There was a tradition when I was in the Navy of the “Short-Timers Rope.” The rope, or sometimes chain, had as many knots ( or links) as remained in the sailor’s enlistment. At the end of each day, a knot, or link, was cut off. I saw this happen at meals. It could be a humorous event. Or, as the drama built towards the final days, one that produced a certain amount of resentment among those who’d stay behind. It depended on how much of a jerk the short-timer wanted to be.

At the end of the process, the work ethic of the short-timer frequently got summed up in one phrase- “He’s short.” He doesn’t give a damn.

When it came my time, I didn’t bother with a rope. I became detached from my squadron due to a hospital stay, and after the hospital stay, I got assigned to a variety of temporary duty assignments. I was waiting for my time to be up. Some of this work was only scut work. But then there was a pool hall.

The management of the pool hall was a pair of petty officers under the watchful eye of a Lieutenant JG. Meaning that the POs had free rein while the Lieutenant worked hard to get promoted on the other duties he had. Being that the pool hall ran itself, this worked out well all around. I got sent in to round out the team while others took leave time. 

First, I had to get vetted. Inquires got made: can he be trusted? 

I was not familiar with the duty rotation. We worked twelve hours on and then off for four days, and then we had three days off. After an orientation period, I got introduced to the pool hall’s racket. It was simple. Reservations for tables got recorded in pencil on a legal pad. Reservations could be made secretively for a bit of cumshaw *. All the workers got included in the division of spoils. In the Navy, this was smart because the tar got smeared equally if the racket was exposed. Everyone had an interest in protecting the racket.

All of a sudden, I had more money than I ever had during my enlistment. At the suggestion of one of the PO’s, I went to his tailor and had my issue uniforms tailored to fit. On my days off, I stationed myself in my old digs on Grove Street in Boston. Life was good.

It couldn’t last. When the regular’s returned, I was returned to other duties, not nearly as lucrative. I didn’t care. I was now truly short! I spent my last full day working with a surgeon performing a short-arm inspection on returnees from Asia. ” OK, skin it back…” a final and low point to my Naval career. The next day I carried my seabag to a depot, turned in my kit, signed some final paperwork, and became a civilian.


The word Cumshaw derives from a Chinese word for “grateful thanks.” Cumshaw was a late 18th or early 19th century add to a sailor’s vocabulary picked up on voyages to China. It can reference a gift or payment for a service. I know that some people refer to it as a bribe. But the way I learned of it from my father and other mariners, it was a sort of lubricant between cooperating parties. 

See my post on Cumshaw:

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