Monday, March 28, 2011

Missing the Train

The news arrived that the Comet would soon be taken out of service.  Some of her crew would be transferred to another ship in Oakland, the Southern Cross; some would return to headquarters for reassignment to other vessels; and a few would go on vacation.  I was one of the few due for vacation.  With my departure date from the ship about two weeks away, I thought I had ample time to make travel arrangements.  Wanting to do something a little out of the ordinary in this, the jet age, I visited the Amtrak office in San Francisco.

My plan was to ride the trains across the country.  I had never been very far inland in the United States, and this seemed like a golden opportunity to see the country.  The Western deserts, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains—these would all be new to me and an interesting change of scene after several months spent on the water.  I studied the timetables and examined the routes the trains would take.  The first train, the California Zephyr, would convey me from California to Chicago.  There I would change to the Lake Shore Limited, which would bring me to New York.  This journey would last about 72 hours.  Enroute, I would sleep in a roomette in the sleeping car, take my meals in the dining car, and enjoy the view from the observation car.

In the Amtrak office in downtown San Francisco, I spoke with a man at the reservations desk and explained what I had in mind.  He turned to his computer and became very busy.  He pounded the keyboard furiously, stared at the screen intently, pounded the keys some more, and puzzled over the screen again.  He asked me several questions about when I could start my journey and which routes I could take.  I was flexible on both points.  This seemed to help him, and he resumed his pounding and puzzling again.  He spent what seemed like a very long time at this, occasionally remarking that he was trying hard to find something for me, but that it was difficult.

Finally, he gave up.  He sat back and said, “The best I can do for you, Buddy, is give you a seat in coach between here and Salt Lake City.  Everything else west of Chicago is booked up for the next six weeks.”  He explained that he could easily get me space on a train between Chicago and New York, but the Western routes, where people went sightseeing in the summer, were just impossibly booked up.

I had a choice, then.  I could ride the train to Salt Lake City and hope for a cancellation that would open a space for me to continue eastward, or I could disembark in Salt Lake and continue east either by air or by the Greyhound bus.  Riding the train to Salt Lake City only to fly home from there seemed pointless, though, and riding the Greyhound bus a thousand miles or more sounded extremely uncomfortable.  Disappointed, then, I thanked this man for his efforts and went on my way.

In considering this experience afterwards, I thought that maybe I should not be surprised.  Some time earlier, an English Channel pilot, Captain John Rawding, had told me that the same thing had happened to him.  When he was still employed “deep sea” before taking up pilotage in home waters, he had taken his family with him on a voyage to the West Coast of the United States.  They were scheduled to disembark in Los Angeles.  Instead of simply flying back to London, though, he thought it would be a great education for his children to cross the country by train and really see the United States up close.  Then, after leaving the train in New York, they could fly to London.  But when he inquired at the Amtrak office, the same thing happened.  The system was booked up solid many weeks in advance.  So the great railroad journey was not meant to be for either one of us.

In the meantime, I had to make other plans.  As it turned out, when I was finished aboard the Comet, I took a night flight from San Francisco to Dallas, changed planes, and then took a morning flight to New York.  It was a pleasant experience, but not quite what I’d had in mind.

Since that time, I’ve wondered what would have happened if I had taken my chances aboard the California Zephyr and gone as far as Salt Lake City.  Perhaps a cancellation would have opened up a seat for me and allowed me to continue.  Or perhaps not.  Therein stood the difficulty.  I did not want to become stranded in a strange place that I knew nothing about.  Not only did I know nothing about Salt Lake City, I also knew nothing about the Church.  I had not yet learned about the great Mormon hospitality that welcomes everyone and extends helping hands to those in need.  In retrospect, then, I’m inclined to think that I would not have been stranded, but that some good would have come from an impromptu visit to Salt Lake City.

Before I left the Comet to return home I had one other near-miss with the Church, although again, I did not realize it at the time.

One afternoon I rode the subway to the Lake Merritt section of Oakland.  There was a railroad museum in the neighborhood that I had wanted to see.  It was a small facility, so my visit did not take long.  Afterwards, curious about the rest of this attractive part of Oakland, I started walking around the area.  I came across a few museums, a high school, and Lake Merritt itself.  I also noticed another large building, very distinctive in appearance, and completely unlike any other structure that I had ever seen before.  I walked slowly past it and paused several times to study it more carefully.  Naturally, I wondered what it was, but I could find no identification on it.  I was very puzzled.  It was obviously an important building, and I felt myself drawn to it, so to speak, but I couldn’t determine what it was.  After a while I thought that maybe it was another museum.  After all, there were several museums in the neighborhood, so this seemed like a reasonable conclusion.  Satisfied for the moment, I moved on and after a while forgot about this building.

About a dozen years later, Miss Patty became interested in the Church.  As she met with the missionaries and got acquainted with the members in the ward, someone gave her the book Temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.1  I found this book especially interesting.  I read the text and studied the photographs of the various temples and enjoyed it all very much.  Then I found a photograph of one temple in particular that looked strangely familiar.  As I examined the picture I thought that I had seen this building before.  I quickly dismissed this thought as nonsense, though, because I had never been to a temple, and for that matter, had not even known until very recently what a temple was.  So how could this temple in the photograph look familiar?  Then I read the caption.  It clearly identified this building as the Oakland Temple.  I realized then that there was no mistake about it.  I had seen this building before.  It was the very one I had examined and puzzled over all those years ago when I was wandering around Oakland in my idle time.  And to think that I had dismissed it as just another museum!

About a dozen years after that, my son James attended Brigham Young University for a year and then reported to the Missionary Training Center to start his mission.  Miss Patty decided that since she had brought him to BYU, I should bring him to the MTC.  I arrived in Salt Lake City by air a day in advance of James’ reporting date.  This enabled me to experience what I had missed years earlier when I had not ridden the California Zephyr to Salt Lake City.

First I experienced the famous Mormon hospitality that welcomes everyone.  We stayed at the home of Elder Steve Snyder and his wife and new baby.  Elder Snyder had spent seven months as a missionary in our ward and had taught the discussions to my younger children.  Later, he returned to attend our family’s sealing in the new Boston Temple.  It was good to see him again, as well as meet his wife and daughter.  That day, Elder and Sister Snyder took us on a tour of Salt Lake City.  At long last I got to see Church Headquarters, something I had not even known existed many years earlier.  We also got to see Elder Chet Brooks again, one of the first missionaries that Miss Patty had met with when she became interested in the Church.  Elder Brooks introduced us to his wife and three sons.  Furthermore, over my strenuous objections, he insisted on taking us out to dinner in downtown Salt Lake City, despite having his own family to feed.  More of that famous Mormon hospitality!

The following morning, James gave me a guided tour of the BYU campus.  I had heard of BYU before, although I knew almost nothing about it, and it wouldn’t have meant anything to me at the time anyway.  With a son enrolled there, however, BYU came to mean a great deal to me.  That afternoon, the Snyders and I delivered James to the MTC.  This was also new to me, of course, and like BYU, it meant something to me because my son was enrolled there.

These events lay far in the future, however, when I was packing my bags aboard the Comet.  Furthermore, they were completely unpredictable.  All I had planned to do was embark on a railroad journey across the United States so that I could see more of my own country.  Little did I realize that by missing the train, and in Oakland by missing the temple, the seeds of curiosity were sown.  Years later, I would become interested in Church Headquarters and the temples in part because I had previously missed out on them.  In this way did an invisible power within the Church work “to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness” (D&C 1:30) to my unenlightened mind and unseeing eye.

