Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Visiting the Waterfront

The famous passenger liner Queen Elizabeth 2 rested peacefully alongside Pier 92 on the West Side of Manhattan.  To most outward appearances, the ship seemed quiet.  As groups of passengers began to arrive at the pier and make their way on board, however, the initial quiet dissipated and was replaced by a hum of activity.  Conveyor belts delivered food, supplies, and suitcases aboard from the base of the pier.  Several decks higher, passengers strolled across a separate gangway to the ship and were welcomed aboard by Cunard Line representatives.  From the top level of the pier, Miss Patty and the children and I enjoyed a balcony view of the embarkation as well as a spectacular close-up view of the mammoth vessel and the surrounding riverfront.  It was a cloudy and warm Saturday, August 12, 2000, and we had come to visit the Queen.

Many years earlier, in the 1960s, my parents had brought my brother and me to the West Side passenger piers to see our grandparents off when they sailed on the Constitution or the Independence of the old American Export Lines.  My grandfather had engineering conferences to attend in Europe, and both he and my grandmother preferred ocean travel over air travel.  For my part, I envied them.  Sailing away on a long ocean voyage seemed so much more interesting than going to school.  Eventually, I did sail away on many long ocean voyages, not on glamorous passenger ships but on beat-up old freight wagons.  But that didn’t matter.  What did matter was that these freight wagons went to sea and they took me with them and they opened up the world for me.

While my Merchant Marine career had reached its conclusion as the children started to arrive, I continued to hear the call of the sea, and I wanted to share this experience with the children as much as possible.  Hence our numerous voyages aboard the Staten Island and Long Island ferries, among others.  But there were more occasions when we did not actually sail on the sea but simply went to visit it.  Such was the case this Saturday in August as we admired the great Queen Elizabeth 2 from the pier.

The children were fascinated by this beautiful ship.  From the vantage point of the uppermost level of the pier—a rooftop parking facility surrounded by a waist-high concrete wall—they could see everything.  They admired the Queen from stem to stern, taking in the anchor windlass, the lifeboats, the promenade decks, the navigating bridge with its oversized windows, the lavishly decorated passenger lounges, the swimming pools, and atop it all the famous red and black striped funnel that has for so long been emblematic of the Cunard Line.  They watched as middle-aged passengers casually sipped wine in deck chairs and as tuxedoed waiters danced attendance on pretty girls relaxing around the pool.  They asked many questions and listened carefully as I explained various aspects of the ship to them.  In addition to the Queen, there were tugboats and barges and other passenger ships moving about the neighborhood.  While these were all very interesting, the Queen nonetheless reigned supreme as the star of the show, and she commanded the children’s interest for the afternoon.

At 5:00pm, it was time to go.  Many things started to happen simultaneously.  The chief mate and several linehandlers appeared on the bow.  A younger officer with a similar group appeared on the stern.  Dock workers started to toss the mooring lines off the bollards on the pier and the crewmen aboard ship winched them in.  More dock workers removed the gangways and the crew then closed the sideports and secured them for sea.   A tugboat came along and towed away an oil barge that had been delivering fuel on the Queen’s starboard side.  Important looking personages stepped purposefully out onto the port side bridge wing—the master, the pilot, the mate of the watch.  These men and a host of others serving in less visible capacities would soon take the great ship to sea.

The Queen’s mighty whistle sounded a single prolonged blast which echoed off the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan—the signal for getting underway.  A moment later three shorts blasts sounded forth, signaling that the ship’s engines were now going astern.  As the whole family watched from the end of the pier where a small crowd had gathered, the Queen began to move, very slowly at first but then gaining momentum.  A space of open water formed between the ship and the pier as she backed out at a slight angle into the Hudson.  Propeller wash surrounded her stern and eddies of water swirled around her bow as the large hull gracefully pulled away from the city.

Soon the bridge wing would come abreast of the crowd at the end of the pier.  I picked up the two youngest children, Steven and Michael, so they could see over the heads and waving hands and balloons of the assembly.  James and Karen squeezed into an open space along the low wall at the end of the pier.  Miss Patty and I then squeezed in behind them.  As the Queen continued astern and the bridge wing came alongside the crowd, the children waved enthusiastically to the great men there who were directing her.  They all called out loudly,  “Hi, Captain!  Hi, Pilot!”  To all the children’s delight, these two great men took a moment from their duties to gaze down at them and smile and wave and return the friendly greetings.  Then, back to business, they looked sternward again as the Queen slowed and started turning upstream in a wide arc as she cleared the pier.

