Friday, July 1, 2011

The Captain and the Cadet

The Piedmont Airlines 737 lifted off from the runway at LaGuardia Airport in New York in the mid-morning of May 6, 1979, and then turned south toward its destination of Norfolk, Virginia.  I sat nervously in a window seat on the port side, my brand new third mate’s license safely lodged in my jacket pocket.  A classmate of mine, Owen Clarke, occupied the seat directly in front of me.  To my right sat a middle-aged and well-dressed black couple, the husband in the middle seat next to me and his wife in the aisle seat next to him.  Beyond saying “Hello” when they had come aboard, I scarcely gave them a thought.

Owen and I had completed our training and had been issued our third mate’s licenses only a week earlier on April 28.  As newly hired employees, we were enroute to Norfolk to attend more school.  We had a week of shipboard helicopter operations instruction ahead of us.  After that, I would join the cargo ship Rigel, which was docked in Norfolk.  She would soon sail for Mediterranean ports.  Owen would be assigned to a tanker.1

I think Owen was as nervous as I was—possibly more so.  Once the aircraft had left New York, he started turning around in his seat to speak to me.  No sooner did he finish what he had to say than he would turn around again to tell me something else or ask me a question or just make a random comment.  I wanted only to sit quietly and look out the window, but Owen twisted and turned in his seat so much and had so much to say to me that this became impossible.  This commotion did not go unnoticed by the man sitting next to me.  He and his wife had been sitting very quietly, and of course, they could hear everything.  Finally, with his curiosity piqued, he turned to me and said, “Excuse me.  Where are you fellows going?”

Owen answered before I could make a sound and let out a torrent of fast flowing speech about flying to Norfolk, attending helicopter school, shipping out as new third mates, etc., etc., etc.  When the other passenger could finally get in a second remark, he spoke well-articulated standard English in an assertive but kind manner which to a considerable degree silenced my companion.  And with good reason.

This man was an employee of our company and had been for many years.  He knew our destination of Norfolk very well, and he also knew about the Rigel, her itinerary, the helicopter school, and everything else that there was to know.  He was a seaman.  He had sailed on all varieties of ships, but he expressed a particular fondness for those that did the underway replenishment of military vessels.  “I like unrep the best,” he asserted.  “It’s the most exciting.”  His face brightened with a broad smile and a warm expression in his eyes as he spoke affectionately of ships and the sea.  As he addressed us I noticed his wife gazing at him lovingly.  The look on her face clearly identified her as a seaman’s wife.  No words were necessary.  Anyone connected with the sea could tell that she loved her husband and understood both him and his passion for ships and the sea.  No doubt she missed him when he was away, but for the moment she seemed to savor the warm glow of his presence.

Taking an interest in Owen and me, this kind-hearted gentleman told us a bit about Norfolk, the helicopter school, the residence where we would eat and sleep, the paperwork we would need to fill out, the people in the office to contact should we need anything, and so on.  He asked about our anticipated shipboard assignments, and gave us some pointers on what they would be like and what we should expect.  This man was full of information about the way our fleet and everything that supported it worked, and he freely shared his knowledge with us.

This conversation lasted for most of the flight to Norfolk.  During this time the three cabin attendants—all young, white, and female—came down the aisle to serve beverages and snacks and afterwards to collect used cups and food wrappers.  When they stopped at our seats this man spoke to these young ladies with conspicuous courtesy.  He nodded and smiled.  He said, “Good morning, Miss,” and “Yes, please, Miss,” and “Thank you very much, Miss.”  His wife did likewise.  In a society that is often lacking in basic good manners, someone who displays such a level of courtesy does not go unnoticed.

As the aircraft began its approach to the runway in Norfolk, this gentleman and Owen and I started bidding each other farewell.  By this time Owen had become fairly quiet and I was doing more of the talking.  I asked this man if he was joining a ship and going back to sea.  No, he was on his way to an unrep conference.  Then I asked him, “What do you sail as?” That is to say, what was his job aboard ship?

For a few seconds, he hesitated.  In that brief interval I noticed a new expression come over his wife’s face.  She beamed at him with obvious pride and admiration.  Then, very quietly, as if he didn’t really want to own up to it in public, he answered, “As Captain.  I’m a Captain.”

I was stunned.  I never would have guessed!  A great man travelling incognito, I thought, and the new look on his wife’s face suddenly made sense to me.  I then asked him, “What’s your name, sir?”  The “sir” came out automatically on learning that he was a Captain.

“Gill,” he replied.  “Leroy Gill.”  I told him my name, and we shook hands, and suddenly I felt the utmost respect for him.  Now that his incognito was gone I saw him more completely for what he was: a seaman who had risen to the top of his profession; a black man who had made it in a white man’s world; an officer and a gentleman who was not proud of his rank but humble about his achievements, friendly and helpful to two novices, and respectful and considerate toward women.  He had even taken the awkward middle seat so that his wife could sit more comfortably next to the aisle.  After the airplane landed and we got ready to disembark, I thanked him for his help, wished him well at his conference, and made it a point to address him as “Captain Gill” and his wife as “Mrs. Gill.”  They reciprocated the pleasantries, and we went our separate ways.

