Friday, April 29, 2011

Pictures of Ships and Characters in the Stories

Below are photographs of some of the ships on which I sailed and which figure into my stories.  I took several of these pictures myself.  Those from other sources are so noted.  Click on the photos for a larger view.

The tanker New Jersey Sun in the floating drydock at the Todd Shipyard on Pelican Island, Galveston, Texas, on May 28, 1977.
The school ship State of Maine moored at the Commonwealth Pier, Boston, Massachusetts, between May 24 and 28, 1976.
The freighter Rigel secured alongside the Molo Carlo Pisacane in Napoli, Italy, on June 22, 1979.  It's early morning with the sun shining from the direction of nearby Mount Vesuvius.
Yours truly hard at work aboard the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg.  Ordinary Seaman Ray Flynn took this picture from the pier in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, in early November of 1979, about a month before I met Miss Patty.
Miss Patty at Jones Beach, Long Island, on January 13, 1980.  She came to New York for a visit while the Vandenberg was undergoing a shipyard overhaul in Brooklyn.
The oceanographic survey ship Wilkes at the Ocean Terminal in  Southampton, England, on December 21, 1980.  This historic pier hosted the famous transatlantic passenger liners, including the original Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.
The freighter Victoria reposing alongside Pier Q at the US Naval Station in North Charleston, South Carolina, some morning between August 2 and 9, 1981.
The tanker Waccamaw in a historic but undated postcard view.  The vertical steel and hose structures were used for the refueling of military vessels at sea.  By the time I joined the ship on June 24, 1982, the one such structure forward of the midships house had been removed.
The freighter Comet engaged in cargo operations in Port Hueneme, California, over the weekend of February 11-12, 1984.  I don't know who took this picture, but Captain Icky, as we affectionately knew him, liked it and had copies made for the whole crew shortly before the ship was taken out of service.
The oceanographic survey ship Bartlett in an undated file photo from the fleet headquarters in Bayonne, New Jersey.  I was able to collect portraits of several of the ships I had sailed on before I left the Bayonne office for the last time.
The cable ship Furman departing Portsmouth, New Hampshire, without me on March 15, 1986.  We see her passing Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Castle, New Hampshire.
The twin-hulled oceanographic survey ship Hayes in an undated file photo.  She was not in this good condition during my time aboard her.

The ferry John H approaching the dock at Orient Point, Long Island, on August 17, 1990, with Miss Patty, Miss Karen, and James watching.

The entire family on the bridge of the Joseph and Clara Smallwood enroute from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Argentia, Newfoundland, on June 21, 2004.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Wife is Always Right

On this same voyage aboard the Joseph and Clara Smallwood, I made the offhand remark over lunch that it would be nice to go up on the bridge of the ship for a look around.  This was wishful thinking on my part, of course.  Aboard an American vessel, this would be strictly against regulations, and I assumed this would hold true on a Canadian ship as well.   There are good reasons for this.  Passengers can often prove distracting to the crew.  They get in the way.  They ask ridiculous questions.  They make inappropriate jokes.  They touch things that set off alarms.  So the best thing to do is keep the passengers in their own areas, off the bridge, out of the engine room, away from the anchor windlass, and so forth.  It’s just better for everyone that way.

To my great surprise, Miss Patty replied that visiting the bridge of the ship would be a wonderful idea.  She would ask someone about it after lunch.  I told her not to bother, for it would surely not be allowed, but she insisted.  After lunch, then, and over my repeated objections, she walked into an office labeled “Purser & Steward” and spoke with an important looking figure wearing an impressive uniform.  Feeling somewhat embarrassed by what I perceived as a request for special treatment, I waited in the corridor with the children, out of sight but within hearing range.

“My husband is a merchant seaman,” Miss Patty stated.  “He has a chief mate’s license, although he hasn’t gone to sea in quite a while.  Would it be at all possible for him to go up to the bridge for a few minutes?”

As I waited with the children for the polite but inevitable “No,” I suddenly found myself not trusting my own hearing.  “Of course,” came the reply.  The man in the uniform explained that this would be perfectly all right, but that we would need an escort to show us the way up to the bridge and then back again.  Could we wait for just a few minutes until someone became available?

Well, certainly.  We would be happy to wait.  After all, this was a golden opportunity!  In retrospect, it was good that we had to wait a bit for the escort.  I had been so certain that we would never be permitted in any of the crew areas of the ship that I needed some time to recover from my surprise.  Presently, then, a young lady came along and introduced herself to us.  She was our escort.  We followed her through a labyrinth of passageways and stairwells and past several signs that asserted unequivocally, “Crew only!  Absolutely no passengers beyond this point!”  Finally, she opened one more door.  We followed her onto the bridge where she introduced us to Mr. Jim, the mate in charge of the watch.  Mr. Jim greeted us enthusiastically and welcomed us into his domain.  Evidently he had been notified that we were coming, for he seemed not at all surprised to see us, and he struck up a conversation with me about the shipping business right away.

Oh, how good it felt to stand on the bridge of a ship underway on the Atlantic Ocean again!  As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing in the world to beat this experience.  I practically forgot about my family as I absorbed the view of the great blue sea and sky from this vantage point.  Then Mr. Jim directed our attention to some of the navigational equipment.  This ship had everything and it was all state of the art.  From electronic autopilot to computerized wide screen displays of the vessel’s track line and position updated by satellite fixes with sidebars indicating speed of advance and rate of fuel consumption—this ship had it all.  As if this weren’t enough, the deck was covered in wall to wall carpeting, the bridge wings were completely enclosed, and the mate and the lookout were ensconced in lounge chairs.  The Joseph and Clara Smallwood was unlike any other ship that I had ever seen.  Never had I experienced such advanced automation and such luxurious surroundings in my seagoing career!  But best of all remained the view.  Through a wall of windows that faced forward and wrapped around the wings, the sea and sky seemed to be not outdoor elements but extensions of the bridge itself, as if all were unitedly one great element.  It was a truly magnificent sight.

