Friday, May 27, 2011

The Jail Bird

That was not his real name, of course, but the appellation fit him.  I sailed with him aboard the Waccamaw.  JB joined the ship shortly after I did.  He replaced another seaman who had been on my watch but had gone home on vacation.  This was a great loss to me as a mate in charge of a watch.  The first fellow was an outstanding seaman; this new guy would prove to be the exact opposite.

This change of personnel took place in Napoli, on the Italian west coast.  When the Waccamaw sailed, she made several rendezvous with naval ships for at sea refueling, and after a while she put into port at Soudha Bay on the island of Crete.  The problems with JB started early on this voyage.

The first of these problems involved his work ethic, or more accurately, his lack of a work ethic.  When he was assigned to any maintenance project on deck, he sorely tried the patience of the bosun who supervised him.  He consistently failed to finish the work assigned to him; sometimes he even failed to start it.  On the bridge he had to be watched constantly, a task that the mates aboard a busy ship just don’t have the time to do.  Besides that, it shouldn’t be necessary. 

One afternoon, following a refueling session with several Navy ships, Captain Aspiotis was conning the Waccamaw clear of the fleet and setting her on course for the next destination.  JB was steering.  The rudder was hard left, and the ship was turning to port, away from the other traffic.  Out of the clear blue, JB calmly announced, “Rudder is hard right, Captain.” 

I was aghast.  The Captain was furious.  No one had told him to shift the rudder.  On inquiry, JB asserted, “But Captain, you said to shift the rudder.”  The Captain exploded, “I did not!  I said no such thing!”  Turning to me he asked, “Did you hear me tell him to shift the rudder?”

 “Of course not,” I replied.  “No one told him to do that.” 

“Then why would he just do that on his own?”  the Captain asked rhetorically.  “He’s going to get us all killed”  Then to JB, “Is that what you want?  Cause a wreck with a ship full of oil?  You want us all to go boom?”  In the course of this exchange, the order was promptly given to return the rudder to hard left.  “And leave it there this time!” the Captain shouted.  “Don’t move it again until I tell you to!”

JB did as he was told and hung his head, obviously unhappy about this turn of events.  I wondered what was wrong with him.  Did he have a hearing problem and mistake something else that had been said for the command to shift the rudder?  Was he simply not paying attention but daydreaming instead?  Would this happen again?  That was a scary thought.  Seeing first hand how dangerous this fellow could be, I decided then that as long as he was on my watch, he would in the future only take the helm in open water.

But this was just the beginning, really.  In short order, JB’s tongue loosened up and his criticisms of the world became all too well known.  When the Waccamaw put into Soudha, the Greek business started.  JB hated Greece and the Greeks.  He remarked to several of us that Greece was the only place in the world that used the Greek alphabet, that it was different from the alphabet everyone else used and therefore peculiar.  Evidently, he did not realize that in ancient times the Romans had borrowed the alphabet from the Greeks and adapted it to their own purposes.  Someone tried to explain this fact of history to him, but JB wouldn’t have it.  Committing a common fallacy, he asserted that because the Greek alphabet was different, there must be something wrong with it.

One man who was not favorably impressed with this line of reasoning was the Captain.  He was Greek.  Captain Steven M. Aspiotis had family in both Athens and New York, and he spoke both Greek and English fluently.  A ship being like a small town, JB’s disdain for all things and people Greek soon found its circuitous way to Captain Aspiotis’ ears.  He ignored this revelation, but of course, he could not ignore incompetence and laziness.  As long as nothing terrible happened, though, he could be a very patient man.

But the chief mate had less patience.  A crusty old codger of hard bitten New England stock, he grew tired of the problems JB generated, and one day in port placed a telephone call to the personnel office in New Jersey.  The folks there knew all about everyone in every ship’s crew.  The mate asked them who JB was and where he had come from and what sort of a background he had.  The mate received an earful in reply.

JB came from the Deep South.  He had moved to Brooklyn, lived in a bad neighborhood there when he was not at sea, and in general was a tough character.  On his previous shipboard assignment, JB had gone ashore one day in Greece.  Returning to the ship in a severe state of intoxication late at night, he became embroiled in a dispute with the taxi driver over the amount of the fare.  The cabbie required a certain amount of money for payment; JB argued it was too much.  An altercation between them ensued; in the end JB beat up the driver so badly that he needed to be hospitalized.  Someone called the police, and JB was arrested.  He missed his ship when it sailed, and spent the next eight months in a Greek jail.  Through the intervention of the American embassy personnel in Athens, JB was released from jail, put aboard an airplane bound for New York, and returned to the United States.

After his repatriation, JB went to the crewing office in New Jersey looking for another ship.  The folks there assigned him to the Waccamaw, which was overseas and commanded by a Greek Captain.  They gave him an airline ticket to Italy, where he joined the ship.  Upon sailing, the Waccamaw’s first port of call brought JB back to Greece.

“That’s great,” said the chief mate when he’d heard this tale of woe.  “Why did you send him to us?”

“Well, no one else wants him,” came the reply.

“We don’t want him, either,” retorted the chief mate.  Then he thundered, “What idiot had the bright idea to send this guy back to Greece on a ship with a Greek Captain?  Why is this guy still employed here anyway?  He should have been fired when he was in jail!”

Well, JB didn’t get fired, and we had to put up with him.  At least now that we knew his background we knew exactly what to expect from him.  He continued on his merry way, but was always assigned to work where he would do the least damage.  This kept him out of the way for the most part. 

