Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Nautical Library

A political phenomenon of the late twentieth century is the presidential library. After the torch is passed to the new head of state, the one just retired builds a library. In theory a repository of presidential papers intended for use by scholars and historians, the imposing new edifice usually seems as much a monument to a still-living and still self-aggrandizing great man as it does a research facility. The exception to this, of course, is the Library of Congress. Bequeathed to the nation by President Thomas Jefferson, it enjoys universal recognition as one of the greatest, largest, and most diverse collections of research materials in the world. My home library is not as ambitious as this, however, nor does it commemorate my political glory. Instead, it houses a very modest general collection and two more extensive specialized collections.

The first of these specialty areas supported my career in the Merchant Marine. Professional volumes such as Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator, Donn’s Meteorology, and Tate’s A Mariner’s Guide to the Rules of the Road line the shelves. While of little interest to a layman, these and other such tomes are critical components of a mate’s collection. I spent many intense hours with these and other volumes while studying for the various license exams. My favorite was George’s Stability and Trim for the Ship’s Officer. Filled with esoteric prose, complex technical diagrams, advanced mathematics, and applied physics—not exactly light reading—this book successfully saw me through the most difficult part of the chief mate’s exam, and for that I was very grateful. Subsequent to that, I consulted all these volumes regularly for license renewal exercises. To this day, I still refer to these resources, either to refresh my memory or to look up points of curiosity.

In addition to professional and technical books, I have several works on the history of seafaring, plus histories of famous ships. And as a library is not a collection of books only, I have an assortment of pictures—photographs, paintings, and pen-and-ink drawings—of all the ships that I sailed on, of the transatlantic liners that my grandparents sailed on, and of various historical vessels. A few of these are framed and on display; most are filed away for safekeeping, but hopefully, display at a later date. Then, there are my licenses. I keep these in a safe place, too, even though they’re no longer valid for sea service. I treasure them for the knowledge and the experience which they represent, and I admit to feeling somewhat sentimental about them. Finally, there is my sextant. I used this instrument many times aboard many ships to take sightings of the sun, moon, and stars, one of my favorite duties on long transoceanic voyages. Every so often someone asks if he may look at my sextant, and I’m always happy to show it off.

The second specialty area supports a more ongoing project in family history and genealogy. In addition to my interest in seafaring, I’ve long been collecting genealogical documentation and family-historical items. In the process of researching ancestors and relatives, I’ve amassed reams of documents that identify all the folks in the extended family. Who they are and how they’re related is the genealogy; where they lived and what they did is the family history. The two dovetail together naturally. The result is an ever-growing collection of official certificates, ecclesiastical records, written histories, newspaper articles, cemetery maps, and photographs. This assortment covers generations long deceased as well as the generation recently born. In what was perhaps an overindulgence with pen and camera, I’ve assembled dozens of photograph albums and almost as many notebooks depicting and detailing my children’s activities since their births. Some people may find this a bit much, but I like it. On a practical level, this collection always proves its worth. Whenever family members want to know when something took place and who was involved, they come to me as the authority on the matter. If I don’t have an event photographed or written down, then it didn’t happen!

This paper part of the family history and genealogical collection is organized into diverse volumes such as picture albums, binders, notebooks, and a few actual books, too, and this assortment occupies significant shelf space. But neither is this a collection of books only. Framed portraits of family members both living and deceased line the walls above the shelves and in several other rooms as well. Professional memorabilia and personal mementos from several of the deceased line the top shelf and fill several boxes. Once again, I admit to feeling sentimental about much of this material. One of my favorite items combines both seafaring and family history: a portrait of my grandparents in tuxedo and evening gown at the Captain’s party aboard the American Export Lines’ Independence at sea between New York and Casablanca in November of 1966.

In retrospect, I think their departure on this voyage aboard the Independence got me started in family history. I remember the day they left. Back then the passengers’ families were allowed to visit the ships prior to sailing. Armed with my first camera at the age of nine—a cheap kid’s toy that took very mediocre black-and-white photographs—I succeeded in getting on everyone’s nerves in a relentless picture-taking quest. Now, despite their dubious artistic value, these humble first attempts at family portraiture have become family heirlooms.

