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…