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 fiancé 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 fiancé 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.

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