With her bow now pointing seaward, the Queen came to a momentary stop in mid-Hudson and then gradually started moving forward.  She would now proceed to sea.  We watched carefully as her propellers bit into the water and eased her ahead.  Her speed increased as she headed south and away from her audience on the pier.  She continued past many other piers where no doubt many other people were watching.  Eventually, she passed from sight.  The children waved a last good-bye to her as she became lost to view behind the buildings of Lower Manhattan.  Their previous excitement now gave way to melancholy as they expressed the wish that they could sail away on the Queen instead of walking back to the subway.

The Queen Elizabeth 2 was one of many merchant vessels that we took the children to see.  In the New England seaports closer to home they gazed upon oil tankers, bulk carriers, container ships, pilot boats, fishermen, and an occasional cruise ship.  But the purpose of these outings was as much to gaze upon the water as upon the shipping.  The words of England’s most famous merchant seaman, John Masefield, come to mind:

I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.1

We answered this “wild and clear call” many times.  In Portland and Portsmouth and Boston, at Nubble Light and the Footbridge Beach and Point Judith, we answered the call and were rewarded with many windy days, flying clouds, and spray flung from whitecaps.  We gazed upon “the lonely sea and sky”2 but without experiencing loneliness.  Instead we enjoyed the soothing feelings of peace and quiet and a renewed appreciation for the beauty of the Earth which only the sea and sky can generate.  In short, the seaside was our special place in which to feel the presence of the Spirit.  Even as young as the children were, they sensed this, too.  They would gaze upon the ocean with expressions of wonder showing on their faces.  In this way the innocence of childhood came face-to-face with the pristine natural elements of the sea and sky.  What a beautiful way to spend a day!

Of course, children being children, they did not simply sit and stare at the sea all the time.  They enjoyed many happy hours of splashing in the waves, climbing on the rocks, running across the beach, building sand castles, and eating picnic lunches.  Their fun was as limitless as the sea and sky around them.  And they always asked questions.  The waterfront was a place of learning as well as a place to feel the Spirit, and the children wanted to know everything.  How do lighthouses work?  What do the buoys mean?  How did you use the sun to navigate?  Did you miss Mommy when you were at sea?  And so on.  There was even the occasional language lesson.  One summer morning in Portsmouth we happened upon a freighter bearing Hellenic block letters that identified her as the  AΛEΞANΔPEIA     from  ΠEIPAIEΨΣ.  Suddenly called upon to remember the odd bits of Greek that I had learned in my vagabond youth, I explained to the children that this ship was the Alexandria from Piraeus.

Occasionally there was sadness.  Regrettably, the sea has not always been used for strictly peaceful purposes.  The lighthouse at Point Judith, Rhode Island, stands on a narrow spit of land that is surrounded on three sides by water, a truly beautiful location.  A historical marker on this site informs the visitor of a maritime battle that took place a few miles offshore in the final days of the Second World War.  On May 5, 1945, the American coal carrier Black Point was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-853.  On the following day, the U-853 was depth charged and sunk by a half-dozen American naval vessels.  Twelve men out of the crew of 46 aboard the Black Point perished, as did all 55 crewmen aboard the U-853.3  How tragic that 101 men lost their lives so unnecessarily, when the outcome of the war had already been determined, and in a place of such sublime and pristine beauty.  It grieved all of us to read the historical marker and contemplate these terrible events.  No doubt it grieved the Lord as well, for these seamen were all his children regardless of which side they had fought on during the war.

More happily, however, the innocence of childhood prevailed on these visits to the waterfront.  One thing that growing children like to do is eat, and our four had especially good appetites when next to salt water.  We always brought a picnic lunch with us, and if we left the house early enough we brought a picnic breakfast, too.  They dined with views of the sea in several locations.  The best one of all, though, was at the end of the breakwater in Portland Harbor in Maine.

This stone jetty extends 900 feet into the water from Spring Point in South Portland.  At its end stands the historic Spring Point Light, which warns arriving and departing ships of a section of shallow water at the harbor entrance and dates to 1879.  The breakwater that connects the light to the shore dates to 1951.  It has a reasonably flat walking surface, and visitors are free to hike out to the lighthouse.  People fish, eat, read, sunbathe, and relax on this jetty, but it does not get crowded.  From this vantage point one has unobstructed views of the city skyline and tanker docks to the left, and Casco Bay and its lush islands to the right with the Portland Head Light to the far right.  It is a truly beautiful place, and we have visited it with the children numerous times.  One of these occasions in particular stands out in memory.

It was in the late morning of Wednesday, August 7, 2002.  The sun shone brilliantly in a bright blue sky decorated with tufts of white altocumulus clouds.  We carried our lunch cooler to the end of the breakwater and sat down on the rocks with the lighthouse at our backs and the open water spread out before us.  Except for the line of stones and the lighthouse immediately behind us, we were surrounded by blue water—always a pleasant sensation.  We ate a leisurely and informal lunch as we enjoyed the unsurpassable beauty of the area.  Ferries periodically passed before us on their voyages between the city and Peaks Island and Long Island.  Then a tugboat materialized, passed in front of us, and proceeded seaward.  We watched as it went in the direction of Portland Head.  Before long, the bow of an incoming vessel appeared off Portland Head, and the tug went to meet it.  A merchant ship was coming into port, and we were there to see it!

