Monday, June 12, 2017

Sentimental Journey


In the earliest years of my seafaring career, the great city of Philadelphia and its environs loomed large on my itinerary.  I first arrived there as a cadet on the old State of Maine on Friday, June 11, 1976.  She spent three days docked at Penn’s Landing, a recently constructed center city waterfront tourist venue.  I wondered if this was really the site where William Penn had landed in 1682, but I never researched this point.  Next, on Tuesday, May 3, 1977, I traveled on Amtrak and then a local commuter train to Marcus Hook, seventeen miles downstream from Philadelphia, and there I joined the tanker New Jersey Sun as an apprentice.  She sailed for points south on Monday, May 9.  Finally, for three weeks in August of 1978, I sailed around Philadelphia and its suburbs on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers as a deckhand aboard the oil barge Interstate 50.

In all these travels, my association with the Philadelphia area lay primarily with industrial facilities.  I was on intimate terms with the Sun Oil and BP refineries in Marcus Hook, the Gulf docks at Point Breeze, the Interstate tug and barge headquarters and repair shop at City Dock, the Pennsylvania Railroad coal pier (which also sported oil piping) in South Philly, and the big oil storage facilities across the Delaware in Eagle Point and Delair, New Jersey.  In the little free time that I had, I visited a friend at Villanova University and dined at Sweeney’s in South Philly.  When not underway on the water, I walked and rode trains.  By these methods, I came to know the “guts of the city,” as we called them, quite well.  I loved Philadelphia!

But I saw only a small part of the cleaner and more sublime side of the city.  One of the oldest and most important settlements in the United States, Philadelphia stands out as one of the historical, cultural, educational, and religious capitals of the country.  It is home to famous historical sites dating to the colonial era; major museums, libraries, and learned societies; world renowned colleges and universities; and a denominationally diverse collection of churches, cathedrals, basilicas, and temples.  Three of these structures commanded my attention on a recent return to this city of my vagabond youth.

On Tuesday, May 16, 2017, Miss Patty and I traveled on Amtrak to Philadelphia.  She was on her way to business meetings; I was on vacation.  On arrival at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s magnificent 30th Street Station, we took a taxi to the Sheraton Hotel on North 17th Street, our headquarters for the next two days.  From this location, everything I wanted to visit lay within reasonable walking distance.

On Wednesday morning, I set out.  My first important stop was Penn’s Landing, where my initial introduction to Philadelphia had taken place 41 years ago.  The old State of Maine was long gone, of course, her berth now occupied by the sailing ship Gazela.  Otherwise, little had changed.  The Delaware River stretched out placidly before me, and I thought of the many transits I had made of this great river aboard the Interstate 50.  I had passed by Penn’s Landing and passed under the adjacent Benjamin Franklin Bridge numerous times.  As the Interstate 50 plowed along, I painted her decks, fittings, and superstructure, often with the music from the hit film Saturday Night Fever blaring from the radio.  I was a teenager then.  Life was good, and it seemed to stretch out endlessly before me.  Little did I realize just how quickly it would all go by.  For some of us, it would go by much too quickly and be over much too soon.

From Penn’s Landing I walked a half-mile south to my next destination, a building that I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.  This was the Gloria Dei Church, locally known as the Old Swedes’ Church.  A colonial structure dating to 1698, it originally served a Swedish Lutheran congregation.  Today it is Episcopalian.  While this structure’s colonial and denominational history is very interesting, I had come primarily for its maritime significance.  Situated across Delaware Avenue from the Delaware River and the old break-bulk cargo ship piers, Old Swedes’ seemed an appropriate place to honor those “that go down to the sea in ships” (Ps. 107:23).  It was precisely for this purpose that I had come to visit.

Entering through the red-painted front door—red is the ecclesiastical color of welcome—I found that I had this small and cozy church entirely to myself.  Sitting momentarily in the rearmost pew, I looked around to get my bearings and noticed several memorial plaques on the walls.  I had come to see one of these in particular, and there it was.  On the back wall, under the balcony, and on the right-hand side of the church, was the large bronze plaque dedicated to the memory of the cargo ship Poet and her crew.  With a feeling of reverence, I approached it and read the main inscription:

In Memory of The 34 Men of The
U S Flag Merchant Vessel
S. S.  POET
Lost At Sea  October 25, 1980
Approximate Position
38 to 39 N Lat  63 to 66 W Long

The Serenity Prayer followed, and the next panel listed the crewmen’s names, ages, and hometowns.  One of these, Mark S. Henthorne, was a former school acquaintance of mine. I had known him slightly in Maine and aboard the old State of Maine.  He sailed as third assistant engineer aboard the Poet.  He left the girl he had planned to marry behind.  Very sad.

