Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Great Paper Chase


When an officer reports aboard ship and takes up his duties, one of the first things he does is post his license.  Just as a physician or a dentist or an attorney would display his credentials in his office ashore, so does a Merchant Marine officer aboard ship.  The Master, mates, and radio operator typically display their licenses together in locked frames built into a bulkhead near the bridge and radio room.  The engineers display their licenses in the same way near one of the entrances to the engine room.  Thus, when I joined the oceanographic survey ship Kane as chief mate, I posted my license in its assigned spot.  Anyone who was interested could then look at it and see for himself that I was qualified for my new job.

To the ambitious and career-minded young officer, his license was the single most important piece of paper in the world.  No license meant no job, no career, no future, no money, no home, nothing.  Losing one’s license was a catastrophic professional failure that led inevitably to unemployment, impoverishment, destitution, and desperation.  In short, the license was everything—practically life itself—and every conscientious Merchant Marine officer guarded his license with his life.

When the Kane returned from a survey voyage on Monday, May 19, 1986, she docked in North Charleston, South Carolina, and remained there for the rest of the week.  Several crewmen were scheduled to leave the ship that week, most of them going home on vacation.  The one exception to this was the radio operator—always called “Sparky” aboard ship—who was leaving the company and taking a new job aboard a cruise ship.  To this end, he signed off the Kane and went ashore with all his belongings about noon on Wednesday the 21st.  He planned to stay overnight in a local motel, and then on Thursday fly to Honolulu where he would join his new ship.

In the course of my work that Wednesday afternoon  I went up to the bridge and chartroom and walked past the spot where the licenses were posted.  Something about this display caught my eye; something about it just didn’t seem right.  Then, to my complete astonishment, I realized that Sparky’s license was still there!  He had gone ashore and left for a new job in Hawaii without his license!!

Horrified by this discovery, my mind raced with a jumble of hurried thoughts.  What would Sparky do in Hawaii without his license?  Could we possibly get it back to him?  Did anyone know what airline he was taking?  Or what motel he was staying at?  Could we possibly intercept him before he left Charleston?   I ran down to the next deck, burst into Captain Weckstrom’s office, and blurted everything out to him.  Like me, he did not know the details of Sparky’s itinerary.  Neither did the purser.  Neither did the chow hall crew, and they usually knew everything that was going on.  Finally, Captain Weckstrom and I agreed on the most likely way to find Sparky and return his license to him.  I would get Frenchy, the bosun, and we would use the ship’s rental car to drive to the airport and there ask what flight Sparky was booked on, what address and phone number the airline had for him, and so on.  It seemed like a good plan, but there was no guarantee that the airline people would tell us anything.

Since Frenchy knew the Charleston area better than I did, he drove.  And he talked. “I can’t believe anyone would do this!  How could he forget his license?  Of all the stuff to leave behind!  What was he thinking?  I ain’t got no license, but I sure know how important it is!  What’s he gonna do on that there cruise ship when he finds he ain’t got no license?  I’ll tell ya this, mate—it sure ain’t gonna be pretty!”

After a short drive and a long soliloquy, Frenchy parked at the airport. We went inside the terminal building and found four ticket counters for four airlines: Delta, Eastern, Piedmont, and one local carrier.  Since no airline flew nonstop from Charleston to Honolulu, I figured that Sparky would need to change aircraft in a major city such as New York or Atlanta.  That made Eastern and Delta the most likely choices.  And so with Sparky’s license firmly in hand, I approached the Eastern ticket counter and addressed the clerk there.

Giving him Sparky’s real name, I asked if he was booked as a passenger bound for Honolulu.  Not surprisingly, the clerk responded with “I’m sorry, sir, but we’re not allowed to give out that information.”

Explaining that Sparky was a Merchant Marine officer on his way to join a ship, I placed his license on the counter so the clerk could see it.  “He’s going to need this when he gets there,” I continued, “or he’ll be out of a job.  I really need to find this fellow and return his license to him.”

Looking quite surprised and taking the matter more seriously now, the clerk responded with, “Well, in that case,” and typed the name into his computer.  He asked where and when Sparky was going and studied the screen for several minutes.  Finally he sighed and said, “I’m sorry, but I have no passenger with this name.  He must be going on another airline.”  I thanked the clerk for his efforts, and then Frenchy and I walked across the concourse to the Delta counter.

I made the same inquiry and received the same initial response from the Delta ticket clerk.  On showing him the license and explaining the urgency of the situation to him, he also took the matter more seriously and started looking for Sparky in his computer.   After a minute or two, he found him.  Sparky was booked on a Delta flight the next morning from Charleston to Atlanta and thence to Honolulu.  The clerk also gave me the name, address, and room number of the motel where Sparky was staying overnight.  I glanced inquisitively at Frenchy. “I know that place, mate,” he said.  “It ain’t far from here.”