1 Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1988.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Easter Sunday

The Comet arrived at the entrance to San Francisco Bay early in the morning of Easter Sunday.  The pilot came aboard from the launch a few miles offshore, and the ship increased speed again to proceed through the Golden Gate and across the bay to Oakland.  The Comet had been here a few months earlier, when she was loading up for the long voyage to the Far East and back.  Despite the long hours of working cargo, the crew had enjoyed a good dose of shore leave on this prior visit.  The ship had been moored at the Military Ocean Terminal—the same spot to which she was now headed—right next to the toll plaza for the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge.  While this was hardly a tourist attraction that visiting seamen would want to admire, it nonetheless elicited attention by virtue of its constant use.  At all hours of the day and night, there was heavy traffic going on and coming off the bridge.  It never stopped; on the contrary, I think rush hour lasted 24 hours.  One expected the loading of cargo aboard ship to last all day and all night, but not the traffic.  Then again, this was California.

But in the early morning of Easter Sunday, things were different.  A ship passing under a bridge is normally a noisy affair.  The overhead river of cars and trucks generates quite a racket, and this sound carries on the water.  Passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge early on Easter morning, however, the silence was conspicuous.  Aboard ship, where one day is pretty much the same as the next, the peace and stillness generated by the complete lack of vehicles crossing the Golden Gate as the Comet slid underneath made Easter Sunday seem like Easter Sunday.  A little farther along, the Comet passed beneath the Bay Bridge.  That span, too, was utterly devoid of traffic.  It was 6:00am, broad daylight, and no one was going anywhere.  For that matter, the entire San Francisco Bay was as silent as a ghost town.  There were no tugboats, no barges, no ferries, no sailboats, no motorboats—only the Comet broke the stillness of an otherwise pristine Easter morning.  It was almost like being in church.

In due time, the Comet arrived at the docks of the Military Ocean Terminal.  With a minimum of commotion, two tugboats materialized and nudged the ship into position alongside the pier.  A minimum of linehandlers quietly hauled on the mooring lines and made the ship fast to the dock.  Then both the tugs and the linehandlers disappeared as quickly and as quietly as they had arrived.  The pilot went ashore, stepped into a waiting automobile, and went away, too.  Then silence.  There was no traffic at the toll plaza across the pier from the ship.  There was no activity on the dock.   Nothing was happening.  The prolonged silence seemed monastic, ironic in a place that was normally madness and mayhem.

The Comet’s operational schedule called for an idle period of about three weeks following the arrival in Oakland.  There was no more military cargo to be moved just then, so the ship would remain moored in Oakland until needed again.  This meant plenty of time for a leisurely unloading, a general catching-up on maintenance, lots of fun ashore, and a quiet Easter Sunday.  With three weeks of down time, there was certainly no hurry to unload the ship just yet.  And the peace and quiet of the day would naturally lend itself to a contemplation of the miracle of Easter:

As it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.  And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.  His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow; And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men.  And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye, for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the lord lay.  And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there you shall see him.  And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.  And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail.  And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him (Matthew 28:1-9).

Then the Army arrived.  Because the Comet had been carrying military cargo on this voyage back from the Orient, the Army decided it must be unloaded as soon as possible.   To this end, a large group of reservists—weekend warriors—started coming aboard.  Soon there were hundreds of them.  They swarmed all over the ship, not just in the cargo holds, but everywhere.  A great cacophony of un-Easter-like noise rose up and overtook the quiet peacefulness that had previously prevailed as a fleet of trucks, jeeps, and tanks rolled and rattled their way off the ship and onto the pier  This din seemed all the more obnoxious and intrusive because of the serenity that had preceded it.  This uproar made a mockery of the Easter holiday and trampled it underfoot, as it were, from just after breakfast until well past dinner.  We of the ship’s crew expected, of course, to not be with our families at Easter.  But what of these Army reservists?  Was unloading a ship that was going nowhere more important to them than spending Easter Sunday with their families?  Or were they just obeying orders like good soldiers?  Probably the latter, which made us pity them.

When the day’s work was done, the Comet stood empty and silent alongside the pier.  The Army reservists went home to what little was left of Easter.  Monday, a business day, found the Comet quiet except for routine maintenance.  The adjacent expressway and toll plaza became their usual busy and noisy selves once again.  We did not have to listen to that for long, though.  With no more cargo to carry, the ship was moved to another, more out of the way berth, where it sat and did nothing for the next few weeks.

Why the big hurry, then, to unload the ship on Easter Sunday?  We never did get an answer to this one.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Visit to the Seamen's Club

After completing the long voyage across the Pacific, the Comet docked in Pusan, South Korea.  She and several other cargo ships delivered Army vehicles for the annual American/South Korean military maneuvers held in the early spring.  These vehicles, an assortment of trucks, jeeps, personnel carriers, mobile artillery, etc., were driven off the ship via the stern ramp and onto waiting railroad cars.  When the trains were filled, they departed for points inland.  Left behind in Pusan for about three weeks, the Comet’s next task was spring cleaning.  During this interval the crew spent their working hours cleaning cargo holds, scraping rust, painting, and making repairs.  On a busy ship like the Comet, there were always maintenance and repair jobs, and everyone had plenty to do.

Three weeks in an Asian port was a seaman’s dream come true, and everyone sought to make the most of this windfall.  Pusan was both a very busy seaport and a very cosmopolitan city.  Merchant ships from all over the world stopped there to load and discharge cargo.  Their crewmen spent their off-duty hours meandering through the famous International Market, an indoor-outdoor shopping extravaganza comparable to an American flea market but much more chaotic.  Vendors displayed merchandise on makeshift tables extending from the shopfronts and blocking the walkways and alleyways.  It was impossible to tell where one merchant’s goods ended and another’s began.  Because of the completely haphazard arrangement of all this stuff, it was impossible to walk a straight line through the narrow alleys, let alone drive a car through the mess.  The sellers of all this material were conversant in English.  Whenever they saw Caucasian faces such as ours they immediately approached us and spoke English.  Then the haggling over prices began.  They accepted American money and various European currencies as well.  No doubt they charged exorbitantly when the Westerners came along, but even with this the Comet’s crew did pretty well.  The most beautiful Korean clothing, jewelry boxes, dolls, furniture, and other handcrafts came at bargain prices compared to what they would cost at home.  I picked up several such items for Mom and Miss Patty.

Besides the International Market, there were numerous other diversions from shipboard in Pusan.  As in any seaport town, these ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the sacred to the profane.  One fairly tame attraction that fit in between these extremes was the seamen’s club.

Many years ago in most of the world’s major seaports, various benevolent and charitable organizations established seamen’s clubs to serve as safe havens for merchant seamen in their off-duty hours.  Some of these organizations were religious in nature, such as the famous Seamen’s Church Institute in New York.  Others were secular but still sought to keep the seamen off the streets, so to speak.  Typically, a seamen’s club included a dining room, a recreation hall, and an information desk.  Some of the more elaborate clubs also offered overnight lodging, gift shops, libraries, and medical facilities.  The club in Pusan was mid-sized.  It had a multilingual staff, two very nice dining rooms, a small bar, a game room, and along one wall a row of slot machines.  Several of my shipmates and I spent some very pleasant hours at the seamen’s club in Pusan.  The food was excellent and extremely inexpensive.  The slot machines, which we reckoned were a waste of our hard-earned money, we ignored.

