside the building, it was insanity. As soon as I relieved, I took my shoes, socks and pants off to let them dry while the space heater did it’s work on my boxers and bottom half of the dress blue shirt. Yup, stood most of the midwatch that night in my underwear y’all! I was a ST so, underway midwatches weren’t that bad, but could be brutal at times when everyone’s too exhausted to talk during weeks of drills. To be honest, on my first underway on the Alabama I remember waking up and everyone else in the shack was asleep. I managed to stay awake for the rest of that watch, watching nothing but white noise on broadband. Woke the shack up about 45 minutes before our reliefs showed up.

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