I thanked the Delta clerk for his help, and added that he had just saved a man’s entire career, and possibly his life as well.  Then Frenchy and I returned to the car and set out for the motel.  Once again, Frenchy spoke his mind.  “Well, mate,” he began, “it’s a good thing you done the talking in there.  I wouldn’ta been so polite like you were, especially when they first didn’t wanta tell ya nothing!  Now I just hope we find we find Sparky at this here motel.  If he ain’t there, what next?”  I was wondering about this, too, but for the moment just didn’t want to think about it.

Frenchy drove up to the motel and parked in front.  We got out of the car, found Sparky’s room, knocked on the door, and waited with bated breath.  After a minute the door opened and Sparky stood before us.  What a relief!

Sparky greeted us very enthusiastically.  “Hi, mate!  Hi, Frenchy!  Nice of you to stop by!  Are you coming to the party tonight?  A lot of the fellows from the ship will be there.”

I thanked Sparky for the invitation, and then explained that we were not really there on a social call.  Holding his license up for him to see, I told him, “We found that you had left this behind, and we wanted to get it back to you before you flew out tomorrow morning.”

Sparky stared at his license in silence.  The look on his face said it all—disbelief, horror, astonishment.  He looked up at me, then at Frenchy, then back at his license.  He started stammering.  “Oh, my gosh!  Oh, my gosh!  How did this—?  How could I—?  How could this happen?  How did you know?  How did you find me?”

I briefly described how we had tracked him down through the airlines.  Sparky recovered his composure as I spoke and blurted out, “Well, I’m glad you found me!!  Thank you so much!!  Thank you both!!”  He repeated this many, many times and then continued, “Can I buy you a drink?  Can I buy you dinner?  Can I get you anything?  Whatever you want, I’ll get it for you!!  Name your price!!”

Well, Frenchy and I were on the clock, and we needed to return to the Kane.  Besides, we really had not expected to reap any great profits from simply bringing this man’s license back to him.  It was just the right thing to do.  But Sparky insisted so much that we agreed to stay for a sandwich and soda with him.  He put his license away safely in his briefcase, and then we followed him into the motel’s combination snack bar and lounge.  There we found several other crewmen from the ship, and a very pleasant social visit followed.  In his excitement, Sparky dominated the conversation, telling everyone there how we had heroically rescued his license and saved him from a fate worse than death.  I found these remarks a bit extravagant, but if it had been my license, I suppose I would have been just as effusively appreciative myself.  Anyway, after an appropriate interval, Frenchy and I wished everyone well and drove back to the ship.

Aboard the Kane again, I met quietly with Captain Weckstrom in his office.  The news of Sparky’s forgotten license had spread among the crew, and the Captain was asking me how the matter had been resolved.  He listened studiously and nodded thoughtfully as I narrated the story to him.  Finally he said,  “Well, he is a very lucky man.  He is lucky that you noticed his license was still on board, and he is lucky that you and the bosun were able to find him.  Imagine if he had gone all the way to Hawaii only to realize that he’d left his license here.  He would be despairing out there while his license was floating around the Atlantic with us!  Yes, he is a very lucky man indeed.”

As lucky as he was, Sparky may still have found some scriptural injunctions suited to his situation. “Set in order thy house” (D&C 93:44), and “prepare every needful thing” (D&C 88:119), for “if ye are prepared ye shall not fear” (D&C 38:30).  When joining a ship one’s license is most certainly a “needful thing,” one of many such to be packed up and brought along.  Hence the command to “search them diligently, that ye may profit thereby” (Mosiah 1:7).  No doubt Sparky had searched diligently and sincerely believed he had brought everything with him when he signed off the Kane.  With his license missing, though, he clearly had not searched diligently enough.

Many years later, my own license is no longer posted aboard ship.  Instead, it hangs over my desk at home.  I gaze at it from time to time and think about the good old days which it now represents.  No longer is it the most important piece of paper in the world.  Its prominence has been superseded by several other documents.  Among these are my children’s birth certificates, their Eagle Scout awards, their high school diplomas, their college degrees, their marriage records, my grandchildren’s birth certificates, and of course, all their photographs.

Life in the fleet at sea gave me one perspective; life with my fleet of children ashore since has given me a new point of view.  No longer do I focus on acquiring sea time and making it to Master by age thirty; instead I treasure time with my family, time that always passes too quickly.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Ships That Pass In the Night


Many times aboard many ships, during long and otherwise uneventful night watches, I sailed past other vessels going in the opposite or nearly opposite direction.  Except for their running lights, these other ships were often invisible in the total darkness that covered the water.  I could see their “blips” on the radar screen, and from these calculate their directions and speeds of travel.  Beyond this information, though, these vessels and their crews remained anonymous as they sailed under the cloak of darkness—unless a lonely mate, yearning for even some temporary human companionship, picked up the VHF radio and called up the mate of the other ship.  Then the time-honored inquiries of “What ship? Where bound?” would be posed and answered, and then followed by friendly conversation until the two vessels passed out of radio range.