Sometimes the seamen’s club could be very crowded.  One busy afternoon I went there with my friend Crazy Ed.  He was a third assistant engineer and a former schoolmate.  The host in the club asked us to share a table for four with two other men who were already using it.  This is a practice that most Americans find intolerable, but in Europe and Asia it’s commonplace.  These two men greeted us politely and continued their meal and their conversation in a Scandinavian sounding language.  Crazy Ed and I conversed in English as we ate, and everyone seemed quite content.

Crowding in the seamen’s club varied with the comings and goings of merchant ships in the port.  As the Comet spent not days but weeks in Pusan, we saw the club both at its busiest and its quietest.  Whatever the level of patronage, though, the food was consistently excellent at ridiculously low prices, and it was a change from the shipboard fare.  One evening three of us went to the club for dinner—Crazy Ed, the engine room cadet, and myself.  After a day spent running around the city, the seamen’s club was a restful place to eat and unwind before returning to the ship and going on watch at midnight.

But the Navy had come to town.  A small group of perhaps five or six American Navy seamen were patronizing the club that night.  They were well-behaved if a bit noisy.  They ate and drank and played pool and with one exception walked right past the slot machines.  This one exception dragged a table across the floor and positioned it in front of one of the machines.  He took off his coat, sat up on the edge of the table, and poured a sack filled with American coins into a mound on the table next to him.  His companions watched him as he set himself up.  Then they wandered off into the game room.  My shipmates and I watched him as we ate our dinners.

Very methodically and deliberately, this young Navy man inserted coin after coin into the slot machine and pulled the lever down after each one.  With each insertion of a coin and pull of the lever, the machine clinked and whirred.  The pictures on the face of it spun around and new pictures came into view.  Then the machine stopped.  The Navy man inserted the next coin, and the cycle repeated itself.  This went on for a long time.

My shipmates and I finished our meals but lingered to watch this strange spectacle.  The other Navy fellows returned from the pool table periodically to check on their friend.  We all wanted to see if he would win a big jackpot.  But he inserted coin after coin with the same result.  The machine dutifully went through its motions, but it yielded no return on the investment.  And the large pile of coins became smaller and smaller.

Shortly before 8:00 o’clock, the three of us from the Comet left the seamen’s club and walked several blocks to the telephone exchange.  Crazy Ed had suggested that we surprise our wives with a phone call from the other side of the world.  After some initial reluctance, I agreed, and off we went.

At the telephone exchange, we signed in with the front desk clerk and gave him our names and the telephone numbers that we wanted to call.  He then directed us to sit down in a large waiting area until he summoned us a few minutes later.  When our turns came, he directed us to a row of old fashioned telephone booths that lined one wall of the waiting room.  Each of us was assigned to a numbered booth.  As instructed, I went into booth number 8, shut the door, and picked up the receiver.

It was with bated breath that I took the receiver and put it to my ear.  After a momentary ringing, Miss Patty’s sleepy voice came through crystal clear.  When she realized that it was me, she suddenly sounded wide awake.  “You’re calling me all the way from Korea!” she exclaimed.  Yes, I was, and it was a carefully timed call.  It was 8:00pm on Tuesday, March 27, 1984, in Pusan; it was 6:00am the same day in New Hampshire, fourteen hours earlier.  I deliberately called Miss Patty before she had to go to college for the day.

At this distance of time I don’t remember the entire conversation.  I do recall that it was brief and expensive.  I still have the receipt from that phone call.  This document informs me in both English and Korean that we spoke for seven minutes at a cost of 14,420 won.  At the exchange rate of 781.75 won to the dollar, I spent the equivalent of $18.45 in American money.  With this little errand complete, Crazy Ed and the cadet and I returned to the seamen’s club for dessert.

The Navy guy was still feeding coins into the slot machine.  We watched him as we ate dessert and congratulated ourselves on surprising the girls at home.  The mound of coins that had been there earlier had in our absence become much smaller, and now that we had returned it continued to diminish.  The other Navy fellows were still periodically checking up on their friend.  By now he was getting antsy.  He expected the machine to soon spit out a huge winning jackpot that would give him all his coins back plus much more.  His agitation grew as his coin supply dwindled.  His shipmates urged him on.  At our table, my shipmates and I quietly commented to each other that this slot machine game was an enormous waste of money.  Couldn’t this fellow see that?  It seemed like common sense.  Still, we waited to see if he would suddenly strike it rich and prove us wrong.

In the end, the young Navy man lost his entire sack of coins.  He won nothing and lost a lot.  We estimated his loss at a few hundred dollars and possibly more.  His companions bought him dinner as consolation.  In all fairness to him, though, he took his financial setback graciously.  But all the good grace in the world could not change the fact that he had just irretrievably gambled away a ton of cash.  In short, he gambled big and he lost big.

My companions and I had fun analyzing this situation.  Of course, the Navy man had a chance of winning, or else he would not have gambled on the slot machine at all.  But we figured that his chance of winning anything, let alone his chance of winning a really huge jackpot, was so small that it simply wasn’t worth the risk of losing everything. He couldn’t even quit while he was ahead because he never got ahead.  It was all downhill for him from the start when he inserted his first coin into the machine.  When he was finished he had nothing to show for all the money he had spent.  My friends and I had spent money that night, too, although nowhere near as much, but we had each gotten something in return for it—a good meal and a phone call home.  We were not financial experts, but we knew that we had gotten the better bargain.  We concluded that the whole slot machine game was just a dumb idea. 

The three of us from the Comet soon had to return to the ship.  Two of us had to go to work at midnight; one had to get a good night’s sleep before starting work in the morning.  Everyone’s shipboard duties continued.  In time, the trainloads of Army vehicles returned to the Comet, and she sailed from Pusan.  Eventually, after another long transpacific voyage, she returned to California and docked in Oakland on Easter Sunday.  On getting busy aboard ship again, I had filed the conclusion that the slot machine game was a dumb idea away in the back of my mind.  Since then, I’ve concluded that all gambling is a dumb idea, especially when the odds of coming out ahead are so infinitesimally small that they are practically nonexistent.  Years later, I was pleased to read that I was not alone in this thinking.  President Gordon B. Hinckley summed up the slot machine experience of the young Navy man (and others) more eloquently than I could:

We try to gamble our way into prosperity, and in the process further impoverish ourselves.1

How true and how sad.  To spend all that money and receive absolutely nothing in return for it—what a waste of both the money and the time and effort required to earn it in the first place!  Another Church leader, Elder Dallin H. Oaks,  thought as I did but expanded on my reasoning and raised a good point:

Gambling is a game of chance that takes without giving value in return.  Gambling puts money or other things of value into a pool and then redistributes it on the basis of a roll of the dice, a spin of the wheel, or a drawing of a number.  Nothing of value is produced in the process.2

The Comet had been built by the Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Chester, Pennsylvania.  In its day, Sun Ship was one of the three biggest and busiest shipyards in the United States.  Sun Ship and its employees earned their money by working and producing things of value for it.  Over the years, they produced hundreds of ships of great value.  Today, Sun Ship is long gone.  In its place on one part of the property there is now a casino.  This casino produces nothing of value.  A vice has replaced honest work.  Elder Oaks continued: 

Gambling tends to corrupt its participants.  Its philosophy of something for nothing undermines the virtues of work, industry, thrift, and service to others.  The seductive lure of a huge possible windfall for a small “investment” encourages participants to gamble with funds needed for other purposes, even the basics of food and housing.  Gamblers commonly deprive themselves, they often impoverish their families, and they sometimes steal from others to finance their indulgence.3

While the idea of getting “something for nothing” may seem attractive, on a practical level it also seems too good to be true.  It violates the basic laws of economics which hold that nothing comes from nothing. 

