Monday, June 27, 2011

The Captain

One of the senior Captains in our fleet was returning home sooner than expected from a long shipboard assignment.  He had been away at sea for many months, almost a year, and to his pleasant surprise he was being relieved early in the Far East and sent home by air.  Since his family was not expecting him for quite some time still, he thought that he would arrive unannounced and that his homecoming would be a pleasant surprise for everyone.  His children had all grown up and moved out of the family home, so the Captain anticipated some time with his wife before he saw his children.  With these thoughts in mind, he did not call ahead.  When his aircraft landed at JFK, he simply took a taxi from the airport to his house on Staten Island.

The Captain’s wife, like many wives of merchant seamen, held power of attorney in order to manage the family’s business affairs.  She could legally sign papers, borrow money, and buy and sell property for her husband.  In this era preceding the instant personal communications revolution of emailing, texting, and cell phoning, power of attorney served as an important business tool which eliminated the need to chase down a husband’s authorization and signature from the other side of the world in order to effect a local business transaction.  It was also a measure of trust.  The Captain and his wife had known each other since their childhood in Brooklyn and had been married for over thirty years.  He had long ago placed his complete trust and confidence in her.

The taxi crossed the Verrazano Bridge, drove into the suburbanized hills of Staten Island, and pulled up in front of the Captain’s large house.  In his long career at sea, he had done well financially and had been able to provide very comfortably for his wife and their several children.  Collecting his luggage from the taxi and extracting a key from his pocket, the Captain went up to his house, opened the front door, and let himself in.

To his great surprise, a man whom he had never seen before jumped up from the couch, tossed aside a newspaper, and challenged him belligerently.  “Hey, buddy!  Whaddya think you’re doing, just walking into my house like this?  Who are you?  Whaddya want here?”

Startled by this unexpected and unpleasant greeting, the Captain replied in kind, “What am I doing here?  What are you doing here?  This is my house!  Who are you?”

This exchange grew more heated as it continued and was on the verge of becoming a fistfight when suddenly both men realized that there was more going on here than met the eye.  The man with the newspaper understood that his visitor, arriving with suitcases and a front door key, was not trying to rob him.  The Captain, thoroughly confused by this stranger claiming ownership to the house, did not understand how this could be.  Calming down and discussing this bewildering situation rationally, both men soon discovered the truth of the matter.

As it turned out, the stranger with the newspaper was right.  It really was his house.  The Captain’s wife had sold it to him several months previously and then moved out.  She had not notified her husband of this, nor had she told him where she was now living.  He eventually found her by going to his children, who told him the whole sad story.  After selling the house, the wife had moved in with someone else, and now that the Captain was back in the United States, she could legally file for divorce.  After a lifetime of exclusive affection and complete trust, the Captain was devastated.

In shipboard parlance, the Captain’s wife “took him to the cleaners,” meaning that she and her lawyer cleaned him out financially.  This was not difficult, given her power of attorney.  Furthermore, most of their major assets such as their automobiles and their banking were in her name.  This was another common practice among seamen, one that facilitated such transactions as car registration, insurance renewal, mortgage payments, house refinancing, income tax filing, etc.  It was so much easier to let the wife, who was home, handle these things.  By this means, however, the Captain lost almost everything.  In the eyes of the divorce court, his wife owned whatever had her name on it.  On top of that, the court ordered him to pay alimony.  Here at least, he was able to beat the system.

Never in his wildest dreams did the Captain imagine that he would need a lawyer to protect him from a person whom he loved, but he did.  The lawyer advised him that his alimony payments could be reduced substantially if he went back to sea and remained outside of the United States for a minimum of one year.  All the common assets that bore the wife’s name were lost, but the Captain could salvage a significant amount of his future pay by basically running away and staying away.  His travels would be documented, and this would prove his absence from the country in court.  To this end, then, the Captain sailed with the ships that carried military supplies to the Indian Ocean bases during the Iranian hostage crisis.  Subsequently, he went to numerous ports in Asia and stayed far away from the United States for well over a year.  When he did finally return to New York on vacation, his sister and brother-in-law took him in, and he stayed in a spare bedroom on the third floor of their house in Brooklyn.

The Captain made more long voyages to distant places over the next few years.  He always seemed to be very far from home and in no hurry to return.  Eventually, though, he did go home, and he accepted an administrative position in the company offices in Bayonne.  Still boarding at his sister’s and brother-in-law’s house, he drove a badly beaten up old wreck of a van between Brooklyn and Bayonne every day.  On Saturdays during the seasons of good weather, he would drive the van to Bayonne, park it on the pier next to the Hayes, and make repairs to it.  He remarked that while he deeply appreciated his sister’s and brother-in-law’s hospitality, he felt uncomfortable if he spent too much time at their house.  He did not want to intrude upon them any more than necessary.  Repairing the van got him out of the house and kept him busy on his day off.  

Repairing the van also cost him very little money.  His financial circumstances, even with the reduced alimony payments, were far from what they had been in years past.  During this time his colleague Nick the Greek, formerly of the Furman while it had been loading cable in New Hampshire, was hospitalized with cancer in Manhattan.  Wanting to visit Nick but also needing to save money, our Captain drove his van over a toll-free route from Brooklyn to the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in the city.  This saved him what was then a round trip subway fare of two dollars.  Unfortunately, it cost him eight dollars to park the van at the hospital, and those extra six dollars hurt.

Offsetting this loss, however, was a bonanza sitting in the company dumpster.  One of the guys assigned to the Hayes was using the dumpster on the pier to dispose of a large collection of old patio tiles.  The Captain happened upon these tiles one Saturday when he was working on his van and throwing something out.  Since the tiles were still in good condition, he took them out of the dumpster, brought them to his sister’s and brother-in-law’s house, and built a new backyard patio for them.  In this way he was able to return the kindness they had shown him in his time of need.  In fact, the project was so successful that the Captain also built a new backyard patio for their next door neighbors with the tiles that were left over.

This small victory notwithstanding, the Captain had still come a long way down in the world—from Master of any ship of any gross tonnage on oceans to a homeless person living on others’ charity, pinching pennies, and digging bargains out of a dumpster.  He reminded me of Job, “perfect and upright, one that feared God, and eschewed evil” (Job 1:1), but the victim of one who sought “to destroy him without cause” (Job 2:3).   Like the disasters that befell the righteous Job, the betrayal that befell our Captain could not have happened to a more undeserving person.

I knew this man fairly well.  I sailed with him on long voyages, and I had contact with him during the time of his administrative post in Bayonne.  He was a good shipmate and a good boss, consistently friendly, cheerful, easy to work with, well liked, and respected.  He enjoyed having young people aboard ship and was always encouraging them along in their professional advancement.  He was also compassionate.  During the period of my illness he expressed concern for my recovery and return to normal health.  “Tell Dave not to worry,” he shouted at his assistant who was talking to me on the telephone.  “We’ve got him covered.  We’ll have something for him whenever he’s ready.  Tell him to just get better and not worry about money!  We’ll take care of him!”  When a good man like this suffers an unmerited wrong, his associates commiserate with him.