A few such impromptu conversations stand out in memory even after so many years.  One night aboard the Waccamaw along the coast of Cuba, the mate on another American ship called me up.  After some preliminaries involving my course and speed and destination of Guantanamo Bay, he thanked me profusely for supporting the armed forces and helping to prevent the further spread of Communism in the Western Hemisphere.  A very friendly fellow, I think he would have talked to me all night long, but we both had work to do, and so we bade each other farewell.

Another night aboard the eastbound Comet in mid-Atlantic, the mate of an westbound ship called  me up.  In this otherwise empty stretch of ocean, we had plenty of time to chat, and we found that we had much in common.  He was a graduate of Fort Schuyler, about my own age, and through school and sailing knew many of the same guys that I did.  It was a pleasant opportunity to catch up on the news of where everyone was and what they were doing.  Then he went his way and I went mine, separated by only a few miles of seawater, but bound for opposite continents.

In these and numerous other inter-ship encounters, two people at random points in their voyages met briefly, spoke with each other cheerfully, and continued on their way.  Most likely they would not meet again.  Nonetheless, their chance meetings were happy occasions with uplifting conversations that enriched them both.  After all, “it is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).

A similar scenario sometimes took place at harbor entrances, in both daylight and nighttime.  Two ships of the same fleet, one outbound and one returning, would meet in the channel or at the pilot station.  They could be, for example, the Rigel and the Pawcatuck meeting at the Chesapeake Bay entrance.  Even though busy with matters of arrival and departure, their Masters would take a moment to exchange a “Welcome home!” and a “Bon voyage!” and some collegial chit-chat over the VHF radio.  The common ground that they shared was palpable.  They worked for the same employer, sailed on the same ships, knew the same crews, did the same jobs, visited the same ports, ate the same food, and knew that they would meet again.

Implicit in all these ship-to-ship conversations was common ground.  Even if not employed by the same company, the participants shared the rigors of the sea and the life away from home.  They took sights of the same stars and endured the same rough weather.  They lived in similar lodgings, worked similar inconvenient schedules, and enjoyed similar dubious comforts.  In short, they understood one another without needing to say so.  It just came with the territory.

In a broader sense, entering and leaving life are a lot like entering and leaving port.  A newborn baby has a long voyage ahead of him, and an elderly person has a long voyage behind him.  When they meet at the harbor entrance, one setting out and one coming back, there is so much the one returning could tell the one heading out concerning what lies ahead on the open sea of life.  Yet with each one busy with the pressing matters of arrival and departure, the situation is simply not conducive to a lengthy and detailed analysis of the sea conditions.  Some aspects of the voyage the newcomer will just need to learn on his own.  Perhaps in mid-ocean a friendly mate on a passing ship will call up and chat with him, but that remains to be seen.

My mother, Justine Elizabeth Burns, entered Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, Long Island, on Christmas Day of 2017 at the age of 99, and was diagnosed with what the medical staff described as her final illness.  They gave her a few days to possibly a few weeks to live on home hospice care.  Mom said that she wanted to last long enough to see all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren one more time.  With the meter thus ticking, the family rallied to her bedside.

In this last week of December, my oldest son flew in from Alaska; my youngest son drove down from New Hampshire; and my middle son, traveling by airplane and train with his pregnant wife, also arrived from Alaska.  With this young couple was their soon-to-be-born baby girl whom they would name Katherine Elizabeth.  Finally, on New Year’s Day, my daughter and her daughter, Miss Lydia Elizabeth, arrived by air from South America.  Faced with such an impromptu reunion, Mom’s joy was complete.

In several days filled with heartwarming moments, the most heartwarming but also bittersweet moments occurred between Mom and her two great-granddaughters.  She had of course seen Miss Lydia several times previously, but not Miss Katherine.  She was thus very pleased to meet Miss Katherine, in a sense, by placing her hand on the appropriate spot and feeling her kicking in the womb.  Awed by this little girl’s ability to make her presence known, Mom remarked on the miracle of life and the continuation of the family line.  It was truly a very special occasion for her.

Like two ships that pass in the night, and with neither running lights nor radar, Mom and Miss Katherine were completely invisible to each other, yet at least one of them knew that the other was there.  If they could have seen one another, what sights they would have beheld!  If they could have spoken with one another, what conversation would have passed between them!  Like inbound and outbound ships meeting at the pilot station, one was starting her life’s long voyage and the other concluding hers. If they could have called across the water to each other, what enthusiastic greetings they would have exchanged, and what wise counsel one would have imparted to the other!  Alas, it could not be.  As merchant seamen must do after an all-too-brief acquaintance, each had to go her separate way, one to return to Alaska and one to remain on Long Island.

All of Mom’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren likewise had to leave and return to their distant homes.  With her goal of seeing everyone achieved, the family anticipated that Mom’s long voyage would soon be finished.  But there was a delay.