I had always believed in an abstract way that gambling was a very poor use of one’s financial resources.  Then, to watch someone deliberately feed a mound of money into a slot machine and walk away empty-handed after losing it all suddenly made the idea of gambling very tangible.  This immediate negative consequence convinced me that gambling was the absolute height of financial folly. 

1Gordon B. Hinckley, “Address to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, September 12, 1998,” Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Volume 1, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004, p. 676.
2Dallin H, Oaks, “Gambling—Morally Wrong and Politically Unwise,” Ensign, June, 1987, p. 69ff, at

Friday, March 18, 2011

First Impressions

In every seaport in the world, pilots direct merchant ships into and out of their harbors at all hours of the day and night.  In fact, the crew’s first human contact in any port is with the pilot.  Climbing aboard from a launch, he is greeted on deck by a mate and one or two unlicensed seamen.  The mate then leads the pilot up to the bridge, where he meets the Captain.  As the Captain and pilot consult with each other about the transit of the ship through the port, the pilot’s name is recorded in the logbook, the legal record of the ship’s movements.  The pilot then begins directing the vessel’s course and speed and coordinates with the tugboat crews as the ship makes her way through the harbor. 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.  Seldom does anything go wrong, however.  Over the long history of commerce by sea, pilotage 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 once described a pilot as “trustworthiness personified.”1

Following a voyage of fifteen days’ duration across the Pacific from the American West Coast, the Comet arrived in the Orient.   The craggy landforms of the Japanese islands came as a welcome sight after two solid weeks of water.  These dark and rocky outcroppings of the Far East seemed to beckon the ship onward, as it were, into a new and enchanting world.  They very manner in which they abruptly appeared and reached upward from the sea seemed a tacit indication that everything would be different here.

Many things were in fact different in the Orient, as the Comet’s crew would soon learn.  As always, the first impression of the place came from the pilot who boarded the ship to direct her into port.  Over the last several months the Comet had taken on numerous pilots in numerous seaports, and all of these men displayed personal styles that reflected the cultures of their countries.  For this reason, picking up the pilot and watching him go about his work was always an interesting study in contrast, a good way to “become acquainted with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15). 

In England and Norway, for example, the pilots came aboard dressed in naval-style uniforms with brass buttons and white peaked hats.  They appeared very professional, and they conducted themselves in a very proper and dignified manner, especially the Englishmen.  The Norwegians were a bit less formal than the English, and the German pilots by comparison were downright jovial, making friends with everyone aboard ship right away.  They also dressed in civilian clothes, not suits exactly, but usually a mismatched collection of a jacket, slacks, shirt, and tie.  This was the standard dress for pilots in the Northeastern United States as well.  In the American South, however, as well as the Caribbean and Southern Europe, the pilots dressed much more informally—no jackets or neckties in these hot climates.  This informality extended to their work styles and speech patterns, too.  They were all competent men, of course, and each of them unfailingly brought the Comet in and out of port safely.  They simply represented cultures and ways of life that were often vastly different from one another.

In Japan, however, where just about everything is so very different from the West, the pilots made the strongest first impression.  When a Japanese pilot reported to the bridge of the Comet, it was an occasion.  He was always immaculately dressed in a black business suit with a white shirt and a black necktie.  He went first to Captain Ray Iacabacci and bowed and introduced himself.  He then went to the mate on watch and bowed.  He spoke fluent and grammatically flawless English, without exaggeration better English than any of the Americans on the ship spoke.  He then went about the business of directing the movements of the vessel in a very calm, dignified, and highly professional manner.  He did not engage in a lot of small talk, but he was not unfriendly, either.  He never became flustered, even in extremis

I recall one night in the traffic lanes on the Inland Sea when the Comet was cut off by another cargo ship that crossed our bow illegally from port to starboard at close quarters.  The other ship’s bearing had remained steady as the distance between the two vessels decreased rapidly.  At this rate a collision was inevitable.  The other ship failed to respond to radio calls and flashing light signals. At this point I thought it prudent to wake the Captain.  When it became clear that this other vessel had no intention of obeying the rules of the road, the Japanese pilot aboard the Comet said to the helmsman, “port twenty.”  His tone of voice contained only a slight indication of the urgency of the situation.  The helmsman hurriedly spun the wheel to the left as Captain Iacabacci sleepily wandered out from his bunk immediately behind the bridge to see what was going on.  The Comet passed very close but safely “under the stern” of the other ship, narrowly avoiding a collision.  The pilot then redirected the Comet back onto her proper course in the traffic lane as if nothing out of the ordinary had taken place, and the voyage continued peacefully.  All in a night’s work.

The Comet took on several Japanese pilots in diverse places—Sasebo, Iwakuni, Naha, the Shimonoseki Strait, and the Inland Sea.  All of these gentlemen presented themselves in the same way.  They made excellent first impressions and they represented their country and their culture very well.

The importance of making a good first impression has long been universally recognized.  An old proverb truthfully asserts that “a first impression is a lasting impression.”  This is true in all walks of life, not just aboard ship.  But aboard ship, there is a larger audience, so to speak, for when a ship registered in one country makes a port call in another country, different cultures meet and must work together.  The pilot, then, becomes an unofficial ambassador, representing his nation and its culture to the visitors.

The missionaries do the same thing.  For that matter, so does every member of the Church.  I recall my first meeting with the full time missionaries.  I was home one morning tending to four little children.  In fact, when the missionaries knocked on the door, I was in the middle of changing diapers.  With my hands full, I dispatched my oldest son to tell whoever was at the door that I would get there in a minute or two.

Not realizing that it was the missionaries who had come calling, I went to the front door prepared to get rid of a pesty salesman.  I was pleasantly surprised, then, when I saw these two young fellows, Elder Pierce and Elder Stevenson.  Miss Patty had been meeting with them in recent weeks in the evenings when I was at work, and she had had very good things to say about them.  But this morning’s meeting on our front steps was my first contact with them.  It was thus the missionaries’ opportunity to make a good first impression on me.

This they did.  First of all, unlike most door-to-door sales people, these missionaries were well dressed and well groomed.  The white shirts, neckties, conservative haircuts, and name tags spoke volumes about them.  Their dress and grooming clearly indicated who they were and why they were there.  Next, they spoke with me in a very pleasant and friendly manner.  They explained briefly why they had come and what they could do for my family.  More significantly to me at the time, they did not want any money, nor did they ask me to vote for them.  This set them apart from everyone else who had ever knocked on my door as much as their dress and grooming did.  In a neighborhood where people have only come to my front door because they wanted something from me, these two missionaries were truly a breed apart.  At the time of their visit, I knew almost nothing about the Church.  I became agreeable to learn about the Church, however, largely because of the good first impression these two young Elders made on me.

As Miss Patty’s interest in the Church grew, I eventually decided to go with her one Sunday to see for myself what it was like.  As we entered the chapel and sat down, I noticed three men dressed in suits and ties sitting up front. I recognized one of them from work, although I had not known of his Church affiliation.  He and I nodded and smiled at each other, and then I sat down with my family.  After Sacrament Meeting was concluded, the colleague whom I had recognized came down from the stand towards us with one of the other fellows in tow.  As we greeted each other, I addressed him as “Doctor Burgess,” just as I would at Rivier College where we both worked.

