‘Three sheets to the wind,” means very drunk. Pop used that term in a letter he wrote to my daughter, Sandy, in 1971. The term is of nautical origin, but the “sheets” aren’t sails. A sheet, in this sense, is a rope attached to a sail.
Sailors use the rope to either shorten or extend the sail. They say a sheet is “in the wind” when it’s completely loose and its sail is flapping.
Pop’s letter is about the school I attended in the 1930s. I’m publishing it now because this is “back to school” season. (I changed some names.)
“Dear Sandy, “I thought you would like to read a true story about your dad when he was a boy of about 11 or 12. We lived on a 10-acre farm and he attended a one-room country school down the road.
“Across from the school, a family named Silvers also lived on a small farm. The man’s name was Earl and he was supposed to be the janitor of the school, but his wife and daughters did most of the cleaning.
“This Earl Silvers lost one of his hands in an accident while working in a grist mill, and he wore a heavy steel hook fastened to the stump, like Captain Hook in the play.
“Earl got to be very handy with that hook; he could shoot a gun and driving a car was no problem. He was just an average size man but very strong, and when he put that hook into something it moved.
“He was said to get dry occasionally and would drive to the saloon in town to wet his whistle. It was said that sometimes he took on more cargo than he should.
“Our farm was on a hill, and from it you could see a long way up and down our road. One evening in summer, your dad and I were up near the barn when Earl came driving by. He seemed to have trouble keeping his car on his side of the road.
“I said, ‘Earl looks like he’s going three sheets to the wind.’
“Your father must have thought that meant traveling like a sailboat tacking into the wind, because one afternoon the school teacher came to our house laughing her head off. She said your dad wrote a little play about a sailing ship, with himself as captain.
“The pupils performed it that day. The climax came when a gale threatened to wreck the ship on big rocks and your dad yelled an order to his crew: ‘Three sheets to the wind.’ The teacher admitted she laughed out loud.