On Wednesday, January 24, 2018, in Providence Hospital in Anchorage, Alaska, Miss Katherine Elizabeth emerged from the prenatal darkness and came into the light of the outside world.  Her great-grandmother, patiently awaiting the news of this blessed event, received the announcement happily and thankfully.  Soon afterwards, she saw the first photographs of Miss Katherine, transmitted to her bedside via cell phone.  Once again, Mom’s joy was complete.

Everyone’s attention now turned to little Miss Katherine.  As her cousin Miss Lydia had done two years previously, she  came down from Heaven—descendit de caelis[1]—to become part of our family.  We all bore a serious moral obligation to treat her well, provide for her properly, protect her from harm, and help her succeed in her new life.  That this new life was a miracle seemed self-evident, providing much food for serious thought and contemplation, yet leaving very little to say.  It seemed best, then, to maintain a reverent silence and pray for God’s blessings to accompany Miss Katherine always.

Just as we waited for Miss Katherine to finish her descent from Heaven and begin her earthly voyage, we now wait for Mom to finish her earthly voyage and begin her ascent into Heaven.  Exceeding the hospital staff’s estimated survival time, she displays no readiness to ring up “Finished with Engines” just yet.  She has already requested enlargements of Miss Katherine’s photographs.  She will keep these by her bedside along with Miss Lydia’s portraits, and she will gaze lovingly at these two most precious little baby girls’ images as she prays her daily Rosary for them.

Even if they never meet again in this life, Mom and Miss Katherine have already shared a very special time together.  With the common ground of family, which is “ordained of God,”[2] they met like two ships that pass in the night, unseen and unheard by each other, but probably more known and more loved by each other than the rest of us can imagine.


[1] From the Nicene Creed; this translates as “He (or she) descended from the heavens.”
[2]The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, General Relief Society Meeting, September 23, 1995.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Yacht Club


Situated on Unqua Point in the Nassau Shores neighborhood of Massapequa, Long Island, the yacht club provided berthing for a variety of small recreational sailboats and motorboats that spent their summers plying the protected and shallow waters of the Great South Bay.  Only one of these vessels could properly be called a yacht, though.  This was a broad-beamed, gaff-rigged, bowsprited New Englander, conspicuous for her size and design, and somewhat out of her element on the South Shore of Long Island.  We saw her frequently at the dock, but seldom underway.  At the time, I hardly gave it a thought, but my parents wondered about this boat as we sailed our diminutive Justine up and down the channel between Unqua Point and Karras Creek.

This channel was the thoroughfare that skirted the mud flats east of Massapequa and south of Amityville and led to comparatively deeper and more open water.  From Karras Creek, where my parents kept the Justine, it was a fairly short and easy sail to the open bay, if the wind was right.  When the wind didn’t work, we paddled.  Eventually, when my father got tired of paddling, he invested in a small outboard motor.  I was a small child then.  My father did not appreciate my powers of observation when one day I remarked that while the new motor broke down routinely, the old paddles always worked just fine.

We sailed on the Great South Bay from Karras Creek in the mid-1960s.  In the 1970s, my parents traded in their sailboat for a slightly larger Justine, and they berthed the new boat first in Lindenhurst and later in Babylon.  Aboard these vessels in my formative years, we sailed the bay from Massapequa to Heckscher State Park.  In my teen years, I decided that the bay was too small for me and yearned to sail on the open Atlantic.  Eventually I did this, but aboard vessels somewhat larger and more durable than the twenty-feet-long Justine.  In all my transoceanic travels, though, the memories of my childhood voyages remained with me, and I have returned to the Great South Bay many times.

On one such occasion, two of my sons accompanied me to Massapequa, and we visited both Karras Creek and Unqua Point.  This outing took place on Saturday, June 2, 2005.  Not surprisingly, forty years after my initial voyages aboard the Justine, many things had changed.  Karras Creek, Unqua Point, and the Great South Bay were of course all still there, but the neighborhood had been revamped.  Karras Creek abutted the Riviera, a waterfront party house used for weddings and other special occasions.  Back in the day, this was a large but humble and down-to-earth affair.  It has since been gentrified into a five-star, world-class venue complete with brick driveways, Belgian block curbing, and lavish landscaping.  Down the street at Unqua Point, the yacht club was completely gone.  In its place stood the new Nassau Shores Bayfront Park, a publicly owned facility with playground equipment, expansive lawns, and benches facing the water.  In its simplicity of design and with its expansive views of the bay, this new park was quite impressive.

My sons were not very impressed, though, either with the new facilities or the family’s connection with the old facilities.  I looked at it all philosophically.  In four decades, places and people do change. Just as the old waterfront neighborhood in Massapequa had undergone a metamorphosis, so had I.  Indulging my sons’ patience for a while, then, I gazed at the Great South Bay from the new park and found plenty of food for thought.