Another officer, Leroy A. Warren, may have known my grandparents.  As a young mate he had sailed aboard the American Export Lines’ passenger ships Constitution and Independence in the 1950s and 1960s.  My grandparents made ten voyages aboard these vessels between 1956 and 1968.  It’s possible that they may have sailed with and met this man on one or more of these voyages.  Aboard the Poet, he sailed as Master.  He left a wife and several children behind.  Also very sad.

I studied the memorial plaque carefully and took several photographs of it.  I noticed the ages of the crewmen and realized that 29 of the 34 were younger when they perished than I am now.  A very disturbing statistic.  I also recalled that I had read the book about the Poet[1] and had written something myself[2] about the loss of this ship and its crew.  Sitting down again in the pew in front of the plaque, I spent several minutes in quiet contemplation.

This time passed quickly.  When I thought that I should leave and continue about the day’s activities, I found that I could not go.  At least, not yet.  An intangible but clearly discernible spiritual presence, for lack of a better description, seized upon my mind and bid me stay a little longer.  At first I dismissed this as imagination.  I had seen what I had come to see and done what I had come to do.  What was left?  But the feeling intensified.  I felt compelled to remain a while longer, and so I did.  More time for quiet meditation, and an opportunity to pray for the repose of these men’s souls and for solace for their families.  The old Roman incantation that I had learned in my youth came to mind:

Requien aeternam dona eis, O Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In pace requiescant.  Amen.

In time, the intensity of the feeling that I must stay diminished.  A happier thought, that I was visiting with old friends, took its place.  This seemed strange at first, for I had known only one of these men, and just slightly at that.  But then I remembered Joseph Conrad’s famous lines, and I realized that I shared “the strong bond of the sea”[3] and the “fellowship of the craft”[4] with these seamen.  That explained everything.  With a sense of accomplishment, then, I rose to leave the Old Swedes’ Church.  I felt confident that these seamen were not “lost at sea” but were truly in God’s hands.  He was taking good care of them in “a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care and sorrow” (Alma 40:12).

After nearly an hour in the Old Swedes’ Church, I returned to the center city area where I ate lunch and did some sightseeing.  This was very interesting, but another more sublime experience awaited me.

In the afternoon, with the Poet and her crew still on my mind, I visited two more churches: the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and dating to 1846, and the Philadelphia Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, built in 2015.  Situated across Vine Street from one another, these magnificent and beautiful buildings complemented each other very well architecturally.

I entered the cathedral initially to admire its artistic grandeur.  But then a staff member met me near the front door and explained that while I was welcome to visit, an ordination rehearsal was taking place.  Two young men would be ordained to the priesthood on Saturday, she informed me, and they with several seminarians and older priests were preparing for the ceremony.  Watching them rehearse for this important event was a fascinating experience.  It led me to consider the tremendous personal sacrifices these young fellows would make in order to fully dedicate themselves to doing the Lord’s work for both the living and the dead.  I found this very inspiring and worthy of my utmost respect.

Similar thoughts filled my mind across the way at the Philadelphia Temple.  Men and women with careers and families sacrificed much of their personal time in order to participate in ordinances of salvation for the living and the dead and assist them in their progression into the presence of God.  This, too, I found inspiring and deserving of the greatest respect.

In both of these sacred spaces, I thought of the crew of the Poet and others who have left this life prematurely.  I appreciated deeply the opportunity I had to visit their memorial plaque in the Old Swedes’ Church and to pray for the safety of their souls.  And I hoped that in the Philadelphia Temple the ordinances for their continued spiritual sanctification would be done someday soon.

In the meantime, as John Henry Newman prayed, “in His mercy may He give [them] safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last!”[5]   

Following are some photographs from my visit to Philadelphia:

The sailing ship Gazela moored at Penn's Landing, the site that hosted the State of Maine in June of 1976.  In the background stands the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, linking Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church and churchyard, a half-mile south of Penn's Landing.



 
Three views of the memorial plaque honoring the Poet and her crew inside the Old Swedes' Church.  A very sublime sight.
A pen-and-ink rendering of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  From a brochure provided by the cathedral staff.
The Philadelphia Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  From a brochure produced for the temple's dedication.