We lingered, of course, as we knew this experience would pass all too quickly.  We chatted with the mate, who displayed a lively enthusiasm in showing us all his equipment.  He obviously enjoyed having company in what can often be a lonely job.  I loved it, naturally, as did the rest of the family, although for different reasons.  For me, it was a return to the ships and the sea that I have loved all my life.  For my wife and children, it was a novel experience, and one in which they saw a side of me that they had previously heard about but had never actually known.  They had gone on short ferry runs before, but they had never sailed on the open ocean aboard a capital ship, and of course, they had never visited the bridge of such a vessel underway.

I could have stayed all day, but I also knew that we had to face reality.  The mate had work to do, and our escort would also have other duties.  As thrilling as it felt to stand at the wall of windows and take in their commanding view of the sea, it could not last forever.  We thanked Mr. Jim and bade him farewell.  Then we followed our escort off the bridge and back to the passenger area.  We went out on the foredeck, from which we could see both the ocean ahead of us and the wall of windows lining the front of the bridge now behind and far above us.  The Smallwood still had about seven hours’ sailing left to go, so it wasn’t over yet.  I continued to enjoy every moment that the ship was at sea, but I especially savored the time spent on the bridge.

Then Miss Patty spoke to me.  “Now, aren’t you glad I asked if we could see the bridge?”  Of course, I was very glad she did that.  I must give credit where it is due.  I never would have asked to go on the bridge of the ship, but she did, and she got what she requested.  I who had told her not to bother asking because it would never work was happy to have been wrong.  And while I did not mention this, I thought of the cardinal rule of a happy marriage: the wife is always right.

In all seriousness, I must admit that she really is right most of the time.  This has been more than amply demonstrated in twenty-some years of marriage.  One of the things that she was right about was joining the Church.  When the missionaries came into our neighborhood, she knew before very long that she would join the Church.  She wanted me to join the Church, too, but I required some time to think about it first.  This thinking about it took six and a half years, but eventually I did join.  The children all joined the Church, too, when they were old enough to understand what they were doing.  At an appropriate time after that, we were all sealed in the new Boston Temple.

Those were the big things.  Along the way, though, there were many smaller things about the Church, usually involving commitments to and decisions about Church participation.  One the first of these was Bishop Carl Belnap’s asking if I would like to be the ward newsletter editor.  I was surprised by this suggestion.  I didn’t think of it as a “calling” because I was not yet a member of the Church, nor did I have any intention of becoming a member at that point.  Nonetheless, it sounded interesting, so I accepted the invitation.  Miss Patty assured me that I would do a fine job and that the ward members would all love my newsletters.  She was right; they did.

Once the newsletter was established, the opportunity arose to visit some of the new temples that were being constructed.  A few of these were within reasonable travel time of our house in Nashua, so we went to see them.  The initial motivation behind these journeys combined my newsletter calling and my curiosity about the temples.  This started with the Palmyra Temple.  We made the eight hour drive to Palmyra, attended the open house, and took the tour of the new temple.  Afterwards, I wrote an article about it for the ward newsletter. 

By this time, even though I still had no desire to join the Church, I had learned a lot about it through reading the scriptures, meeting the missionaries, attending sacrament meeting, and participating to various degrees in other Church activities.  I had never visited a temple, though, and I recognized this as a deficiency that needed to be rectified.  My visit to the Palmyra Temple rectified this deficiency in a most remarkable way.  The instant I stepped through the doorway and entered the temple, I felt something come over me very strongly.  It remained firmly with me throughout my visit to the temple, and afterwards, I had to sit very quietly in the car for a while in order to compose myself before I could do anything else.  I realized then that the Spirit had accompanied me on my temple tour.  The Spirit went with me into all the rooms in the temple and vouchsafed to my uncertain mind the sacred nature of the both the new temple and the ordinances that would soon be performed therein.  I remarked to Miss Patty, “I thought I knew what this Church was all about.  But now that I’ve gone in the temple, I understand it—not in a book-learning way, but from experience.”  Miss Patty had known that something like this would happen sooner or later, that I would have some experience which would propel me towards membership in the Church.  She was right, and besides, it made for a good newsletter article.

A week after my baptism, Bishop Carl Belnap wanted to ordain me.  He was a fast worker, actually a bit too fast for me, but not fast enough for Miss Patty.  She wanted the priesthood in her home, and she let me know it   I held out for another week, and then my ordination to the Aaronic Priesthood took place.  In time, the Bishop moved me along to the Melchizidek Priesthood.  Miss Patty was very happy then; it was her dream come true after all those years.  She had always maintained that the priesthood would bring good things into the house, good things like an increase of family affection and closeness, warm and loving friendships, a greater spirit of peacefulness and contentment, and an ongoing growth in the Gospel for parents and children alike.  In all these areas, she has been proved right numerous times. 

Since I was now officially a member of the Church holding the priesthood, I received more callings.  I did the newsletter in two segments for a total of five years.  I enjoyed that very much.  Interspersed with these literary pursuits were callings in the Elders Quorum and Cub Scouts.  Then, to my infinite surprise, the Stake Presidency summoned me into the office and requested that I serve in the Bishopric of our ward.

I was flabbergasted.  Never in my wildest dreams had I thought of being called into the Bishopric.  My initial reaction to this call was to think of hundreds of reasons why I couldn’t do it.  I hadn’t been a member of the Church long enough.  I wasn’t smart enough.  I wasn’t good enough.  I wasn’t holy enough.  I was terrified of public speaking.  There were better qualified men in the ward, lifelong members who knew far better than I how the Church operated.  Surely one of them would do a much better job as a counselor to the Bishop than I could.  But all this was to no avail.  Bishop Lance Spencer had prayed about it, and my name had come into his mind.  The Stake Presidency supported Bishop Spencer, and there I was listening to President Michael Banks insist that I was the right person for the position.  Miss Patty agreed with him, saying that I would be blessed if I accepted the calling.  Once again, she was right, and we both knew it.

