Friday, May 13, 2011

The General

The Mercury had arrived in Wilmington, North Carolina, a few days earlier.  She was moored with her starboard side to the wharf and her large, angled stern ramp lowered so that the Marines could drive their equipment on board.  With four enclosed cargo decks, the Mercury could carry a veritable fleet of military vehicles, and the Marines brought it all aboard.  The biggest and heaviest vehicles such as trailer trucks filled with potable water went to the lowest deck.  Medium size trucks, personnel carriers, and similar-sized equipment went in the tween decks. Lastly, the lightest vehicles such as jeeps and gun trailers went on the highest of the four cargo decks.  The purpose of this arrangement was stability.  A stable ship with a wisely stowed cargo and a low center of gravity would ride comfortably and safely in a seaway.

The Mercury’s sister ship, the Jupiter, was moored at the same pier doing the same work.  Both ships were participating in the buildup of military supplies and personnel that was taking place in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in response to the Iranian hostage crisis of the early 1980s.  As this operation was a highly political issue, it received a lot of publicity.  A photograph of the Mercury loading cargo in Wilmington even appeared in Newsweek along with information concerning both ships’ intended movements.1  Because of the preponderance of politics and publicity, there were also present numerous high-ranking military officers.  Most of these men came and went with little or no fanfare, although for security purposes they were all diligently logged in and out as they came aboard and returned ashore.  One day, however, the really big boss came to visit, and all useful human activity came to a complete standstill to accommodate him.

The big boss was Lieutenant General P. X. Kelley, USMC.  The heralds who preceded him decreed that everything and everyone aboard the Mercury must be made spotlessly clean for his visit and that all security protocols must be rigidly observed.  Furthermore, everyone aboard the ship must stand quietly and respectfully to the side when the General came along.  These precautionary steps would make a good impression on the big boss and keep all the underlings out of trouble.  That way, everyone would be happy.  My assigned post for this event was at the stern ramp with Joe, the gangway watchman.  His assignment was to make certain that General Kelley was officially logged in when he came aboard and then logged out when he went ashore.  The chief mate joined us, too, just to keep an extra set of eyes on things.

From head to toe, Joe the gangway watchman looked every inch a homeless person.  Dressed in his vagabond best of torn, dirty, and mismatched clothes and decrepit shoes with broken laces, and with his long hair and beard groomed to park bench standards, Joe was the best security precaution on the ship.  His very appearance would scare away any troublemakers.  In addition to these qualifications, he always performed his duties very conscientiously and followed instructions precisely.  Knowing that General Kelley would be arriving soon, Joe was prepared to greet him when he came aboard.

Presently four jeeps drove up to the Mercury.  They parked on the pier adjacent to the stern ramp and in front of a “No Parking” sign.  General Kelley, riding shotgun in the first jeep, alighted and started walking toward the ship.  He was promptly followed by his chauffeur and two aides who had been sitting in the back seat.  These four men were then followed by twenty or more other Marines who spilled out of the other three jeeps.  The General, with the stars on his collar of his immaculate uniform shining brightly, led this entourage of Marines up the stern ramp and onto the Mercury.  They walked aboard the ship as if they owned it and said nothing to the crewmen watching them.

Then Joe the gangway watchman sprang into action.  Armed with his logbook and a pen, he marched straightaway across the deck toward the General.  None of the Marines took any notice of his coming; they just stared straight ahead as they marched.  Unwilling to let them pass him by, Joe went right to the top.  He turned slightly to approach the General head on.  Having thus gotten in front of the General, he marched right at him.  Just as they were about to collide, Joe held out the open logbook and stuck it right into the General’s gut while simultaneously pushing the pen nearly into his face.  Stopping short, the General looked down at the open logbook with a very startled expression.  Looking upward again, the General saw the brandished pen and heard Joe order him to sign in.  Looking momentarily dumbfounded by this unorthodox security procedure, the General quickly regained his composure.