The Captain’s associates also analyzed the situation and wondered why his wife would turn against him in such a terrible way.  Someone eventually remarked, “Hey, look what Judas did in the Bible.  This is the same thing except no one got killed.”  Matthew described it succinctly:

Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you?  And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver.  And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him (Matt. 26:14-16).

With the Captain away from home for several months’ duration, his wife had ample opportunity to betray him.  She also reaped a profit far in excess of a mere thirty pieces of silver.  But was money the sole incentive?  Probably not, for she had already been living quite comfortably.  Speculation held that the long separations while the Captain was at sea figured prominently into her decision.  The husband was gone; the other guy was home.  No other explanation made sense, but even this one did not fully resolve the issue.  Plenty of other seamen had good, loving, and trustworthy wives who stoically endured the separations as a way of life.  What went wrong, then?  No amount of analysis could explain that.  The wife’s motive remained as mysterious as the solution to the problem of undeserved suffering that Job had raised.

That the Captain’s suffering was undeserved went unquestioned.  To his credit, however, he expressed no animosity toward his wife.  He did not say anything bad about her at all.  On the contrary, he asserted that he still loved her and that he could not simply terminate his affection for her after a lifetime together.  Furthermore, he would take her back.  He had no interest in anyone else and no desire to remarry.  That would have violated the beliefs that he held as a Catholic regarding the permanent and sacred nature of marriage.  In this way the Captain lived up to the Shakespearian ideal of love:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh no! It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.1

He also lived up to the scriptural ideal of “the pure love of Christ” (Moro. 7:47) as Moroni defined charity:

And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things (Moro. 7:45).

When all was said and done, the Captain remained in his associates’ esteem a good shipmate and a righteous and honorable man, but now there was more.  The respect that he had enjoyed previously increased because of the way he conducted himself in the face of betrayal.  His attitude of kindness and forbearance and his lack of vindictiveness spoke volumes about his character.  His demonstrated Christian values earned him the admiration of even the most cynical men in the fleet.


1 William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116, 2-6.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Chief

The oceanographic survey ship Bartlett glided easily across a smooth sea in the Gulf of Mexico.  A slight haze hung on the horizon, but this was commonplace in the Gulf.  Even on a clear day with a bright sun, the haze was almost always present.  No one seemed to know why; it was just the way it was.  But aboard the Bartlett this warm winter morning, it did not matter.

The Chief Engineer had come up to the bridge.  The Bartlett would soon be starting a survey track during which she would use a newly installed instrument called “bridge control” which would enable the Captain or the mates to directly control engine speed without having to first ring down to the engineer on watch below.  Chief Harland Mackey, a friendly and likable but outwardly gruff and crusty old New Englander, came to the bridge to supervise the changeover and ascertain that the bridge crew could really learn how to use this new gadget.  Satisfied that all was going well, the Chief lounged against the chart table where I was plotting the ship’s position.  With one eye on the bridge control mechanism and one eye on me, he suddenly started talking about marriage.

The Chief was more than old enough to be my father.  In fact, even with his hard-headed attitude, he usually came across as everyone’s rough-around-the-edges but good-intentioned grandfather.  He liked young people, which on the Bartlett was a good characteristic because he was by far the oldest person aboard.  Traditionally, the Captain of any ship is referred to as the “old man.”  This appellation hardly fit Captain Kim Giaccardo of the Bartlett, though.  He was only in his early thirties and still single.  The chief mate was older than Captain Kim, and the Chief Engineer was older than that.  Age notwithstanding, the young Captain was just as much a four-striper as his much older Chief Engineer, and both men were respected by the entire crew.  Social rank at sea might often seem meaningless, but the ICE rule always applied: intelligence plus competence plus experience yielded respect.  Chief Mackey certainly possessed these qualifications, and so when he spoke, others listened.

The Chief was married with grown children and several grandchildren.  He maintained a lifelong devotion to one woman, and they remained married to each other through many long separations while he was at sea.  In his absence his wife ran the household, handled the finances, raised the children, and more recently helped with the grandchildren.  Whenever he was home on vacation, the Chief observed that his wife had the qualifications of intelligence, competence, and experience, and he respected her for it and obeyed her house rules.  She knew what she was doing, did it mostly single-handedly, and maintained a no-nonsense attitude about it.  She tolerated no misbehavior from the children, refused to listen to door-to-door salesmen or telemarketers, severely reprimanded anyone who tried to cheat her or mistreat her children or grandchildren, and absolutely forbade the consumption of alcohol in her family.  The Chief remarked admiringly that his wife ran a tight ship and that he recognized the good sense in her methods. 

The Chief and his family were Jewish.  They supported and were active in their synagogue, although his participation was obviously limited.  She saw to their children’s and grandchildren’s religious instruction and taught them values.  She was devout in her practice of Judaism and kind-hearted and generous toward others, gladly helping anyone in need.

The Chief spoke lovingly and devotedly of his wife.  His fondness for her was unmistakable, and so also was his respect for her.  He held her in the highest esteem.  The one virtue of hers that he emphasized most was her intelligence.  He asserted that she was smarter than he was.  For that reason, he always did what she said when he was home.  He reasoned that he could never go wrong that way.  If he simply followed her instructions, he would lead a good and useful life, stay out of trouble, and be happy.

This brought the Chief to his next point, his grandfatherly advice to me.  “When you get married, David,” he counseled, “marry someone who’s smarter than you are.  Don’t be afraid of a smart girl.  Smart girls are all right.  A smart girl will take good care of you.  When you’re at sea, a smart girl will take care of your house and your money and your kids.  You won’t have to worry about anything.”

I had to bite my tongue as I listened to this sage advice.  I was already married, and to a very smart girl.  I thought he knew that; but perhaps he had momentarily forgotten.

“Yeah, David,” the Chief continued.  “When you get married, marry a girl who’s smarter than you are.  Then you’re being smarter than she is.”

