I was a six-foot-four enlisted guy in the U.S. Navy. Any guy my size (or taller) is familiar with the usual tall guy problems; however, the Navy provides its own challenges that go above and beyond what civilian tall guys encounter.
As a mine warfare sailor, I spent most of my sea duty on minesweepers, with occasional underway time on carriers, guided-missile destroyers, and other vessels. Tall guy problems are similar on all such ships, though some are worse than others. Here are the key ones:
Overhead Hair Snatchers: False ceilings in mess decks are wonderful. They help brighten the space and reduce the amount of high-dusting required. They also lower the height of the overhead to roughly a quarter-inch below the top of my hair. If I stood in one place under lagging, this was no problem. My head pushed up into the lagging ever so slightly. If I started walking without ducking my head, however, I quickly lost hairs as the screws in the false ceiling’s frame snatched at my not-exactly-flowing locks. But my problems were nothing compared to a former six-foot-seven shipmate. During all-hands calls he would either hang his head like a vulture, stand with his feet four feet apart, or open an access panel to allow for additional room.
Overflow Tray Ambushes: Overflow trays beneath macerators contain minor sewage leaks. With padding underneath, they generally are safe to walk under . . . unless you’re my size and wearing a helmet. These trays normally are angled slightly; thus, I could start walking under the higher end without a problem, but by the time I got to the other side, my helmet was pushed down hard onto my head. It was like brakes, only coming from above.
Berthing Pros and Cons: The scale of shipboard racks is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is the length and height of the standard rack. At six feet four, I just barely fit. If I pointed my toes, my head pushed into the magazine rack. If I laid on my back and bent my knees, I scraped the top. Even a simple evolution like rolling over presented knee-striking hazards. On the positive side, I could easily grab handholds in the overhead, which meant I had no problem getting into a top rack, and I could even use that rack as a table. Just please never put tall guys in the bottom rack.
A Place in Group Evolutions: Whenever sailors got together to do a task, my position was predetermined. Group photo? I was back row, center. Formation? I was the guide against whom everyone else oriented themselves. Cleaning stations? One guess who got to do high-dusting (there’s a reason the tops of my fingers are full of scars). Painting? Obviously, I had the overhead. Stores onload? Nothing like a tall guy for passing a box down a ladder. Need to pull tension on a line or cable coming from a higher level? Look no further than ol’ “Stretch.”
Drain Pipes under Overhangs: Overhead protuberances are things of evil on the weatherdeck. Indoors, sailors typically are uncovered, allowing them to see objects above eyebrow level. Once topside, we dutifully don our covers and cut out half our field of vision. Around a corner we go, sometimes in the dark, eyes downward to avoid gear adrift. That’s when we see stars and begin to stagger, having just brained ourselves on the elbow of a drainpipe hiding in the blind spot of our command ballcap visor.
The Power Stance: You are standing quarterdeck watch after hours, responsible for observing everything that takes place within sight. The wind is howling, and rain is coming down hard, drowning out the sound of the phones and threatening to tear up the quarterdeck if the watertight door is not closed. This leaves a watertight scuttle and a tiny door window available for observing the outside. For a short person, there is no problem. For a tall person, the tops of these windows are below chin level. This is where the power stance comes in handy. Feet spread wide, knees bent, and looking ludicrous to enable us to look out the window without tearing up our backs.
A Giant Abroad: I spent close to nine years of my career overseas. In some places, someone my size was not terribly unusual. Logistical support abounded and eyes did not follow me. In other places, someone my size was truly noteworthy. Whether in rural Cornwall or in Japan, many older buildings are scaled for people five foot four and shorter. Most doorways in such places compelled me to duck my head, but I also encountered door jambs that stopped below my chin. One short friend rented a house that was so low I was obliged to sit as there was nowhere I could stand.
But my biggest problem living overseas was a complete lack of clothing options out in town. In Japan, the largest sized clothing was 4-L—too small for me. During my first tour in Japan I traveled to 17 ports in five countries in two years. In that time, I found a single pair of shoes that fit (size 14). I paid 200 Singapore dollars for them.
Cubicle Catch-22: Furniture is made to fit people who are near the center of the bell curve of sizes. Cubicles and office chairs are no different. A computer screen on a desk is at one level for everybody. Variable-height office chairs help most people, but they are ergonomic nightmares for tall folks. We must choose which to make more uncomfortable: the back and neck or the knees. If the chair is high enough to allow our knees to bend at around 90 degrees, our computers are in our laps and we must hunch over to do our work. Alternatively, we can bottom-out our chairs to place our elbows even with our keyboards. This results in having our legs either stretched out straight in front of us, bent underneath us in something akin to a squat, or bent in front with our knees sticking up near our armpits. All these options are uncomfortable. What helped most was the arrival of my stand-up desk. I could still sit, but with the deck raised several inches to a more ergonomically correct position.
Height/Weight Shenanigans: Here’s a pop-quiz: If you double the height of a cube, keeping the whole thing to scale, what happens to the volume? Does it increase by a factor of 2, 4, or 8? The answer, of course, is 8. An object that increases in height also increases in both width and depth.
Despite this basic of mathematics, the military’s height/weight chart allows an increase of only about five pounds for every inch of height gain from five feet up through six foot eight. It exactly replicates the body mass index (BMI), a 19th-century invention that is based on the body’s volume squaring rather than cubing when it doubles in height. What is the result? A tall person who tapes at 22 percent can easily be considered “obese” according to the BMI. Tall men who just barely meet the height/weight standards typically look much skinnier than short people who just barely meet height/weight standards.
Being tall is great. Tall guys see the world from a different angle. We have no problem spotting each other in a crowd. The Navy can thank us for the cleanliness of its wire-runs, the efficiency of its lightbulb changes, and the resetting of its office clocks twice a year. But those benefits come at a cost for those living in a world that is organized for shorter people.
Senior Chief Mazurek retired in 2018 after 23 years in the Navy. He is pursuing an MBA at the University of Notre Dame.