This calling got off to a rocky start.  Simply put, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt that I wasn’t doing it very well.  In time, I became acclimated to it, although I still missed the newsletter.  And yes, both my family and I were blessed for it.  The other counselor in the Bishopric, Brother Adam Davis, was also new at his calling.  His family and mine became great friends.  My children, being older, helped supervise his children during Sacrament Meetings.  The two families got together regularly for Sunday dinner; in fact, dinner together became a fast-breaking tradition on the first Sunday of each month.  On other days, when occasion called for it, the two families helped each other out with various projects and crises, from laying a new kitchen floor to cleaning up a pine tree that had been blown down in our yard in a windstorm.  Actually, a small army from the ward helped out with that, and these good members saved us a lot of money.

Soon after my call into the Bishopric, a new executive secretary, Brother Phil Hibbert, was called.  He was an exceptionally brilliant man and a graduate of the University of Heidelberg.  He spoke fluent German and happily shared his linguistic expertise with me, whose German has always been at best faltering and ungrammatical.  He also volunteered to help my son learn German.  Had it not been for Bishopric meetings, I likely would not have had much occasion to speak with him.

Additionally, in carrying out the normal duties of the Bishopric I found myself becoming less terrified and increasingly comfortable at public speaking.  My critical moment arrived one day in the summer when the Bishop and the First Counselor were both away on vacation.  They had actually left me in charge!  On that particular Sunday two of the speakers scheduled for Sacrament Meeting did not show up.  After a few of the youth had made some brief remarks about their experiences at youth conference, and after the congregational hymn had been sung, it became my lot to fill up the remainder of the program.  Following a quick prayer of desperation, I received the inspiration and guidance I needed to address the ward on a timely topic.  I guess it was a good speech, for I received many compliments afterwards.  To each of these felicitations, however, I had to reply in all honesty that I had not done it alone.

Soon afterwards, my new level of comfort and poise at public speaking served me well in a job interview for an evening library position.  Instead of feeling extremely nervous as I faced a committee of four interrogators, I remained very calm and at ease.  I even addressed the group without notes.  And I got the job.

Again and again and again, Miss Patty has always been right.  Many good things have come my way and my family’s way since I accepted the missionaries’ invitation and joined the Church.  Some of these blessings were very basic but nonetheless essential.  One of my favorite examples of this is the blessing of tithing.  After too many years of trying unsuccessfully to straighten out our finances, we paid tithing as a last resort.  It worked where everything else had failed, and in a remarkably short time.  I learned from first hand experience, then, the truth of the scriptural promise, “prove me now herewith…if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (3 Nephi 24:10).

This financial blessing took a great weight off my shoulders, of course, but it was not the only blessing to do so.  My other favorite example is the blessing of well-behaved children.  I have four children, three boys and one girl.  They all believe in God, attend church, have testimonies of the Gospel, and govern themselves accordingly.  They have never done, are not now doing, nor I expect ever will do anything of which Miss Patty and I would be ashamed.  While credit for this achievement must go to several outside parties, such as grandparents and Catholic schools, a very large share of the credit must go to the Church.  For in learning the doctrines, values, history, and culture of the Church, my children have acquired the tools necessary to lead not only good but exemplary Christian lives.

Just as Miss Patty proved herself right aboard the Joseph and Clara Smallwood and secured for us a visit to the bridge of the ship—now one of my fondest memories—so also she has proved herself right in the Church.  In both situations I was content to leave things as they were, to not make any major changes or request any special favors.  But she ventured to do so, and the results speak for themselves.  Miss Patty asked, and she received; she knocked, and the door was opened for her (Matt. 7:7).  She has always trusted in the Lord, and he has always sustained her.  And we all know that the Lord is always right.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Temple of the Sea

The ferry Joseph and Clara Smallwood departed from her berth in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, at precisely 6:00am on Monday, June 21. 2004.  There was no noise and no commotion.  Her lines were let go, and then gently—almost imperceptibly, at first—she slid away from the dock and into the stream.  Suddenly, the whistle sounded, almost as an afterthought.  The three short blasts announced that the ship’s engines were going astern.  To anyone who had not already noticed the apparent motion of the pier, the whistle was the clarion call: we are now going to sea.  Ahead lay a fourteen and one half hours’ voyage beyond sight of land and across the open ocean to Argentia, Newfoundland.

No mere ferryboat, the Joseph and Clara Smallwood was a great ship: 587 feet long, 82 feet wide, with two vehicle decks and a capacity for 370 automobiles or 77 tractor-trailers and 1200 passengers, powered by four eight-cylinder diesel engines developing 7,000 horsepower each, and driven by twin propellers at a maximum speed of 22 knots.1  This was my kind of ship!  For “a seaman in exile from the sea,”2 boarding the Joseph and Clara was like going home again.  The shackles of the shore were broken.  The open ocean beckoned.  With a thrill the old familiar sensations of the wind in one’s hair and the vibration under one’s feet and the gentle undulating motion of the ship through the water returned.  The mountains of Nova Scotia receded and disappeared below the horizon.  Then, after nineteen years, I was home.  As Joseph Conrad so succinctly put it, I knew once again “the magic monotony of existence between sky and water.”3

The sky that morning was cloudy, the water gray.  A slight swell came from the north, the wind from the east.  Soon the sky would clear except for a few tufts of altocumulus, and the water would turn blue in the sun.  The ocean has many moods, and today’s was one of its gentlest: a fair wind and a following sea.   A canopy of blue sky and white clouds formed a dome over the floor of the water, a rotunda, as it were, with “the black speck of the moving hull remaining everlastingly in its centre.”4