“Oh, no,” he replied, waving the appellation away with his hands.  “I’m not a doctor here.  In fact, most of these people wouldn’t even know I have the PhD.”  Then he introduced us to Bishop John Cole, with whom he had been sitting on the stand.  Both Brother Burgess and Bishop Cole welcomed us to the Church and spent several minutes chatting with us before continuing with their duties.  Like the missionaries before them, they made a very good first impression.

That Sunday was the first of many that I spent at the LDS Church with Miss Patty and the children.  Over time, I came to see many things about the Church and its members that impressed me favorably.  But as my father has always said, “There’s one in every crowd.”  One Sunday morning I was invited to attend Elders Quorum.  I didn’t know quite what to expect, but I went anyway.  Unfortunately, this did not make a good first impression on me.  In a startling and completely inappropriate digression from the lesson that was under discussion, an elder who was new to the quorum spoke up and let loose a vicious stream of invective against the Catholic Church.  He had escaped from Cuba, he explained, and asserted that he was very fortunate to be alive and residing in the United States, but somewhere along the way he had a falling out with Catholicism.  He did not clearly say what the problem that caused this had been; on the contrary, his background remained vague and most of his long remarks amounted to nothing more than the hate speech of a bigot.  I felt very uncomfortable listening to him.  I thought of speaking up myself and refuting his comments, but decided against it.  After all, I was not a member but a mere guest in someone else’s church.  As such, I did not want to make a scene.  However, I did notice several other men exchanging sidelong glances and squirming uncomfortably in their chairs.  Evidently, this fellow was not making a good first impression on them, either.

Had this Elders Quorum meeting been my first experience of the Church, I would never have returned.  Fortunately, by the time this fellow spoke up, I knew better than to take him as representative of the Latter-day Saints as a group.  He was the exception, not the rule, although his unchristian outspokenness could be damaging to subsequent investigators were it to go unchecked.  When our home teacher, Brother John Carl, a fine gentleman of Italian-Catholic heritage, learned what had happened that morning, he was horrified—and extremely apologetic.

The Lord has told us very clearly, “I give unto you a commandment, that when ye are assembled together ye shall instruct and edify each other” (D&C 43:8).  He has further clarified, “And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness” (D&C 50:23).  An errant member who publicly denigrates another religious organization does nothing to edify anyone.  On the contrary, he does the Church a serious disservice by alienating potential converts who need to hear truth and not vitriol.

A pilot boarding a merchant ship at a harbor entrance often brings several local newspapers with him.  These he shares with the ship’s crew who have been away from the activities of life ashore.  It is a gesture of hospitality and welcoming, a small act of service to fellow seamen completing a long and possibly difficult voyage.  Likewise, the missionaries bring reading material to share with investigators who have been away from their Heavenly Father.  There again it is a gesture of hospitality and welcoming, an act of service to fellow children of God who are still engaged on a long and possibly difficult voyage through life.  The seaman aboard ship will leave again when his port visit is complete.  The investigator will likewise leave when the Sunday services are complete, but we hope he will make the Church his new home port.  In both situations, the first impressions made by the pilot and the missionaries will always be remembered and may make the difference between the voyagers wanting or not wanting to return.

1 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1971, p.1.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Christmas at Sea

The Comet sailed from Bremerhaven, Germany, on the 23rd of December.  She had spent twelve days sailing transatlantic, stopped for two days to unload cargo in Trondheim, Norway, had taken the next two days coming down to Bremerhaven, and then spent three days there working cargo and making repairs.  Now, two days before Christmas, a German pilot was bringing the ship down the Weser River to the North Sea.  The excitement of a busy port visit was concluded; soon the ship would once again be at sea and set apart from the world.

As much as I like Christmas, December has long been my least favorite month—not because of the cold weather, but for the crass commercialism that in our secularized society has come to pass for Christmas preparations.  But that is ashore, not aboard the Comet, and not at sea.  The Comet seemed a haven from the commercialization and secularization of Christmas.  A “ro-ro” ship, she carried vehicular cargo—automobiles, trucks, jeeps, tractor-trailers, motorcycles—that rolled on and rolled off the ship.  With four cargo decks connected by ramps and a garage door at the stern with another ramp that lowered to the pier, the Comet was essentially a transoceanic ferry, all five hundred feet of her.  She would convey us far from the madding crowds of holiday shoppers to a more sublime observance of Christmas.  Father Lehi tells us that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11).  Aboard the Comet and upon God’s great ocean would lie the difference.

The Comet had sailed from Charleston, South Carolina, in early December.  She crossed the Atlantic in weather considered moderate for the time of year.  In due course, she entered the English Channel, paused briefly off Brixham on the south coast of England to take on a pilot, and continued through the Channel and across the North Sea to Trondheim.  All in all, a very peaceful voyage if a bit rough at times.  While the Comet next lay anchored in the placid Trondheim Fjord on the evening of December 17, the crew took turns going ashore and were pleasantly surprised to find a large but peaceful and quiet city.  There were no frenzied crowds thronging the shops, as the shops were all closed.  There were no traffic jams, either.  For that matter, there was no traffic; one could safely walk in the middle of the street.  A week before Christmas, and all was quiet save a few restaurants.

Early the next morning, the Comet shifted to a cargo pier in neighboring Hommelvik.  There she spent the day—if it can be called that—unloading cargo.  The sun rose at 10:00am, and it set about 2:30pm.  The ship arrived at the Hommelvik pier long before sunrise and remained for several hours after sunset.  During this brief interval of daylight, the temperature rose to a high of twelve degrees above zero.  Several Norwegian teenagers came along then.  They were dressed in sweaters—no coats—and they rode their bicycles onto the pier.  They watched the ship’s activities for a while, and then they pedaled away.  By 6:00pm, after a busy but peaceful day, the Comet had finished her cargo work.  She closed her hatches, took in her mooring lines, and set sail for Germany.

The Comet spent more time in the port of Bremerhaven.  There was more cargo to discharge, still more cargo to take aboard afterwards, and there were repairs to be made in the engine room.  With the repair work, the visit to Bremerhaven would take three days instead of the usual two.  No one in the crew complained about spending an extra day in Germany!

One of the items on my agenda in Bremerhaven was finding a Christmas present for Miss Patty.  She would not receive it until much later, of course, but since I was in Germany and it was Christmas, I wanted to find a suitable German Christmas present for her.  Even with my duties aboard ship, I had ample time to go ashore before the shops closed for the day and purchase something.  There were several of us who had the same idea.  One day after we had all gotten off duty, four or five of us rode a taxi for the short ride downtown.  One of the guys remarked that he wanted to go to “the hummel place.”  After negotiating the narrow streets of the old town, the driver let us out in front of a shop with windows filled with figurines.

Bremerhaven at Christmastime was a remarkable place.  Like Trondhein a few days earlier, Bremerhaven was an old city of stately architecture, narrow streets, and tasteful decoration for the holiday, except that here the shops were still open.  A modest number of people were out shopping or otherwise going about their business, and my shipboard colleagues and I joined them.  It was a peaceful and serene atmosphere on the streets of Bremerhaven.  Like Trondheim, there were no crowds, no traffic jams, and none of the noise and frenzy that are part of American Christmas shopping.  After a look around the neighborhood, we went into the shop with the figurines in the windows.  The atmosphere there was quiet and dignified.  There were no fast talking salesmen or hucksters swindling unsuspecting customers.  Instead, a dignified peace and quiet prevailed.  In this pleasant atmosphere I chose a set of three beer steins to bring home.  They were both artistic and quintessentially German.  Miss Patty would like them as display pieces.

