Why make a bed at all?

No one was asking this question except the sort of media type who slinks around events of this sort like a sheep-killing dog, looking for angles.

The event was a bed-making competition at the Ramada Renaissance hotel. There were 93 housekeepers from 26 Washington-area hotels in a six-heat contest, stripping and making 16 rollaway beds with two pillows. The winner would get four nights and five days in Antigua.

Why make a bed, indeed.

Jan Morton, director of personnel at the Watergate hotel, who had come along to cheer for Team Watergate, stared at the reporter, who looked a little like an unmade bed himself, his necktie loosened, the usual journalistic inventory of food stain and rumple.

She answered in a tone that suggested each word should be capitalized, like a title for her autobiography.

"Doesn't It Feel Better When The Sheets Are Clean And Crispy?" she said.

So much for raison d'e~tre.

The Capital Hilton brought along a pompom squad, and the Ramada Renaissance team had one of those big foam hands you see people waving at football games with a number-one finger extended. There were balloons, and Bob Strickland of Channel 9 as emcee, and former police chief Maurice Turner, who is the Republican candidate for mayor of the District. There were stacks of linen and yellow blankets made out of that horrible foam stuff that hotel blankets are made of nowadays, like insulation for a spaceship.

"You get static with them, they stick to the sheet when you're stripping the bed," said Cheerol Henery, who has been keeping house for eight years at the Carlton, which uses wool blankets instead.

It was announced that the iron rule against dumping stripped linen on the floor would be suspended for the contest.

"We can put the linen on the floor?" asked the Willard's Gloria Morris. She swung her arms and snapped her fingers. "Okay, on the floor, we got that straight."

She had come to win. "I heard about it and I thought, shucks, I got to be in it." She had recorded the fastest time in trial heats at the Willard -- 4 minutes 30 seconds. "And that was for a king-size bed with four pillows. Here, I'm going to try for a minute and a half to two minutes."

She was scheduled for the third heat, and when she saw the winner of the first heat clock in at 2:01, she knew she had sized the competition up right.

So had Brenda Boykin of the Hyatt Regency.

"I practiced with her," said housekeeping supervisor Pe Tunison. "I'm the coach."

What's the best practice time they had?

"Between 10:30 and 11 in the morning," said Tunison.

No, Boykin's shortest bed-making time.

"Sometimes she'd do a minute and 45 seconds."

These housekeepers made beds so fast that there seemed to be a layer of linen in the air at all times, like low cloud cover, or like the fog of fabric you used to see over the panties bin during Washington's Birthday sales at the old Klein's in New York. If you weren't close to two minutes, you could forget about Antigua. On the other hand, if you went too far under, you'd be losing quality points for hospital corners, "smooth, tight surface," "top hem folded, finished side showing, 8 inches over blanket," with pillows set down "smooth, straight, seams toward headboard," and "open ends to outside of bed."

With the Willard squad cheering behind her, Morris used her height and foot speed to make up for a slow bed-stripping start and finish at 1:50, but soon Beverly Cain, of the Ramada Renaissance, had posted a 1:45 with technique that included laying down a new sheet with her right hand while she stripped the bed with her left. For Annie Smith of the Omni Shoreham, at 2:01, the secret was "praying and concentration. I didn't realize what I was doing. I blocked everybody out."

In the finals, the heat winners went at it again, with speed-merchants Morris and Cain the obvious favorites. But Cain overpowered her bed-stripping move and pulled up the mattress cover, which took precious seconds to replace. And Morris missed a corner grab on her second-sheet toss.

Still, they seemed to be leading the room until you looked across at Annie Smith and saw why she'd been named Employee of the Year at the Omni Shoreham. She stayed with the classic housekeeper technique of making the bed one side at a time, and was barely trailing Morris and Cain going into the pillows. Then she made her move.

Instead of holding the pillows under her chin and pulling the pillowcases up over them, the way every mother has taught every child since human beings stopped sleeping under piles of leaves, she laid the pillowcases on the bed, and "stuffed them like turkeys," as she'd explain later.

As it turned out, both she and Morris left the timekeeper looking at a stunning pair of 1:42s, with Cain 16 seconds behind, but the pillow move had bought Smith some all-important breathing space to score quality points.

Smith waited for the decision with her eyes closed, shaking her head no when people asked her if she thought she'd nailed it.

Cain and Morris finished out of the money. A combination of good time and very good quality points won third place and a weekend for two at the Ramada Renaissance for Maria Oriolo of Washington Court, and Cevela Simons, a good two-minute bed-maker, took second. She got a queen-size Symbol mattress along with a set of West Point Pepperell linens to make it up with.

First place went to Smith, with a perfect 10 quality points. By the time she dug her way out from the pile of coworkers and Shoreham executives screaming and piling on top of her, and got up to the stage to pick up her trophy, she was crying.

"Everybody would always tell me I'm fast but I didn't pay them no mind," she would explain later.

She looked at the plane ticket to Antigua.

"You ever been in a plane?" she asked. "I hear when it goes up it makes your ears deaf." Somebody assured her that she'd love it. Then she started worrying whether she'd need a passport. An Omni executive said he'd take care of it.

She was sure about where she'd put the trophy, when she got home to Northwest Washington.

"In my bed," she said. Which she makes every morning, she said, without fail, before she goes to work.