In this great limitless rotunda of sea and sky there is and always has been something ineffable.  Some would call it a spiritual presence; others a glimpse of eternity; still others perceive it but cannot describe it.  I say they are all right.  It is ethereal and supernatural, beyond the scientific scope of oceanography and meteorology.  It is strictly ordered and logical, but beyond the impersonal mathematical calculations of the navigator.  In all the voyages of my youth, I perceived this great ineffability. As a Christian, I attributed it to the Spirit of the Lord keeping watch over the deep.  With good reason, too, for I never felt alone despite being alone on the bridge wing of the ship, whether in broad daylight or on the blackest night.  Often the heavens seemed so close I felt I could almost reach out and touch them, that the sun and moon and stars were just out of reach, just slightly beyond arm’s length.  And in addition to these mute bodies there was an unseen but unmistakably present Being who spoke, as it were, through these heavenly bodies, through the sun and clouds, through the sky and water.  I now know that this was the “still small voice” (1 Nephi 17:45).

Some have called the sea a trackless void.   They could not be more wrong.  The sea and its realm are the quintessential majesty of creation, the pinnacle of the six days’ work.  Except for the ship intruding itself into this pristine world, all that surrounds one are the elements of creation: water, sky, clouds, sun, moon, stars.  It is through these elements in this pure and natural realm that the still small voice speaks so silently and yet so majestically.  Without using human words, the still small voice makes the presence of the Lord’s Spirit felt and perceived and understood by the human mind.  One cannot help but gaze seaward from the ship and reverently acknowledge the Creator in his creation.

On a long voyage one experiences this for many days.  It does not grow tiresome.  On the contrary, it beckons one to something higher and greater.  There somehow seems to be an increased knowledge of divinity hiding just beyond the horizon, a greater glimpse of eternity slightly beyond one’s line of sight.  But although the vessel constantly moves forward, the sea and sky and the horizon separating them do not change.  No increased knowledge is found.  No greater glimpse of eternity is grasped.  At the voyage’s end, landfall comes almost as a disappointment, a settling for something lesser in place of the greater that was sought.  Despite this letdown, one knows that there is more, and the yearning for it remains.

Just as a ship both brings people together and takes them away, so does life.  Death removes those to whom we are born and later removes us from those born next.  As seafarers bidding farewell to families on the pier, we sail through life hoping—even expecting—to see again those left behind. At the voyage’s end, the travelers return to their families, whether back at the pier in this life or through the veil in the next life.  We know this much, at least, for the still small voice that comes over the sea silently asserts that there is a greater place where nothing is temporary, where the quintessence of the majesty of creation is with us always, where the voyage never ends.  Still, something more remains.

Joseph Conrad, who wrote so eloquently of the sea and of life, describes this search for the higher and greater in his varied roles of seaman and artist and writer.  He asserts that the literary artist

speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives … to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspiration, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.5

Achieving to some degree this “conviction of solidarity,” the ship and life both seek the binding together of all humanity, one through commerce, and the other through a more sublime means.  In the end, life, through death, delivers its passengers to that greater place.  Still, something more remains.

Joseph Conrad somehow understood this principle and succeeded in articulating it, at least in secular terms.  This stands as a remarkable accomplishment, for he was not a religious man.  He had no knowledge of the restored fullness of the Gospel, and no knowledge of the priesthood authority to seal families in the temple.  For that matter, he had no access to a temple.  Yet there it is—“the invincible conviction of solidarity…which binds together all humanity.”  Conrad further asserted as a literary artist:

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel … to make you see.  If I succeed, you shall find there…that glimpse of truth.6

In the many voyages of my youth, I grasped “that glimpse of truth,” but it was only a glimpse.  I experienced the great ineffability of the sea and sensed the presence of the Master and Chief Engineer of the universe—the Creator watching over his masterpiece.  But it was only a glimpse.  I sensed—I knew—there was more than what I was grasping, but knew not how to attain it.  Then I left the sea.

In the long interval of life ashore, the Truth of the restored fullness of the Gospel found me.  A skeptical recipient at first, I finally had the good fortune of visiting several temples prior to their dedication.  In them, I felt the presence of the Lord’s Spirit and heard the still small voice as I had at sea.  In addition, I found in the temple what had been so elusive at sea, the increased knowledge of divinity that had been hiding beyond the horizon, the greater glimpse of eternity that had been just beyond the line of sight. 

In the Palmyra Temple, I was acutely aware of deceased family members waiting on the other side of a very thin veil that separated them from me.  In the Montreal Temple, I could almost see my immediate family taking its first step in binding the generations together:  the sealing that ultimately took place in the Boston Temple in 2001.  At last, what had been so elusive was grasped.  And I knew what it was:  the eternal existence of the family, indeed of all humanity, on an endless voyage. Conrad was more right than he realized.  In the temple the “invincible conviction of solidarity” becomes absolutely incontrovertible as all humanity—“the dead to the living and the living to the unborn”—is not merely “knit together,” nor even in shipbuilding terms, welded together, but sealed by priesthood authority for time and all eternity.

Interestingly, Joseph Smith uses the shipyard phrasing in discussing the vital first step of vicarious baptisms: 

there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children, upon some subject or other—and behold what is that subject?  It is the baptism for the dead (D&C 128:18).

The first links have been welded; more remain to be done.  When all the temple ordinances have been completed, we will have the binding and welding and sealing ultimately of all the generations of our family, an eternal testament of the “invincible conviction of solidarity.” 

