Friday, April 1, 2011

Walking on Air

Sitting in the hot seat was never a pleasant experience, but always a memorable one.  Anyone who had taken the exams, be they for third mate or second mate or chief mate, could never forget what it was like.  Everything depended on the successful completion of these examinations—one’s employment, one’s livelihood, one’s finances, one’s family, one’s advancement, one’s career—even one’s very life, it seemed.  Little wonder, then, that merchant seamen sweated uncomfortably even in air conditioned exam rooms.  For no matter how much they had studied, and no matter how proficient they were in their duties aboard ship, the exams would always confront them with something obsolete or otherwise irrelevant that even the most competent officer at the height of his career could not reasonably be expected to know.  A few oddball questions like this could—and sometimes did—mean the difference between success and failure.  Failing one section of the test once would be an inconvenience, but not a disaster.  Failing it on the retake, however, was tantamount to failing the entire exam, and one would then need to restart from scratch.  With limited shore leave, no one had the time to waste on failure.

An old joke in the Merchant Marine held that “the Navy knows nothing about ships, and the Coast Guard knows even less than that.”  Like it or not, however, the Merchant Marine has long been subject to Coast Guard regulation, and to this day the Coast Guard conducts the licensing procedures for Merchant Marine officers.  The examinations one must take to become a licensed officer, and subsequently, to upgrade one’s license, are brutal.  And they should be.  A mate on a tanker filled with 50,000 tons of crude oil, for example, bears too heavy a burden and has too much responsibility for incompetence to be tolerated.  One seemingly small mistake could cause a wreck that would cost dearly in both human life and property damage.  But while these exams are necessarily difficult, they are written and administered by a federal bureaucracy that does not go to sea for its livelihood.  Hence, the questions for which one simply cannot prepare.  Hence, also, the widespread fear and even loathing of the examiners.  As some shipboard wags used to put it, “the Coast Guard giveth, and the Coast Guard taketh away.  Cursed be the name of the Coast Guard.”  My apologies to Job.

I was all of 21 years old when I sat for “the thirds,” the series of examinations for an original license as third mate.  This took place in Castine, Maine, at the school I had attended to prepare for this objective.  I was too young and too inexperienced to be more than only somewhat nervous.  Nonetheless, I prepared judiciously.  Everything I needed to know was fresh in my mind, but even with that I realized that I could not take anything for granted.  The test was three days long.  Two sections of the test were given each day, Tuesday through Thursday.  Three of these sections required a passing grade of 70%; the other three sections required a passing grade of 90%.  Then I waited.  In those days the completed exams were sent to Oklahoma City for grading. 

When I learned that I had passed the thirds, I felt mildly relieved.  When I actually held the license in my hand and saw my name inscribed along with the magical words “third mate,” I felt euphoric.  I had done it!  I had become something!  But it was really only the start of things.  I had proved myself on paper; I had yet to prove myself aboard ship.

Three years and five ships later, I sat for the seconds in Portland, Maine.  I was 24, three years older, wiser, and more experienced than I had been, and so I had a much clearer idea of what exactly was riding on these exams.  For this reason, I was also more nervous than I had been the first time around.  In preparation, I established a strict regimen of study in an empty room of the house, a room replete with peace, quiet, and solitude.  I spent many hours there.

By a happy coincidence, several of my former school chums were in Portland taking the seconds at the same time.  Some were engineers; some were mates; all were sweating it out together.  We would meet over lunch at a diner on Congress Street to compare notes on each morning’s section of the test.  Evenings we spent in isolation from one another, reviewing material for the next day’s work.  I had hidden myself away in a downtown hotel room for this purpose.  Seconds, after all, was more difficult than thirds.  Rightly so, too, for the second mate aboard a merchant ship has a lot of responsibility, and it’s taken for granted that he knows what to do and how to do it.

One thing I did not know, however, was that a revised version of the rules of the road had gone into effect while I was on vacation.  My friends and I had noticed some very strange questions on that section of the test.  It therefore came as no great surprise that I did not attain the required 90% on the new rules of the road.  To correct this deficiency, I retook rules the following month in Boston.  It all worked out all right in the end, but it was a nerve-wracking interval.

By this time I had proved myself aboard ship as a third mate, and I felt confident that I could move upward.  When at last, after taking the rules section twice, I held the new license in my hand and saw the magical phrase “second mate” instead of “third,” it was like a tonic.  I was no longer at the bottom of the deck officers’ hierarchy.  I had taken a major career step forward and was walking on air as I left the Coast Guard building.  Then, with the employment situation being what it was, I went back to sea as third mate.