This assertion took me by surprise.  Like the Chief Engineer, I recognized that my wife was smarter than I was, and like him, I respected her for it.  But how could I be smarter than she was?  I needed to think about this one.  In time it came to me, although at first it made his outlook seem a bit mercenary, for a less-smart husband clearly stood to benefit from his wife’s superior intelligence.  But in considering the responsibilities shouldered by a woman married to an absentee husband, virtues such as intelligence, independence, wisdom, and strength of character become extremely important.  We often hear the proverb that behind every successful man there stands a strong woman.  The Merchant Marine version of this statement holds that every career seaman needs a strong-willed, fiercely independent, financially responsible, and totally trustworthy wife.  In more colloquial terms, the wife must reign supreme as the Captain and Chief Engineer of the household.  This was the situation in all the successful marriages involving merchant seamen that I knew about.  In the Chief’s assessment of marriage, it all narrowed down to the wife’s intelligence put to use for a good purpose: the family.  For despite his long absences from home while he was at sea, the Chief was a family man through and through.  He was lonely not just by virtue of his shipboard rank and responsibility, but more so because he was always missing the people whom he loved the most.  He knew what work his wife did at home, and he held it in higher regard than his own work aboard ship.  He earned a living, but she raised a family.

Long before the proclamation on the family was issued, the Chief and his wife were following its precepts.  They recognized that “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens.”  The Chief, while often unable “to preside over [his family] in love and righteousness” because he spent so much time at sea, earned a good living and thereby fulfilled his obligation “to provide for the necessities of life” for his family.  His wife, as he made clear in his remarks about her, was “primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” much more so than most women because of the nature of his career.  This situation constituted one of the “other circumstances” that “may necessitate individual adaptation.”1

Like the Chief Engineer of the Bartlett, I also married a smart girl.  I had quickly recognized her intelligence in the early stages of our getting to know each other.  Miss Patty had grown up in two countries, the United States and Germany, and in three cultures, Bavarian, French-Canadian, and American military.  She spoke both German and English fluently.  She attended both American public schools and the Army schools in Europe.  She had strong faith, excellent values, and good self-esteem, and when necessary could be assertive without being unkind.  She also had the strength of character to enter matrimony with a merchant seaman, fully knowing of the long and frequent separations that would inevitably occur every time I went back to sea.  Critics of the match asserted that it would never last.  Miss Patty was determined that it would last, and she proved the critics wrong.

When I was at sea, Miss Patty attended college, majored in accounting, and graduated magna cum laude.  When I came ashore sick with cancer, she took excellent care of me through a long—at times seemingly endless—period of treatment and recovery.  When the children—a monumental blessing after my illness—started to arrive, Miss Patty devoted herself to them and quickly became a paragon of motherhood in the love, care, time, and attention that she freely lavished on them.  This parental investment in the children reached its zenith when the entire family was sealed in the Boston Temple.

Most of these events still lay in the future when I was surveying the Gulf of Mexico aboard the Bartlett.  When the Chief Engineer leaned against the chart table and started chatting about his family and his admiration for his wife, I listened primarily out of politeness, but my mind was really focused on what seemed to be more pressing matters.

I had passed the exams and upgraded my license to chief mate before joining the Bartlett as second mate.  I was 26 years old when I reported aboard the ship and turned 27 soon thereafter.  I was still planning to upgrade to Master, the “big license,” before I turned 30, and my time aboard the Bartlett would serve as an important stepping stone toward achieving this goal.  At some point I would need to sail as chief mate; perhaps when the Bartlett’s mate went on vacation I could move into his slot.  The onset of cancer and then the loss of the job market changed all these plans, though.  The big license eluded me, but the Chief Engineer’s words of wisdom remained with me.  Over the years since he spoke I’ve come to better appreciate what he said.  Jobs, money, ships, and licenses all come and go, but a good, smart wife stays.  She gives stability, structure, and permanence to a seaman’s life.  She serves as the personification of the “rod of iron” (1 Nephi 8:19).

It was easy to see even years ago when I was young that smart girls were all right, that Miss Patty was a smart girl, and that I would do well to marry her.  In the time since then, I’ve come to realize that the Chief really did have it all figured out.  By marrying Miss Patty, who was incontrovertibly smarter than I was, I really was being smarter than she was.


1 All quotations from “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, General Relief Society Meeting, September 23, 1995.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Commander

Commander Hersel A. Whitten served aboard both the Furman and the Hayes in the twilight of his career.  Recovering from heart surgery and of reduced strength and stamina, he had been assigned to these semi laid-up ships in order to facilitate his recovery.  He was already there when I reported aboard the Furman, and he was quite surprised to have a young mate like myself joining him.  He was even more surprised to learn that I had been sent there for the same reason he had been.

Commander Whitten did not command either the Furman or the Hayes.  In fact, he did not hold a Master’s license.  He was a chief mate, like myself, but there the resemblance ended.  The Commander had first gone to sea as a teenager in the early 1930s.  He sailed as a coal passer in the engine room of a freighter.  This job involved shoveling the coal out of the bunkers and into wheelbarrows, transporting it to the boiler room, and then shoveling the coal into the fires in the boilers where it was burned to make steam.  After a four-hour watch of this strenuous labor in the hottest parts of the ship, the coal passers were all covered in soot and sweat and coughing up black phlegm from having breathed in too much coal dust.  After doing this for one voyage to Europe and back, the Commander decided that he’d had enough of the engine room and applied for a position in the deck force.  That was still hard work, but it was not brutal and the air was clean.

Commander Whitten went to sea for almost all of his adult life.  He made many voyages across all of the world’s oceans and had visited nearly every country that had seaports.  During the Second World War he sailed in the North Atlantic convoys.  He described the way the freighters in the convoys were loaded beyond normal peacetime safety standards.  Cargo was stacked so high on the main deck that it blocked the view from the bridge windows.  The mate on watch had to stand on the house top in order to see over the cargo.  From this perch he called engine and rudder orders through a voice tube to the helmsman on the bridge below.  In the winter this job was a nightmare because of the cold and wind.  It had to be done aboard all the ships, though, to prevent them from colliding with each other in the convoy.

When returning to the United States from Europe, these same freighters often transported captured German soldiers.  The Commander liked them.  He described them as friendly and pleasant but also very disciplined, very well-behaved, and very clean, even more so in these respects than their American counterparts.  Whenever it rained, the German soldiers would come out on deck, undress, and passing bars of soap around take showers which were otherwise unavailable to them.  Luckily, the Commander made it through the war without ever being torpedoed.  He was very grateful for that.  After the war he resumed peacetime sailing, as it were.  This included making foreign aid deliveries to third world countries and carrying military supplies to Korea and Vietnam.

By the time I met him, then, Commander Whitten had accumulated a wealth of seafaring experience.  For some reason that I never understood, though, he never took the exams for the Master’s license.  Instead, he sailed as second mate and chief mate for many years.  Out of respect for his age and experience came the honorary title of “Commander.”  He was the oldest man aboard the Furman, but without the big license he could not be called “Captain.” No one used his first name.  Captain Nick the Greek called him “Whit” or sometimes “Mr. Whit.”  Captain Freiburg addressed him as “Mr. Whitten.”  To everyone else, though, “Whit” seemed too familiar and “Mr. Whitten” seemed too pedestrian.  Then someone thought of “Commander” as the next most respectful appellation to “Captain,” and it stuck.  He remained “Commander Whitten” aboard both the Furman and the Hayes, and a socially awkward situation was relieved.

