Friday, June 22, 2012

The Signing of the Paperwork

The freighter Rigel swung on the hook in the anchorage of La Maddalena on a warm and sunny Tuesday, June 12, 1979. Situated just off the north shore of Sardegna and adjacent to the Strait of Bonifacio which separates Sardegna from Corsica, the small archipelago of La Maddalena served as an American military station for many years. The Rigel used the secluded anchorage there on several occasions to transfer cargo to other ships. On this particular day, she was sending pallets of food and supplies by both helicopter and boat to the Navy freighter San Diego.

This operation filled several hours from late morning to mid-afternoon. No one could go ashore, but no one really minded. The weather was beautiful, the scenery was gorgeous, and sailboats laden with pretty Italian girls came along to see what was going on. Besides, the Rigel was due in Napoli for an extended visit the next morning, and the crew would have a good time then. When the lengthy cargo transfer at La Maddalena was completed, the Rigel closed her hatches, weighed her anchor, and set a course eastward. Just as the watch was settling into what was expected to be a routine overnight crossing of the Tyrrhenian Sea toward Napoli, the supply officer burst onto the bridge in a panic.

“We have to go back!! We forgot something very important!!” He exclaimed in a rush to Captain Viera. He held a jumbled sheaf of paperwork in his hands, and he held it out supplicatingly to the Captain. More explanation followed. The bottom line was that a signature was missing. The head honcho in La Maddalena had neglected to sign a critically important item of paperwork, and the Rigel absolutely must return to the anchorage so he could do this. The way the supply officer described things, it sounded like the entire American military establishment would cease to function without this one signature! His explanations were confirmed by the shoreside military authorities over the radio. Like it or not, the ship had to go back.

And so Captain Viera gave the order and the Rigel reversed her course to return to the anchorage. The engineers were instructed to stand by for maneuvering, and the anchor detail was sent back up to the bow. Word of what was happening spread around the ship quickly. There was no end to the incredulity at the notion of going to all this trouble for a mere signature. Captain Viera expressed no such opinion; the look on his face said it well enough. A very disciplined man, he rarely showed emotion in front of his subordinates. He simply did what had to be done.

After a short while, the Rigel slowed as she approached the entrance to the anchorage. A small Navy launch emerged from behind one of the islands and headed for the ship. The Rigel stopped without anchoring as the launch came alongside. A visibly shaken figure stepped forth from the launch and awkwardly climbed the pilot ladder to the Rigel’s main deck. The supply officer met him as he clambered on board, and a hurried signing of paper took place. Then the man retreated back down the pilot ladder, and finally the launch whisked him off again to La Maddalena. The crisis was now resolved! With all this accomplished, Captain Viera for the second time turned the Rigel around, and the bridge watch for the second time set a course across the Tyrrhenian Sea for Napoli.

When the excitement had settled down, several men in the crew gave themselves over to philosophical discussions of what was important in life and what wasn’t. Inspired by the time, effort, and expense invested by the Rigel to acquire one signature, these fellows asked the obvious question. Just how important could this one signature really be? Was it really worth all the time, effort, and expense invested in getting it? Aren’t there much more important things in life than a scrawl on a sheet of paper? Of course there are, but some signatures really are important. The signatures of the Coast Guard officials on the Merchant Marine licenses are critically important; without them the licenses are worthless and not valid for employment. The signatures of the shipmasters in the seamen’s sea service books are also critically important; without them the records are invalid for qualifying to take the next level of license exams. But licenses and jobs were not at stake in La Maddalena. It was really nothing more than a bureaucratic obsession run amok.

For those of us who were young and impressionable at the time, the signing of the paperwork was an opportunity to “learn wisdom in [our] youth” (Alma 37:35) by observing the actions and decisions of others. Everything in life has an importance greater than or lesser than everything else in life. Simply put, everything is relative. On this informal scale, we all concurred that one signature on paperwork that would soon be relegated to the dustbin of bureaucracy was not worth the ink expended on it, let alone the time, effort, and expense of recalling the Rigel for it.

Three years later the view from another ship in the Mediterranean made this little affair seem all the more ridiculous.