This was the place where my lifelong love of the sea had started.  I was six years old when my parents bought the Justine.  The bay was different then.  The water was cleaner and there was less traffic on it.  The mud and sand bottom teemed with clams ripe for the picking.  People were friendlier.  When boats sailed past each other, their crews waved and called out greetings.  If someone’s boat got in trouble, folks on other boats would come by and help.  It was all very neighborly, a microcosm of the universal brotherhood of the sea.

Since that time so long ago, many tides have come and gone, and the salt water that filled the bay then has since travelled around the world many times.  The same seawater that carried the tiny Justine on her intracoastal cruises also carried the great cargo ships of my subsequent career on their more ambitious voyages.  It was a big leap from the Justine to the Rigel and the Waccamaw and the Comet, but everything big originates as something small, just as the oak tree starts life as an acorn.  Holding the Justine on a steady course as the wind filled her sails later became bringing the Waccamaw alongside an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean for underway replenishment and maneuvering the Comet through the fishing fleets in the Sea of Japan.  Studying the chart of the Great South Bay and navigating by landmarks aboard the Justine became navigating by the sun, moon, and stars first on the New Jersey Sun and then aboard a host of subsequent ships.  And recreational sailing under the tutelage of kindly parents became important employment, often with roughneck crewmen and demanding if basically good-natured Captains.  The happy innocence of childhood was thus replaced by the serious responsibilities of an often difficult profession.

Indulging my sons’ patience just a little longer, I thought of what I had gained from going to sea.  The sea gave me tangible experiences and also taught me abstract qualities that in turn produced tangible results.  The sea taught me motivation, ambition, perseverance, and discipline.  It taught me to set priorities and distinguish between genuine needs and mere wants.   It taught me to do what must be done, to consider the next step, and to anticipate the likely consequences of decisions and actions.  It taught me to gauge other people and determine what qualities they possessed.  All this and more that I learned from the sea has accompanied me through life since.  The sea was one of the three things that shaped my character and made me the person that I am.  The other two influences were church and family, and while the three worked in harmony, I came of age at sea.

Like so many things in life, the yacht club had its moment in time and then passed into oblivion.  But the small inland sea beside which it stood remains, as does the larger sea that encircles the Earth.  The sea will continue long after I am gone, and it will teach future generations of young merchant seamen as it did me.  In some ways the sea was the best teacher I ever had.  And to think that it all started here, on the sheltered and shallow water of the Great South Bay!  This was indeed the cradle of my craft, and for that I will always be profoundly thankful.

Now let’s look at some photographs of the old waterfront neighborhood:


This is Karras Creek in Massapequa, Long Island, in the summer of 1967, in one of my very early attempts at photography.  The sailboat in the left foreground is the Justine.
A much better view of Karras Creek and the Justine in the summer of 1967 taken by my father.
Yours truly at the helm of the Justine, underway on the Great South Bay in 1967.
Returning after many years and many voyages, we see Karras Creek on Saturday, June 2, 2005.
The entrance to the new park on the site of the old yacht club on the same day in 2005.  Steven and Michael pose by the sign.
Unqua Point and the Great South Bay on the same day with the same sons.  Usually a very pacific body of water, the bay was an excellent place to begin a career at sea.  Decades later, this small stretch of salt water holds a flood tide of memories.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Calculating Mecca


The freighter Rigel had left Norfolk on Tuesday. May 22, 1979, bound for ports in the Mediterranean.  Toward the end of the second full day at sea, one of the unlicensed crewmen called the bridge with an urgent request.  Speaking to James James, the second mate, he explained that he was a Muslim and needed to face in the direction of Mecca when he said his prayers.  So could the mate please provide him with the compass bearing of Mecca?  James James responded that he would be happy to do it, but he needed some time to work out the calculations, and so he asked the fellow to call back in fifteen or twenty minutes.

Seeing a teaching opportunity in this request, James James explained to Schnickelfritz, the cadet on his watch, what needed to be done.  They of course knew the latitude and longitude of the Rigel’s location, so they looked up the coordinates of Mecca, plugged this data into the great circle sailing formulas, and worked out both the direction of and the distance to Mecca.  James James did it the old fashioned way by using the trig tables in Bowditch and crunching the numbers with pencil and paper.  Schnickelfritz did it the new fashioned way with his calculator.  Both methods produced the same compass bearing and distance.  It proved to be a wonderful practice exercise in spherical trigonometry.  When the devout crewman who requested this information called the bridge again, he thanked James James profusely and expressed great appreciation for his efforts.

At the 8:00pm change of the watch, James James related this experience to me, one of the third mates.  All the mates and the cadet reasoned that as the Rigel crossed the Atlantic, the bearing of and distance to Mecca would necessarily change, and we foresaw the need to provide our Muslim shipmate with updated information.  Furthermore, as we would all eventually take the exams to upgrade our licenses, we saw this as an opportunity to increase our proficiency in the great circle sailings.  This was important material.  Praying toward Mecca notwithstanding, the great circle formulas figured into every transatlantic and transpacific voyage.  So it became the daily drill to practice for both future voyages and future license exams by calculating Mecca.