In addition to the genealogical, family-historical, and nautical materials, I have a modest humanities collection, chiefly in the areas of history, literature, and religion, as well as over fifty years of National Geographic. This includes many of the classics of our Western world, the scripture, both sacred and secular, bequeathed to us by our Greco-Roman Judeo-Christian heritage. These writings, from some of the best minds in history, enable us to acquire a broad spectrum of knowledge and wisdom and thereby raise our own minds to a higher level. Authors with names revered through the ages rank among our best friends and most interesting companions. Their ideas have shaped human history and thought for so long and to such an extent that it seems impossible to even imagine a world without them. These writers, while long dead, “whisper to us out of the dust” (2 Nephi 26:16) with “the words of them which have slumbered” (2 Nephi 27:6). Though dead, they continue to speak, as Professor Jastrow, a scholarly character in a contemporary classic describes:

There’s something personal and alive for me in this room.
These books speak to me. The authors are all my friends
and colleagues, though some of them crumbled to dust
fifteen centuries ago. I shall leave the villa with no regrets,
but it will hurt to leave these books behind.1

Just as, for example, Plato and Augustine and Shakespeare, though dead, continue to speak to all who will listen, so also do my kin, though dead, speak to me. Through what they wrote and what others wrote about them, through their vital records, their photographs, their memorabilia, and the inscriptions on their gravestones, I have come to know them. I often feel a special unity with them. Their spirits, I believe, guide me in my research, and they are my friends and colleagues as well as my family. I treasure the time that I spend with them in my little library.

I also treasure the hours I spend with the rising generation, recording the children’s activities, compiling their photographs, and organizing their school memorabilia. While many others of my age are building large-scale political and business empires for themselves, I prefer the cloistered life that my library affords. I often think of Prospero, the Shakespearean character who fell out of political favor and lamented not the loss of his office but the loss of his library:

Me, poor man, my library
Was dukedom large enough.2

As is mine today. In my youth the sea was my dukedom—and it was plenty large enough—but now my library suffices. While my library naturally contains material concerning my career in the Merchant Marine, which is now part of our family history, I see it not as a monument to myself like a presidential library, but as a monument to all the members of my family. It commemorates their lives by archiving their histories, displaying their portraits, and enabling the present and future generations to know those of the past. It is bequeathed to the family of the future, to my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren ad infinitum. My hope is that through this legacy the past generations, though dead, will speak to the future generations just as they have to me.

1 Herman Wouk, War and Remembrance, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978, p. 198.
2 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, I:i:109-110.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fleeting Glimpses

On a rare Saturday off from work, I stood on a short stretch of sandy beach in Rockport, Massachusetts, and gazed eastward through a light mist and an intermittent rain at the great Atlantic Ocean. The horizon was only faintly visible; mostly it just blended with the overcast sky. It was neither a good day for a navigator taking celestial sightings and plotting sun lines nor for a summer tourist tanning in the sun or frolicking in the surf. Weatherwise, it was a bland day, no doubt a disappointment to many. I saw it differently, however. For any day that one can stand at the water’s edge and enjoy the privilege of looking upon the sea is very good day.

Normally, I work every weekend. It came as a very pleasant surprise, therefore, to unexpectedly be given a Saturday off. Wanting to make the most of this fortuitous opportunity, Miss Patty and I left the house early and drove away to the waterfront. We gazed upon the sea in Salem, Gloucester, and Rockport, and we visited the famous Fishermen’s Monument in Gloucester. It was a lovely day, far from the madding crowds of weekend shoppers, but it passed by much too quickly. Even though we spent hours at the seaside, this time was but a fleeting glimpse.

Life contains many such fleeting glimpses. Some of my favorites involving the sea take place aboard trains. Several times each year I ride Amtrak between Boston and New York in order to visit my parents. Aptly named the Shore Line, this stretch of railroad follows the coastline through Rhode Island and Connecticut into New York. It affords magnificent views of Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound from a succession of vantage points. From East Greenwich, Mystic, New London, Niantic Beach, Rocky Neck, and Old Saybrook, I savor the sight of salt water, albeit briefly, as the trains hurry along toward their destinations. Rarely do they stop between stations. On one journey, though, I enjoyed a bonus as the train halted for several minutes at Niantic Beach because of track work. As the engineer awaited the signal to proceed, I watched the ferry John H sail placidly across the sound from Long Island to New London.