With this new knowledge I boarded the Joseph and Clara Smallwood to sail to Newfoundland.  My wife and children accompanied me.  While at sea with my family, it occurred to me that this voyage was somehow different.  I looked at the horizon, but this time I knew exactly what lay beyond it—not just more water, or eventually, another land mass—but what ultimately lay beyond the horizon and, for that matter, what lay beyond the horizon of this life and beyond the horizon of most people’s knowledge and understanding.  We had gained the additional knowledge and understanding, for we had been to the temple.  We had been sealed.  We would remain a family forever, extending beyond the horizon of the sea and into the horizon of eternity.  The still small voice came over the sea again as it had always done.  But this time it had a greater intensity.  It conveyed a greater sense of everything it had conveyed years ago.  On this voyage the Spirit of the Lord confirmed all the experiences of the temple.  It yielded no mere “glimpse of truth” but silently asserted “my voice is Spirit; my Spirit is truth; truth abideth and hath no end” (D&C 88:66).  And likewise, my family hath no end.  No mere glimpse indeed.  The still small voice gave a clear and unmistakable sense of being in the temple while at sea. 

Aboard the Joseph and Clara Smallwood on that beautiful, calm, and sunlit day, the Atlantic Ocean became the greatest celestial room in the world.

1 Information from Marine Atlantic, operator of the ferry lines connecting Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.  For more information visit  
2 Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, Garden City, New York:  Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1920, p. 2.
3 Ibid., p. 6.
4 Ibid., p. 12.
5 Joseph Conrad, the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, in Frank W. Cushwa, An Introduction to Conrad,  New York:  The Odyssey Press, 1933, p. 224.  Despite the problematic title, Conrad’s book about the Narcissus is a classic tale of life aboard a merchant ship in the 19th century.
6 Ibid., p. 225.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Repeating the Past

The ferry John H accelerated away from her dock in New London, Connecticut, and hurried down the channel toward the more open water of Long Island Sound.  The newest and largest vessel in the Cross Sound Ferry fleet, the John H was making a routine voyage to Orient Point, the sandy spit of land at the eastern end of Long Island.  The required transit time was an hour and twenty minutes—too long for some people, but far too short for me.  Miss Patty agreed.  She loved the sea, too, and savored the time that we and the children spent aboard these ferries.

The employment situation in the traditional deep sea American Merchant Marine had deteriorated almost to the point of extinction..  There would be no more seafaring for me, no more vagabonding across the oceans aboard cargo ships to exotic seaports on the far side of the world.  My illness and the layup it entailed had been but a precursor to the dearth of shipping jobs and the permanent layup that resulted.  I had of necessity settled into a new life ashore, but the yearning to go to sea remained.  When enroute with the children to visit their grandparents, then, we often opted to take the scenic route which lay across the water.

The house in New York, where I had grown up, was separated from the house in New Hampshire, where I now lived, by a driving time of about four and a half hours.  Our sons never minded making this journey, but our daughter did.  As a baby, she raised the most strident and volatile objections to continued driving after about two hours.  Unwittingly, then, she gave us a wonderful excuse to alter our course and take the ferry instead.  This route involved a two hour drive to New London, then the voyage across Long Island Sound, and finally another two hour drive on Long Island.  It took six hours instead of four and a half, but was infinitely more pleasant and enjoyable.  Everyone liked it, the children as much as the parents, and so it became a habit.

The John H was our favorite ferry.  She had comfortable accommodations for families, large tables with ample seating next to big windows through which the children could watch a world of water go by as they ate.  The outdoor decks offered unlimited views in all directions, and I would frequently bring the children all the way around the ship so they could see everything.  They always had many questions about what they saw, and they drew heavily on my professional expertise.  An hour and a third of this always passed quickly, and all too soon it would be time to return to the car and resume driving.  On this last leg of the journey, the children were usually tired out from their little adventure on the sea, and they would sleep peacefully the rest of the way to Nana’s house.

Over the years, we made this crossing many times on all the vessels of the line, both in daylight and in darkness.  No two voyages were ever alike, but a few were remarkable.

On a particularly pleasant evening one spring, we made the crossing from Connecticut to Long Island.  The air was crisp, cool, and clear, with excellent visibility.  It was a busy night on the water, and my sons quickly became fascinated by the traffic.  Because of the darkness, all one could see of the other vessels was their lights.  Intrigued by these dots of red, white, and green moving swiftly through the blackness of the night, my boys watched them intently and asked many questions about them.  This became a teaching moment.  I had the opportunity to explain to my sons how the system of running lights worked, how they could discern from the color and arrangement of the lights on another ship what direction she was going, and how close she would come to our own ship.  The boys learned quickly in this outdoor laboratory; everything they heard explained was happening right in front of them.  After a while I became aware of numerous other passengers clustering around us, looking at the running lights of the passing ships and evidently listening to me as well.

On another evening, travelling in the same direction but with very little traffic on the water, we witnessed an electrical storm.  Standing on the bow of the ship and looking forward, we saw that all ahead of us was cloaked in blackness.  But there was rumbling in the sky and a mist hung in the air, and we knew from the weather reports that a storm system was moving eastward from New Jersey.  For a split second, streaks of lightning illuminated the world.  The distant landscape of eastern Long Island and Plum Island and the Plum Gut Lighthouse became eerily but briefly visible, and we could for that instant see that our trusty little ship was headed in the right direction.  Not that I ever doubted the radar, but some passengers would wonder aloud about such things.  Another flash of lightning a few minutes later revealed the same landscape again, only closer.  These streaks and clusters of lightning, repeated at almost regular intervals, captured the children’s attention and opened up a new aspect in the world of nature for them.

Through repeated voyages both in daylight and at night across Long Island Sound, my children came to understand through their own experiences why I liked the sea so much.  They saw for themselves

the beauty of the earth…
the beauty of the skies…
[and] the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night1

from the unique vantage point of the sea.  As passengers and not crewmen, they—and I, too, for a change—could enjoy this supernal view of creation without the burden of shipboard responsibility.  Furthermore, as passengers, we were never exposed to the seamy side of life aboard ship.  The crews, in the limited contact we had with them, were always unfailingly polite and proper.        