Two years and two ships later, I sat for the chief mate’s exam in Boston.  I was 26 years old and about to embark upon the most difficult undertaking of my life.  This exam was more comprehensive than the first two.  It had eight separate sections and was administered Tuesday through Friday.  Three of these sections required a passing grade of 90%; two required 80%; and three required 70%.  Not surprisingly, the sections with the highest minimum passing grade involved navigation and rules of the road.  Once again, I sequestered myself in an empty room in the house to study.  I spent 40 hours and more per week at this for over a month.  I needed to master much new material, for example, shipboard stability, which is heavy in applied physics and advanced mathematics, as well as review in depth a host of other subjects.  It was a busy time.

On the first morning of the exam, I drove to Lowell to get the train into Boston.  No sooner did I arrive at the Lowell station than I went in the rest room and got sick.  That’s how intense the nervous strain of the chief mate’s exam was.  So much depended on the successful outcome of this test, and so much time and effort had already been invested in it.  Failure was not an option, but in the back of my mind it always threatened as an ominous possibility.  A few bad questions on a critical section of the exam were all it would need.

One of the navigation sections contained ten questions for me to work out.  These involved lengthy calculations and were time-consuming.  I had no problems with nine of them, but one gave me a lot of trouble.  This question required me to calculate the great circle distance between San Francisco and Sydney and, with a given date and time of departure and speed of advance, calculate an expected arrival time.  This was not a difficult task.  I worked it out using the standard spherical trigonometric formulas, arrived at a conclusion, and looked for my answer among the four choices given.  It was not there.  The nearest distance listed among the multiple choice answers was incorrect by ten miles. The Coast Guard required navigational accuracy within one tenth of one mile, so an error of ten miles was unacceptable.  I had brought two calculators with me.  I solved the problem again using my backup calculator.  It gave me a distance less than a mile different from my first one.  This was still unacceptable.  Dispensing with the calculators, I worked out the problem manually using the logarithmic tables.  This method also yielded a distance less than a mile different from my first one.  At this point I concluded that all the possible answers provided by the Coast Guard were wrong.  I had mathematical proof of it.  But I had to make a choice and pass in the exam.

By this time the Coast Guard was no longer mailing the completed examinations to Oklahoma City for processing, but was grading them locally, almost immediately after they were turned in.  This was a much better system; it eliminated the long wait for the results.  I chose the answer that was incorrect by ten miles because that was the closest to correct of the four choices given.  Then I passed in my papers.  I watched with bated breath as the Coast Guardsman placed a template over my answer sheet and graded the test.  I was fully prepared to wage a serious battle if I failed this section because there was no correct answer listed among the choices for this one question.  To my infinite relief, I scored 100%.  Disarmed, I thanked the examiner and left.  On the train going home afterwards, I felt rather pleased with myself.

But it was not over yet.  My next nightmare was the deck-general section.  This contained 100 multiple choice questions each worth one point on a wide range of subjects.  These included oceanography, meteorology, astronomy, shiphandling, seamanship, cargo stowage, electronics, etc.  All of this was very important material that every mate needed to know.  The downside of such a miscellaneous assortment, however, was that a lot of irrelevant and even obsolete questions could be included.  There had been some of these on the thirds and more on the seconds.  Now, on the chief mate’s exam, fully one third of the questions in this section were garbage.  They asked about stuff that no responsible and competent mate had any use for in the performance of his duties.  Some of them had nothing at all to do with shipping, and some were out of date by decades.  My favorite example of this was a question concerning the location of floating minefields in the North Sea!  The bottom line, then, was that I failed this section by one point.  Only one point!  I would have to try it again a month later.

Fortunately, I passed all of the other seven sections with very comfortable margins.  I could therefore concentrate my study efforts on deck-general for the next few weeks.  After the required interval, I retook this section and passed it.  Otherwise, the second time around was not much different from the first. 

I received my new license that same day.  I felt a great sense of achievement, but a much greater sense of relief to finally be done with such a long and mind-boggling series of tests.  I had overcome the worst the Coast Guard had yet thrown at me and had made it to chief mate.  Three down; one to go.  The next exam would be the Master’s.  With my new license in hand, I walked on air all the way back to North Station.  Soon thereafter, the employment situation being what it was, I went back to sea as second mate.