On Long Island, there are many waterfront sites where one can gaze upon either the open ocean or its estuaries. Family favorites include Captree, Fire Island, Point Lookout, Oyster Bay, and Port Jefferson. All beautiful locations, the times spent there are always much too short—mere fleeting glimpses. Once per summer we sail aboard the excursion boat Moon Chaser between Captree and the Fire Island Light, a round trip of an hour and a half. This also passes too quickly—another fleeting glimpse. Even a prolonged duration spent in the company of the sea is, in the end, too short. The week that the family spent aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam in February illustrates this perfectly. Everyone agreed that the voyage ended too quickly. Furthermore, accustomed as I had been to spending several months at a time aboard ship, seven days felt like nothing. It seemed that I had barely unpacked and settled in when it was time to disembark! Another fleeting glimpse.

All my life I have had an affinity for the sea. For me it is a creation of unsurpassable natural beauty, a place of peace and tranquility, and a source of inspiration. The sea possesses an intangible but unmistakable other-worldly quality that sets it apart from the secularized land masses. It seems more a part of the divine realm than the human one. When I gaze out to sea, whether from the deck of a ship or the edge of a continent, I feel that I am in a sense looking into eternity. But eternity is very large, and my time is very small and tightly scheduled. Sooner or later some compelling need calls me away from the sea. All I can achieve, then, are fleeting glimpses.

Most of my life I have had an affinity for family history and genealogy. Like the sea, these intimately interrelated subjects possess intangible but unmistakable other-worldly qualities that set them apart from our secularized society. Whether in a library, a municipal archive, a church office, a cemetery, or at home, genealogical and family-historical research opens windows into both the human past and the divine eternity. As the sea has a compelling quality that draws one in, so does this research. It is commonplace to completely forget the present while becoming engrossed in the events and personalities of the past and discovering new things that happened and new friends who lived many decades or even more than a century ago. But then, just as at the seashore, some urgent human need calls us rudely back to the present, and our fleeting glimpse into the higher realm is suddenly over.

Hunger, for example, is a compelling intruder. On one occasion Miss Patty and I were visiting the public library in Babylon, Long Island, and printing copies of microfilmed newspaper articles concerning my grandparents’ youth. Having gotten an early start, we spent all morning and part of the afternoon on this project, completely losing track of the time in the process. Suddenly feeling incredibly hungry, we looked at the clock and were astonished when we saw how late it had become! Still, for all those hours spent examining my grandparents’ formative years in an era now gone, we felt as though we had just scratched the surface, just glimpsed their youth wherein there must have been so much more that had gone unrecorded.

As wonderful as it has been to discover our ancestors and learn of their life experiences, there is an inherent frustration in the process, too: whatever we find in our research, it is never enough. While our grandparents’ lives are quite well documented, some gaps do remain. Of their parents, however, we know precious little. Going back in time, we have less and less information about each successive generation. The glimpses into the past become smaller and smaller until finally there are no more. In each case, though, whether we have full biographies or just names and dates of death, these views of past lives remain only glimpses. We always wish that we had more information and more photographs, as well as more time to do the research. Just like the view of the great Atlantic Ocean, the view of our ancestry is but a fleeting glimpse.

For that matter, life itself is a fleeting glimpse. In our family, the longest known lifespan is 97 years. In the history of the world, however, this is miniscule. It may sound like a long time, but it is still a finite window of opportunity. Just as the hours spent visiting the seashore and the hours spent researching family history are short and precious, so is life itself. Hence the need to use the time that we have wisely, for once used up it remains forever irretrievably gone.

Carpe diem, asserted the ancient Romans. Seize the day. Every day may be our last, and we would be wise to not waste the tremendous but limited opportunity of life on things of no value. Contemplating eternity and searching for eternal truth, whether at the oceanfront or the family history center, lead us to the things of ultimate value: to truth, light, knowledge, family, everlasting life—in short, the things of God. And when we have achieved this goal, it will not be just a fleeting glimpse but a permanent state.