No doubt Captain and Mrs. Gill had noticed this increased level of respect once I knew who they were.  I wonder what they said to each other about it later after Owen and I were gone.  In all likelihood it had happened before.  In any event, I never saw them again.  Later on I heard through the company scuttlebutt that he had transferred to the Pacific fleet.  I had hoped that I might sail with Captain Gill at some point in my career, but unfortunately never did so.

Many years later, on July 3, 2002, the tables were turned.  The school ship State of Maine came to Portland, Maine, for several days in observance of the Fourth of July, and she was open for public tours.  This was not the old State of Maine on which I had sailed, though.  That vessel had been retired, and a new State of Maine had taken her place.  Wanting to see this new ship, I drove to Portland with my three sons, James, Steven, and Michael.

The open house started at 1:00pm.  To my surprise, it was very lightly attended.  Then someone told us that the previous day the ship had been swamped with an enormous crowd of visitors.  This worked to our advantage.  With no one waiting in line behind us, we could take as short or as long a tour as we wanted.  Presently a first-year female cadet arrived at the head of the gangway on the port side where we were waiting.  I regret that I cannot recall her name.  Anyway, she was assigned to guide us on our tour of the new State of Maine, explain the workings of the ship, and answer any questions that we had.  She greeted us very politely and welcomed us aboard.  Then she led us around the ship.

I had led these tours aboard the old State of Maine when I was this young lady’s age, so I knew the routine.  She had a set route around the vessel that she took and a more or less set speech that she delivered to all the tourists.  I’m sure that she had conducted these tours many times in the various ports the ship had visited in her months on board, just as I had done many years ago.  I’m also sure that she regarded us as just another group of sightseers.  And I wanted it that way, too.  I did not want to attract any attention to myself, so before we even went on board I had told the boys not to say anything about my connection to the old State of Maine or my having gone to sea at all.  I just wanted them to see the ship and have a good time while I quietly maintained my incognito.

The cadet led us aft along the port side of the ship toward the stern, then through the upper part of the engine room, and then through some of the common areas such as the mess hall and the lounge and the gym.  Then we went out on deck again along the starboard side.  As we followed the cadet through all these areas of the ship she explained everything that we were seeing.  She was very polite and courteous, and she represented the State of Maine very professionally.  I knew from my own experience, however, that she was doing this for probably the 500th time and that we were just more anonymous faces in the crowd to her.  But as we gathered on the starboard side amidships this changed.

Seeing a set of bitts and a couple of chocks on the deck, one of my sons pointed and asked me, “Daddy, what are these things for?”  Without giving the matter a second thought, I explained what they were and described how the mooring lines are led through the chocks and then wrapped around the bitts when the ship is being secured alongside a pier.  This response elicited a few additional questions that required some additional explanation.  James and Steven were especially interested in this.  Michael, the youngest, was less so.  As I started answering the initial question, I noticed the cadet glance at me with a somewhat puzzled expression on her face.  Then she and Michael disappeared from my view.  When we concluded this brief question and answer session, our tour of the ship continued.

The cadet next led us into the forward house, up to the bridge and chartroom, which I found especially interesting, then forward to the bow, and finally back to the head of the gangway on the port side.  She remained every bit as professional and courteous as she had been previously, but now with an added measure.  She looked at all of us differently, took a much more obvious interest in showing us the rest of the ship, and added “sir” to everything she said to me.  I wondered what this was all about.  Then, her curiosity apparently piqued, she asked me, “Did you sail on the old State of Maine, sir?  The old Upshur?”2

I replied that I had, and quietly concluded that she had been taking notes during my brief explanation of the bitts and chocks to my sons.  So now she knew that I was an alumnus; so much for maintaining my incognito.  She asked me several questions about my time on the older ship and my career afterwards.  I in turn asked about her progress in the training program, and we enjoyed a very pleasant conversation.  As we spoke she encouraged us to linger in the different parts of the ship as long as we liked.  I accepted this offer on the bridge and in the chartroom—my favorite parts of any ship—and once again I was called upon to explain several things to my sons.  When the tour at last came to its conclusion at the head of the gangway, she asked me,  “Is there anything else you’d like to see, sir?  Can I do anything else for you, sir?”

I assured her that she had done an excellent job of showing us the ship and thanked her for her hospitality.  My sons thanked her, too, and we shook hands and wished each other well.  Down on the pier again, my sons and I paused to have a last look at the ship and take some pictures.  I remarked offhandedly to them, “I wonder how she figured out that I was a seaman and a graduate of the old State of Maine?”

