The Life of a Blanket Thief

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Your hull number was your address… Just like rural post boxes… Sort of land-based channel markers that a drunk could use to navigate home.

There is something about a couple of gallons of draft beer… It had a dual effect… You peed a lot and forgot where your boat was nested.

I used to wander down the pier until I could find a big '481' in white numbers on the conning tower fairwater, then negotiating the brows of the inboard boats, saluting the ensigns aft and the topside watch while mumbling,

"Permission to become a board…"

Like instantly we would turn ourselves into chunks of lumber. It was silly and stupid… Childish and very funny to an 18-year old what was half in the bag.

When you hit your boat, you were home free… Topside watch would say,

"How bad off are you? Can you make it without bouncing off the tank tops and making me fish you out with the boat hook?"


"Don't use the forward escape trunk hatch."

"How come?"

"Pogo just put non-slip on the bear trap steps and two, the exec and skipper are aboard sleeping. The last thing they need is an after battery 'three sheets to the wind' deck ape, ricocheting off the forward battery passageway bulkheads. Do us all a favor and use the after battery hatch."

"Anything for you, oh Nocturnal Guardian of Peace and Freedom… And wardroom kiss-ass."

"Dex… Jack said to tell you that there are some cans of peaches on the shelf in the cool room and some ice cream just inside the reefer door."

"Thanks… Laying below…"

"Hey Dex… John T. has the below decks… Tell him to run me up a black n' bitter."

"Sure thing…"

"Look out below!! One-eyed marine with a baby droppin' down!"

The after battery passageway was always obstructed by a tangle of arms and legs hanging out of bunks containing the worst collection of Olympic contending snoring sailors on either coast. No red light in port… You moved toward the mess decks slowly to keep from tripping over shoes or crushing the knuckles of the 'sock-sniffers' in the lower passageway racks. Once inside the crew's mess, you got white light… And maybe the tail end of some card game.

"Hey Dex, you hit the beach with Stukey?"

"Yeah… Went over to Bells. Quiet night… Just two other 481 sailors in there… Peto and Rip." "No shit?" "No shit, Sherlock… They had some action across the boulevard at the Victory… Big 'O's or some surface craft bar on that side of Hampton. Cops came… Shore patrol… Full nine yards."

"Anyone get hurt?"

"Ambulance came… Didn't see 'em haul anyone off… Still peaches in the hole?"

"Should be… Want me to drop down and toss you up a can?"

"Sure… Fish in the hole!… Hey webfoot, how 'bout a couple of oranges?… Thanks fish!"

(On Requin, if someone did you a favor, you called them a 'fish', which was submarine for 'sucker'… And for the old guys… Veteran ship's company, it was the same as saying 'Thank you'… Don't ask me why… Never figured it out.)

"Here's your peaches!"

"Thanks, fish."

"Who's aboard?"

"The Old Man… Exec… Four or five officers… Dutch… Buster… Duty section. Stukey came back an hour ago. By the way, the kid ran guard mail up on 'Mother Onion' (Tender, USS Orion (AS-18)) and picked up a sack of 'flat mail'… They passed in out in the control room… Called your name out four of five times."

"Someone answer up for me?"

"Conaty… Think he stuck it in the battery mailbox."

For those of you who never did time in the alley, the after battery mailbox was between the flashpad and bunk chain, middle rack aft, above the battery well access.

"You guys show a flick tonight?"

"Started one… Sonuvabitch stunk… Everybody got up and left then Bullwinkle and Rocky got in an argument over some stupid bullshit question on the ET test… So we secured the flick… Rewound what we'd shown and the duty MPO hit the rack."

"Where's Dutch?"

"Playing poker aft."

"Wish I had his money."

"Stick around for thirty, make seven war patrols, let nasty people park depth charges on your roof ten to fifteen times… Then you'll make the kinda bucks Big Daddy hauls in."

"Hey Crisco, whatz' fer breakfast?"

"Open galley, sweetheart."

"Not that f*ckin' scrapple?"

"No scrapple…"

"What is that crap anyway? Bobby Ray said it was some kind of possum Spam."

"Nasty stuff.. Folks intentionally eat that stuff?"

" Yeah... Folks from West Virginia... You tell the idiots it's food... They'll eat it."

"Watch your mouth... Yankee."

"Hey, West Virginia sure as hell isn't a rebel state... Broke off from Virginia and sided with the north... They may eat black-eyed peas and grits, but they're fakes."

"You guys get in a charge?"

"Yeah kemosabe... Topped off an hour ago."

"Anyone heard from Pistol Pete?"

"Still in the hospital over in Portsmouth... Got a good-lookin' nurse according to the skipper."

"Well ladies, it's late... Time for my beauty sleep..."

"Dex, don't mean to bust yur bubble but your beauty sleep ain't workin'."

"Screw you... Look who's talkin'... Like a bullfrog callin' a catfish 'big mouth'."

After midnight, it was easy to locate an empty rack when you were in port... And guys were sound asleep, making blanket-stealing a helluva lot easier.

There was a technique to blanket theft. First, you crawled in the rack... Preferably, a middle rack... Then you reached across the passageway and grabbed the bitter-end of the blanket covering the unsuspecting, soon to be victimized bastard, sleeping in the top rack.

Then a massive two-handed yank... The blanket leaves and you quickly stuff the blanket between you and the outboard side lockers. Thus, from the angle of observation from a top rack, you appeared to have no blanket, lying there on your back, snoring... After three minutes, you pulled the blanket over you and were home free.

In the old days, you couldn't qualify until you could successfully steal a blanket from a four-hashmark Chief in the Goat Locker, or off the exec in the wardroom.

To become a Watusi warrior you had to spear a lion… To be a smoke boat sailor, you had to deprive a rate-heavy lifer of warmth and security in a high-speed 'Now you see it - now you don't' blanket heist… Or, if you were the kind of guy who goes duck hunting before dawn and uses a truck headlight to locate ducks sleeping on the water to shoot… Then you can always wait until the below decks watch wakes an old Chief for a 0200 piss call… You know, that time in the wee hours (no pun intended) of the morning when E-8s and E-9s got up to return kidney-filtered beer to the Elizabeth River.

At that, little darlings, was the way it was in the smoke boat service of yesteryear.