Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Lady Commodore

In between voyages, the Bartlett usually moored in the basin of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  During these layovers, oceanographic survey equipment was  installed and changed out, technicians reported aboard and were discharged, fuel and provisions were loaded, and repairs to machinery were made.  All routine operations.  Occasionally visitors came aboard, mostly in connection with the survey equipment and mechanical repairs.  On Thursday, October 18, 1984, however, the Commodore of the Fleet came to visit the ship.

Nowadays a Commodore is an unusual personage.  In the Navy, there were Commodores ranking above Captains and below Rear Admirals until the late 1890s, when the position was abolished.  In the Merchant Marine, a Commodore was the senior Captain in the company.  Mostly an honorific, the rank and title of Commodore recognized the long years of experience and extensive knowledge of ships and the sea held by the line’s longest-serving Master.  In some cases, merchant Commodores had some administrative duties ashore; more typically, however, this administrative work came under the jurisdiction of the Port Captain.  Most Commodores continued to go to sea.  When they retired and came ashore, they often wrote their memoirs.

The Commodores who reigned over our line in the 1980s were different.  They were commissioned naval officers holding the rank of Captain, not Commodore.  Also, they were not the senior shipmasters in the fleet; in fact, none of them even held Merchant Marine licenses of any level, let alone as Masters.  Simply put, they were administrators.  They were not real seamen but office personnel who sailed desks in the company offices in Bayonne, New Jersey.  And these offices, contained in a windowless building situated on the waterfront of New York Harbor, did not permit the Commodores to even peek outside and see the shipping.

In my eight years with the company, I think we had four or five Commodores in succession.  They never stayed long, but arrived and departed with express train regularity.  Until this one day aboard the Bartlett in Port Everglades, I never saw any of these Commodores, although aboard all the ships we routinely received communications from them.  They remained distant and ethereal figures who sent commendatory memos for work well done and felicitous greetings at Christmastime.

Most of the seamen preferred it this way, and for good reason.  The Commodores and many other high-ranking personnel were regarded not with reverence and respect but with suspicion and disdain.  Too many times aboard too many ships big shots of various descriptions  came on board in various ports for very dubious purposes.  They demanded lavish attention from busy crews, and their presence on board interfered with the ships’ routines and wasted much of the company’s time and money.  In short, they got in everyone’s way.  They had no useful work to do and they made nuisances of themselves.  Consequently, the seamen came to regard visiting big shots as nothing but trouble.  The more inquisitive-minded of the seamen wondered about the psychology that drove these big shots to behave the way they did.

Impromptu discussions in the chow hall or at the gangway sometimes focused on the abnormal psychosis of the big shot.  There were many questions but few answers.  Why does this guy act like this?  What’s he trying to prove?  Is he compensating for an overwhelming inferiority complex?  Is he an unwanted second son trying to outshine his older brother?  Is he an  ignorant person trying to sound more sophisticated than he really is?  Is his demonstrated contempt for the crew an act to conceal his own lack of self-esteem?  Whatever his problem is, we don’t need it here.  He should go home and get counseling!

One big shot and retiring Commodore especially rankled the crews of every ship in the fleet with a farewell message which he sent on his departure.  In this missive he discussed his upcoming retirement, and went so far as to brag that he had taken the exams for and had been given an original Master’s license by the Coast Guard!!  This meant that on the basis of going to sea in the Navy, the Coast Guard had permitted him to take the exams not for third mate or second mate or even chief mate, but to jump right to the top.  Whatever his military credentials may or may not have been, he had not built a career of sailing aboard civilian cargo ships.  This lack of experience in seaborne commerce, of which the Master’s license stood as the crowning achievement, struck the Masters and mates in the fleet as outrageous beyond belief, a slap in the face to all merchant seamen everywhere!  If this fellow could get a Master’s license without ever having been a merchant seaman, let alone working his way up through the licensing levels, then the Master’s license itself would become nothing but a meaningless piece of paper, a mere decoration.  But then, big shots always seemed to somehow get everything they wanted.