At six the next morning, the Comet sailed.  The pilot gazed thoughtfully out the bridge window as he quietly gave the engine and rudder commands to guide the ship seaward.  Finally he turned to the mate and said almost philosophically, “Christmas at sea—ja?”  Yes, by Christmas Day the Comet would be clear of the English Channel and well out to sea.  We would not see our families, but we knew that when we accepted the assignment.  Holidays at sea came with the job.  The pilot in all likelihood would see his family on Christmas Day, even if he did have to work.  We wished each other well for the holiday as he left the ship at the mouth of the Weser.

In the evening of December 24, the Comet cleared the English Channel.  At the stroke of midnight when Christmas officially began, the ship was sailing southwestward on her transatlantic trek and was many miles out to sea, well clear of the European continent and completely set apart from the outside world—a good place to spend Christmas.  The ship glided easily across a peaceful North Atlantic.  A slight swell gave her a gentle rolling motion, just enough to let us know that we were in fact at sea.  An overcast sky shielded the sun and cast a wintry chill.  There were no other vessels in our vicinity; it appeared that we had the ocean to ourselves.  What better place to reread the biblical accounts of the Lord’s birth and ponder upon the angel’s message, “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2: 10-11).

In this quiet and serene setting, the crew of the Comet passed Christmas.  To all outward appearances, it seemed like just another day at sea, albeit an unusually mild one for that latitude at that time of year.  But it felt different.  After almost a month spent away from the preparations, we had the pleasure of spending Christmas Day itself in our own quiet space upon God’s great ocean.  It felt different because it was different—not just another day, but Christmas at sea.  Watchkeeping on the bridge and in the engine room continued as on any other day, of course, but all non-essential work was postponed.  It was a day of rest, like a Sunday, but more so.  The culinary highlight of the day came at dinner time.  The steward and his galley crew had prepared a feast of a dinner—turkey with all the trimmings.  No one went to bed hungry after that!

The calm weather and the peacefulness continued for the next several days as the Comet steamed southwestward.  On the 27th, the ship passed Santa Maria Island in the Azores and changed course to a more westerly heading.  On New Year’s Day, she passed Bermuda.  On January 3, the ship docked in Charleston, South Carolina, and the holiday hoopla that we had missed was all over.  A new year had begun, and on the next day, a new voyage would begin, too.  But for December, my least favorite month, the Lord had given us peace much as he had his Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you” (John 14:27).  For a month, then, the peace of Christ had reigned as the spiritual displaced the secular.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Rescue at Sea

The Waccamaw was enroute from Norfolk, Virginia, to Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, when the distress call came.  Three retirement-aged men had left New York on a sailboat heading southeast in rough weather, and one of them had suffered a heart attack at sea.  His companions recognized the symptoms and knew that he urgently needed hospitalization.  They got him reasonably comfortable and called for help; otherwise, there was little that they could do.  In the middle of a warm but stormy November night, then, the Waccamaw was summoned to the rescue.

Such an event is an all-hands operation.  Because it involves humanitarian service, everyone’s participation is mandatory and no one gets paid overtime.  I was roused out of my bunk and told to report to the bridge for instructions.  There I met Captain Rigobello.  He explained what had happened and what we needed to do.  He and I by this time had known each other for a while.  Previously he had been chief mate on the Rigel when I was quite junior; now he commanded the Waccamaw, and I was his second mate.

We needed to go to a certain latitude and longitude to rendezvous with the sailboat and evacuate the patient.  It was not too far away, but preparations had to be made and the time was short.  The bosun and the deck seamen unlashed a cargo boom and readied a medevac litter—a metal stretcher that form-fit the human body to hold incapacitated arms and legs in place—for swinging over the side and lowering to the sailboat.  The nurse—the Waccamaw was one of only a few ships in the fleet to carry one—readied the ship’s small hospital and stood by to examine the patient when he arrived on board.  The Chief Engineer summoned extra engine room crew for maneuvering at sea—boiler-fired steam turbine engines by their nature required extra manpower when called upon to go from full ahead to dead stop and then perform small ahead and astern movements to hold the ship reasonably stationary.  Extra lookouts were posted on the bow and on the bridge wings, too.  We did not know if this sailboat carried lights, and whether or not it did, we would still be searching for a very small object in a very great expanse.  We had to find this boat without running it over.

The men on the sailboat saw the Waccamaw before anyone on the Waccamaw saw the sailboat.  Out of the gloom of the night it approached the ship’s starboard side.  Captain Rigobello took up a position in the corner of the bridge wing from which he could supervise the rescue operation, monitor the movements of both vessels, and issue engine and rudder commands.  The Waccamaw’s deck lights were turned on, and a searchlight was trained on the sailboat.  Her white hull and superstructure contrasted brilliantly with the blackness of the water.  This visibility would make a difficult job easier.

The Waccamaw was brought to a stop.  With a full load of oil, she sat low in the water and provided a reasonably stable work platform.  The sailboat, however, rode over the crests and down into the troughs of all the waves.  They were coming in steady succession and ran about ten to twelve feet high.  It was not an unbearable seaway for a big ship, but the little sailboat, maneuvering with an inboard engine, was constantly running uphill and downhill while simultaneously lurching from side to side.  Lowering the medevac litter to it was easy for our crew.  The sick man’s two friends aboard the sailboat had the difficult job of putting him in the litter and strapping him securely into place from a wildly bouncing boat, hopefully without knocking themselves unconscious in the process.  If one of them fell in the water, what would we do then?

Fortunately, these two fellows had the presence of mind to tie themselves to their boat and to put on inflatable life preservers.  They also had the good sense to push the medevac litter away from their boat when it appeared that its supporting cable was about to become entangled with the sailboat’s mast and rigging.  After many frustrated attempts to grasp the litter and load the patient into it, they began to show signs of fatigue.  Then, providentially, a lull came in the wave train, and the water between the ship and the sailboat became relatively calm.  In this brief interval, the two men worked quickly.  They grasped the litter, pulled it inboard, dumped their companion into it, tied him down tightly, and then motioned to the Waccamaw’s deck crew to haul him away.  No sooner did the litter with the patient in it get clear of the sailboat than the waves resumed in full force and the little boat bounced around out of control.  The two fellows aboard held on for dear life as their boat lurched beneath them. One of them stepped to the engine and rudder controls.  They both called out their thanks to us as they started away.  It was hard to hear them over the wind, but we knew what they meant.

With the patient safely hoisted aboard and being examined by the nurse, Captain Rigobello let out a sigh of relief.  The worst part of the worry was over.  Next the Waccamaw would proceed at maximum speed to a point seven miles south of Bermuda.  There, a helicopter from the American naval base would meet the ship, evacuate the patient, and convey him to a hospital ashore.  In the meantime, our nurse would attend to him.

The next day was Sunday.  The weather abated as the Waccamaw proceeded northward toward Bermuda, and by the time the island came into view, the seaway had become comparatively mild.

The patient had been aboard just over 24 hours when the Waccamaw arrived at the rendezvous point in the soft light of dawn.  The chief mate and the deck crew stood by on the helicopter pad just forward of the bridge.  The Waccamaw was certified to transfer personnel and cargo to and from helicopters as they hovered, but she was not certified, nor did she have the facilities, to land them on her deck.  I was on watch on the bridge.  Captain Rigobello was also on the bridge, and he was not happy.  Overnight the patient’s condition had worsened.  The nurse was very worried about him.  He cared for this man as well as he could, but he was not a heart surgeon, and the ship’s hospital had only limited equipment.  Both Captain Rigobello and the nurse wanted to get the patient ashore before it was too late.

