Extending in a general eastward direction from Manhattan, Long Island begins at the edge of the East River and ends a bit over a hundred miles later at two points marked by lighthouses. These are Orient and Montauk. Between these points and the East River lie city, suburbia, and farmland. Surrounding it all is water. In my youth this water attracted me, and I decided that the sea was where I wanted to go as an adult.
This water attracted previous generations of my family as well. My parents and grandparents enjoyed sailing on the Great South Bay, a shallow body of salt water protected from the Atlantic by the barrier beaches. As children, my brother and I went sailing with the adults, and it was in these formative years that my affection for the sea developed. In my adolescence I considered the sea as a career choice; eventually, it became my chosen profession.
It ran in the family, too. As a young man my grandfather operated the ferry that connected the then-small village of Babylon with Oak Island across the bay. Titles never impressed him, but I sometimes think of him as Captain Robert Burns, Master of the Henry Ludlow of the Babylon and Oak Island Ferry Service. This would make him the first merchant seaman in the family. He did not pursue this as a lifelong career, but he did maintain a lifelong love of being on or near the water. The career he did pursue, research and development engineering, called him to technical conferences in Europe many times in the 1950s and 60s. He and my grandmother almost always travelled to these by sea. They came home by sea, too. Only rarely did they fly, and they did not like it.
Thus the sea was in my genes, so to speak. As water was not in short supply where I grew up, there were ample opportunities to be on, in, or next to it. Point Lookout, Jones Beach, Fire Island, Captree, Massapequa, Babylon, Oyster Bay—in these and other spots like them I came to love the sea. In New Jersey, too, we went to the waterfront. Before it became a gambling mecca, Atlantic City was a haven for families on a seaside holiday. Cape May, at the south end of the state, was surrounded by water. We spent several vacations there during my teenage years sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay. The highlight of these holidays was riding the ferries across the bay to Delaware and back, a round trip of three hours’ duration.
The workings of such commercial vessels and the history of commerce by sea appealed to me as well. The art and science of navigation, the behavior of the sea in its tides and currents and weather, and the methods which humans have devised to travel on the sea in relative safety also contributed to my youthful enthusiasm for going to sea. Beyond these rational fields of interest, though, there lay something else. I sensed somehow that there was something special out there on the water. I didn’t know what it was, and if even I did, I could not have articulated it intelligently. I just knew that I wanted to go to sea, and at the time, that was enough.
Of course, there were others who shared my aspirations. They, too, loved the sea and pursued careers in the Merchant Marine. Whether on the bridge of the ship taking sightings of the heavenly bodies, or far below in the engine room tinkering with machinery, these fellows were a breed apart. They were personalities not suited to living out their lives on land. They marched to the proverbial beat of a different drummer. This typically showed in their oft-repeated disdain for long periods ashore, their admitted inability to fit in socially anywhere except at sea, and their oftentimes emotional attachment to the instruments of their profession. I recall engineers whose casual conversation revolved around an unselfconscious affection for boiler tubes, turbine blades, and atomizing nozzles, for example, and mates who spoke lovingly of their favorite constellations and who could only with difficulty extract themselves from a chart table littered with plotting sheets and pages of spherical trigonometry. For most of these fellows, working aboard ship was the both the opportunity of a lifetime and a labor of love, and they would not have had it any other way.
This did not mean that they did not love their families, however. The ones who had families loved them very much, cared about them deeply, and missed them terribly. But it took a special kind of family, particularly a special kind of wife, to endure the nomadic nature of the work. Not every woman was suited for marriage to an itinerant husband who worked an irregular schedule in an irregular business and didn’t fit in socially on land.
I realized that a life in the Merchant Marine would expose me to people and places very distant and different from my own rather unremarkable, suburban, middle-class, American childhood. I also knew that I would associate with others who shared my interests and ambitions. I wanted it this way, too. What I did not anticipate, however, was just how wide the range of personalities and how diverse the range of their backgrounds and values would be, and how these differences would interact with one another aboard ship. As it happened, though, these personality clashes formed one of the most entertaining aspects of the vagabond life of the Merchant Marine.
Others, however, do not make me laugh. These are the ones who deliberately “waste[d] the days of [their] probation” (2 Nephi 9:27) or were in their ignorance “blinded by the subtle craftiness of men” (D&C 123:12). Either way, the results were not good, and too much human potential went unfulfilled. Regardless of how they lived, however, these children of the sea are also children of the Lord. He would want, and in fact does want, what would be good for them. For the majority who will probably make their final voyages without ever knowing of the restored fullness of the Gospel and the opportunities it provides, their next great occasions will likely come through the kindness of strangers doing ordinance work in the temples. Then their ship will come in, and its sacred cargo of temple ordinances will bring these men more happiness than they ever imagined possible.
In retrospect, I think the temple was the “something special” that I sensed on the sea. For the temple is the place where everyone fits in socially, where everyone belongs, and where everyone gathers in the Lord’s presence. There are no social outcasts in the temple. No one is left to wander the trackless sea bereft of either human or divine companionship. The temple is the one place on the Earth that is truly for everyone.