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.

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