The family watched in rapt attention as the tanker Nassau Spirit arrived.  A second tug went forth to meet her as she passed through Casco Bay.  Soon she stood abeam of Spring Point.  With the two tugboats’ assistance, she made a wide and graceful turn to come around the end of the breakwater.  Then, straightening her course, she made her approach to the Portland Pipeline pier a short distance to the left of the stone jetty in South Portland.  She eased her great bulk slowly alongside the pier and came to rest.  The tugboats held her securely in place until the mooring lines were made fast.

When they were finished with the Nassau Spirit, one of the tugboats headed seaward again to meet a second incoming vessel.  We watched again as the passenger ship Regal Empress came up the bay towards Portland.  An older vessel with traditional lines and fresh blue and white paint, she made an impressive sight as she passed abeam of the Spring Point Light.  But she did not dock at the Portland Pipeline pier.  With the tugboat’s assistance, the Regal Empress gracefully turned herself about and then backed alongside the passenger pier in Portland proper.

Two large merchant ships had arrived in Portland in succession, and we had watched them from the best seats in the house.  It had all happened literally right before our eyes—a thrill for the whole family, and one which brought back many memories for me.  It was a privilege to be present, all the more so because the Spirit was present, too.  Later in the day, it was very difficult to leave.

Another seaside spot that was difficult to leave, and for that matter, took considerable effort to get to, was Peggy’s Cove on the south coast of Nova Scotia.  The cove itself is a small fishing port surrounded by modest wood frame buildings and protected from the open ocean by a rolling landscape of solid rock.  In the center of this rock stands the famous Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse, a diminutive white tower with a red cap.  Tourists come in great numbers to see this.  We did, too, but we lingered longer, unable to pull ourselves away from the wide open Atlantic that stretched out seemingly endlessly before us.  It was an overcast Wednesday, June 25, 2003.  Both the sea and sky were largely gray, but even in this unremarkable weather, Peggy’s Cove stood out as an indescribably beautiful location.  Gray waves topped with white foamy crests rolled in towards the shore and washed up on the rocks.  The water made a soothing natural sound as it came ashore, like subtle background music.  There were plenty of visitors on the rocks, but it did not seem crowded.  Nor did it get noisy.  We could have sat on the rocks looking at the ocean all afternoon and felt quite undisturbed.  But the children had far too much energy for something so sedentary.

We walked into the little village.  Like most tourist attractions, it had a gift shop.  Like most gift shops, it sold a lot of junk.  But it also had a well stocked book section.  This was not junk.  There were history books, particularly the history of seafaring.  Much of this history had taken place in and just offshore of Nova Scotia.  Much of it had been peaceful, but some of it was not.  In recent years the coast of Nova Scotia had commanded the world’s attention in a terribly tragic way, and a monument just up the road commemorated the event.  It was not a shipping casualty, but ships and boats of various descriptions tended to the cleanup.

On September 2, 1998, a Swissair flight enroute from New York to Geneva diverted toward Halifax in order to make an emergency landing because of an onboard fire.  Unfortunately, this attempt proved unsuccessful, and the aircraft came down in the water just outside of Peggy’s Cove.  Everyone aboard perished in the accident.  The monument stands atop a hill overlooking the site where the airplane came down.  Inscribed in both English and French, its prose is clear and concise:

            In memory of                                      A la memoire
            the 229 men, women, and children     des 229 hommes, femmes, et enfants
            aboard Swissair flight 111                  qui ont perdu la vie au large de
            who perished off these shores                   ces cotes voi Swissair 111
            September 2, 1998.                             le 2 Septembre 1998.

            They have been joined to the              Ils appartiennent maintenant
            sea and sky.                                        au ciel et a la mer.

            May they rest in peace.                      Qu’ils reposent en paix.

Despite the horrific and violent nature of the accident, this monument overlooked a placid and quiet scene.  Shrubberies interspersed with rocks covered the slope that led down to the water.  From the walkway in front of the monument we looked upon a still landscape, a calm sea, and an overcast sky.  It was a very peaceful and spiritual location.  We did not speak.  The inscription on the stone had said it all, and there was nothing that we could add to it.  A few other visitors came along.  They also read the inscription and then gazed at the sea and sky.  No one spoke.  We exchanged only nods of acknowledgement.  The atmosphere was one of walking on hallowed ground.  Everyone was reverent and respectful.  The presence of the Spirit was obvious.