The Commander was very modest about this title, though.  One day aboard the Hayes a young engineer was showing his fiancĂ© around the ship.  When he introduced them to each other he proclaimed with great enthusiasm, “This is Commander Hersel Whitten.”

The young lady shook hands politely and asked with a trace of confusion in her voice, “Oh, are you the Commander of the ship?”

To this Commander Whitten replied, “Oh, no.  I’m not really a Commander.  That’s just something they like to call me.  I’m just a night mate.”  After the engineer and his fiancĂ© left, Commander Whitten turned to me and exclaimed with mock severity, “You guys and this Commander business!”

Commander Whitten’s life experience extended beyond the sea and included some significant connections ashore.  A widower of numerous years, he had eventually remarried and was happy again.  His new wife was several years younger than he was, and she took care of him during his illness and called frequently to check up on him.  The Commander occasionally spoke of his first wife.  It had been a good marriage, although the long separations while he was at sea were not always easy.  He was saddened by her passing and he missed her, but he recognized that this was a normal part of life.

But there had been one terrible event that he could not recognize as normal.  The Commander and his first wife had a baby girl.  Because of his sailing schedule, he could not see her anywhere near as much as he wanted.  Nonetheless, he loved her very much and he regarded her as the most magnificent little girl that ever walked the face of the Earth.  When she was ten years old, however, she became seriously sick.  It was determined that she had a cancerous brain tumor.  The medical knowledge of the day was insufficient to save her, and after several months of painful deterioration she died.  The Commander remained home from the sea during this time to take care of her.  When the end came, he was upset but relieved—upset that an innocent child had suffered so much, but relieved that it was finished and that she was now in Heaven with God.  The Commander told me about this with a very distant look on his face.  He said that he did not like to talk about it, but that he thought of this little girl every day of his life.  He couldn’t help it; she was just always on his mind.  I was initially surprised that he told me about her at all, but then, he knew that I was recovering from cancer myself.

Commander Whitten was a deeply religious man.  While he was often unable to attend church, he did read the scriptures and pray every day.  By his own admission he had not always been so devout.  He owned up to having been a good time Charlie as a kid, but added that life had taught him “a thing or two” over the years.  He became a morally conservative man, and could be outspoken in his viewpoints and his disapproval of some of the standard shipboard nonsense.  He would often shake his head and mutter, “When will these guys learn?”   

The Commander and his wife belonged to a Pentecostal congregation where they lived in Florida, and he attended with her when he was home.  He held all the Christian denominations in high regard, though, and was respectful of all the world’s religions.  This was a not uncommon viewpoint among merchant seamen.  Many men who had sailed all over the world and had seen so much of the myriad cultures and religious expressions of the world’s peoples maintained the highest respect for them, even if they were not particularly religious themselves.  They admired the search for Truth and the moral values taught by religions generally.  For his part, Commander Whitten subscribed to a very high moral standard.  In this respect, he would have made a good Latter-day Saint.  But for all his exposure to the diverse cultures and religions of the world, he had had no contact with the Mormons.  Perhaps the bulk of them lived too far inland and were therefore beyond his range of contact.  Whatever the reason, the opportunity to learn of the restored fullness of the Gospel eluded him.

Bishop Lance Spencer of the Nashua 2nd Ward was fond of saying, “There are good people in all faiths.  If they knew there was one more thing they had to do—go to the temple—I’m sure they’d all say, ‘Yes, of course I’ll go.’”

From what I knew of the man, I’m sure Commander Whitten would be one of those saying, “Yes, of course I’ll go.”  He was one of those of whom the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote,

For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, and who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it (D&C 123:12).

Commander Whitten was a good man who led a good life. He was a committed Christian who took his beliefs seriously and governed himself accordingly.  He was neither a graduate theologian nor a recipient of the restored fullness of the Gospel; nonetheless, he did well with the religious knowledge that he had.  Furthermore, there were many like him; he was by no means unique.  It is people such as these, represented by the Commander, who inspire the ongoing temple work for all the good people who loved the Lord but were never able to attend the temple themselves.  As Bishop Spencer also remarked, “It would be a sin if their temple work went undone because of neglect on our part.”

The scriptures speak of turning the hearts of the children to the fathers and turning the hearts of the fathers to the children (D&C 98:16, 110:15).  While it is natural because of family ties to want to perform the temple ordinances for our deceased ancestors and relatives, there is a yearning to see this work done for our friends, neighbors, and colleagues, too.  We can turn our hearts to them as well.  After all, the temple ordinances are for everyone.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Atheist

A completely different personality from the zealot, the atheist served aboard the Hayes during part of her long layup at company headquarters in Bayonne, New Jersey.  He was a caretaker night mate on the 4:00pm to midnight shift.  All who knew him would agree that he needed a caretaker to take care of him.

The Hayes was docked on the south side of the long peninsula that jutted out from Bayonne proper into the Upper New York Bay.  Warehouses, offices, railroad sidings, and parking areas occupied most of this peninsula.  Our company offices were located in one of these buildings.  Despite the Hayes’ proximity—she was within walking distance—the office folks paid scant attention to her.  Several buildings stood between them and the Hayes, and with little to nothing going on aboard the ship, they had little to no incentive to check up on things.  The crewmen, then, left on their own with no one really in charge, soon took on the appearance of a group of vagrants.

The atheist maintained even more of a ragamuffin demeanor than anyone else.  Unlike some of the others, he just would let himself go to seed for long stretches of time.  A casual passer-by would never guess that he was the mate of the watch aboard the Hayes.  The rest of the crew just laughed it off.  But even with this atmosphere of extreme informality that sometimes crossed the line into slovenliness, most of the guys knew that there was a time and a place for everything.  Hence, all but the atheist were clean shaven and decently dressed on Sundays, whether or not they attended church.

On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, our friend came aboard the Hayes for his shift dressed and groomed to his customary standards. The engineer on duty, a church-attending Lutheran, had already come aboard fully cleaned up and neatly attired.  When he saw the mate, he shook his head in disgust.  Unable to laugh it off on such a day, he spoke up.

“Come on, now,” he implored.  “Can’t you do any better than that?  It’s Easter Sunday!  It’s the most important day of the year!  Can’t you clean up and put on some fresh clothes for just this one day?  It’s Easter Sunday!  Have a little respect!”

“Huh!” grumbled the mate in reply.  “I don’t believe any of that religious garbage.  I’m an atheist.  It’s just another day.  I ain’t gettin’ dressed up for it.”