At last, the helicopter came into view.  It approached the Waccamaw on her starboard side, guided by a flight deck crewman’s hand signals. As the helicopter hovered over the deck, a Navy medical man was lowered from a side door down to the Waccamaw.  The helicopter then withdrew to maintain a holding position over the water, while the chief mate escorted the medical man to the hospital to consult with the nurse and examine the patient.

After several minutes, the mate, the nurse, and the patient emerged onto the flight deck.  The helicopter returned and hovered over the ship again.  A line was lowered to the deck.  The Navy medical man hooked it up to the medevac litter that contained the patient, and then he was hoisted up to the helicopter.  The medical man went up next.  Everyone aboard the ship and the helicopter waved good-bye to each other, and then the helicopter flew away toward Bermuda.  With her role in the rescue operation now complete, the Waccamaw set her engines on full ahead and turned southwestward toward Puerto Rico.

By Monday afternoon, the Waccamaw had travelled well to the south on her track line toward the Caribbean.  While thus enroute, she received a radio message from the American naval base in Bermuda.  This missive reported that the patient had undergone surgery and was recuperating very well.  It further asserted that the Waccamaw had delivered him to Bermuda just in time.  His condition on arrival in the hospital was so poor that had he been delayed at all he most likely would have died.  The patient, his family, and the medical staff all expressed their gratitude to the crew of the Waccamaw for their service.  Captain Rigobello was visibly relieved—even jovial—after receiving this good news.

It gave me a good feeling to have participated in a small way in this operation that had such a happy outcome.  In retrospect, I saw that several important factors enabled it to turn out so well.  First, the Waccamaw had been in the vicinity when the emergency call came from the sailboat.  Furthermore, the Waccamaw carried a nurse, which was unusual for a ship; the wave heights diminished momentarily when the patient’s companions were loading him into the medevac litter, making his transfer to the ship possible; the Waccamaw was not far from Bermuda, where complete medical and surgical facilities were available; and the patient’s sea transport was capped off by a ship-to-shore air transfer, which accelerated his arrival at the hospital.  Too many good circumstances to be merely coincidental contributed to the success of this operation.  If a voice from Heaven could have been audible above the wind and machinery noise that night, I imagine it would have said, “be of good cheer, little children: for I am in your midst, and I have not forsaken you” (D&C 61:36).

Finally, the people involved in the rescue cared about what they were doing, and they did their jobs very well.  This attitude of care and concern was perhaps best personified in Captain Rigobello.  Normally a very pleasant and congenial shipmate, he became taciturn and mildly irritable during this operation.  Worry was written all over him.  Little wonder when one stops to consider the many things that could have gone wrong with a man’s life hanging in the balance.  Like the good shepherd, though, and in the highest tradition of the seafaring profession, Captain Rigobello interrupted his voyage and sailed out of his way to save the life of a child of God.

I could not help but contrast this operation to another that had taken place aboard the Rigel a few years earlier.  That time the crew had placed the remains of a dead man in the sea.  This time, happily, the crew of the Waccamaw pulled an all-but-dead man from the sea in order that he would have new life.

In the Church, we do the same thing.  We do not literally pull people out of a stormy sea, but we do maintain a large crew of Bishops, missionaries, home teachers, and visiting teachers to pull people out of the storms of the secular world in order that they would lead new lives in Christ.  The Lord promised his Apostles Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:17).  The crew of the Waccamaw became fishers of a man that windy and turbulent November night, and the man who was “fished” went on to lead a new and healthier life.  In the spiritual sense, all of us can be “fishers of men” and enable them also to lead new and healthier lives in the Gospel.

Monday, March 7, 2011

News From Home

In the evening of Friday, July 9, 1982, the Waccamaw was steaming peacefully westward between Greece and Italy.  Close to midnight, I was preparing to go up to the bridge and take over the watch.  It was an uneventful night for me. Little did I know that half a world away where it was still the broad daylight of afternoon something terrible had just taken place.  I would not know of it for another twelve hours and more.  Even then, I would still not know.

            My older brother Robert had gone into aviation and had become a pilot.  After graduating from college, he learned to fly in the Navy.  He spent eight years as a Navy pilot and flight instructor, and then took a job flying commercially with National Airlines.  He flew as copilot aboard the Boeing 727.  When Pan American bought out National, he continued on the 727 but under the Pan Am banner.  Like me, he spent a lot of time away from home. 

In the afternoon of Saturday, July 10, the Waccamaw was still proceeding westward.  She was due south of the Italian peninsula and heading for the Strait of Messina.  It was a beautiful day of sunshine and blue sky.  I had come on watch again at twelve o’clock.  Soon afterwards, Captain Aspiotis came up to the bridge, too.  He went out on the starboard bridge wing, got comfortable in his chair, and tuned in a Greek station on his portable radio.  Then, to all outward appearances, he went to sleep.

I went about my business on the bridge while Captain Aspiotis slept.  Except to wonder how he could rest with the radio blaring in his face, I paid him no mind.  After a while I went out on the bridge wing to do something—I don’t remember what now—and the Captain stirred himself to speak to me.  As he straightened himself up from a slouching position, he spoke in the surprised manner of someone who had been dozing off but was suddenly startled awake by something unexpected.  He gave me a jolt, too.

The news on the radio had all been in Greek, so he translated for me.  “They just said there was a bad airplane crash in New Orleans.  A plane was trying to take off and it crashed.  Everyone on board was killed.  It was Pan Am, a 727.  It crashed right after it left the airport, and everyone was killed.”  Then he shifted in his chair and resumed his slouching position.

I was stunned.  For a moment I stood there silently while my brain digested this unexpected and terrible news.  Then I started asking questions.  “Did they say anything else?  Did they say how it happened?  Did they say when it happened?  Did they mention any names?  Is there any other information?”

“No, nothing else,” he replied.  “That’s all they said.”  He gave me an inquisitive glance, as if he might be wondering about all my questions, but said no more.

Inside the bridge, Mitch was at the helm.  He had not heard this conversation, but he seemed to sense that something was amiss and asked me about it.  I relayed the news to him and mentioned my concern about my brother.  “Oh, man,” he sighed, and a pained expression showed on his face.  “When we get in tomorrow, you better call home and find out.”

That was exactly what I’d had in mind, too.  Bound for Napoli after passing through Messina, the Waccamaw would anchor there on Sunday morning.  I would go to the USO and place a call to the family headquarters to find out about Robert.  Meanwhile, the time dragged.  I could do nothing but wonder, but keeping busy proved a reasonably good antidote until the Waccamaw reached the anchorage just outside the breakwater the next morning.

About midday on Sunday, July 11, I went to the USO and placed the call.  It was early morning at home, and my father answered the phone.  He was surprised to hear from me in Italy but caught on quickly.  Before I could even finish asking, he interrupted and said emphatically, “Robert’s okay.  He’s upstairs sleeping.”  He explained that Robert had gotten into JFK very late at night and had come straight home and gone to bed.  Robert knew about the accident, and he knew both the pilot and the engineer of the lost aircraft, having flown with them both before.  I spoke with my father and then my mother only briefly.  The purpose of the call was accomplished; my fears were allayed.

