Friday, April 8, 2011

Red Carpet Treatment

The cable ship Furman had been moored in Newington, New Hampshire, for a considerable time before I reported aboard.  Local jokesters asserted that she was “welded to the pier.”  Several miles upstream from downtown Portsmouth, the cable pier to which the ship was moored sat at the end of a dirt road, hidden by the Simplex Wire and Cable Company building that supplied it.  The only activity besides shipping was provided by a short branch line of the Boston and Maine Railroad that carried raw materials to the cable factory and a few other industries.  Otherwise, the Furman rested quietly in a secluded location.

There was very little work to be done aboard the Furman.  A few deck seamen tended to general maintenance, and a small engine room crew took care of the mechanical side of things.  The actual loading of the cable into the cargo holds, however, was done by employees of the cable company.  This was a slow process, and one that was interrupted often.  Occasionally, the operation was suspended for several days at a time when another cable ship with a higher operational priority needed to use the pier.  When this happened, the Furman was either moored to the offshore side of the ship using the pier, or sent downstream to berth temporarily at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.  This inactivity made the Furman ideal for use as a hospital ship.

Most of the men assigned to the Furman during the months that she sat in Newington lived in the region.  For them, it was an easy commute to a stationary job, and their families were glad to have them home from the sea for an extended time.  A few of the fellows came from other parts of the country.  With little interest in the Portsmouth area, they did their duty and then rotated out.  Then there were those of us who were recovering from serious illnesses.

Nick the Greek was the Captain of this ship that never sailed.  He had undergone cancer surgery prior to taking command of the Furman, and periodically during this assignment he would travel to the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York for chemotherapy.  He had family in both Athens and New York, so he was well attended to during his treatments.  Commander Whit Whitten was the second mate.  He had undergone open heart surgery and was in very delicate condition.  Unable to do anything strenuous, he was assigned to the Furman for a period of general rest and relaxation.   Then there was me, by far the youngest of the three patients.  I had undergone cancer surgery and completed radiation treatments, but still needed to be examined at frequent intervals.  Since the Furman was tied to a pier only 50 miles from home, she was the perfect assignment for me.

Like the others who lived in the area, I commuted daily—or nightly, depending on my shift—between the Furman and our house in Nashua.  As the ship sat about mid-way between our house and my in-laws’ house in Sanford, Maine, Miss Patty also had occasion to come aboard many times.

Miss Patty knew very well the not unkind but nonetheless gruff manners of merchant seamen.  As one example, several years earlier, when I had escorted her up the gangway of the Waccamaw in the drydock in Norfolk, she had a witnessed a new crewman on duty challenge me with a belligerent “Who are you?  What do you want here?”  When I stated simply, “I’m the second mate, and this is my wife,” he replied with a much less bellicose but still gruff, “Oh, okay.”  So Miss Patty knew what seamen were like, and she expected the crew of the Furman to be just as much a group of roughnecks as the crew of any other ship in our fleet.

This expectation was accurate.  The Furman’s crew could carry on in the same crude and course manner as every other crew, but the presence of a beautiful young lady as a regular visitor to the ship had a mollifying effect on their customary behavior.  When Miss Patty came up the gangway, the seaman on watch always greeted her with the utmost courtesy and respect and with his cleanest language.  She was always addressed as “Mrs. Ogden;” she always had doors held open for her; and in the lounge she was always offered something to eat or drink as a gesture of hospitality.  Were it not for the general shabbiness of the surroundings, she could easily have felt that she’d walked into a high class hotel.

When Captain Nick went away on vacation for month, his place was taken by Captain Freiburg, who brought his wife with him.  They rented a house ashore for this interval, but Mrs. Freiburg, like Mrs. Ogden, became a regular visitor to the ship.  She, too, was greeted and treated with great courtesy and respect by the crew.  An Englishwoman from an affluent background who had been around ships most of her life, Mrs. Freiburg was not at all surprised by this and knew exactly how to conduct herself.  Mrs. Ogden, on the other hand, came from more modest circumstances and expressed bewilderment at the red carpet treatment that was being lavished upon her.  Not that she disliked it, however; it was just a new experience for her.

One day Miss Patty asked me about this.  “Why are these guys so polite to me all the time?  Why do they go to such lengths to be so nice to me?  What did I do to deserve all this wonderful treatment?”

I assured her that I had not put them up to it, and explaining about Mrs. Freiburg, I added that she was not alone.  The simple fact of the matter was that Miss Patty received this red carpet treatment because she was an officer’s wife.  Beyond that, however, Miss Patty was consistently courteous and friendly toward all the crewmen with whom she came in contact, and they had a natural inclination to return the favor.  Furthermore, the crewmen came to genuinely like her above and beyond her social position as an officer’s wife because of the way she treated them.  Most of the women who came near a ship were of two extremes, either selling their services to the seamen or looking down their noses at them.  Miss Patty’s friendly attitude and her treatment of everyone as her equal regardless of rank endeared her to the Furman’s crew.