Crestfallen, the engineer dropped the subject and walked away shaking his head.  A few hours later, he tried once again to work religion into a conversation with the mate, but this effort only accomplished a deadlock.  The engineer could not understand how anyone could not believe in God, and the mate could not understand how anyone could believe in God.

A few months later, the mate went into the medical office at headquarters for his annual physical exam.  A heavy smoker, he got into trouble with the medical staff when a chest x-ray indicated a spot on one of his lungs.  Against his wishes, he was relieved of his duties aboard the Hayes and sent to the Bayonne Hospital for treatment.  Tragically, however, it was too late.  Surgery and subsequent chemotherapy could not arrest the cancer, and a year later the mate died.

A thinking person cannot help but wonder about this situation.  At the end of this man’s life, what did he have to look forward to?  Was this life, with all its sadness and suffering, the best that he would ever have?  How could anyone go through life believing this and be happy?  As a matter of fact, this man’s personal life was not very happy.  He lived alone, had no family and no real friends, and outside of work spoke only with a few casual acquaintances.  Except for his limited duties aboard the Hayes, he had no real purpose in life.  He had no one and nothing to give purpose and meaning to his life.  Additionally, with no faith in a Supreme Being and no hope for a better life to follow this one, he not only had nothing to live for, but also had nothing to gain by dying.  How sad.

When I learned about this man’s situation in life and his attitude toward religion, I recognized immediately that this was not the way the Lord intended his children to live.  Far from being mere “religious garbage,” faith in God gives people a purpose in life.  It gives them a sense of what is important and what isn’t.  It gives them a reason to lead good lives and a reason to have hope for the future even in the face of terminal cancer.  Faith in God forms the basis for close-knit and loving families, warm and caring friendships, and relationships that endure beyond death.  People of all the Christian denominations believe and even expect to see their families and friends again in a better life after this one.  If we add to this foundational belief the knowledge of the sealing ordinances of the temple, then people’s faith in God and hope for reunification with loved ones in a better world can become intensified, strengthening the bonds that they already share with their families and friends. 

In a broader sense, faith motivates people to move the world, as President Gordon B. Hinckley wrote:

When I discuss faith, I do not mean it in an abstract sense.  I mean it as a living, vital force with recognition of God as our Father and Jesus Christ as our Savior. When we accept this basic premise, there will come an acceptance of their teachings and an obedience that will bring peace and joy in this life and exaltation in the life to come.

Faith is not a theological platitude.  It is a fact of life.  Faith can become the very wellspring of purposeful living.  There is no more compelling motivation to worthwhile endeavor than the knowledge that we are children of God, the Creator of the universe, our all-wise Heavenly Father!  God expects us to do something with our lives, and he will give us help when help is sought.1

Millions of faithful people over the centuries have sought and received the Lord’s help in worthwhile endeavors both great and small.  From local service projects to the founding of universities and hospitals to the building of temples all around the world, faith has propelled good people into good actions.  Their faith in God has inspired them to lead good, happy, useful, and productive lives.  It has enabled them to rise above the level of mere mediocrity and achieve a level of excellence in inherently worthwhile pursuits that they most likely would not have otherwise.  Their faith has not only compelled them to lead such good lives in this world, but also has given them the assurance of a happier life with their beloved families and friends in the next world.  Their faith has enabled them to live happy and also to die happy.

What a contrast to the meaningless life and lonely death of a friendless and irreligious merchant seaman in an anonymous hospital bed.  How dark and desolate the close of his days seems in comparison to the passing of a man of faith whom the Lord has blessed with a loving family.  Looked at in this light, the engineer’s puzzlement comes to mind:  How could anyone not believe in God?


1 Gordon B. Hinckley, Faith: The Essence of True Religion, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1989, p. 84.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Zealot

The zealot served as a messman aboard the Furman during her time in the Portsmouth area.  He was a good person and a diligent worker.  He spoke both English and Spanish well, and he routinely sent money home to his relatives in Puerto Rico.  He was also very religious, and he read the Bible every day.  I was never able to determine to what denomination he belonged, or if he even belonged to any real denomination at all.  He had acquired his belief somewhere, though.  One shipboard critic dismissed it as “storefront religion run by a self-appointed holy man with dubious credentials.”  Admittedly this sounded harsh, but there may have been something in it.

One day when I was eating alone in the mess hall, the zealot cornered me.  He wanted to talk about religion.  He knew that I was young, that I had an even younger wife, and that I had recently been sick.  He wanted to help me and hopefully save my soul.  Conceding that he had good intentions, I listened and asked questions.  I realized that this fellow had very little formal education and that his logical reasoning skills were weak, so I took everything he said with the proverbial grain of salt.

As he described his beliefs, they sounded reasonable enough.  He was a serious Christian of obvious sincerity.  This had long shown in his behavior and was confirmed by his remarks.  He longed to reach out to his shipmates and help them to see the light and be saved, but, he admitted, he was often unsure of how to do this.  He seemed comfortable with me, though, and he spoke at some length.  When I mentioned that besides himself several fellows aboard the Furman were church-attending scripture-reading Christians, his comfort level seemed to diminish and he became quite agitated.  “That no good,” he asserted.  “They go to wrong church.  They all going to burn in hell.”

This response startled me.  With his demonstrated sincerity of purpose, he hardly seemed like the type to arbitrarily consign fellow Christians to eternal hellfire on account of their denominational affiliation.  Yet he did, and very emphatically and repeatedly.  We had colleagues who were Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopalian.  I protested that they were good men and good Christians just as he himself was, but to no avail.  “That don’t matter,” he reasserted.  “They still go to hell because they go to wrong church.  They need to be born again.  Then they go to right church and go to Heaven.”

Wow!  This uncharitable attitude towards fellow believers was more than I had expected from a casual lunchtime conversation.  I could not help but wonder, who taught him this?  Where did he acquire such a skewed and judgmental version of Christianity?  How can he believe this and be happy?  Then I recalled what the other fellow had said about storefront religion and dubious credentials.  Sadly, this good-intentioned man had fallen for it and was taking it seriously.  Then I wondered, if he’s relegating other Christians to eternal hellfire, what would he say of the Jews or the Muslims or of nonbelievers?  I really didn’t want to find out, and I didn’t dare ask.  I reckoned I’d heard enough already.

Such a belief system flew in the face of the Lord’s remarks to the contrary:

I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:  And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die (John 11:25-26).

And furthermore,

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16-17).

Why would a loving God create the human species and then sacrifice his son to save people from their own imperfections only to sentence millions of them to the eternal torments of hell for the capricious and arbitrary reason that they attended the “wrong church?”  The inconsistency and irrationality that this man’s belief imposed upon God were incompatible with much that the Lord had taught in the New Testament.  I did not understand how anyone could take such a belief seriously, yet obviously someone did.  This belief led me to think of the Lord’s caution about such an attitude:

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).