Once at Nana’s house, we often called upon the resources of the city to entertain the children.  One of these was the ferry to Staten Island.  I always loved riding this and often took the children along for many voyages in succession.  The fare was free, which was always a good incentive, and everyone enjoyed the ride across the Upper Bay of New York Harbor.  The plethora of watercraft always captured the children’s attention.  They witnessed close up the comings and goings of passenger ships, container ships, tankers, tugboats, barges, and other ferries.  Even on a quiet day, something was always moving in the harbor.  There were plenty of stationary sights for the children to absorb as well, from the merchantmen reposing in Stapleton Anchorage to the Robbins Reef Light that marked the channel leading to the docks of my former employer.  We would typically make three or even four hour-long round trips between Lower Manhattan and Staten Island in one morning or afternoon.  As with the ferry line between Long Island and Connecticut, riding to Staten Island and back returned me in my mind’s eye to the halcyon days of my vagabond youth.  I was simultaneously raising my children and repeating my past.

As the children grew older and we travelled farther from home with them, we took them on more distant voyages.  Several times on the way to their Uncle Robert’s house in Virginia, we followed the scenic route across the Delaware Bay.  Always a pleasant alternative to the interstate highways, this route conveyed us between Cape May, New Jersey, and Cape Henlopen, Delaware, at the edge of the open ocean.  Back in New England, we would occasionally drive to Burlington, Vermont, and make a round trip across Lake Champlain, a beautiful and quiet inland sea nestled in between mountain ranges.  And in Canada, where entire provinces were accessible only by ship, the children made their longest voyages yet between New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland.  These were happy occasions, times of discovery for the children, and times of reminiscence for me.

On display in the passenger lounge in Channel-Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland, were several very large and extremely detailed models of merchant ships.  These were beautiful specimens, real works of art.  One time when we had a long wait because of a delayed sailing, these ship models became distractions for the children, something on which to focus their attention instead of thinking about the long delay.  This strategy worked wonderfully.  All the children became thoroughly interested in these models, and they asked many questions—very involved and probing questions, too—about the structural details of the vessels portrayed.  They had never seen the hull configuration of any of the ferries they had sailed on, of course, so when they saw a scale model of it, they naturally had questions.  This became another teaching moment.  Instead of running lights, this time we covered rudders, propellers, bilge keels, hull plates, hawse pipes, anchors, and side ports.  Once again, in the course of this lesson I became aware of other passengers gathering around us and listening in.

Every time I stepped aboard a passenger ferry and went to sea again, it was with a great sense of gratitude.  I was, of course, very happy and very thankful to be at sea again, even if the voyages were too short.  I was also very thankful that I had been able to sail professionally in the Merchant Marine, that I had had the incomparable opportunity to make much longer voyages across the wide expanse of the oceans to distant countries and different cultures.  Whether aboard the John H or any other vessel, I thought of my past experiences “with prayer and thanksgiving” (D&C 46:7).  As I gazed once again upon the simple yet majestic grandeur of the sea I thought of the words of the psalmist, “O Lord, how great are thy works! and thy thoughts are very deep” (Psalms 92: 5).

I liked the sea so much that I wanted to share it, as much as possible, with my family.  Miss Patty had seen it before, of course, but it was all new to the children when they were little.  This is a typical human reaction.  Some things in life are so good that we cannot keep them to ourselves but need to share them with others in order to be made fully happy by them.  The blessings of the Gospel are like the sea in this respect.  It only seems natural to want to share this good life with others.  What has made us happy can make others happy as well, and we often derive much of our own happiness from seeing our loved ones happy.  Hence the joy in missionary efforts and temple sealings.  Both by their very nature involve other people.  No one can be a missionary unto himself or be sealed to himself.  The Gospel does not reside in a vacuum.

After I left the sea and took up my new life ashore, I became better able to research my genealogy.  The more I pursued my deceased ancestors and relatives, the more I came feel a sense of urgency about the project, a sense that this work absolutely needed to be done in order to satisfy some ulterior purpose.  But I had no idea what this purpose could be.  I only knew that I often felt inexplicably obsessed with acquiring as much material as possible about my family members and their personal histories.  To this end, I corresponded and travelled far and wide, eventually filling a collection of large loose leaf binders with information and photographs.  Yet it still seemed that there should be something more.

Then I started to learn about the Church.  When I learned about the temples and the ordinances done on behalf of the deceased, my obsession with genealogy suddenly made sense.  From the research that I had done, I came to know some very interesting people in my lineage through writings they had left behind or through their recorded participation in important historical events.  Either way, I came to feel that I knew them personally, and I developed an affection for them even tough they had died long before I was born.  In a sense, they came to be like my children.  I loved them and cared about them and felt a responsibility for them.  And so, I wanted—indeed, felt honored and privileged—to do their temple work for them.  Just as I had loved the sea so much that I wanted to share it with my family, so also did I come to love the temple so much that I wanted to share it with my family.  Both the sea and the temple were too good to keep to myself; they had to be shared.

For a time I regretted that I had never been able to upgrade my license to Master.  I had risen as high as chief mate, but first my illness and the layup it entailed and then the deteriorating employment situation in the Merchant Marine prevented my attaining “the big license.”  Now, however, it hardly seems to matter.  We believe that “sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.”2   For the sacrifice of a Master’s license, I’ve received the blessings of surviving cancer, my four children, my genealogy, the temple, and an eternal family, among numerous others.  Not a bad trade off.  I never reached the top of my profession, but I did reach the top of the temple, and I’m content there.  No mere sheet of paper, not even one inscribed with the magical phrase “Master of steam and motor vessels of any gross tonnage upon oceans” can compare to the blessings of Heaven.

