Friday, February 18, 2011

Love at First Sight

On a beautiful summer day, the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg steamed slowly into the anchorage in front of Georgetown, Ascension Island.  Several of us watched from the town dock.  When the ship was securely anchored, a local launch service took us and our luggage out to the meet it.  It was crew change time.  We went aboard, met the fellows we were replacing, and got to work.  A little while later, these men went ashore in the launch.  The ship spent the afternoon loading cargo and supplies.  When that operation was complete, she weighed anchor and sailed.

            I was a young third mate with a still almost-brand-new license when I joined the Vandenberg.  I thought I knew exactly what the future held for me: sailing on more ships, upgrading my license at appropriate intervals, and hopefully attaining the ultimate license of Master by age thirty.  In the process I would learn the craft of the sea thoroughly and travel to as many parts of the world as possible.  When all this was done, I thought I might attend a university and study history and languages just for fun, but that was not definite yet.  For the immediate future, I was content to set sail and accumulate sufficient sea time to qualify for the second mate’s exams.

The Vandenberg sailed southeast from Ascension Island.  A range instrumentation vessel, she spent three weeks in the South Atlantic on special operations.  Following this voyage, she returned to Ascension Island, conducted more special operations, paid a visit to Monrovia, Liberia, conducted yet more special operations, and eventually returned to the United States, docking in Port Canaveral, Florida.  Compared to other assignments, the Vandenberg was a clean and easy job with lots of time at sea and in good weather.  But that was about to change.  Bids had been put out for a shipyard overhaul, and the contract was awarded to the Todd Shipyard in Brooklyn.  The ship then sailed north from Florida, out of the balmy southern seas and into the late November chill of the American Northeast.  This was close to home for me.  I enjoyed that part of the new schedule, but I could have done without the cold.  Warm weather cruising had become mildly addictive.

With a few days off in early December, I went to Maine to visit a few school friends.  Admittedly, this was a lark, a fun thing to do with no long term repercussions.  I would return to the ship the next day, go back to work, and that would be that.  Famous last words.

While in Maine I had the completely unexpected pleasure of being introduced to a very special young lady.  Of course, we had never seen each other before; in fact, we had never even known of each other’s existence.  As total strangers, then, we became so thoroughly engrossed in conversation that, for my part at least, it overshadowed everything else in life.  On my return to the Vandenberg in Brooklyn the next day, my attention to the business of the ship was only half present.  The other half of my attention remained focused on the young lady in Maine.

For reasons that are difficult to articulate, Miss Patricia Kathren Rivard impressed me as a fascinating person.  If nothing else, Miss Patty’s background was certainly atypical of one from Maine.  A lifelong American citizen, she was born in Nürnberg, Germany, to an American military father and a German mother.  She grew up in a bilingual household, lived in both Germany and the United States, and was educated in both Army schools and American public schools.  Since then, her father had retired from the military.  The family lived in Sanford, Maine, Miss Patty’s father’s hometown.  He had settled his wife, three children, and mother-in-law there several years earlier when the Army had required his presence in Vietnam.  Included in Miss Patty’s household, then, was her German grandmother, her Oma.  A few blocks away lived her father’s parents, her Memere and Pepere who were Quebecois by birth.

My return to the Vandenberg in the shipyard in Brooklyn quickly followed my receipt of all this information.  We promptly initiated a lively correspondence by both mail and telephone, and we carried it on through the long winter months of the Vandenberg’s overhaul.  Additionally, Miss Patty traveled to New York for visits twice during the winter.   When the cold weather was nearly finished, so also was the shipyard work.  On its completion, the ship sailed south again, back to its base of operations in Florida.

            The poet Robert Frost once wrote of the many junction points that we come upon as we amble our way through life.  Each of these junctions requires us to make a decision that concerns not only the road we will follow, but also the direction our lives will take:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.1

After an interval in Florida to be spent loading supplies, catching up on maintenance, and re-crewing, the Vandenberg’s schedule called for her to leave the United States on a long voyage of about nine months’ duration.  I was free to remain on board, make the voyage, and add to the accumulation of sea time and experience that I needed to qualify for the second mate’s exams, or to leave the ship before she sailed and take my vacation.  Had I never met Miss Patty, I most certainly would have stayed aboard and gone back to sea.  But the thought of this very special young lady in Maine shed a different light on these two options.

This decision was the junction point where, metaphorically, the two roads in the woods diverged.  I could not travel both, and so I looked down not just one but both of them as far I could before making this important decision.  If I made the long voyage aboard the Vandenberg, I would accelerate my career advancement. If I took my vacation, I would become better acquainted with Miss Patty and in all likelihood accelerate my marriage prospects.  We had already seen that coming, anyway.  In essence, it came down to a question of values.  What was more important, marriage or career?  The pundits aboard ship argued in favor of making the upcoming long voyage.  Women were a dime a dozen, they asserted, hardly worth sacrificing a golden opportunity to return to sea and accumulate the experience necessary to qualify for the second mate’s exams.  That was much more important.  A romantic entanglement would only impede professional advancement; it could wait until later—much later.  I knew something was seriously wrong with this line of reasoning even before I learned about eternal marriage and that families are forever.

Looked at in this light, the choice became much easier.  I’m happy to report that I took my vacation.  In that interval, and with the approval of Miss Patty’s parents and grandparents, we announced our engagement.  Then I went back to sea for a time aboard a different ship, the Mercury.  It never occurred to me way back then that I would tell this tale ages hence, but the simple truth was that

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.2

Eventually, after sailing aboard the Mercury for a time and then aboard the Wilkes and the Victoria, I did take the exams and upgrade my license to second mate.  So in the end, I did not lose anything; on the contrary, I continued in my professional career at a reasonable pace and eventually upgraded my license to chief mate with a limited-tonnage endorsement as Master.  Much more importantly, though, I was blessed to receive in marriage the very special young lady in Maine not just once, but twice.  Twenty years after our wedding, we were sealed for time and eternity in the new Boston Temple.

1 Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” in The Poetry of Robert Frost, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
2 Ibid.


  1. My favorite post so far.

    My friend's father, Peter Ratajczyk, once worked at the Todd Shipyard, I believe. I wonder if you guys ever unknowingly crossed paths.

  2. Did he work at Todd in Brooklyn? And what did he do there? And thank you for your nice comment.

    1. Wow, I guess I failed to turn my comment notifications on because I just discovered this a year later!

      Yes, he did work at the Todd Shipyard in Brooklyn, though I cannot remember at this particular hour what he did. Now I'm curious, so I'll find out.

  3. This just came up as something I shared on facebook 7 years ago, so I reread it. Yup, one of my favorite ones I've read so far! I love this one :)