It was a time for quiet contemplation.  In considering the deaths of over 200 people, the words of Isaiah came to mind:

Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live;
and I will make an everlasting covenant with you (Isa. 55:3).

One of the best aspects of visiting the waterfront, whether at Peggy’s Cove or anywhere else, is the opportunity to do just as Isaiah said, to incline the ear and hear; in simple terms, to simply be quiet and listen to the still small voice.  In a world that is saturated with noise—blaring televisions, squawking loudspeakers, canned music, traffic jams, and people who talk incessantly but say nothing—the quiet, gentle, and soothing sounds of nature in the wind and surf come as medicine to the soul.  In these magnificent settings where earth, sea, and sky meet, the Spirit of the Lord resides and the still small voice speaks to us.  All we need do is go there and listen.  Not even a tragic accident or an act of war can prevent the Spirit from reaching us.

Several hundred miles to the southwest the Spirit reached us in an entirely different way.  On a rainy Saturday, August 24, 2002, my three sons and I drove from their Nana’s house on Long Island to Philadelphia on a family history expedition to visit the great passenger liner United States.  Built in Newport News, Virginia, the United States entered transatlantic service in 1952 and set speed records between New York and Europe that have gone unmatched since.  In her day she was the largest and fastest American merchant ship ever built, the flagship of the United States Lines, and the pride of the American Merchant Marine.  As a small child, I had the honor of seeing this great vessel at her Manhattan pier in the early 1960s.  My grandparents, Robert Burns and Julia Murphy, had the honor of sailing aboard her once, though somewhat before my time.  They left New York aboard the United States at noon on a rainy Friday, June 24, 1955 and sailed to Le Havre, France, arriving there in the evening of June 28.  From Le Havre they travelled by train to the sites of my grandfather’s engineering conferences.4

Because of the historical significance of the United States and the family history connection to her, I brought my sons to see her at Pier 82 in South Philadelphia.  My grandmother had noted that it “poured rain on [the] way to the ship”5 in 1955; appropriately, then, it poured rain with thunder and lightning on our way to the ship in 2002.  Unlike my grandparents, who had sailed on her when she was young and in her prime, when she was “the last word in everything”6 and had “every convenience on board”7 including “a regular moving picture theatre,”8  we visited her in her old age, and it showed.  Covered with dirt, peeling paint, and rust spots, the United States was held alongside the pier by miles of mooring lines, many more than were really necessary to keep her in place.  She was a forlorn sight, locked away in an industrial backwater.  Little wonder, though, as she had been taken out of service in 1969 and had received scant attention since.  Nonetheless, she was in her own way an impressive sight.  The rake of the funnels and the mast, the sweep of the promenade deck, the graceful curvature of the hull, the flare of the bow, the oversized bridge windows facing forward with confidence—it was all still proudly there.  No amount of dirt, peeling paint, or rust could erase the ship’s grand persona.  As my oldest son James remarked, “She still looks ready to race.”

And she really did.  I could easily visualize my grandparents standing at one of the large deck-to-overhead windows on the port side promenade and waving good-bye as the great ship eased away from her Manhattan pier, and I asked my boys to imagine such a scene, too.  This may have been a stretch for them, but the family history connection was undeniable.  I had a sense that my grandparents were watching us, not from the promenade deck of the United States, but another, higher, vantage point.  It was a special moment.  Naturally, I took several photographs, especially after the rain had stopped.  One shows James, Steven, and Michael standing on the dock with the United States looming large behind them.  I later gave a framed enlargement of this picture to my parents.  They immediately put it on display in their living room.  Because it bridged four generations of the family, it meant a great deal to them.

It didn’t show that much in the photograph, but South Philly was everything that Spring Point and Peggy’s Cove were not—part of the “opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11), no doubt.  An industrial neighborhood of battered pavement, railroad sidings, truck terminals, warehouses, freighter piers, overflowing dumpsters, and barbed wire fences, it hardly seemed the place to go to feel the Spirit and hear the still small voice.  And yet they were both present.  Despite the difficulty of driving in the pitch dark through heavy rain and heavy traffic to get there, and afterwards fighting a traffic jam the size of New Jersey to return to Long Island,  the presence of the Spirit and the feeling of closeness to deceased yet still beloved family were unmistakable.  It was truly well worth the effort.  Perhaps because it required such an effort, I appreciated it all the more.

Living inland as we do, it always involves some effort to answer “the call of the running tide”9 and go to the sea again.  But it is always worth the effort.  We have never been disappointed.  No matter what the weather conditions are, no matter what the location is, no matter what time of day or night it is, the sea always calls and the Spirit of the Lord always stands watch over it.  Just as the call of the tide is clear and undeniable, so the presence of the Spirit is also clear and undeniable.  Just as the tide flows endlessly between the coastal estuaries and the open ocean, so the Spirit also flows endlessly between the celestial and earthly realms.  For centuries and even millennia, humans have spoken of “the eternal sea.”  Just as eternal as the sea are its Creator, his Spirit, and his people and their families.  When we visit the waterfront, the still small voice testifies of this.