Miss Patty had not been conscious of her part in this, however.  She had always gotten along well with people in general; it just came naturally to her.  But the explanation made sense.  In the secular world, rank consciousness is a way of life.  In the Gospel, however, this is different.

The Lord stated twice in the Doctrine and Covenants, “I am no respecter of persons” (D&C 1:35 & 38:16).  Long before these revelations were recorded, the author of Job had Elihu describe the Lord as “him that accepteth not the persons of princes, nor regardeth the rich more than the poor” because “they all are the work of his hands” (Job 34:19).  In a world that has always regarded the rich more than the poor, the famous more than the unknown, and the highly placed more than the lower ranking, this idea stands out as radical.  Throughout history, humans have always managed to organize themselves into a class system of one kind or another.  Even in a country like the United States, where equality among all people has long stood as one of the founding principles of the nation, there have always been class divisions.  Whether based on race, religion, ethnicity, education, or wealth, these divisions among people really should not exist.  Yet they persist.

In the New Testament, the Lord took his point one step further.  Accepting that class distinctions and social rankings did exist, he asserted on the subjects of kindness and charity, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).  The logic of this is beautiful.  The Lord, the highest ranking of all, equated himself with the lowest ranking on the human social scale.  He created all people, including those at the bottom of the social strata, and made the highly placed out of the same dust of the Earth as the lowly placed.  It stands to reason, then, that all people are equal in his sight.  Class distinctions thus remain a human invention, not a divine design.

Taking this reasoning yet another step, the Lord asserted, “whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matt. 20:26-27).  If his initial point was radical, this further elucidation must be extremist, for this overturns the human hierarchy completely.  Only by this reasoning could Mother Teresa have said of the “poorest of the poor,” “it is by serving them that we serve Christ.”1  No one could reasonably claim that Mother Teresa was anything less than a great woman, and yet she was willingly the servant of the Lord’s brethren in the lowest socio-economic level.

While the “poorest of the poor” did not make up the crew of the Furman, or for that matter, the crews of any our ships, the point remains valid.  The crewmen of all our ships came from all levels of society, of course, but it often seemed that the origins of the majority of them lay in the lower end of the scale.  The hierarchical organization of shipboard personnel reflected this already existing stratification.  Admittedly, one could improve his position in the Merchant Marine, but not everyone chose to do so or even was competent to do so.  This did not make those who achieved a higher position better people than those who did not, however, nor did it make those who remained in the lower ranking positions less deserving of common courtesy and decent treatment than those who moved up in the hierarchy.  In the eyes of God, then, the Captain and Chief Engineer remained the equals of the ordinary seamen and wipers.  The eyes of the secular world, however, saw all these positions differently; hence the preferential treatment for the visiting wives.

One of my favorite examples of the egalitarianism wrought by the Gospel centers on two brethren in our ward.  At first glance, they could not be more different from each other.  One of them has a doctorate in physics, speaks three languages fluently, and holds a high paying managerial position.  The other had no educational opportunities beyond the elementary grades, struggles to speak articulate English, and has earned an extremely modest living through farming, janitorial work, and truck driving.  The secular world would pigeonhole these brethren according to its class system, revering the one while disregarding the other, and ask rhetorically, “What could they possibly have in common?”

The Church would answer in all seriousness that they have the most important things in the world in common.  Both hold the Melchizedek Priesthood, serve faithfully in Church callings, and have steadfast testimonies of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Both are family men with high moral standards, have raised righteous children from infancy to adulthood, and have participated in all the ordinances of the temple for themselves and their families.  Both participate regularly in Sunday School lessons and High Priest Group lessons.  The one always speaks with great knowledge and beautiful eloquence on any Church subject; the other speaks willingly but haltingly, making every effort to understand and to be understood.  Both are modest and humble men, equals in their belief in God and their sincerity of purpose.  They share a mutual respect for each other, always greet each other warmly and courteously, and never display even the faintest trace of class consciousness.

The one brother always treated the other, and for that matter, everyone else with whom he came in contact, as his equals.  In much the same way, Miss Patty had treated the crew of the Furman as her equals.  In both cases, this treatment was well received and reciprocated, and a genuine affection and respect grew out of it.  How vastly different is this approach to one’s neighbor from the secular way!  History shows us numerous examples of class distinctions, when taken to extremes, leading to violent national revolutions.  The Gospel shows us what the opposite can do.  We can make the world a better place not by cataloging people along socio-economic lines, but by the simple application of the golden rule: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31).

1 Daphne Rae, Love Until it Hurts, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981, p. 9.

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