1 Folliott S. Pierpoint, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985, p. 92.
2 William W. Phelps, “Praise to the Man,” op. cit., p. 27.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Five Ships and Family History

The cable ship Furman remained at the Simplex Wire and Cable Company pier in Newington, New Hampshire, through the summer, fall, and winter of 1985 and 1986 and sporadically loaded cable into her holds.  Occasionally, she shifted berths when another cable ship with a higher operational priority entered port.  Sometimes she stayed at Simplex and simply moored to the offshore side of the other ship, and at other times she tied up temporarily at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in nearby Kittery, Maine.  Either way, the Furman never went far.  Her most ambitious sortie took her a few miles into the open ocean for a sea trial of the engineering plant following a series of repairs.

For all practical purposes, my seafaring career ended when I was diagnosed with cancer.  I did go back to sea briefly aboard the Furman and later aboard the Kane, but these miniature voyages served more as the last gasps of a dying career than as progression toward the next license.  But it was a happy time.  Even if my career was dying, the rest of me was recovering and my outlook on life was changing.  That was one of the benefits of cancer.  It led to a paradigm shift in values.  Many things that had once seemed of crucial importance afterwards became insignificant, and other aspects of life that had previously been taken for granted afterwards assumed a much greater significance.  After life itself had been threatened, health, family, faith, education, and the limited time one had to enjoy these took on a new importance.  Leading a good, happy, and useful family life became more pressing than pursuing an ambitious career.

Such were the thoughts during the many idle hours I spent aboard the idle Furman.  Yet I still wanted to go back to sea.  That yearning has never completely left me.  The management of our fleet did not concern itself with such romantic aspirations, however.  These folks dealt with operational and medical realities.  Thus, when the finally fully loaded Furman was ready to leave port, they decided that she would do so without me.  And thus I stood on the shore with Miss Patty and waved good-bye to this good ship as she sailed out of Portsmouth Harbor on that rainy morning in March.

I reported to company headquarters in Bayonne to undergo a medical checkup and convince the powers that be that I really could go back to sea.  They were skeptical, though.  Until they became convinced, I was on an extended vacation.  Fearing that this vacation might easily become too extended, I took a side job washing dishes in a computer company cafeteria to supplement my vacation pay.

This was a typical strategy in the mid 1980s.  Shipping jobs for merchant seamen were becoming scarce, and many seamen took vacation jobs because they simply did not know when or even if they would be able to sail again.   I both knew and heard about fellows who worked as dishwashers, janitors, delivery drivers, night watchmen, gas station attendants, and so on—anything that could quickly produce a paycheck.  The men who took these vacation jobs were both unlicensed seamen and licensed mates and engineers.  Dishwashing was my second such vacation job, actually.  Prior to joining the Waccamaw, I had worked as an evening janitor in another computer company for a couple of months.  After spending a similar amount of time washing dishes, I was assigned to the oceanographic survey ship Kane as chief mate.  A big step up from second mate and third mate, joining a ship as chief mate was both an exciting and intimidating experience.

The Kane was concluding a shipyard overhaul in Wando, near Charleston in South Carolina.  She was a mess.  With minimal time for cleaning up, she took on a contingent of survey technicians and went to sea.  Shipyard wires, air hoses, and sandblasting debris littered her decks.  As the Kane went to sea she looked like a floating slum.  She was the filthiest ship I ever sailed on.  I set the deck crew to the task of cleaning it all up, but the Captain objected that this was a waste of time.  Others felt differently, however, and several individuals surreptitiously cleaned up large areas of dirt that had gotten on their nerves.

The Kane demanded long hours.  Because of the employment situation and a new competitive bidding program in which prospective ship operators were proposing to take over crewing, the Kane’s manning scale had recently been reduced as a cost cutting measure.  As chief mate, then, I stood the 8:00 to 12:00 bridge watch morning and evening, supervised the deck crew and did administrative work after lunch, and helped with survey work after midnight.  The overtime pay was good, but for a person recently sick, this schedule was a killer.  Exhausted and not well, I consulted a physician in Charleston on the Kane’s return to port.  He recommended a less strenuous shipboard assignment in addition to the medicine he prescribed.  I had already requested relief, and a new chief mate soon arrived on board to take my place.

I left the Kane with mixed feelings.  That I was not fit for such a job was obvious, yet I was pleased that I had actually sailed, however briefly, as chief mate.  In the end, though, it worked out well for me.  Not long after my departure, the Kane suffered an engine room fire while at sea and was disabled.  She was subsequently towed to New York for repairs. 

I left the Kane at the end of May. In early June I returned to Bayonne for another medical checkup.  Then I was sent to Mobile, Alabama, to join the Saturn as second mate.

This was a good job and I liked it, but unfortunately, it only lasted nine days.  The Saturn was a freighter designed to carry military supplies, and she was undergoing a shipyard overhaul in Mobile.  Captain Stephen Aspiotis, formerly of the Waccamaw, was in charge and happy to see me again.  Because the shipyard work involved alterations to the crew’s accommodations, we were all housed in the Riverview Plaza Hotel, a high-class high-rise structure in downtown Mobile.  I especially enjoyed this.  An oversized room, a soft bed, an outdoor swimming pool, and excellent food—all within ten minutes’ walk of the Saturn.  I worked mostly at night, from midnight to 8:00am, which was the shipyard’s quiet time.  I spent most of those hours cleaning up and organizing all the navigational materials in the chartroom and bridge.  This part of the vessel had undergone some remodeling, and the shipyard guys had simply piled all the charts, publications, sight reduction tables, supplies, and related items in a big heap.  Most of the delicate instruments like the chronometers and sextants had been locked up for safekeeping, but everything else needed attention.  I enjoyed this work, though.  I was by myself, the ship was quiet, and the job was not overly strenuous.  At the hotel I could sleep uninterrupted and spend afternoons at the pool.  What a great life!