Glancing to his right, the General pointed to one of his aides as the man whom Joe should approach.  This aide in turn glanced to his right and pointed Joe’s way to yet another aide.  This other aide did likewise.  Finally, a junior Marine emerged from the entourage, reported to Joe, and signed all the Marines into the logbook.  Mission accomplished, Joe returned the book to his little desk by the stern ramp.

General Kelley and his Marines continued on their way.  They conducted a visual inspection of the Mercury which lasted about thirty minutes or so, and then they left.  Once again, the General led the march across the stern ramp, and the same junior Marine who had signed them all in now signed them all out.  The General and his Marines reboarded their fleet of jeeps and hurriedly drove away. 

That was the last that we saw of the General and his entourage, although lesser ranking Marines continued to inhabit the area.  With the head honcho now gone, the loading of cargo aboard the Mercury continued until the ship was filled to capacity, and then she was ready to sail to Diego Garcia.

In a rank-conscious world, it is refreshing to read the Lord’s statement, “I am no respecter of persons” (D&C 38:16), and realize that he is not impressed with shining stars, gold braid, and lofty titles.  It has always seemed ironic to me that in a country which stated boldly in its Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,”  there are those who all but fall on their knees before people of a higher social, professional, or educational level than themselves.  But the Lord holds a different viewpoint:

And let every man esteem his brother as himself, and practice virtue and holiness before me.  For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just?   (D&C 38:24, 26)

The answer to this rhetorical question is clear.  Just as all children are equal in the eyes of their parents, so are all people equal in the sight of God.  Therefore, neither loving parents nor a loving God would arbitrarily elevate one child to the level of robes and demote another to the level of rags.  Instead, both God and the parents would love all their children equally and want what is best for all of them.  It is the secular world that segregates people into social classes, a development that was not part of the divine plan.

Perhaps it is in the temple that we best see the equality of all people before God.  Secular titles are not used at all in the temple.  There are no Generals, Captains, Doctors, Professors, etc.  With the single exception of the Temple President, everyone is addressed as Brother or Sister.  In the one case of the President, he is addressed as such out of respect for the position with which the Lord has entrusted him and not out of any sense of hero-worship or secular adulation.  Furthermore, there are no badges of rank or social status on the temple clothing, nor is the clothing itself of a status-indicating nature.  Plain white carries a simple beauty.  As a noted LDS author explains:

In the temple everyone wears white clothing, which symbolizes purity and cleanliness in the sight of God and each other.  [Furthermore,] it suggests an equality in the sight of God that creates unity and oneness in his children.2

And on this point the Lord has told us, “I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine (D&C 38:27).

Quoting Elder John A. Widtsoe, another noted LDS author explains:

The uniform dress symbolizes that before God our Father in heaven all men are equal.  The beggar and the banker, the learned and the unlearned, the prince and the pauper sit side by side in the temple and are of equal importance if they live righteously before the Lord God.3

While others may not have seen it this way, aboard the Mercury that day in Wilmington Joe the gangway watchman and Lieutenant General P.X. Kelley were equal in the sight of God their creator.  Of course they had different jobs to do and carried different burdens of responsibility, and they likely had very different levels of education as well.  Nonetheless, they were both created from the same dust of the Earth and endowed with the same breath of life and the same light of Christ.  Joe seemed not the least bit intimidated by the General’s exalted rank when he approached him with the logbook.  Nor would God be intimidated by the General’s or anyone else’s rank in this world.  In this respect, Joe’s outlook on his fellowmen was more in line with the Gospel than he probably realized.

1 Steven Strasser, et al., “A Big U.S. Buildup in the Gulf,” Newsweek, July 14, 1980, pp. 30-33, 35-36.
2 S. Michael Wilcox, House of Glory: Finding Personal Meaning in the Temple, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1995, p. 24.
3 Andrew C. Skinner, Temple Worship, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2007, p. 33-34.

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