Finally, after criss-crossing the Mediterranean several times, the Waccamaw was scheduled to sail back to the United States.  Her last stop in Europe would be a few days in Rota, Spain.  For many in the crew, this was the last opportunity to live it up before returning home, so to speak.  JB lived it up in a big way in Rota.  We didn’t know what exactly he was up to at the time.  We only knew that he wasn’t on the ship when he should have been.  It was only afterwards that the Spanish police were able to piece the story together.

Like many seamen who had pockets full of cash and no responsibilities at home, JB rented a car and went joy riding and binge drinking through the Spanish countryside.  One morning a farmer some distance inland went out into his fields and found an automobile there with an unconscious driver slumped over the steering wheel.  He called the police.  When the police arrived, they woke up the driver and asked him a lot of questions.  He was still intoxicated, though, and could tell them nothing.  The police looked at his identification, discovered that he was an American, and took him to jail.  Then they investigated the circumstances in which the car was parked.  A traffic expert studied the car, the farmer’s field, and the nearby roadway.  Strangely, there were no tire tracks leading to the spot where the car sat.  A wooden post and rail fence separated the field from the road a moderate distance away.  There was no gate in it, though, and it stood completely undamaged, so obviously the car had not gone through this barrier.  On the other side of the fence, the road came up a hill towards the farm.  At the top of this hill the road leveled off and made a sharp turn to the left.  It was beyond this point that JB’s rental car had been found.

In reconstructing the likely scenario, the Spanish police concluded that in his state of intoxication, JB had driven up the hill so fast that he missed the sharp curve to left, and that at the top of the hill the car became airborne, flew over the fence, and then landed in the farmer’s field.  This would account for the lack of tire tracks leading up to the car and the absence of any damage to the fence.  At some point JB himself lost consciousness, perhaps on landing or possibly while still driving up the hill.  Upon further questioning after he had sobered up, JB claimed to not remember what had happened and stated that he did not know how his car had gotten into the farmer’s field.  He was able to tell them that he was from the Waccamaw, though.

The Spanish police drove down the pier that afternoon and paid a visit to the Waccamaw.  They were not happy.  They asked a lot of questions about JB, and then explained what had happened and where he was.  He would need to appear in court, and in all likelihood this would take place after the ship had sailed.  Until the court appearance, the prisoner would remain in jail.  Some of us were only too happy to hear this, having no desire to sail across the Atlantic with such a shipmate.

A couple of days later, the Waccamaw sailed.  Another seaman had been assigned to my watch, and I was glad to have him.  It would be a relief not to have to put up with a deadbeat for the next ten days.  At the appointed time, the deck force forward and aft started hauling in the mooring lines.  Two more men started working on the gangway.  Then, at the very last minute, a car came speeding down the pier.  It came to a screeching stop, and out of the back seat jumped JB.  As the last mooring line was being pulled on board and as the gangway was being dragged aboard from the pier, JB jumped on it and ran aboard the ship.  He made it with only seconds to spare.  He did not miss the ship after all.  What we had seen as a golden opportunity to get rid of a troublemaker fell apart at the last second.  When he had caught his breath, JB told us that the police chief ordered that he be delivered to the ship before it sailed.  Evidently the police, too, had wanted to get rid of a troublemaker.

The voyage across the Atlantic proceeded very nicely.  The weather was good, and JB behaved himself.  Perhaps he had finally learned his lesson.  Such optimism proved itself misplaced, however, shortly after arrival in Norfolk.  With a new Captain, and soon thereafter a new chief mate, JB resumed his old tricks.  The new bosses did not know him well, and JB took full advantage of their ignorance for as long as it lasted.  Before long, JB was hauled off to jail in Norfolk, too.  To those of us who had been aboard ship with him the longest, this new arrest came as no surprise.  People are true to character, after all, and characters like JB tend to instill cynicism even in the most idealistic of us.

Lest we give up all hope for someone, though, a backward glance through the history of Christianity shows us that some of the greatest sinners went on to become some of the greatest saints.  Perhaps the most famous figure whose life the Gospel turned around is the Apostle Paul.  While making a career out of persecuting Christians, the Lord brought him up short:

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:  And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?  And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest (Acts 9 3-5).

Following his repentance and conversion, Paul went on to become one of the most influential Christian missionaries, writers, and apologists of all time.  Fourteen of his epistles grace the pages of the New Testament.  We know he wrote more, but unfortunately these have been lost.  Of course, Paul was chosen for the work he was to do; nonetheless, if he can convert and change the course of his life for the better, so can anyone else.  It is in this belief that we send missionaries by the tens of thousands out into the world.  That the Gospel contains the power to change lives and thereby bring about immeasurable good is well known.  Those who have listened to the missionaries, followed their counsel, and accepted the Gospel in its fullness can all attest to this.  If only more people would listen, though, and not simply slam doors in the missionaries’ faces!

As I look back upon my voyages aboard the Waccamaw, I wonder how different it all would have been if this man whom I call JB had met with the missionaries ashore instead of pursuing his less noble activities.  How different his life could have been—sober and peaceful, with useful work conscientiously done; above all, with the sense of purpose that comes from knowing he is a child of God and which would enable him to become a better person.  Then he would be, as Paul said, “sometimes darkness, but now light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8).  And that light, aboard the small town that is a ship, would radiate outward upon all his shipmates and never go unnoticed.

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