The Joseph Smith translation of this injunction is a bit more clear, especially in a society wherein we are called upon to make judgments of one kind or another almost daily:

Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgment (Matt. 7:2 JST).

Considering this man’s lack of education and obviously skewed religious training but good intentions, I was disinclined to judge him harshly.  He meant well, even if he did come across in an unchristian manner towards other Christians.  The real villain was the preacher who taught him this outlook.  He was one of the “false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:15).  How sad that the Christian teachings of love, kindness, forbearance, and charity could be so perverted.  This unauthorized alteration of doctrine defied the stated purposes of God:

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39).

So much kinder, more reasonable, and more consistent with the teachings of Christ is the missionary invitation to all members of the world’s faiths:

We love those of other churches.  We work with them in good causes.  We respect them. . . .To these we say in a spirit of love, bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it.1

This naturally raises the question, what would we add to what others already have? The answer is plenty.  The Furman was full of morally good and decent Christian men who through no fault of their own knew nothing about the restored fullness of the gospel.  The world at large is likewise full of such good people.  Rather than consign them to an eternity of torment that they have not merited, it seems infinitely more in the spirit of Christ to add the good that we have to the good that they have.  Sharing such good as the temple ordinances, the eternal nature of the family, additional scripture, ongoing revelation, the Word of Wisdom, the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood, etc., is so much more constructive and uplifting than condemning people to “burn in hell” because “they go to wrong church.”  By adding “the plain and most precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb which have been kept back” (1 Nephi 13:32) to the Christian backgrounds of others, we are steering them clear of misguided preachers who would burden them with perverted doctrines and we are helping them to achieve the fullness of eternal life.

Had the zealot aboard the Furman known that so much could have been added to faith that he already had, I think he would have been a much happier person, and with his enthusiasm for sharing the gospel, he would have made a great missionary.


1 Gordon B. Hinckley, General Conference address, Oct. 6, 2002, in Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, vol. 2, pp. 198-199, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2005.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Gonna Gets

The same conversation took place aboard many ships.  The settings were usually the same, too, either during some quiet moments at the gangway when the ship was in port, or late at night on the bridge when the ship was at sea.  It was always an unlicensed seaman who raised the subject, and he directed his remarks to anyone who would listen.  Sometimes he would get a response, and sometimes he would not.  In the latter case, then, he would just continue talking, making the conversation more of a monologue than a dialogue.  But that didn’t matter, because it was always the same thing that everyone had heard countless times previously.

“Man, I’m gonna getta license,” it would start.  “I wanna be a mate.  The mates got it made.  In the engine room the engineers got it made.  It be good to be a officer.  They don’t gotta do all the dirty work that we gotta do.  They be smart.  They work with their brains.  They gotta think to run the ship.  Now the Captain, man, he be real smart.  And the Chief Engineer, he be real smart, too.  They be the smartest guys on the ship.  Kin you imagine bein’ that smart?  I gotta long way to go before I kin be that smart.  But I still wanna getta license.  I gotta study for the thirds.  Then I be a little bit smart, and I kin work on it from there.”

These soliloquies, while containing sincere admiration and expressing commendable ambition, were all too often idle ramblings devoid of any real initiative.  I knew several mates and engineers who had risen on their own merit from the unlicensed ranks and had become highly competent and extremely knowledgeable Merchant Marine officers.  They never talked much about what they were going to do or what they had done.  They simply got busy and did it.  They were not interested in calling a lot of attention to themselves, but their accomplishments did not go unnoticed, either.  Men of this caliber enjoyed good reputations in the fleet.  Others respected them and were happy to sail with them.  They made good shipmates; in a pinch, one could always depend on them.

On the other hand, those who spoke at length of lofty and noble ambitions almost never pursued them.  Like seafaring Hamlets, they delivered their lines and revealed their inner thoughts to their audiences, but when confronted with the requirements that they needed to meet in order to receive a license, their

enterprises of great pitch and moment
            With this regard their currents turn[ed] awry,
And los[t] the name of action.1

These fellows often reminded me of the parable of the sower.  As the Lord told the story:

A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.  And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.  And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.  And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold (Luke 8:5-8).

For the man who was “gonna getta license,” the seed was the knowledge that he needed to accumulate in order to take the examinations for either third mate or third assistant engineer.  These bodies of knowledge were—and still are—extensive.  Learning the required material could not be accomplished quickly or in a haphazard manner.  It required a sense of purpose and self-discipline.  The sense of purpose would see the prospective mate or engineer through the most difficult subject areas to the end of the program.  The self-discipline would hold him to his studies in the face of distractions, and there were always many of these. 

Like the seed that could not grow because of either insufficient moisture or too many thorns, the would-be mate or engineer could not grow in his profession because of either insufficient purpose and self-discipline or too many distractions.  Not enough of the right thing or too much of the wrong thing never worked for anyone.  What could not enable seeds to grow would certainly not permit human growth, either.

Like the license exams in the Merchant Marine, the Church also calls for extensive learning.  The reading list alone is impressive:  the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, the Ensign, the New Era, and countless books and pamphlets of comparable magnitude.  Reading, studying, and learning are hallmark activities of the Latter-day Saints.  The Lord, referring to temple construction, directed the early Saints to “establish a house of learning” (D&C 88:119).  For that matter, the entire Church is a house of learning.  Even one of the stated missions of the Aaronic Priesthood is to “acquire as much education as possible.”

In the Merchant Marine, if one wants to grow in professional knowledge and serve in a greater capacity aboard ship, one must read, study, and learn.  Likewise in the Church, if one wants to grow in religious knowledge and serve in more responsible callings, one must read, study, and learn.  The Church is an institution of learning and growing, two actions that fit together naturally.  If one is to grow, one must expend the effort to learn and not merely daydream.  Growth requires that there be substance to one’s ambitions, not just wishful thinking.  This is as true aboard ship and in church as it is in every other worthwhile pursuit in life.  Little wonder, then, that throughout the scriptures and in every General Conference the Lord places such emphasis on learning.  Even those who have reached the height of their service—Captains, Chief Engineers, Bishops, Presidents—continue to learn and grow.  President Gordon B. Hinckley stated it well in an address at Brigham Young University:

I hope that you will take from this university the habit of seeking knowledge and that this habit will never leave you for as long as you live.  A truly educated man never ceases to learn.  He never ceases to grow.  I hope you young women, as you take upon yourselves the burden of rearing families, will never set aside your desire to acquire knowledge.  I hope that you will read to your children.  They will be blessed and you will be blessed if you do so. 2

Thus learning is not only a lifelong pursuit for an individual, but a lifelong process for the ongoing life of the family, as knowledge is passed on to succeeding generations.  As long as there are people on the Earth, then, there must be learning and growth not only of the individual, but of the entire human family for all of the time that we have here:

We must never cease to learn.  We believe in eternal progression and that this life is a part of eternity to be profitably lived until the very end.3

Like the family, then, learning is forever.