On July 6 and 7, 1982, the Waccamaw and numerous other American ships stood off the coast of Lebanon. This time the weather was overcast, the scenery was drab, and there were no sailboats with pretty girls. The war between the Lebanese and the Israelis was reaching its climax with Israeli troops and ammunition wreaking havoc on Beirut. Many buildings in the city were being destroyed. Many innocent civilians, including defenseless women and children, were being killed. The United States Navy and Marine Corps were standing by a few miles offshore of Beirut, waiting to land and intervene in the combat, should the government find such action necessary.

A small armada supported this contingency. There were naval combatants, troop carriers, and several supply ships and tankers. Of these last, the Waccamaw, the Neosho, the Caloosahatchee, and the Seattle were uncomfortably fully loaded with oil and within sight and therefore weapons range of Beirut. Several amphibious attack vessels, fully loaded with Marines, took turns coming alongside the Waccamaw and the other tankers to refuel. These were sober moments. Looking across the water at the Marines, we wondered what would happen to them. We also wondered what would happen to ourselves. Hopefully nothing. Still, one well aimed missile from someone seeking to escalate the conflict by causing trouble with the Americans, or even one errant missile homing in on the wrong target, could have easily resulted in a cataclysmic destruction of shipping and horrific loss of life. Even Captain Aspiotis’ perennially cheerful and optimistic outlook was dampened by this thought.

On Thursday, the 8th of July, the Waccamaw was detached from this assignment. Her work with the Beirut fleet concluded after only two days, she headed west toward Napoli, her crew heaving a collective sigh of relief. The other tankers remained in the area, as the war continued unabated, and the Navy and Marines continued to stand by. News accounts from European radio stations kept us informed on the progress of the war. While none of this news was good—it was mostly a litany of death and destruction—at least no American intervention took place. It could have been worse, then.

In quiet moments later on, I began to view these two occasions in relation to each other. This juxtaposition of the Rigel at La Maddalena and the Waccamaw off Beirut yielded an opposition, that of the frivolous and the momentous. One was a triumph of trivia over reason, the other a time of momentous stillness; one a comic farce, the other a potential disaster; one a signature, the other a war. Father Lehi advised his son that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11) and these two occasions contrast sufficiently to prove his point. Saint Augustine also recognized the principle of opposition and saw it as natural to the human condition:

The soul. . .takes greater delight if things that it loves are found or restored to it than if it had always possessed them. The storm tosses seafarers about, and threatens them with shipwreck: they all grow pale at their coming death. Then the sky and the sea become calm, and they exult exceedingly, just as they had feared exceedingly.

Perhaps Saint Augustine used this example because he himself had sailed on the Mediterranean between Europe and Africa. Whatever his motivation, I appreciate his articulation of the principle of opposition in terms congruent with my chosen profession. In the case of the Waccamaw off Beirut, the threat was not from any force of nature, but from a strictly human storm. And it was not really an explicit threat, but more an implicit understanding of what could happen—based on knowledge of what sometimes has happened—to neutrals in a war zone. Hence the feeling of apprehension among the crew while there, and the feeling of relief when sailing away afterwards.

One comparison invites another. As important as a signature may be on a Merchant Marine license or a record of sea service for the purpose of career advancement, this pales alongside the killing of innocent civilians by an invading army. To those of us aboard ship who were young and ambitious and anxious about upgrading our licenses, the war in Lebanon became a clarion call to look at the world view. We were fortunate to be able to sweat blood over license exams instead of shedding blood in an armed conflict. There were worse fates than not making it to Master or Chief Engineer!

The battle in Beirut took place thirty years ago, and the paper chase at La Maddalena three years before that. With twenty-twenty hindsight, I see these two occasions as painless ways to gain life experience, to learn from the mistakes of others, and to acquire wisdom at someone else’s expense. It’s not always that easy; life experience, wisdom, and understanding often come at a terrible price. Later in life I would pay a higher price, but in the Mediterranean those two summers it was easy for me to watch and learn and heed the scriptural admonition to “Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding” (Proverbs 4:5, 7).

1 St. Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, 8:3:7, in The Confessions of St. Augustine, tr. Msgr. John K. Ryan, Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960, p. 185. 2

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