More thorough news reports about what had happened began to make themselves known, although the basic facts that the Greek radio had broadcast were accurate.  A Pan Am 727 had taken off from the New Orleans International Airport bound for Las Vegas at 4:11pm local time.  The weather was not pleasant.  It was raining, and there were electrical storms in the area, although it was unclear if any of this had contributed to the accident.  The aircraft came down in a residential neighborhood in Kenner, Louisiana, less than a mile east of the runway.  All 145 passengers and crew aboard the airplane perished, as well as several people on the ground.  A thorough investigation into the cause of the accident would be conducted.1

            These forensic descriptions of what had happened satisfied the public’s and my own desire for objective knowledge and implied that more information would be forthcoming following the formal investigation.   They treated this event as the news item that it was, but not as a news item that struck uncomfortably close to home.  Because it struck only close to home and not at home, my reaction was one of mixed feelings.  My initial fears for one of my family members had been relieved, but there remained upwards of 145 other families who were now grieving the loss of loved ones.  My brother could have been on that plane had someone in the crew scheduling office at Pan Am decided differently, but he was not.  Two of his colleagues perished in the disaster.  He could easily have been with them. After all, he had flown with them before and he expected to fly with them again.  Was there any rhyme or reason to this, or was it simply fortuitous?

I read about this reaction of mixed feelings much later in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s famous discussion of the problem of evil.  As he concluded a chapter about Job, he offered this insight:

There is a German psychological term, Schadenfreude, which refers to the embarrassing reaction of relief we feel when something bad happens to someone else instead of us.  The soldier in combat who sees his friend killed twenty yards away while he himself is unhurt, the pupil who sees another child get into trouble for copying on a test—they don’t wish their friends ill, but they can’t help feeling an embarrassing spasm of gratitude that it happened to someone else and not to them.2

These thoughts resonated with me.  I would never wish a violent death in an aviation accident on anyone.  And yet, it happened.  I was grateful that my brother had not been on the aircraft that had crashed, but at the same time I sympathized with the families of those who did perish.  The mixed feelings were relief, gratitude, sympathy, and embarrassment—a very awkward and uncomfortable combination.

Fortunately for me, I was young and busy and, I thought, quite able to not dwell on these feelings.  The Waccamaw remained in Napoli for several days.  I went merrily sightseeing to Capri and Pompeii in my off duty hours with the Pan Am accident filed in the back of my mind.  It was easy to not think about it as long as I was busy.  In the quiet moments, however, the accident intruded upon my thoughts and would not go away.  I could not have articulated it at the time, but I was experiencing the Schadenfreude of which Rabbi Kushner had written.

After this interval the Waccamaw left Napoli. Eventually, she left the Mediterranean, too, and sailed for the United States.  While the ship was docked in Norfolk months later, I happened upon a book of poetry written by Robert Frost.  In time, I found a formal presentation of a radical idea of which I had only been vaguely aware previously:

And from a cliff top is proclaimed
The gathering of the souls for birth,
The trial by existence named,
The obscuration upon earth.
And the slant spirits trooping by
In streams and cross- and counter-streams
Can but give ear to that sweet cry
For its suggestion of what dreams!

And the more loitering are turned
To view once more the sacrifice
Of those who for some good discerned
Will gladly give up paradise.3

A startling discovery, Robert Frost proposed the theory that we humans had come to this world from a prior spiritual existence.  Furthermore, we had done so willingly, to accomplish a greater good, and knowing that both good and bad things would happen in this life:

And none are taken but those who will,
Having first heard the life read out
That opens earthward, good and ill,
Beyond the shadow of a doubt.4

Lest anyone complain while in the mortal state, a caveat was inserted:

But always God speaks at the end:
“One thought in agony of strife
The bravest would have for friend,
The memory that he chose the life;
But the pure fate to which you go
Admits no memory of choice,
Or the woe were not earthly woe
To which you give the assenting voice.”5

If true, this theory would explain a lot in life.  We agreed to come here in order to achieve a good end, but the memory of making this choice is withheld from us because it would mitigate the difficulties we would inevitably encounter.  If we remembered making the choice, then, we would have little or nothing to wonder about and no basis for complaints about getting a bad deal.  The line concerning “pure fate” seems problematic, but in conclusion the poet asserted:

‘Tis the essence of life here,
Though we choose greatly, still to lack
The lasting memory at all clear,
That life has for us on the wrack
Nothing but what we somehow chose.6

Now why would anyone choose this?  What is the good we would accomplish by coming to the Earth?  And even granting the good purpose, why would I experience a bad mixture of feelings about a disaster that did not happen to me or to my family?  I detected these missing links in what were otherwise brilliant discourses.

Wanting the poet’s theory to be true, and sensing somehow that it likely was, I was pleased to be told that it was a Church doctrine and later to read a factual statement of it:

The term “pre-existence,” or more accurately, “premortal existence,” refers to a period of individual conscious and accountable life before birth into mortality on this earth. It is Latter-day Saint doctrine that living things existed as individual spirit beings and possessed varying degrees of intelligence in an active, conscious spirit state before mortal birth and that the spirit continues to live and function in the mortal body.7

            As to why these spirits would willingly leave a perfect world and come to an extremely imperfect one, I imagined that there had to be some very compelling reasons.  There were several, but one in particular ranked high among them:

To be tried and tested.  Through mortality one experiences contrasts and opposites—health and sickness, joy and sadness, blessings and challenges—and thus comes to know to prize the good.8

The realization that we chose to come into this earthly state, knowing that it would be both good and bad and that terrible things would occasionally happen to innocent people, sheds a new light on the human condition.  In addition to illustrating the experiencing of “contrasts and opposites,” as a learning opportunity, it emphasizes the spiritual nature of human beings and the very transitory nature of life in the earthly state.  This means that we are first and last spiritual beings having a temporary human experience.  In death, then, we are not just going to a spiritual realm, but returning to it.  This realization makes tragedy easier to accept and understand.

Finally, in a religious culture that regards all human beings as brothers and sisters in the family of God, it becomes easy to feel a greater compassion even for complete strangers who suffer grievously.  Since we are all spiritual children of the same Heavenly Father, it stands to reason that we are all siblings in a worldwide extended family.  Hence, the natural feelings of sympathy and compassion for others in times of loss, a part of mourning with those who mourn (Mosiah 18:9).

The awkward mixture of sympathy and compassion for others with the relief that my own family had been spared remains but becomes less significant and more tolerable.  Perhaps the German language recognizes this better than English.  The word Schadenfreude which Rabbi Kushner used is a compound of two opposites.  Schaden means damage or injury, and Freude means joy or pleasure.9  This compound certainly described my thoughts—a damaged joy, so to speak, an odd mix of happiness and sorrow.

With my present knowledge of the restored fullness of the Gospel, which I did not have in 1982, I can see that I was groping in the dark beyond a certain point back then.  When I learned about the premortal existence and the plan of progression towards perfection, I could see the pieces to the puzzle falling into place.  Suddenly, it all made sense.  This revelation did not change the fact that bad things do happen to good people, nor did it make the accident in Louisiana less terrible, nor did it negate my comingled feelings of relief and sorrow.  What these new teachings achieved for me were the ability to see these events in a different light, to reach an improved understanding of the nature and purpose of life, and to more fully comprehend the idea of universal brotherhood.

1 Summary of Richard Witkin, “145 on Jetliner Die in Crash,” The New York Times, July 10, 1982, p. 1.
2 Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, New York: Avon Books, 1983, p. 39.
3 Robert Frost, “The Trial by Existence,” in The Poetry of Robert Frost, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, p. 20.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., p. 21.
6 Ibid.
7 “Pre-Existence (Pre-Earthly Existence),” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992, vol. 4, p. 1123.
8 James P. Bell, “Purpose of Earth Life: LDS Perspective,” op. cit., vol. 4, pp. 1180-1181.
9 The Collins German Dictionary, London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1981, pp. 262 & 564.