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.

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