The range instrumentation vessel General Hoyt S. Vandenberg sailed leisurely across the South Atlantic. Most of her crew had been aboard for a considerable time, but I had only recently joined the ship at Ascension Island. One of the old-timers in the unlicensed ranks was Wilbur. There was something different about him. I could not tell what this was at first, but I sensed that Wilbur would be a high maintenance case.
This proved to be only partially true, because Wilbur’s shipmates all pitched in, so to speak, to take care of him. Everyone aboard the Vandenberg was very kind to him. Even some fellows who could not get along with each other made it a point to be nice to Wilbur. Several of these men had been sailing with him for many years and knew him well. They had learned what his capabilities and limitations were, and they took pains to accommodate his narrow range of understanding. Newcomers to the Vandenberg were promptly advised in the ways of Wilbur and how to work with him.
Wilbur sailed as an ordinary seaman. He had years of experience, but was never able to pass the examination to become an able seaman. He had never passed the test for a lifeboat certificate, either. So he remained at the entry-level position in the deck force for his entire career. But he was not lazy. On the contrary, Wilbur was extremely industrious. He paid meticulous attention to his work, and he did even the simplest tasks more carefully and more diligently than some men with twice his ability. When he was assigned to do something, he remained at it until the results were perfect. He never skimped on the job, and he never made excuses. If he had difficulty with something, it was usually because of his innate limitations. In these situations, which were infrequent, Wilbur would tell the bosun in his Southern drawl, “Ah think Ah just don’t undahstand, suh.” A brief explanation or a friendly word of advice was all it ever took to get Wilber going again. Then he would finish his assignment, and as always, the results would be perfect.
Wilbur’s personal habits also made him conspicuous. He was deeply religious, and he prayed several times every day. He prayed when he woke up, before every meal, and before going to sleep. Some of the guys felt uncomfortable about this, but many more respected it and requested his prayers for themselves or members of their families. Typically they would ask, “Hey, Wilbur, next time ya talk to God, can ya put in a good word for me? I’m worried about my old lady [or my kid, or my mother, or whatever] and I could use a little help. Thanks, pal.” Wilbur was always happy to accommodate these requests, so much so that I think the Vandenberg must have carried the most prayed-for crew in the fleet.
Wilbur always went to church on the Sundays that the Vandenberg was moored at her base in Port Canaveral, Florida. He worshiped with an Evangelical Christian congregation. He would emerge from the ship dressed in a jacket and tie and white shirt. Often a taxi would pick him up and then return him to the ship afterwards, but sometimes he would get a ride from a friend. He would often talk about church after returning to the ship. He followed a simple but sincere theology. It showed not only in his church attendance on Sunday, but also in the way he conducted himself every day. Wilbur never engaged in any vices. He did not smoke, drink, or use bad language. He did not criticize people, cheat his employer, or do anything dishonest. He treated everyone with consistent and unfailing courtesy, always said “please” and “thank you,” always picked up after himself, and always volunteered to help others.
Sometimes when returning from church Wilbur would puzzle over something the minister had said with the gangway watchman. One concept that proved troublesome for him was people’s choice to do something wrong. He remarked on this difficulty one Sunday. “Ah cain’t understand why all those people would shout at Pahlate to crucify ahr Lord. He nevah did anythin’ wrong ta’all them. What would they want tah kill him for? Whah would they want tah be so mean? The preacher, he trahd tah explain it. But Ah’m not sure Ah undahstand.”
One of Wilbur’s best friends aboard the Vandenberg was the boss, Captain Robert Broom. They never went palling around together, of course, but Captain Broom, a Southern gentleman to the core, always saw to it that Wilbur got a fair deal. When Captain Broom had first met him, Wilbur’s teeth were in terrible condition. He was a dentist’s nightmare with a mouthful of gum disease and tooth decay. One day in Port Canaveral, after Captain Broom had gotten to know him a bit, he sent Wilbur to a dentist whom he knew and with whom he had made an arrangement. The dentist took care of Wilbur’s problems, arresting the gum disease, fixing the teeth that were still viable, and replacing the ones that were not. This work required several sessions, none of which cost Wilbur any money. He could never have paid for it anyway. He did recognize the kindness, though, and it showed whenever he spoke to or about Captain Broom. The two of them shared a special bond born of mutual respect and affection that had developed over the years. This especially showed the day that Captain Broom returned to the Vandenberg after a month’s vacation. Wilbur was as excited as a child at his birthday party that day.
At sea, when I first witnessed the patience and kindness displayed by the deck crewmen as they worked with Wilbur, I thought of the scriptural verse, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). As is done in the Church, the stronger and smarter ones extended the proverbial hand of fellowship to the weaker one and helped him along. There were a few, and only a few, crewmen who seemed to not like Wilbur, but even they did not treat him unkindly. For the most part they left him alone and let the others take care of him. No one did anything mean or nasty to Wilbur. I’m sure that his friends who looked after him would not have tolerated that.
For his part, Wilbur brought out the best in others. He never did things that annoyed anyone; possibly, with his child-like simplicity he did not know how. For that matter, he might not have realized how he tapped into people’s good sides so much, either. But he did, and it showed. Seamen whose personal behavior was anything but saintly, whose moral standards fell far short of his, and whose short tempers reached their limits quickly displayed respect for Wilbur’s religious beliefs, admiration for his personal conduct, and appreciation for his work habits. The Vandenberg’s crew on the whole displayed a Christ-like level of patience, kindness, and brotherly love toward Wilbur. He brought out the best in them and made them better people.
We can learn a valuable lesson from Wilbur. By any secular standard, he was not a wise or learned man. Yet he brings the words of the Apostle Paul to mind: “a fool for Christ’s sake,” yet “wise in Christ” (1 Cor. 4:10). Whether because of or in spite of his simplicity, Wilbur possessed a discernible degree of wisdom that many smarter men aboard all the ships never displayed. Again, he calls to mind the words of Paul: “If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Cor. 3:18-19). By Paul’s standard, Wilbur was a spiritual giant.
With Captain Broom as the permanent Master of the Vandenberg, Wilbur was assured of steady employment, always returning to the ship and not being reassigned elsewhere after vacations. He was also assured of having his medical needs and any other serious problems taken care of by a responsible person. Wilbur was very fortunate and very blessed to sail with Captain Broom and many other good-hearted men. They served as his guardian angels, so to speak, and they took very good care of him. They blessed Wilbur’s life, and he blessed theirs.