As it turned out, the request for the compass bearing of Mecca was a joke.  There was no Muslim crewman aboard the Rigel after all.  Some of the fellows below decks thought up this scheme to have some fun at James James’ expense.  They had their laugh, which was harmless, and they unwittingly provided a few young and ambitious officers with a useful study tool.  I certainly appreciated it, for by the time the Rigel reached Gibralter, I had become much more comfortable with the great circle sailings.  I subsequently used this newly developed expertise many times aboard several ships, and I had no difficulty with this material on the license exams for second mate and chief mate.  Many years later, I recall these formulas with fondness.  No doubt these calculations are all done by computers now.  I suppose that’s fast and accurate, but having gone to sea in the old school, I think I would find computerized navigation to be professionally and intellectually unsatisfying.  Sometimes the old ways really are the best ways.

When the Rigel was making this voyage back in 1979, few of us in the West gave much thought to the holy city of Mecca or to the Islamic faith and its adherents.  Furthermore, none of us could have foreseen the bad press that Islam would receive in recent years, or the vituperation that would be cast upon Muslims generally.  It’s very sad when an entire population is blamed for the crimes of a tiny minority.  Popular misconceptions notwithstanding, Islam has a number of uplifting characteristics.

As a belief system, Islam is a large and complex subject with a long and sometimes stellar and sometimes checkered history.  For Muslims who take their religion seriously, Islam is a way of life, a rigorous faith with high moral standards that seeks to uplift its members and bring them closer to God.  In these respects, Islam is not unlike Christianity and Judaism.

A well-composed and ideologically neutral capsule summary of Islam[1] includes a discussion of the faith’s moral precepts.  Some of these are fairly well-known, such as the prohibitions on eating pork and drinking alcohol, the period of fasting during Ramadan, and the five-times-daily call to prayer.  Above and beyond these outward practices, however, Islam requires its members more broadly to lead lives filled with charity, humility, modesty, and reverence; to acquire and value an education; to contribute to the relief of the sick and the poor; to ensure the rights of women and children; to respect the religious beliefs of Christians and Jews; and in general to extend love, kindness, and forgiveness to all people.

My personal experience with Islam has been minimal.  Three of my children, however, have enjoyed some very positive contact with it.  A few examples stand out.

As a teenager, my daughter attended the Academy of Notre Dame, an all-girls Catholic high school in Tyngsborough, Massachusetts.  One of her classmates, Salwa, came from a devout Muslim family.  Salwa was an excellent student who took her schoolwork seriously, got along well with everyone, and never caused any trouble.  She graduated as the valedictorian of her class and received a full scholarship to Boston University.  The latest report indicated that she is now married and studying toward a doctorate at Harvard.

My youngest son visited Israel during Holy Week and Passover in March of 2014.  In Jerusalem on Good Friday, he mingled with Christians, Jews, and Muslims, all of them visiting the holy sites and getting along very peacefully with one another.  Later, when my son was leaving Israel and entering Jordan, there was a mix-up concerning his visa at the border.  Without being asked, a Muslim fellow-traveller intervened and spoke to the border guard on my son’s behalf.  In a few minutes, the visa problem was resolved, and there were no further difficulties.

My oldest son and his wife visited the United Arab Emirates in November of 2014.  They found the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi spotlessly clean and their streets crime-free.  They saw that every train on the subway had a special car reserved for women and children, not as discrimination against women, but as a courtesy that provided greater comfort and privacy for them.  My son and daughter-in-law also visited the famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.  Comparing it favorably to an LDS temple, they found a strong spiritual presence there and noted that proper dress, reverent behavior, and subdued speech were required of all visitors.

Muslims, Christians, and Jews all believe in a God who has certain expectations of his people, who has set specific moral precepts for them, and who seeks to raise them up to his standards. One of my favorite authors, Rabbi Harold Kushner, makes this point well.  In discussing human frailty, he asserts that when we reach “the limits of our own power, we need to turn to a Power greater than ourselves,”[2] and that “the worship of a God beyond ourselves can help us grow.”[3]  Such spiritual growth is important because “there are standards by which God summons us to live.”[4]  In short, “our behavior matters to God.”[5]  All three Abrahamic religions teach this, and it stands true for everyone everywhere, regardless of denominational affiliation.