It did not last long, though.  One evening the third mate and I went to dinner at a local restaurant in downtown Mobile.  I’ve never been a fan of seafood, but this one time I tried the shrimp at the salad bar.  They tasted delicious, which enticed me to eat more of them.  Big mistake.  At the hotel afterwards, I became so violently sick that I was taken by ambulance to the University of South Alabama Medical Center.  After assorted medical examinations and procedures, the diagnosis was probable food poisoning.

The next morning, the hospital staff in Mobile called Doctor Horton, the company physician in Bayonne, with questions about my medical history.  Soon after that Captain Aspiotis received instructions from the crewing office to pay me off and send me home.  I protested because the ailment was clearing up, and he called Bayonne back and protested on my behalf.  But it was to no avail.  The decision had been made and no one would reverse it.  In mid June, then, I left the Saturn and returned to Bayonne.

After yet another medical checkup at company headquarters, I was assigned locally to the Vanguard as a night mate.  Doctor Horton wanted me to stay close by so he could keep an eye on me.

The Vanguard was a range instrumentation ship similar to the Vandenberg.  She had come to the New York area for the festivities involving the relighting of the torch on the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July.  As a night mate, I was temporarily assigned to night watches aboard the ship while she was in port.  This allowed the second and third mates to take a few days off in turn and go home.  Interestingly, the Vanguard was moored along Furman Street in Brooklyn when I reported aboard.  After a few days she shifted berths, and then she stayed in Bayonne for the remainder of her visit. 

Night mating aboard the Vanguard was an easy job.  There was no cargo to load or discharge, no repair work going on, and no shipyard-generated mess to clean up.  One interesting benefit was watching the Statue of Liberty festivities on the Fourth of July.  A few days after this event, the Vanguard sailed for Florida with her regular crew and left me behind.

While at the Bayonne headquarters, the Vanguard was moored adjacent to the Hayes.  On the day of her sailing, I stood my last midnight to eight watch aboard the Vanguard, slept for a few hours, and then stood my first four to midnight watch aboard the Hayes.

The Hayes was an oceanographic survey ship, but she had been parked and doing nothing in Bayonne for a few years.  Long overdue for a major shipyard overhaul that would essentially be a rebuilding, the Hayes waited patiently while the wheels of fleet administration and finance slowly turned.  A small crew of caretakers looked after her.  Most of them lived in the New York and New Jersey area and commuted to the ship.  One exception to this was Commander Whitten, formerly of the Furman, who now took up residence aboard the Hayes.  Except for the loading of cable and shifting of berths that were done on the Furman, my new assignment aboard the Hayes was similar to my previous one aboard the Furman.  It lasted nine months, from shortly after the Fourth of July until the following April.

During this interval, as I had whenever I was in the area on business, I lived with my parents and grandfather in the house on Long Island where I had grown up.  I commuted by automobile to the Hayes in Bayonne for my late afternoon and evening shift.  Even with the long hours aboard ship and the time-consuming commute, I found ample free time to undertake the family history project at the house.

Little did I realize it then, but this project started “turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers” (D&C 27:9).  I had long maintained a dormant interest in family history and genealogy.  Going to sea afforded me little opportunity to pursue it seriously until I reported aboard the Hayes.  With several months of this assignment ahead of me and with several free hours available every day at the family headquarters, the prospects for finally accomplishing something improved tremendously.

This became a three-generation effort.  My mother and I collected photographs, papers, negatives, and artifacts from all corners of the house.  Using an old kitchen table and some dilapidated chairs, we set up an informal family history work room in the basement.  It was a humble arrangement, but it sufficed.  Tapping my grandfather for information about events of the distant past, we took copious notes.  We labeled and dated hundreds of photographs and organized them into albums.  We had several damaged and antique photographs redeveloped and enlarged.  Also, we had several important documents such as diplomas, licenses, and certificates, professionally dry-mounted and framed.  On a few occasions when Miss Patty came to visit, we went on field trips to sites of family historical significance in the area.  Like archeologists, we took notes and photographs, and these added to the knowledge base of our family’s history.  It was a very productive time.

When the Hayes was finally towed away from the pier in Bayonne in April of 1987, the family history project had yielded some impressive results.  But that was just the beginning.  Long after the Hayes had left, the family history project continued.  Once started, it could not be stopped.  There were sources outside the family headquarters to consult next, and they brought to light a steady stream of information about previous generations.

Now, over twenty years later, the family history and genealogy project does not occupy a makeshift work space in the basement, but a finished library with built-in shelves filled with family history volumes, paneled walls bedecked with family portraits, and a computer corner with compact discs containing scanned images of everything.  It’s been a growth industry.

All of this got its start from my last-resort assignment as a caretaker aboard a dead ship waiting to be hauled away to a shipyard.  In retrospect, the year of the five ships Furman, Kane, Saturn, Vanguard, and Hayes looks like a comedy of errors that led to a bonanza, a genealogical pot of gold not at the end of a rainbow but at the end of a failing career fraught with illnesses and abbreviated shipboard assignments.  We often remark that the Lord works in ways that we find strange.  I don’t know how involved the Lord was at the end of my career in the Merchant Marine, but I’m certain that he had a hand in bringing to pass our family history and genealogy efforts.

Finally, while this research served initially as a hobby and produced knowledge for its own sake, it took on a new and much greater significance when Miss Patty became interested in the Church and learned about the ordinances of the temple for the deceased.  In large part because of the Hayes, then, many of our kin on both sides of the family have received these ordinances.  A dying career aboard a dead ship thus yielded new life for many spirits in the temple.  A small price to pay for the blessings of eternity.