The tanker Waccamaw had left Rota, Spain, and was sailing westbound across the Atlantic. The early September weather was mild, and the ship plowed easily through a gentle sea under a mostly blue sky. After months of short runs in the Mediterranean, a ten days long transatlantic voyage seemed quite leisurely, especially in such good weather. But beneath this calm veneer there lurked a cankerworm.
I was very young back then, and I had the appetite to prove it. Despite being on the 12:00 midnight to 4:00am watch every night, I had the energy to get up for a big breakfast after only a few hours’ sleep every morning. I would sit down in the mess hall about 8:00am, after most of the other officers had finished, and consume a large, cholesterol-laden breakfast of scrambled eggs, French toast, sausage, bacon, fried potatoes, and orange juice, with second servings of everything. I’ll admit that good-tasting food was my vice, and at age twenty-something I could never get enough of it. Later on at home, my family physician would scold me for eating “way too much cholesterol,” but aboard the Waccamaw this reprimand lay far in the future and I merrily consumed everything in sight. When I was finished eating this huge meal, I would go back to bed and sleep it off.
One morning a few days out of Rota, I was quite startled to see the chief steward up and about and filling in for the messmen. He was a late sleeper and had always let his subordinates take care of breakfast. In my surprise I asked him why he was out of bed so early. He gave me a sleepy and vague answer about someone being sick and then went back into the galley. Then the nurse, Mel Reppert, came along. He normally ate earlier, but this morning he had been tending several patients and so came to breakfast late. He joined me at the table, held his head in his hands, and let out a big sigh. Something was clearly not right, and after a moment he explained.
The reason why the chief steward was out of bed and working at 8:00am was that half of his crew had gotten sick. As carriers of an infectious disease, they were prohibited by company regulations from handling food. The two cooks were still healthy and so remained on the job, but the nurse had found most of the messmen and utilitymen unfit for duty. I naively wondered what illness could have simultaneously incapacitated several men like this and hoped that I would not get it.
The nurse, clearly frustrated at the situation and becoming more agitated as he spoke, continued. Over the weekend that the Waccamaw had been docked in Rota, all these fellows who were now sick had gone into nearby Cadiz for a night out on the town. Momentarily envious, I recalled how I had wanted to visit Cadiz and see the old historical city with its cobblestone streets and magnificent cathedral, but had been unable to do so. These fellows had different interests, however, and had gone sightseeing in another section of the city. They had gone into town as a group, stayed together for their entire time there, patronized the same business establishment together, and were all attended to by the same customer service specialist. Then they returned to the ship together. At sea a few days afterwards, they were all diagnosed with the same disease which in their togetherness they had received from the same source.
“What were these guys thinking?” asked the exasperated nurse. “Or were they even thinking at all? They just blindly followed each other along—blindly and dumbly—and now they’re paying for it. They had fifteen minutes of fun and games, and now they can’t work and they’re losing pay that they can’t afford to lose. And then they get mad at me for telling them that they can’t handle food until the infection is cleared up! They act like I’m out to get them! I didn’t make this rule, but I have to enforce it. They don’t want to hear that, though.” The poor fellow seemed at his wit’s end. It was only 8:00 o’clock, and he’d already had a rough morning.
Mel and I continued to chat over breakfast and covered a variety of subjects. Before we parted, though, he let out one final burst of exasperation. He had demonstrably little patience for the “herd instinct” in humans, as several pioneering psychologists had described it, and he favored the use of intelligence in thought and action. Little wonder. Our nurse was one of the most well-educated men on the ship. He did not make it through college and graduate school and medical training by blindly following the crowd and failing to link actions and consequences.
In every General Conference we hear the General Authorities of the Church issue the warning that we cannot choose the consequences of our actions. We can only choose our actions. Hence the need to choose our actions carefully, to make good choices that will in all likelihood lead to good consequences and not to bad consequences. One of our most fundamental choices is that of selecting our social companions. Good friends will help us use our God-given intelligence to think things through and avoid making bad decisions. Bad friends, however, won’t stop to think but will go straight to the bad decisions. The messmen and utilitymen ashore in Cadiz from the Waccamaw made a bad decision and suffered unpleasant medical and financial consequences.
It seems that the Lord foresaw that such things would happen, for he counseled us, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). As in everything that the Lord said and did, he sought to raise people up from the level of the flesh to the realm of the spirit. This does not mean that the flesh is bad; on the contrary, the human body is “the temple of the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 6:19). A compelling reason, then, to treat it respectfully. Part of this respect involves the understanding that some aspects of life are too sacrosanct to trifle with and should be saved for the proper time, place, and circumstances, such as marriage. Temptation notwithstanding, this is possible by simply following the adage of mind over matter.
I had been momentarily envious when I learned that these fellows had the free time to visit Cadiz during the Waccamaw’s short stay in Rota. When I found out what they did there, however, I felt mildly annoyed. What a wasted opportunity! Given the same time ashore, I would have feasted on narrow cobblestone streets, wide airy plazas, stately baroque architecture, and irresistible Spanish desserts. Mel the nurse agreed. He would have been happy to go with me, he said, but he also had too little free time during the Waccamaw’s stay in Rota. Then, ever the medical professional, he cautioned me about consuming too many Spanish desserts and too many cholesterol-laden breakfasts.