1 John Masefield, “Sea-Fever,” in Salt-Water Poems and Ballads, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916, p. 55. 
2 Ibid.
4 Information from my grandmother’s travel journal, entries dated June 24, 1955, and June 28, 1955.
5 Ibid.
6 Letter from my grandmother, dated June 28, 1955.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 John Masefield, op. cit.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Faith and Reason

In the long history of mankind’s search for Truth, much has been written and more has been said about the dichotomy of faith and reason.  For many people, the two stand poles apart as mutually exclusive contraries.  One can have faith but not use reason, or one can reason and thereby be faithless.  More moderate minds find a common ground between faith and reason, and view them not as opposites but as complements.  Faith can inform reason, and reason can guide faith.  But which comes first?  The Church asserts that faith must precede reason.  A while ago the Church News editorialized:

The prophets have counseled us to put faith first as we strive to reconcile faith and reason.  This life is a test of faith, not Intelligence Quotient. We must put our faith first as we seek learning.1

Interestingly, we are counseled to do two things here: first, to have faith; second, to seek learning.  While this seems a simple enough instruction, having faith first is often easier said than done.  For many, the seeking of faith occurs simultaneously with the seeking of learning.  The Lord provided for this predicament in his counsel,

And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and by faith (D&C 109:7).

There are many “best books” in the Western canon, and their authors typically draw upon both faith and reason as both contraries and complements.  In many philosophical arguments, the pendulum swings to extremes of faith and reason.  In the most successful religious philosophies, the pendulum comes to rest in the center, and the conclusion reached incorporates both faith and reason.  When the philosopher’s conclusion matches the student’s life experience, the result can forge a stronger testimony, as a brief example will show.

During innumerable hours of navigational duty aboard many ships, I had the experience of observing and using the movements of the heavenly bodies to make myriad mathematical calculations.  These bodies—the stars, the planets, the sun, the moon—move with such scientific precision that their motions can be predicted and applied to accurately determine a vessel’s position at sea within a quarter-mile.  Additionally, these celestial movements are used to determine compass error within a fraction of a degree and times of tides accurate to the minute.  These heavenly bodies have no intelligence of their own.  They do not speak; they merely move.  Yet for all their seeming simplicity, these movements are clearly orchestrated.  The precise and reliable path of the sun, for example, rising from one horizon, crossing the meridian, and dropping down to the opposite horizon—not to mention the simple yet magnificent beauty of the ocean that it colors and illuminates—stands as a mute witness to the creative genius of a Supreme Being.  Standing on the bridge wing of a ship at sea, one comes to know through the silent witness of the stars on a clear night that the Spirit of the Lord really does stand watch over the deep.  The heavens themselves build one’s testimony.

This testimony, a product of faith, later became strengthened through reason.  The navigator’s observations were not unique; on the contrary, they existed already in a more articulate form in one of the “best books.”  After I left the sea and became a student of philosophy, I studied the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Arguing from reason, this great philosopher proved the existence of God in five different ways.  One of these ways, the Argument by Design, happily matched my experiences aboard ship:

We see that things that lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.  Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end.  Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer.  Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.2

In the scriptures, the Lord himself concurred with and elaborated upon this line of reasoning, and in a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith he explained:

And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets.  And they give light to each other in their times and in their seasons, in their minutes, in their hours, in their days, in their weeks, in their months, in their years—all these are one year with God, but not with man.  The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.  Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power (D&C 88:43-45, 47).

A testimony grounded in faith is strong in itself.  The same testimony nourished by reason becomes even stronger.  Faith and reason combined, then, lead the searching soul to the Lord.3

1 “Faith before reason,” Church News, July 28, 2001, p. 18.
2 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, tr. English Dominican Fathers, New York: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1947, v.1, p. 14.
3 Author’s note: A shorter version of this essay originally appeared under the title “Fides et Ratio” in The Nashua 2nd Ward Newsletter on October 28, 2001.  Subsequently, I incorporated a portion of it into “The Second Mate,” which appeared in Children of the Sea, Children of the Lord on my blog.  I am pleased to present it here in its entirety for the first time.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Picking Up the Pilot

A hymn seldom sung in our corner of the Church is “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me.”  Written by Edward Hopper in the nineteenth century, it reflects in part the fears of those using the dominant mode of transportation of the era:

Jesus, Savior, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal.
Chart and compass came from thee:
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

When at last I near the shore,
And the fearful breakers roar
‘Twixt me and the peaceful rest,
Then, while leaning on thy breast,
May I hear thee say to me,
“Fear not; I will pilot thee.”1

In this age of travel by automobile and airplane, does the average passenger understand what a pilot is and does?  Probably not, because while the vast majority of the world’s international commerce is still carried by sea, this operation is far removed from both the sellers and the buyers of the goods that are shipped.  But as long as there are merchant ships plying the oceans, there will be pilots to bring them in and out of port.

