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.

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