Friday, May 6, 2011

The Wife

One morning in May, the tanker New Jersey Sun went to sea from the refinery in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania.  Captain Jack Taylor served as both Master and pilot as the great ship proceeded through the channels of the Delaware River and Bay toward the open ocean.  Company policy required that all Captains in the Sun fleet hold a pilotage endorsement for these waters.  This was a cost-cutting measure.  The ships all came to Marcus Hook fairly regularly, and the company did not want to be constantly hiring pilots to bring them in and out.  So the Captains were called upon to qualify for this duty.  This morning, Captain Taylor eased the vessel away from the pier, turned her around in mid-stream, and then guided her southbound and seaward.

After an uneventful transit of five hours or so, the New Jersey Sun arrived in the vicinity of Cape Henlopen, Delaware.  Once clear of the local traffic and with the lighthouse on her starboard beam, Captain Taylor turned the navigating and watchstanding duties over to Slim Cushman, the second mate, who was just coming on duty.  The Captain and the third mate who had been assisting him then went below to eat.

One of Captain Taylor’s daily rituals was taking his mid-morning snack in his chair on the bridge.  While bringing the ship down the Delaware, he was of course on the bridge the entire time, and he had more than one mid-morning snack as he carried out his piloting duties.  At sea, however, he typically came up to the bridge once during the 8 to 12 watch to check on things.  The deck crewmen would be taking their break about this time, too, and several of them would gather on the bridge to visit with the boss.  Old company hands, they had all known each other for many years, and they were obviously proud of Jack Taylor, one of their number who had risen to the top and now commanded the ship.  They gathered around as the Captain got comfortable in his chair.  They would swap stories, reminisce about the good old days, and catch up on each other’s family news.

Like colleagues in any specialized line of work, these fellows shared a common bond.  More than that, however, they shared a way of life.  Like many merchant seamen, they lamented not fitting in ashore and not being understood or even taken seriously by people ashore who had never gone to sea.  These people, having never led the life, could not understand what it was like, and in their ignorance they often jumped to very erroneous conclusions.  One morning Captain Taylor recalled an incident that illustrated this point well.

One day when his children were little, Captain Taylor decided that he would drive them to school on the last morning of his vacation.  Usually his wife did this, but he was leaving that day and wanted to spend this extra time with his children before going back to sea.  They lived in a suburban neighborhood near Wilmington, Delaware, and according to local custom the parents drove into a car line at the school, stopped momentarily to discharge their children, and then drove away.  Not being intimately familiar with this arrangement and wanting to see his children off properly before returning to sea, Captain Taylor did things a little differently.

As the Captain described this, he drove into the car line and followed along slowly while the parents ahead of him let their children out at the school entrance.  When he reached the school entrance he stopped the car, but did not simply let the children get out by themselves.  Instead, he got out with them, helped them with their belongings, and lingered for a minute to give each of them a hug and kiss and wish them well until he would see them again.  He had three children, and they all clung to him, not wanting him to go away.  But they had to go to school, and so the Captain gently extricated himself from their grasp and bade them farewell.

While this tender parting of the ways was taking place, the woman in the next car in line behind them became very offended at being kept waiting.  As her children got out of their car and went into the school, she got out of the car, too, and approached Captain Taylor and his children and screamed at him at full volume:  “Hey, mister!  What’s wrong with you?!  You’re gonna see these kids again this afternoon!  What’s the big deal?!   You’re keeping everyone waiting!  Now quit wasting time and get going!”

Captain Taylor reported that he didn’t argue with this woman.  He just said good-bye to his children and then quietly apologized to her for the delay.  Then he got back in his car and drove home.  While the children were in school, Mrs. Taylor drove him to the Philadelphia Airport and saw him off.  He flew away to meet a ship and return to work.  After school, Mrs. Taylor picked up the children, and they told her all about the altercation that morning in car line.  Mrs. Taylor found this report infuriating.

A week or so later, there was a school function one evening to which all the parents were invited.  With Captain Taylor back at sea, Mrs. Taylor and the children attended without him.  At the conclusion of the evening there was some time for socializing.  One of the children pointed and said, “Look, Mommy, there’s the lady who screamed at Daddy in car line.”

Seizing the opportunity, Mrs. Taylor took the children and strode over to the other woman.  Smiling sweetly and speaking pleasantly, she introduced herself.  “How are you?  I’m Mrs. Taylor.  I understand that you spoke with my husband the other morning in car line.”

The other woman looked a bit uncomfortable and lamely said, “Well, yes.”

Mrs. Taylor continued. “My husband is a merchant seaman.  The morning you met him in car line was his last day at home.  After he brought the children to school he had to fly to Houston to meet a ship.  He’s at sea now, and will be for the next four months.  He’ll be away for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and two of the three children’s birthdays.  That’s why he was taking so long to say good-bye to them the day you met him.  I just thought you might like to know that.”  Still smiling, Mrs. Taylor concluded, “I’m so glad we got to chat like this.  Have a wonderful evening.”

In all fairness to this woman, she could not have known about Captain Taylor going back to sea until Mrs. Taylor explained the situation to her.  Nonetheless, this ignorance hardly justified the assumption that he would see the children again that afternoon, and then making a scene and publicly insulting him in front of his children and a host of other people.  Mrs. Taylor understood all this, of course, and handled the situation very diplomatically.  She spoke to the other woman in a friendly manner yet taught her a valuable lesson.

A gruff but good hearted man, Captain Taylor both loved his children and was proud of his wife, and it showed on his face as he told this story.  The deck gang gathered around him cheered when they heard how Mrs. Taylor had spoken to the other woman.  Amusement aside, though, everyone understood the point that jumping to conclusions is a dangerous practice.  The woman who screamed at Captain Taylor in the car line would have done well to consider the scriptural injunction:

Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again (Matt. 7:1-2).

Fortunately for her, though, Mrs. Taylor, despite being angered by the incident, took a kinder and gentler approach when she sought to rectify the misunderstanding:

Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven (Luke 6:37).

Mrs. Taylor neither judged nor condemned.  Instead, she explained and educated, and at least made the appearance of forgiving.  In this kind way, then, the Captain’s wife was able to enlighten one person in the ways of the seafaring life and the sacrifices that merchant seamen make in order to move the world’s cargo.

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