Let us observe a pilot bringing the Queen Elizabeth into port:

The pilot, Captain Robert Ahrens of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association, boarded the Elizabeth at about 7 a.m. while the ship was still at sea.  He had arrived by motor launch from the Association’s pilot boat and had come aboard by climbing up a rope ladder to one of the shell doors.  Now he stood at a center window in the wheelhouse where he had a broad view of the waters ahead and of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the distance.  He was providing the compass headings which allowed Chief Quartermaster Bell to steer the safest course up the Ambrose Channel, through the Narrows into New York’s Upper Bay, and finally into the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan Island.

“Steer three-four-six,” said the harbor pilot, and the number was repeated by the Chief Quartermaster, who simultaneously turned the large ship slightly to starboard.  The pilot’s directions laid down the true compass heading the liner was to follow until another figure was called out.  In a few minutes he ordered, “Steer zero-zero-two,” and the Quartermaster again brought her to starboard.  Thus the Sandy Hook pilot held the Queen Elizabeth to the Ambrose Channel and guided her directly through the Narrows.

Captain Ahrens also directed the ship’s speed.  At one point he called out, “Half Ahead!” His command was followed by a ringing of bells as the quartermasters operated the telegraphs and signaled the Elizabeth’s engine rooms, more than ten decks below, to reduce revolutions on her four propellers from 100 to 80 per minute.  This slowed her from 17 to 13 knots.2

While this does not seem terribly complicated, terrible complications would result if the Queen Elizabeth or any other vessel entering port were not held to the straight and narrow line of deep water.  A very large part of piloting involves knowing where the dangers are as well as where the safe water is.  Acquiring the necessary knowledge and expertise requires work and takes time:

Captain Ahrens and other Sandy Hook pilots work at one of the most ancient occupations connected with the sea.  Since men have sailed to foreign lands they have needed pilots in the unknown and dangerous waters at the mouth of a safe harbor.  “A shift in the wind before a reef without a pilot,” says a history of the profession, “and the spices of India could lie deep at the mouth of the harbor.  A storm off the coast of Dover without a pilot could bereave the most prominent houses of England.”

The fact that Captain Ahrens could pilot the Queen Elizabeth indicated he had risen to the top of his profession.  To learn his trade he first had to serve seven years as an apprentice.  Meanwhile he had to pass stringent examinations.  He knew by heart every detail of the New York and New Jersey harbor waters, including the bottom surface, rocks, reefs, shoals, buoys, and currents.  With such facts in his head, he was then allowed to progress slowly from the smallest vessels entering the harbor to the largest.3

            In every seaport in the world, pilots direct merchant ships into and out of their harbors at all hours of the day and night.  Naturally, this system requires the ship’s officers to place a great deal of trust in the pilot, who is often a man they’ve never met before.  Very rarely does anything go wrong, however.  Over the long history of commerce by sea, piloting has evolved into a tried and true method of ensuring that the freight, the mails, and the passengers depart and arrive safely.  So much is this the norm that the great seaman and author Joseph Conrad described a pilot as “trustworthiness personified.”4

Edward Hopper uses pilotage as a metaphor for the Gospel and the various hazards to navigation as metaphors for the many pitfalls of life.  He has points that hold true even in this age of diversified transportation.  Many of the dangers that confront people on their journey through life are concealed by a harmless appearance, or worse, are made enticing by an attractive appearance.  These are the rocks and reefs that can rip open a ship’s hull.  Just as the pilot must know exactly where these dangers are situated in a harbor entrance, so must we know where similar dangers lie in wait ashore.  Just as every merchant ship must pick up a pilot when entering and leaving port, so must we take on a pilot to safely guide us through life.  The pilot we need is the Lord Jesus Christ, and his sailing directions are contained in the scriptures and the teachings of the Church.

The Lord made this point very clear in both ancient and modern times.  “Man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3).  Of all the written and spoken material contained in the world’s numerous libraries, this Word of the Lord constitutes the single most important directions for the safe passage of mankind along the voyage of life.  Whether the Word is ancient or modern, inscribed on stone tablets, printed in book form, or spoken in General Conference makes no difference: “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1: 38).  And we must continuously learn it: “study my word which hath gone forth among the children of men, and also study my word which shall come forth among the children of men” (D&C 11:22).

