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.

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