1 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, III:i:93-95.
2 BYU Devotional, November 4, 1997, in Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Volume I, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004, p. 498.
3 Op. cit., p. 500.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Screamer

Screaming Pete, as he was called behind his back, commanded the Victoria for a time.  It was his last assignment before he retired, and it seemed that he wanted to go out with a bang.  When I joined the ship someone warned me, “This Captain screams at everyone a lot.  It doesn’t mean anything, so don’t take it personally.  He just likes to scream.”

This fellow was quickly proved right.  Screaming Pete lived up to his nickname, especially in port.  The Victoria was a fairly busy ship, so something was always going on during port visits.  Loading and discharging cargo, repairing machinery, training of new crewmen, shifting between berths, scaling and painting the decks—the Victoria did it all.  With all this activity and a multitude of contractors streaming on and off the ship, it was inevitable that things would get mixed up once in a while.  Whenever this happened, Screaming Pete let loose.  Those who did not know him well either cowered in fear or ran away in terror.  Those who did know him responded by telling him what he wanted to hear and continuing with their work.  This method always restored peace.

At sea, Screaming Pete was much quieter.  He seldom raised his voice, and he was clearly more relaxed and less stressed than he was in port.  The sea soothed him, even when it involved a rough North Atlantic crossing.  Only on one occasion did he do any serious screaming, but strangely, he screamed about something that had not gone wrong but was normal procedure.

On the first leg of her voyage from Charleston, South Carolina, to Holy Loch, Scotland, the Victoria rode the Gulf Stream.  This current always added a few knots to the ship’s speed, improving fuel economy and putting the vessel a bit ahead of schedule at the outset.  Getting ahead of schedule early in the voyage was good, because anything could happen subsequently to cause delays.  One afternoon on the twelve to four watch Screaming Pete came up to the bridge and examined the chart with me to see where we were and how we were doing.  Dismayed that the ship was not as far ahead as he wanted her to be, he started looking for a reason.  Glancing in the logbook, he noticed that the recorded propeller revolutions were slightly lower on the four to eight watch than on the others.  Deciding on the spur of the moment that that was the cause of the problem, he threw a screaming fit.

“What’s wrong with that second engineer?!” Screaming Pete shrilled.  “He’s dropping turns!  No wonder we’re losing speed!  He’s dropping turns!  What’s he thinking?!  What’s wrong with him?!  Why ever would he do this?!  I’m gonna have a word or two with the Chief about this!”  And he stormed down the stairs shrieking, “Chief! Chief!  We’ve got a problem!” as he went.

Unable to get a word in edgewise, and in fact knowing better than to even try, I could not remind the Captain that the second assistant engineer had to blow tubes twice each day.  Screaming Pete knew this very well, and had he been reminded, he would have immediately understood.  In the boilers, soot built up on the banks of water pipes, called tubes, that carried the water which would be boiled into steam and then used in the turbines.  Blowing tubes involved diverting a small amount of this steam, which reduced the propeller revolutions very slightly, and using it to blast the soot buildup off the boiler tubes.  If this were not done, the soot buildup would eventually become large enough to constrict the flue and prevent the combustion gasses from escaping.  They would be trapped in the combustion chamber and prevent sufficient oxygen from reaching the fires.  Left uncorrected, this condition could eventually shut the whole ship down.  Neither Screaming Pete nor any other Captain would want that to happen.

Screaming Pete’s voice trailed off as he hurried below to chase down the Chief Engineer.  After a few minutes, both men came up to the bridge, and Screaming Pete showed the Chief the logbook entries that indicated the average propeller revolutions for each watch.  Very calmly and patiently, the Chief explained the necessity of blowing tubes twice a day, especially on an older vessel like the Victoria that carried less than state-of-the-art machinery.  Screaming Pete listened quietly.  When the Chief finished his explanation, Pete authorized him to blow tubes as often as necessary.  Then he and the Chief thanked each other and went their separate ways.

Screaming Pete had been going to sea all his adult life.  He held an unlimited Master’s license, and he most certainly knew all about blowing tubes.  The rest of us also knew about blowing tubes, and we knew that Screaming Pete knew.  Why all the commotion about such a routine thing, then?  Some of the guys speculated that the old man was dreading retirement.  Whatever the reason, the rest of the crossing was peaceful.  Once in port again, though, the screaming resumed at full volume.

In all fairness to Screaming Pete, he was not the only screamer in the fleet, and neither was the Victoria the only ship to reverberate with such din.  A few other examples come to mind.

One afternoon when the Waccamaw was undergoing overhaul in the shipyard in Norfolk, I came across a fire station on the main deck that was gushing water.  Someone had left the valve in its fully open position, and the water just poured out and flowed all over the deck collecting sandblasting debris and making a muddy mess as it went.  Not finding any evident reason for this, I figured that it must have been an oversight before the water pressure was restored to the ship.  No sooner had I closed the valve than the first assistant engineer materialized out of nowhere and started screaming.  “What do you think you’re doing?!  Who do you think you are?!  Who said you could touch that valve?!  Since when do we need your help?!  Why can’t you mates mind your own business and leave the rest of us alone?!”  He stomped his feet and shook his fists as he shrieked these interrogatives at me.  Then he quieted down and mumbled for a brief moment.  Regaining his breath, though, he continued even louder and shriller than before. “Get outta here!! We don’t need you!!  Get outta here right now or I’ll take this fire axe and cut your arms off with it!!”  He turned toward the axe on the bulkhead and started to reach for it.  Two shipyard workers who were standing nearby exchanged horrified looks.  I didn’t wait to see if he would really use the axe on me.  I found the chief mate and told him that one of the engineers had gone off the deep end.  The altercation was later resolved in Captain Rigobello’s office.  Denying everything, the engineer asserted that I should take up a second career as a writer of fiction.

On another afternoon when the Saturn was undergoing an overhaul in Mobile, Alabama, a shipyard worker with an acetylene torch was about to burn an access hole in a steel bulkhead.  He had the torch fired up and was just about to apply it to the steel when Captain Aspiotis happened to come along and asked him what he was doing.  The yard guy explained, and then Captain Aspiotis asked him, “Did you look on the other side of this bulkhead to see what’s there, to see if it’s safe?”  The yard guy had not.  The Captain went with him, and they both found that the other side of the bulkhead was a linen locker.  Shelves filled with towels, tablecloths, napkins, sheets, pillowcases, aprons, and mess jackets ran from the deck to the overhead on the other side of the bulkhead.  If the yard guy had started in with the acetylene torch as he had been poised to do, all of this would have gone up in flames and could possibly have set a large part of the ship ablaze.  Captain Aspiotis blew up like a torpedo.  He screamed in Greek and English, called the yard guy more terrible names than any of us knew existed, and made himself heard all over the ship and on the pier as well.  He outscreamed Screaming Pete, and with good reason.  If he had not come along at just that moment when the shipyard worker was about to start in with his torch, a disaster would have resulted.  Besides the obvious property damage, people could have been seriously injured or even killed.