These sailing directions include but are not limited to such precepts as the word of wisdom, the law of tithing, the law of chastity, baptismal covenants, the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, and the Temple ordinances.  These and other principles chart the course all people need to follow to lead good, clean, and morally upright Christian lives.  These teachings are updated from time to time by additional pronouncements from the Prophet and other leaders of the Church, all of whom are “trustworthiness personified.”  This is typically done at General Conference, but on can be done on other occasions as well.  This is accomplished in much the same way a pilot updates his directions for compass headings and engine speeds.  To ignore a pilot’s direction would lead to extensive property damage, bodily injury, and possibly loss of life.  To ignore ecclesiastical direction would lead to moral degeneracy and a fall from grace with the risk of eternal consequences.  In extreme cases this could possibly involve estrangement from one’s eternal family, and eternity is a long time to spend alone.

Happily, however, “it is easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss” (Alma 37:44), and the Lord is the best and most trustworthy harbor pilot in the world.

1 Edward Hopper, “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” in Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake
2 Leonard A. Stevens, The Elizabeth: Passage of a Queen, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968, p. 11-12.
3 Op. cit., p. 13-14.
4 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1971, p.1.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Unframed Picture

While we were sightseeing in Quebec City, we visited the Rue du Tresor, the narrow pedestrian street where the local artists displayed and sold their works.  As I’ve never been artistically inclined, very little of this material interested me.  My sons felt likewise.  They liked trains and wanted only to hurry across town to the Gare du Palais to watch the Montreal express.  But the girls wanted to examine the art works and chat with the artists, and so we had to compromise.  My sons and I would watch the train leave for Montreal, but after it had gone we must rejoin the girls in the artists’ neighborhood.

On our return a while later, the unexpected happened.  I wanted only to reunite the family and then leave the Rue du Tresor before any of us could spend money there, and so I made every effort to move the family along.  Then a painting caught my eye.  What an unlikely occurrence!  Of the thousand and more pictures on display in this street, all of them jammed together to maximize use of the limited space, one picture in this overcrowded mass of color stood out and caught and held my attention.  It was a picture of a ship.

Specifically, it was a painting of the schooner Bluenose II, a modern-day replica of the famous fishing vessel Bluenose whose likeness has for many years graced the reverse side of the Canadian dime.  We once had the pleasure of going aboard and touring the Bluenose II when she was docked in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, not far from the pier that had housed the Furman.  This painting portrayed the Bluenose II not in Portsmouth but under sail on the Saint Lawrence River with the Chateau Frontenac sitting high on the hill above and behind her.  Two historic national institutions portrayed in minute detail with the deep blue water as a base and the lighter blue sky as a canopy, with the rising riverbank and secondary city buildings filling out the remainder of the scene—it was a very colorful and dramatic masterpiece, a truly magnificent work of art.  I could not stop staring at it.  I actually thought of buying it, but quickly dismissed the impulse.  We were on a tight budget, after all, and I had not included the purchasing of art works in my financial plans.

Then Miss Patty caught me looking at this painting.  She insisted that we buy it since I liked it so much.  I objected to the expense, even though it was offered at a bargain price.  It cost ten dollars in Canadian money, which at the time equaled seven dollars in American money.  Surely we could spare that, Miss Patty implored.  She would even skip dinner that night and breakfast the next morning to pay for it.  I appreciated the nobility of her self-sacrifice, but still hesitated.  Finally, she exercised her prerogative as the smarter of the two of us and overrode my objections and hesitations.  We bought the painting.

Since this picture had such a compelling quality, I naturally wanted to get it professionally framed and then hang it up on permanent display after we had brought it home.  The framing would cost much more than the picture itself, of course, and so I thought that I would slowly set some money aside for it.  I found it difficult to justify spending more money on myself, though.  It just didn’t feel right.  Spending money on the children didn’t bother me, nor did spending money on something for the whole family.  Besides that, there were more pressing expenses, important needs as opposed to mere wants.  There were car repairs, property tax increases, record gasoline prices, medical bills, my oldest son’s mission, my younger sons’ Eagle projects, and the house needed a new roof.  All legitimate expenses, they elbowed picture framing onto the back burner and held it there.

I put my painting of the Bluenose II away in a safe place where it would lie flat and be protected from dust.  On several occasions I took it out to admire it.  Each time I did this I made a tentative plan to get it framed as soon as a few more pressing expenses were taken care of.  Then I noticed a pattern emerging.  With four children to feed, clothe, house, educate, and medicate, there were always additional pressing expenses coming along to replace the ones just taken care of.  Every expense involving children’s needs or general family benefit was more important than framing the Bluenose II.  To move this comparatively insignificant mere want up on the priority list ahead of the children’s needs or ahead of something not essential but at least beneficial to the whole family seemed unconscionably selfish.  Framing the Bluenose II would just have to wait.