These thoughts run a long way from the Rigel’s transatlantic voyage of 1979.  A request that started as a joke first became a training exercise for the license exams and then a springboard for considering the merits of a major religious tradition.  But life is like that, especially life at sea.  Very often when cargo ships leave port, their crews have only a vague idea of where they’re going.  Along the way, schedules change, itineraries are revised, and ships are rerouted.  A ship, like life, can take us just about anywhere.  But of all the voyages we make and of all the ports we visit, the most important ones are those that bring us closer to God 


[1] Two good and readily available sources are https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam and https://www.britannica.com/topics/Islam.
[2] Rabbi Dr. Harold Kushner, Who Needs God, New York: Summit Books, 1989, p. 59.
[3] Op. cit., p. 54.
[4] Op. cit., p. 79.
[5] Op. cit., p. 79.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Culture Shock



The freighter Mercury was sailing southeast in beautiful tropical weather several miles off the coast of Mexico in June of 1980.  She was  bound from San Diego to the Panama Canal with a load of military vehicles which were on their way to the Marine Corps base near Wilmington, North Carolina.  Because of the military nature of this cargo, the Mercury carried a military officer to superintend it on this voyage.  He was a Navy lieutenant in his mid-twenties, which made him a few years older than myself.  He had previously sailed aboard Navy ships and had become a fully qualified surface warfare officer of the unrestricted line.  His voyage aboard the Mercury, however, was his first experience of a civilian cargo vessel, and it astonished him.

Lieutenant Mike was an affable shipmate.  He seemed to blend in reasonably well with the Merchant Marine crew, and he displayed a healthy interest in the workings of the ship.  Some of our ways puzzled him, but he never criticized us or our methods.  This trait alone would have endeared him to the crew.  Above and beyond that, though, he was a genuinely friendly fellow and a good dining room companion.  He loved to eat, and he remarked over almost every meal, “This is even better than the Navy chow!”

One morning when I was on watch, the lieutenant came up to the bridge.  Opening the door slightly, he poked his head through the opening and politely requested “permission to come on the bridge.”   I of course bid him enter, and he came in and stood by me and chatted for a bit.  As we talked he looked around at everything with a somewhat confused expression on his face.

The Mercury had a very spacious bridge.  From where we stood, we could see everything, including out the large plate glass windows to the sea beyond and out the side doors to the also very spacious bridge wings.  The lieutenant took all of this in and realized that until he arrived, I had been all alone up there.  I was a very young third mate, all of 22 years old, and I was in charge of the ship’s movements with no one to assist or supervise me.  His astonishment at this situation soon became obvious,

In a stammering voice, the lieutenant asked me, “There’s no one else here?  There’s no helmsman?”

“It’s on automatic,” I started to reply.

But he continued as if this hadn’t registered.  “You do everything here?  You do your own radar plotting?  You do your own navigation?  You’re your own lookout?  What if something happens?  And the weather observations?  Do you do that, too?”  And so on and so forth.  He was clearly flabbergasted—and possibly terrified, too—at finding one solitary third mate on the bridge of a large cargo ship underway at sea.  This did not fit in with his Navy experience, where an army of crewmen swarmed a much smaller bridge.

I explained that this situation was perfectly normal.  We were in open water with good weather and no traffic.  Since they were not needed on the bridge, the three unlicensed seamen on my watch were working with the bosun on deck.  With my license, I was fully qualified as the mate of the watch and could do everything he asked about and more.  There really was no cause for concern.  I’m not sure that he believed me, though.

After a short interval, the lieutenant turned to go below.  He wished me well, but as he left he muttered uncomprehendingly to himself, “I don’t get this.  Only one man on the bridge?  I can’t understand these guys.  How do they do it?”  And so on and so forth as he disappeared down the stairs.

A few years later, when I was the second mate aboard the Waccamaw, something similar took place.  The ship was docked in Norfolk, Virginia, one weekend in October of 1982, and a large group of naval reservists came aboard for a tour.  These men held full-time civilian jobs and did part-time military work.  They were middle-aged in dress blue uniforms with numerous gold stripes on their sleeves.  To facilitate the sightseeing, the group split in half.  The chief mate led one tour, and I led the other.  We took them through the entire ship, from bow to stern and from bridge to engine room.  They followed closely, listened attentively, and asked intelligent questions.  A few times, though, they seemed confused by the answers they received.

Down in the pump room, one reserve commander asked several questions, and then exclaimed, “I don’t understand how you fellows can run a ship this size with such a small crew!”  He went on to explain that compared to a Navy ship, we had “so few officers” and “so few crewmen” that he just couldn’t see how we got the job done.  This led to some lively discussion, and it came out that several of the other reservists felt the same way.

Through no fault of their own, these men had been taught the Navy way of doing things and not the Merchant Marine way.  And there is a difference.  A commercial ship must operate efficiently and turn a profit in order to survive, while a military ship relies on the bottomless pit of government funding.  Also, the Navy sees a ship primarily as a floating gun platform, whereas in the Merchant Marine a ship is transportation.  These financial and operational dichotomies lead to two completely different ways of thinking and working. One might say that “never the twain shall meet,”[1] but they did in our fleet and usually with the result that the Navy men and the Merchant Marine fellows simply could not understand each other.  Each group looked at the world from its own point of view and found the other’s viewpoint incomprehensible.