But that was an extreme case.  Most of the screaming that took place aboard ship was prompted by lesser causes such as mess hall disputes or poker games gone bad.  Only Screaming Pete screamed about everything and anything, and none of that was life-threatening.  Furthermore, most of the screaming sessions took place in port.  At sea, things were different.

I think the main reason for this was that being at sea was just different from being ashore.  The water had a soothing effect on almost everyone aboard every ship.  There were a few exceptions who would not be soothed by anything, but only a few.  The vast majority in every crew were glad to get underway and escape from shoreside entanglements that often cost too much money and produced unpleasant results.  Some of the fellows said that they felt safer on the ocean than they did ashore, often meaning that they were safe from themselves and their impulses when they were at sea and away from temptations.  Besides that, however, peace and quiet reigned at sea.  There were no man made distractions; there were only the basic elements of the sea and sky.  These elements with their atmosphere of peacefulness combined to form a place that was set apart from the everyday noise and commotion of human activity.  Even in heavy weather with the ship taking a mauling from the wind and waves, the sea remained a place set apart. 

There are places on land like this, too.  Often, one must travel far from the populated areas in order to find such peace and quiet or to find a natural setting unsullied by human hands and thus set apart.  Mountain ranges, river valleys, forests, meadows, and lakes often serve as places set apart for people seeking relief from the noise and commotion of life.  Many people report that they can engage in quiet and reverent meditation and feel the Spirit in such locations.  For me, however, the great waterways of the world were, and still are, the places set apart for quiet reverence and feeling the Spirit.

But there are exceptions.  The most obvious one, of course, is the temple.  Special events take place in the temple, and it has been my family’s great privilege to participate in hundreds of temple ordinances for deceased ancestors and relatives.  We could not avoid meditating in quiet reverence and feeling the Spirit during these ordinances.  Furthermore, we experienced the ineffable sense of accomplishment that comes from getting something extremely important done.  This was always particularly so in the baptistry, where the ordinance work started, and in the sealing room, where the ordinances were concluded.  The peace, the quiet, the serenity, and the sense of being in a place set apart from the outside world all contributed to the sacredness and specialness of the temple ordinances.

A few other locations of this nature also come to mind.  First is the Sacred Grove.  My initial visit there took place before I joined the Church, actually, before I had any intention of joining the Church.  I had previously read about the First Vision that had taken place there in 1820, and I believed in it.  When I walked into the Grove, a sensation which at the time I could not describe came upon me.  I received the impression that the Grove was a very special place, a unique place, hallowed ground, and that I was extremely fortunate to be able to go there and visit it.  I came to understand later that I had felt the Spirit there.  I did realize at the time, however, that the Sacred Grove was the perfect place for quiet and reverent meditation.  Seizing this opportunity, Miss Patty and I gathered the children on a bench near the entrance to the Grove, and she quietly read the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision to them.  The children were all very young then, and they found this fascinating.

Outside the Sacred Grove, of course, life went on.  Occasionally we could hear traffic noise on the local roads and the whistles of trains as they sped through Palmyra.  These sounds were very distant, though, and they did not seem at all intrusive.  Something about the acoustics in the Sacred Grove had a mitigating effect on these outside noises.  A much more prevalent sound was that of birds chirping—a cheerful, uplifting, and musical sound that added to the ambiance of the Grove.

Another such set apart place is the nearby Hill Cumorah.  Just as in the Sacred Grove, peace, serenity, and an overriding calm sensation reigned there.  Like the Sacred Grove, the Hill Cumorah is hallowed ground, a special place that filled a unique and critically important role in human history.  It also lends itself to quiet and reverent meditation, to a contemplation of the singular events that occurred there and their significance for the entire human family.

Finally, several sublime sites that are set apart from the secular world and serve a purpose above and beyond the commonplace are the various cemeteries my family and I have visited in the course of our genealogical research.  All of these are oases of peace and quiet, plots of hallowed ground dedicated to the repose of our deceased ancestors and relatives.  Visiting these cemeteries is like entering a temple.  An atmosphere of quiet reverence prevails.  People follow a certain code of conduct.  They pray.  They converse quietly.  They place flowers on the gravesites.  They show courtesy to each other and deference to the grieving.  They are on their best behavior.

The one cemetery we visit most often is Holy Rood in Westbury, Long Island, in the suburbs of New York.  My grandparents are interred there.  A fairly large property, one end of Holy Rood borders on downtown Westbury, which is always busy.  The other end borders on an even busier six-lane traffic nightmare that connects suburban shopping centers.  Ironically, this street is named Old Country Road.  When turning off this road to enter Holy Rood, it always feels like we are entering a different world.  Holy Rood is always peaceful, quiet, and serene.  It is also a house of order.  Designed and maintained to the highest standards, it is immaculately clean.  Tall trees and strategically placed shrubbery blot out both the sight and sound of most of the traffic.  Flowers decorate many of the grave sites, and a carpet of thick green grass seems particularly inviting after driving on acres of ugly pavement.  It is truly an oasis, a place set apart from the noise and commotion of the secular world.  Like the Sacred Grove, the Hill Cumorah, or any temple, Holy Rood is an ideal place to engage in quiet and reverent meditation.

In a world that is all too often filled with noise and commotion, the opportunity to escape from it all, even for a short time, raises us to a higher spiritual plane.  As President Boyd K. Packer has remarked,

There are few places now that offer an opportunity to meditate in quiet reverence.  What a privilege it is to sit quietly without conversation and direct the mind to reverent and spiritual thoughts!  It is a refreshment to the soul.1

A long voyage across an ocean which by its very nature is set apart from the mainstream of human activity is one of the best situations that offer such an opportunity.  The sea repeatedly demonstrated to me its ability to calm even the most hot-tempered and hard-headed personalities.  It even had the power to settle Screaming Pete down.  Unfortunately, it’s not readily available to everyone.  What a shame.  The majority must then look elsewhere for this refreshment.  But such set apart places that invite quiet meditation and reverence do exist; one need only search out a site that resonates with one’s spiritual leanings.  Wherever that may place be, it will serve as a refuge from the noise and commotion that the secular world constantly screams at people.  It will be an oasis of peace and quiet that even the most strident screaming cannot penetrate.  It will prove the prophecy of Isaiah:

In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength (Isa. 30:15).


1 Boyd K. Packer, The Holy Temple, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1980, p. 58.