It was with the cynicism generated by negative experiences involving big shots that the crew of the Bartlett anticipated the arrival of the company’s first lady Commodore one bright and sunny October morning.

About 9:00am Commodore Elizabeth Wylie drove onto the pier in a nondescript rental car.  She parked the vehicle in a legal parking space, got out, and walked over to the ship and up the gangway.  She arrived alone, without an entourage.  She wore plain Navy khakis with only her rank insignia on the collar.  She did not wear battle stars, campaign ribbons, or gold braid.  The gangway watchman and I met her when she stepped aboard.  She greeted both of us cordially and introduced herself simply as Elizabeth Wylie without adding any titles.  She cheerfully showed me her company identification when I asked for it.  In fact, she remarked that of the five ships that she had visited thus far, the Bartlett was the only one to require identification, and she was happy to see this done.  I next notified Captain Giaccardo that the Commodore had arrived,   He came along a minute or so later, and the introductions continued.  The discussion that followed took place in normal conversational tonesThere was no shouting nor barking of orders nor unreasonable demands for lavish hospitality.  Neither were there any displays of self-importance, military pomposity, or personal aggrandizement.  On the contrary, the occasion was noteworthy for its simple civility.  After previous experiences aboard other ships, it seemed astonishingly benign.

After a few minutes of light conversation at the head of the gangway,  Captain Giaccardo  and Commodore Wylie set out on a tour of the Bartlett.  I returned to my own duties thinking that the day would not be so bad after all.

And it wasn’t.  The Commodore spent the next few hours touring the ship, meeting and talking with the crew, having lunch, and discussing business with the Captain and Chief Engineer.  I saw her again a few times, too.  She impressed me as being very interested in the ship and the oceanographic survey work that it did, and also as an exceptionally pleasant person.  After spending most of the day on board, she wished us all well and returned ashore as quietly as she had come aboard.  After her departure, a broadly smiling and very happy Captain Giaccardo told me more about her visit.

He, too, had not been looking forward to this state occasion.  A young man in his early thirties, Captain Giaccardo was serving his first stint as Master on the Bartlett, and quite naturally he did not want any trouble with big shots visiting from the Bayonne headquarters.  Well, he didn’t get any.  Captain Giaccardo described Commodore Wylie in glowing terms.  She was friendly and courteous and very gracious.  Obviously intelligent and well educated, she asked many good questions about the ship and its survey voyages, and then she listened attentively to the answers without interrupting or otherwise demonstrating impatience.  Somewhat surprisingly, she admitted to never having gone to sea—this was before the Navy became fully co-ed—and also to being new on the job as Commodore, having started only two and a half weeks ago, at the beginning of the month.  For these reasons, she stated her intention of visiting as much of the fleet as she could and learning as much as possible about all the ships and their operations.  She expressed a sincere admiration for the crews she had met thus far and for the work they did.  In this way, she made an outstanding first impression as a gracious guest and industrious administrator. 

Everyone on the ship who had met Commodore Wylie liked her and appreciated her polite and professional demeanor, her interest in the ship and its crew, and her demonstrated willingness to listen and learn.  While this behavior sounds like simple common courtesy, previous experiences had unfortunately shown it to be more the exception than the rule with visiting big shots.  But this one was different.  In Shakespearean terms, Commodore Wylie displayed neither “the insolence of office”[1] nor “the proud man’s contumely.”[2]  In shipboard terms, she did not act at all like a big shot!

The Bartlett remained in Port Everglades for another week and then sailed on Thursday, October 25.  She went on a three-weeks-long survey voyage in the southwest Atlantic, just outside the Caribbean basin.  I never saw Commodore Wylie again, but I did hope that she would do well in her new position as Commodore of the Fleet.  In retrospect, I see Commodore Wylie as following the scriptural admonition, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10).  She boarded the Bartlett humbly and without fanfare as a new employee striving to learn the ropes, and she returned ashore commanding the respect and admiration of the entire crew.

[1] Hamlet, III:i:73.
[2] Op. Cit., III:i:71.