Monday, May 2, 2016

A Perfect Night


The Northeast Regional rolled smoothly along the historic Shore Line, the railroad that has connected Boston and New York since the 1850s, in the late afternoon and early evening of Wednesday, April 20, 2016.  I had made this journey many times over the years.  Now I was going once more to visit my aged and infirm parents on Long Island.  I had not expected today’s transit of the Shore Line to be much different from any other’s, but the time of day and the workings of nature played upon my mind and carried me far out to sea.

The train left Boston in broad daylight at 5:35pm.  Just over an hour later, it came alongside the shore of Greenwich Bay in Chepiwanoxet, Rhode Island.  Turning inland for a spell, it next came along the shore of Fishers Island Sound in Mystic and Noank, Connecticut.  After crossing the Thames River, the train stopped adjacent to the commercial shipping piers and the ferry docks in New London.  Then, rolling westward through Connecticut, the train hugged the shore of Long Island Sound at three of my favorite locations: Niantic Beach, Rocky Neck, and the mouth of the Connecticut River between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook.  In all these spots I gazed seaward, and out of a long standing shipboard habit, I took note of the meteorological conditions. 

The elements of Nature did their work as the Northeast Regional made its westward trek toward New York.  A cloudless blue sky and a clear atmosphere afforded excellent visibility.  The North Shore of Long Island lay clearly discernible across the Sound’s great expanse of dark blue water.  The bright daylight gradually mellowed into a gentle twilight as the Sun moved ever farther to the west.  Finally, the moment of metamorphosis arrived.  The train sailed alongside the sea as the Sun set among the hills of western Connecticut and the full Moon rose from the hills of eastern Connecticut.  Sunset on the port bow and moonrise on the port quarter, I thought, as if I were at sea.

The twilight gradually became night as the Sun dropped farther below the horizon, but the darkness did not become complete.  The Moon in its fullness reflected the Sun’s light and cast it down to the Earth.  It was a supernal sight.  Reacting once again as if I were at sea, I thought of taking stars.  There would of course be the routine of star sights at evening, and later, morning twilight.  But with these outstanding conditions—the cloudless sky, the clear air, the unlimited visibility, and the full Moon to illuminate the horizon—there would be a further opportunity for midnight stars as well.  The conditions were just right.  It would be, for navigational purposes, a perfect night!  The third mate on the 12:00 to 4:00 watch could use this quiet time to practice his craft and perfect his skill by taking sights of Rigel, Betelgeuse, Vega, Capella, Regulus, and the ever stationary Polaris.

These and other celestial luminaries were my best friends in the long hours of many night watches.  I thought back to one transatlantic voyage in particular, aboard the Victoria in the summer of 1981, when the conditions were just right, night after night, for midnight stars.  Dutifully taking up my sextant shortly after the change of the watch, I made the rounds of the heavens and took sights of six or seven stars each night.  I always felt that I was working in communion with Creation itself when I did this.  Alone on the bridge wing of a cargo ship in mid-Atlantic just after midnight, I was always aware of a spiritual persona that emanated from the primal elements of the sea and sky that surrounded me.  In this other-worldly realm, I relied on the absolute infallibility of Nature as I calculated the ship’s position on the trackless sea with mathematical precision.  Afterwards the helmsman always asked me, “Well, mate, are the stars all in their right places tonight?”  I assured him that they were, and that the Victoria was, too.

My thoughts were suddenly brought back to the present when the Northeast Regional rumbled across the long bridge over the Connecticut River.  The Saybrook Lighthouse at Lynde Point, at the mouth of the river, was clearly visible, as were the distant shore lights on Long Island.  The Moon had risen farther and now hung high in the southeast and cast its reflected sunlight earthward.  A beautiful evening on Long Island Sound. 

Across the bridge and now leaving the waterfront behind, the Northeast Regional continued west to its stop in New Haven.  Underway again, it glided through a brightly lit suburban landscape.  Then, unexpectedly and between stations, it eased to a halt in a dark and somewhat wooded area.  The conductor announced that due to track repairs, the train would wait momentarily for the eastbound Acela Express to pass, and then it would cross over to the adjacent track and continue westward.

During this brief interlude the interior lights in the passenger cars shut off.  This left only the dim glow of a few emergency lights, and so it became easier to see outside into the darkness.  The Moon shone in its fullness; otherwise, the sky was black.  But then, as my eyes adjusted to the changed conditions, a single star came into view.  It shone in the south, at perhaps 35 or 40 degrees of elevation.  Once more, I thought of taking midnight stars aboard the Victoria and other ships.  For the few minutes that my train waited in the darkness for the other train to pass, I sat transfixed by the night sky and felt myself again transported seaward under a canopy of celestial bodies.  And it was indeed a perfect night at sea.

All too soon the Acela Express rushed past in the opposite direction, and the Northeast Regional resumed its journey, rolling through the switches and settling onto the adjacent track.  Two more glimpses of salt water remained for me, first in Bridgeport, and finally while crossing the East River between the Bronx and Queens.  Soon after that my voyage reached its conclusion, and I reluctantly disembarked in Penn Station.

But the thought of a perfect night at sea remained with me.  I had passed many such nights aboard many ships.  All these years later, I still think back on them.  Nighttime at sea has a unique beauty and a very different way of touching the human soul.  The night speaks in a subtle manner but asserts that the Master and Chief Engineer of the universe is fully in command of everything.  He is watching over the world and watching over us.  He invites us to commune with him, and we can invite him to commune with us.

One hymn, with two minor modifications, expresses this thought particularly well:

                        Abide with me; ’tis eventide.
                        The day is past and gone;
                        The shadows of the evening fall;
                        The night is coming on.
                        Within my heart a welcome guest,
                        [Aboard my ship] abide.

                        Abide with me; ’tis eventide,
                        And lone will be the night
                        If I cannot commune with thee
                        Nor find in thee my light.
                        The darkness of the world, I fear,
                        Would [on my ship] abide.

                        O Savior, stay this night with me;
                        Behold, ’tis eventide.[1]

At our invitation, “the true Light, which lighteth every man” (John 1:9) will abide with us all night.  The myriad stars of the night sky symbolize this Light and thereby provide spiritual solace as well as navigational accuracy.  They command the navigator’s respect when he takes his sightings and calculates his ship’s location on the vast ocean.  They command the world’s respect always as they represent the ultimate Light.  If we welcome this Light that “shineth in darkness” (John 1:5) as a permanent guest at every eventide, then every night will be a perfect night.

[1] M. Lowrie Hofford, “Abide with Me; ’Tis Eventide,” in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985, no. 165.  The original lyrics replaced by the bracketed ones are “Within my home” and “in my home.”

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