Saturday morning, 3 AM, and I am awake. I really do not want to be; when I was in my twenties and thirties, I was able to be very productive on four hours sleep. Six hours would have been “vacation mode”. For some reason I am reminded of many times I stood watch on the Quarterdeck in the middle of the night while our ship was in port. Whether aboard the USS TEXAS – the cruiser, not the present submarine, on the West Coast; or in Norfolk, Virginia aboard the USS PETERSON, a Spruance-Class Destroyer, it was often very cold standing watch at this time of the morning.
I still remember the sound of the exhaust fans, the deafening, steel rattling as warm air was blown out onto the weatherdeck from the ship’s interior. Standing at a podium, partly exposed to the wind, I remember on more than one occasion wrapping my peacoat tighter around me, and sending the Messenger to get me more hot, very black coffee. The “balls to four” watch, midnight till 4 AM, is one of the more difficult watches since there are few comings and goings, the ship’s commander is either ashore or asleep since getting his last passdown report. It was a good time to quiz ourselves and study for qualification tests. At that time, the ESWS qualification was a big boost to a junior Sailor seeking advancement. The landline rarely rang at that time unless it was to report a member of ship’s company going on or off- leave. Sometimes it was the base security reporting a member was being written up for being intoxicated and belligerent or trying to drive onto the base. We would have to rouse a master-at-arms to go retrieve him. Normally, unless we were in a period called a Intermediate Maintenance AVailablity ( IMAV) when welders and other contractors were coming and going all night, it was often a dull period of duty. This was in the decade before 9/11, so the occasional drunk Sailor returning from Liberty and a visit by the base Command Duty Officer might be our only interruption on the Quarterdeck.
Overseas in the Mediterranean in the period following the Gulf War and Bosnian conflict, the middle of the night was a time we did not have security forces in heightened vigilance as we had once on the other side of the Suez Canal. On a six-month deployment, our ship might spend a month patrolling in the Med with several port visits. It was often a blessing to be on duty in port. One of my shipmates was never interested in going out on liberty – he had been to these same ports several times. He bankrolled a lot of money on these cruises.
Saving money when overseas was never a strong skill of mine. Had I not stood midwatch overseas though, I might never have believed stories I read about mariners, ships, and rats. When I was standing the Quarterdeck midwatch in Trieste, Italy in the early 1990s, I remember looking down to the head of the pier at some dog rooting around the dumpster just off the pier. It was dark, foggy, and things illuminated by the yellow lamps of the pier were not distinct. But I realized that dog was not a dog. What would a dog be doing here anyway? It was a wharf rat, about the size of a terrier – the largest rat I have ever seen. And now I know why ships mooring lines have “rat guards” on them. For good reason.
For those who might be amused, or assume I was exaggerating, I found an article online of a rat that obviously was well-fed up until his untimely end.
1 mid-rats is the term we use in the Navy for the late night meal prepared for the watchstanders. RATs is short for “rations”, not an item on the menu.