These events took place in the 1980s.  One hundred years earlier, the great seaman and author Joseph Conrad underwent similarly stressful license examinations in London.  In that era the process was a face-to-face encounter with the examining authority.  This procedural difference, however, only proves that the more things change, the more they remain the same.  As Conrad recalled it:

It lasted for hours, for hours.  Had I been a strange microbe with potentialities of deadly mischief to the Merchant Service I could not have been submitted to a more microscopic examination.  Greatly reassured by his apparent benevolence, I had been at first very alert in my answers.  But at length the feeling of my brain getting addled crept upon me.  And still the passionless process went on, with a sense of untold ages having been spent already on mere preliminaries.  Then I got frightened.

When I got out of the room, I felt limply flat, like a squeezed lemon.  It was only when I got out of the building that I began to walk on air.1

Regardless of the era in which one goes to sea, the burdens and responsibilities carried by licensed officers are heavy ones.  It is for this reason that the license exams must be difficult.  If they were easy, they would fail as standards of expertise and would be useless.  In order to advance in any endeavor in life, one must study and learn a great deal in certain subjects, acquire practical experience, demonstrate proficiency, and overcome obstacles.  Furthermore, for anyone who aspires to a position of responsibility, the scriptural injunction holds true: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48).  In the Merchant Marine, much is expected of the licensed mates and engineers who are entrusted with the care of ships. 

This burden makes its weight felt early, and as one advances professionally the weight of the burden increases.  Even at the height of one’s career, the burden and the responsibility to bear it well remain, despite human tendencies to bask in the glory that accompanies a lofty position.  Should one falter even momentarily in the bearing of his professional burden, all could be lost.  A second’s inattention, an unforeseeable turn of events, even a circumstance entirely beyond one’s control—anything could happen to bring about one’s downfall.  The Master and Chief Engineer of every merchant ship dread this.  In a court of inquiry their licenses could be revoked and their careers ruined.  Hence the adage, “the Coast Guard giveth, and the Coast Guard taketh away.”  The only time one can truly rest on one’s laurels is in retirement.

In the Gospel, however, it works a bit differently.  We must still study and learn in order to grow spiritually, but as the Lord invites us he also promises us:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28-30).

Learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me (D&C 19:23).

Peace, rest, and a light burden—what a difference from the secular world!  In a competitive business environment where the burdens are heavy, mistakes are often disastrous, and forgiveness for imperfections is nonexistent, the Lord’s invitation comes as a welcome relief.  Where the secular world shows no compassion, our Savior does. 

Besides professional burdens, a brief look around reveals a population struggling with many other heavy and unnecessary burdens.  These include smoking, alcoholism, drug addiction, promiscuity, credit card debt, and domestic violence, among others.  Such vices yield terrible results and make life burdensome.  These behavior patterns that are detrimental to one’s physical, emotional, and financial health benefit only the purveyors of the vices who profit from their victims’ misery.  The Gospel, however, seeks to free people from these burdens.  Where the secular world would weigh people down, the Gospel would raise them up, give them the yoke of Christ, and lighten their burdens.

By comparison, to accept the Lord’s invitation and commit ourselves to the Gospel is not to assume a burden but to seek freedom from heavy and unproductive burdens.  In order to do this intelligently, though, we must learn what the Gospel teaches.  Just as prospective mates and engineers must study and learn diligently in preparation for the license exams, so must we study and learn diligently of the Gospel.  As the Lord instructed, we need to “learn of [him]” and “listen to [his] words” (D&C 19:23), and we also need to act on this knowledge: “learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God” (Alma 37:35).

A life in the Church is a life of learning and then doing.  While there is no hot seat waiting for us in a Church exam room, we are guaranteed that we will use this learning to exercise our priesthood, participate in service projects, perform temple ordinances, and administer to others in times of need.  This is not a make-us-or-break-us license exam; it is an opportunity to achieve the greater good of helping other children of God.

Essentially, what we learn to do in the Church is to better follow the Law of the Lord. The more we follow the Law of the Lord and adhere to the precepts of the Gospel, the happier will we be.  Also, because the knowledge of the Gospel has been entrusted to us, more will be expected of us, both by the Lord and by others.  But really, we should expect more of ourselves.    This is the key to personal happiness.  By living the Gospel and obeying the Law of the Lord, we can walk on air all the days of our lives.

1 Joseph Conrad, A Personal Record, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1929, p. 113-114.

1 comment:

  1. "Now, on the chief mate’s exam, fully one third of the questions in this section were garbage."

    Best line!!