One of our Church officials, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, recently made a similar observation:

Each of us has a personal lens through which we view the world.  Our lens gives its special tint to all we see.  It can suppress some features and emphasize others.  It can also reveal things otherwise invisible.[2]

My experiences as a merchant seaman crafted my personal lens many years ago.  My subsequent academic career as a college librarian and student of the humanities reinforced and enhanced this
personal lens  So, after all these years, I still view the world as if I were standing on the bridge wing of a cargo ship.  I like this view.  I see everything quite clearly from this vantage point.

Quite naturally, people do think in terms of what they know and understand, and of course this colors their view of everything outside their own corner of the world.  And when people are confronted with something radically different and completely alien to everything within their range of understanding, they typically respond with astonishment and often say the most outlandish things.

This is reflected in some of the remarks that people ashore have made to me about seafaring.  They’ve ranged from the bizarre—“Do you sleep in hammocks?” and “Do you have flush toilets?”—to the uncomprehending—“Oh, how exciting! You work on a cruise ship!”—to the demeaning—”How can you stand to live like that?!”—to the sadly inevitable and inappropriate jokes about shipwrecks.  While these remarks grow very tiresome very quickly, they do serve to illustrate the gulf that separates the merchant seamen from the laymen.

Captain Paul McHenry Washburn, the Master of the container ship Stella Lykes and a literary figure, asserted the opposite point of view:

But there are a lot of us who are here because this is where we fit in, and we don’t fit in anywhere else.  We seem to be out of step.  The square peg in the round hole.  I was out of place as a child, and now I am not looking forward to retirement.  I dread it.[3]

Furthermore, he added as he looked toward land from the Stella Lykes:

I would rather be here for the worst that could be here than over there for the best that could be there.  I’ve never felt comfortable or secure anywhere else.[4]
 
Admittedly, this is an extreme opinion that seems to border on solipsism.  After all, Captain Washburn did have a family ashore, and he cared for them all very much.  Nonetheless, his remarks do summarize the situation well.  The merchant fleet is a culture unto itself, separate and apart from life in any other profession, including the Navy.  A landsman, or for that matter a naval officer,  stepping aboard a cargo ship would experience culture shock just as much as a seaman going ashore and taking up a new occupation would.  Some things, like the proverbial oil and water, just don’t mix.

It is precisely for this reason that the seaman-turned-playwright Eugene O’Neill penned his famous lines:

It was a great mistake, my being born a man.  I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish.  As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death![5]

Another extreme position, this one not only borders on solipsism but also leans toward misanthropy.  Still, the author makes his point well, and I have thought similarly many times in social and business situations over the years.  In the end, I’ve just had to resign myself to the simple fact that going to sea has made me immutably different.  Thus, both Mr. O’Neill’s and Captain Washburn’s assessments are correct.

Yet there remains one further point which these gentlemen did not address.  In his trial before the Athenian court, Socrates asserted that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”[6]

Sea gulls and fish, with their inherently limited capabilities, cannot know how fortunate they are. Unable to think and reason, they cannot ponder the higher matters of life.  They cannot read and study the classics of literature and history and philosophy and theology or master the natural and applied sciences.  At first glance, their lives may look more attractive than that of the social outcast who can’t fit in anywhere except at sea, but the intellectual limitations of the sea gull and the fish would inevitably become intolerably crippling.  Humans, including merchant seamen, are created in the image of their Creator, and as such, they share in his characteristics, including intelligence, which enables them to learn, enrich themselves, and achieve so much more than animals.  What an honor this is, since the scriptures inform us that “The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth” (D&C 93:36).  Even the most socially misfit, solipsistic, and misanthropic merchant seaman shares intelligence, light, and truth with God.

Furthermore, with these divine qualities, there is no need to dread retirement.  I’m actually looking forward to it.  I anticipate a robust retirement filled with grandchildren, academic studies, church activities, and occasional cruise ship voyages!

Before I leave for work in the predawn hours, I often step out onto the porch and gaze upon the stars.  The constellation Orion stands out in the south.  Betelgeuse  shines on the east flank, Rigel on the west, and Sirius below.  I smile as I remember standing with my sextant on the bridge wing of the Rigel, taking sights of her heavenly namesake.  Thoughts of ships, voyages, and even sea gulls and fish crowd upon my mind, too.  But the great celestial majesty above me transcends these idle reminiscences.  Thus enlightened, my mind recalls in the great celestial language, Gloria Dei est intellegentia.


[1] Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Ballad of East and West,” in A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895, ed. Edmond Clarence Steckman, at www.bartleby.com.
[2] Quoted in “Spiritual awareness” (sic), Church News, June 25, 2017, p. 16.
[3] Quoted in John McPhee, Looking for a Ship, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990, p. 157.
[4] Op. cit., p. 155-156.
[5] Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989, pp. 153-154.
[6] Plato, The Apology of Socrates, tr. Benjamin Jowett, in The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, vol. 1, 6th ed., New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992, p. 824.