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.