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.

No comments:

Post a Comment