And it did.  Five years passed, and the picture remained in its safe place, unframed.  My oldest son started at Brigham Young University, served a mission, and returned to BYU.  My daughter studied two years at BYU and then went on a mission.  My younger sons completed their projects and became Eagle Scouts.  Our two cars, both fifteen years old and needing repairs, have kept going.  Both have gone over 100,000 miles; one has gone over 200,000 miles.  Also, the new roof was installed.  It came with a 30 year guarantee; I should never have to worry about it again.

With my medical history, I’m fortunate to have children at all.  Therefore, it is a blessing for me to be able to sacrifice framing the Bluenose II—and numerous other things as well—for the greater good of meeting their needs and teaching them values.  We believe that “sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.”1  It’s true.  These blessings have included four children learning financial responsibility, material preparedness, the value of education, the importance of attaining Eagle rank and serving a mission, and the necessity of meeting others’ needs before indulging one’s own wants.  On the subject of people’s sacrifices the Lord has promised us, “I will cause them to bring forth as a very fruitful tree which is planted in a goodly land, by a pure stream, that yieldeth much precious fruit” (D&C 97:9).  The benefits to my family are that precious fruit.

The unframed picture of the Bluenose II, a beautiful painting of a beautiful and famous ship, stands as but one small example of the many sacrifices that conscientious parents must make for the benefit of their children.  It calls to mind the Lord’s admonition to those who bear responsibility for others: “if any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).  It has been an honor to be both head of the family and servant to the family for all these years.

1 William W. Phelps, “Praise to the Man,” in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985.

Friday, July 22, 2011

One Brief Shining Moment

One kilometer.  An automobile at highway speed would cover this distance in less than a minute.  Happily, a ship on the water takes far more time and does an infinitely more graceful job.  Such was the case aboard the ferry Alphonse-Desjardins between Lévis and Quebec City.  Miss Patty and the children and I had travelled to Quebec in order to research her French-Canadian genealogy.  This project brought us to churches, cemeteries, and archives in the small agricultural villages on the South Shore of the Saint Lawrence River.  Afterwards, we went into the city to sightsee.  As we had not taken a voyage aboard a ferry anywhere in a long time, we opted to leave the car in Levis and sail to Quebec City.  Admittedly, bridges have spanned the Saint Lawrence for many years, but there’s nothing that can beat going what some would call the old fashioned way.

The two cities lie on opposite shores of the Saint Lawrence just about a kilometer apart from each other.  A fleet of two vessels, the Alphonse-Desjardins and her sister, the Lomer-Gouin, crosses the stream at half hour intervals daily.  Each voyage takes about ten minutes.  This time involves undocking, maneuvering away from the quay, crossing the river, aligning the ship with the next dock, and mooring.  These are not the voyages on which speed records are set, nor are they intended to be, nor do the passengers want them to be.  For while the obvious objective is to go someplace, a less obvious but equally important objective to enjoy, however briefly, a shining moment of Je-ne-sais-pas-quoi.

As the ferry eases away from the land, its gentle motion through the water becomes discernible in a subtle and peaceful way.  It is a relief to have broken the chains that hold one to the ground.  In mid-river, a slight breeze courses downstream.  On a warm and humid day, this cool and gentle air feels heavenly.  Combined with the slight undulation of the hull in the river and the faint vibration of the deck plates, the effect is peaceful and soothing in an other-worldly way.  Time seems to stand still as one surrenders oneself to the enjoyment of these simple but magnificent sensations.  One sees that the ship is approaching the opposite shore, but the gentle motion and the cool breeze are so soothing that one wants—even half expects—them to last forever.  Unfortunately, they do not.  As the ferry slows to make the dock, she comes into the lee of the land and the heavenly breeze is lost.  Soon after, the gentle motion ceases, and one is forced down from a state of bliss to contact with the pedestrian earth again.

Such moments of communion with a higher ethereal plane come every so often in life.  Typically, they take place in the temple, but they can happen elsewhere, too.  Often, they occur on or near the sea or one of its tributary waterways.  This should not be surprising, for many people find solace in the sea, a soothing sense of peacefulness not ordinarily found on land.  The French would call it the quality of Je-ne-sais-pas-quoi, the quality of I-don’t-know-what, that ineffable something that one knows is there but finds difficult to define.  We may also call it the still small voice, the Spirit of the Lord speaking to our souls but not in any human language.  When the Lord addresses us in this way, these are precious moments.  Unfortunately, they cannot last forever.  But fortunately, they do come, even if only rarely and briefly, and we can remember them always. 

For one brief shining moment on the Saint Lawrence River, the Spirit of the Lord spoke peacefully unto my soul.