Then young Michael spilled it all.  “Daddy, when you were telling James and Steven about that stuff on the ship I told her, ‘My Daddy’s a chief mate and he has a Captain’s license.’”

So that explained it!  With the enthusiasm of youth, Michael had disregarded my instructions to remain silent and proudly bragged about me instead!  Well, that was very sweet of him.  What he couldn’t realize, of course, was that while what he told the cadet was technically correct, my Master’s license was a limited-tonnage endorsement and not the unlimited “big license” that this young lady most likely thought he meant.  So Michael made me seem quite a bit more important than I really was!

Without realizing it, young Michael had also proved a point.  This very nice young lady had spoken to us one way when she knew us only as mere tourists, but in an altogether different and more deferential way when she came to perceive me as a Captain.  And I had done the exact same thing years earlier with Captain Gill.  In a sense then, we are what other people think we are.  But this is not nearly as important as what the Lord knows we are: his children.  As such, all people should treat each other with the respect and kindness due children of God.  This respect is not based on rank, social status, professional achievement, or anything else of the secular world.  Instead, it is based on a respect for God himself.

President Gordon B. Hinckley expressed this thought very well:

Let it be taught that we are all children of God and that as surely as there is fatherhood, there can and must be brotherhood.  Conflict among the races and ethnic groups will fade when all of us recognize that we are all part of one great family, valued equally by the Almighty.3

In agreement with President Hinckley, Father Theodore Hesburgh, the President of the University of Notre Dame, further elaborated on this thinking:

All human beings are our brothers and sisters, all are our neighbors.  It matters not whether they are white or black, red or yellow, Eastern or Western, Northern or Southern, young or old, intelligent or dull, good or bad, attractive or repulsive.  We are all created in the image of God.4

This is not to say, however, that we should not be respectful of one another’s secular positions.  It seems only natural and appropriate to be respectful toward those who fill important leadership roles, bear heavy burdens of responsibility, risk their lives to ensure public safety, make major contributions to the improvement of society, or achieve success in a demanding profession.  Most people would see this as common sense and common courtesy and behave appropriately.  A few, however, cross the line that separates sincere respectfulness from the artificial and self-serving respect of sycophancy.

A couple moved into our ward during my tenure as a counselor in the Bishopric.  They came because the husband’s employer transferred him to a new job in town.  I had considerable contact with him and got to know him fairly well—I thought.  He was always very friendly toward me.  Whenever he saw me he went out of his way to come over to me, greet me, shake hands with me, and chat amiably.  He always had something pleasant to say—an interesting story to tell, or a laudatory remark to make about my calling, my family, my son’s mission, etc.  Others told me that he spoke very highly of me to them.

Then the Bishopric was reorganized.  I was released and called into a position of significantly less responsibility.  This is commonplace in the Church; members move up and down the “calling scale” all the time.  Soon after assuming my new duties I noticed that this man who had previously been so attentive to me was now ignoring me.  There were no more friendly greetings, no more pleasant conversations, and certainly no more obsequious praise.  When he would look directly at me without the slightest expression of recognition and then walk away to speak with the new Bishop or one of the new counselors, I realized that all his prior friendliness had been fake.  Because I was no longer a counselor in the Bishopric and no longer in a position to be useful to him, I was no longer worthy of his attention.

Captain Leroy Gill saw things differently, however.  Even though we were neophyte third mates, he deemed Owen and me worthy of his attention.  We could not possibly have done anything to advance his career—and he knew that—yet he took an interest in us and very graciously counseled us at the start of our careers.  I appreciated his kindness and respected him for his professional achievements and the burdens that he carried aboard ship, and I expressed this respect in the way I spoke to him and his wife.

The young cadet aboard the State of Maine likewise showed me the same respect that I had shown Captain Gill.  As I had viewed him she no doubt regarded me, at least, as my son Michael had described me to her.  Despite my initial reluctance to have attention drawn to myself, I was happy to speak with her and encourage her in her professional training.  I hope, at the least, that she remembered my family as one of the more pleasant and better behaved tour groups that she escorted around the ship. 

While I continue to respect the man in our ward as a child of God, I cannot help but respect the Captain and the cadet much more because they are children of God with integrity.  They behaved kindly and respectfully toward others without engaging in the “subtle craftiness of men” (D&C 123:12) for self-serving purposes.

1 We never sailed together subsequently, but I did see Owen Clarke from time to time in different parts of the world.  To his great credit, he passed the examinations and received the unlimited license as Master at the very young age of 27.   This was a truly outstanding accomplishment.
2 The old State of Maine had previously served the federal government as the troop transport Upshur, carrying American soldiers to and from Europe and the Far East.  
3 Gordon B. Hinckley, Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Volume 2, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2005, p. 630.
4 Theodore M. Hesburgh, God, Country, Notre Dame, New York: Doubleday, 1990, p. x.

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