[1] Robert J. Pessek, The Poet Vanishes: An American Voyage, Allston, Massachusetts: 1st Books Library, 2000; biographical information on Captain Leroy Warren from p. 75-77 & 101-102; information on Mark Henthorne from p. 207-208.  Also, Mark’s surname is misspelled on the plaque.
[2] Included in my essay “The Dead.”
[3] Joseph Conrad, “Youth,” in Tales of Land and Sea, Garden City, NY: Hanover House: 1916, p. 8.
[4] Ibid.
[5] John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Sermon 20: Wisdom and Innocence,” in The Newman Reader, at www.newmanreader.org.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

At Sea, At Sky


A ship embarked on a voyage across water is correctly said to be “at sea.”  An airplane embarked on a voyage through air is said to be “in flight.”  This inconsistency puzzles me.  It seems that an airplane underway should be described as “at sky,” for the airplane is truly in the sky just as much as the ship is in the sea.  I think of this now because of a journey that I made recently aboard a small aircraft which was simultaneously at sea and at sky.

At 12:14pm on Friday, March 17, 2017, with my son James at the controls, Miss Patty and I took off from Boire Field in Nashua, New Hampshire, aboard a Cessna Skyhawk and proceeded toward Biddeford, Maine.  It was a bright, sunny, and clear Saint Patrick’s Day, truly a beautiful day for flying.  I had not travelled in a small aircraft since the early 1980s, so this was a special occasion.

James taxied to the end of runway 32, and we took off into the wind to the northeast.  Once airborne, he banked the plane as it continued to ascend and turned sharply to the east.  At about 1,500 feet of altitude and in turbulent air, we passed over the northern part of Nashua.  I looked at our neighborhood below with some trepidation as the little airplane lurched through the turbulence.  I sincerely hoped that Saint Patrick was watching over us on his special day!  James knew exactly what to do, though, and the ride became more comfortable as he ascended into calmer air.  At a cruising altitude of about 3,500 feet, we flew east-northeastward towards Portsmouth and then into Maine.

Looking southward and seeing Portsmouth and its environs from the air was a special treat, and it brought back many happy memories.  I had been assigned aboard the Furman here in 1985 and 1986.  She spent a lot of time slowly loading subsea telecommunications cable at the Simplex Wire and Cable Company dock in Newington.  She also sailed up and down the Piscataqua River many times to shift berths and go on engineering trials.  In later years, when I was no longer sailing, we often brought the children to Portsmouth.  They played in Prescott Park, hiked across the Memorial Bridge, visited the lighthouse at Fort Constitution, and explored the grounds of Fort McClary.  They also saw ships there.  They toured the historic Bluenose II and the not-so-historic State of Maine at the State Pier.  They also admired the submarine Albacore, the cable carrier Global Mariner, and the cargo ships Atlantic Erie, Alexandria, Rays, and Nel.

Continuing toward Biddeford, James piloted the little aircraft overland and parallel to the coastline.  The great Atlantic Ocean stretched infinitely to the somewhat hazy horizon.  At its edge lay the beaches—Wells, Long Sands, and the Footbridge—that we had frequented with the children when they were little.  The lighthouses stood there, too, including the old family favorites that James promised to visit more closely on the return flight to Nashua.

Descending next for the approach to the small municipal airfield in Biddeford, James maneuvered the airplane through more low level turbulence and landed in a strong crosswind from the northeast on runway 24, one hour after our departure from Nashua.   After parking and securing the Cessna, we met James’ maternal grandmother who was waiting for us with an automobile.  A family reunion and luncheon at a nearby restaurant followed.

At 3:15pm it was time to leave again.  James took off on runway 60 heading east-northeast this time, still contending with the strong northwesterly crosswind.  Once aloft, as the small airplane was again buffeted by the low level turbulence, James turned the craft to starboard and headed seaward. Most of the haze had by this time disappeared, and the view of the Maine coastline and the open Atlantic was magnificent.  To port lay the sandy crescent of Old Orchard Beach capped by the rocky peninsula of Cape Elizabeth.  To starboard lay the assortment of rocky headlands interspersed with short sandy beaches that stretches back down to Portsmouth.  Just offshore a scattering of small rocky islands punctuated the coast.  Several of these islands sported lighthouses, and as he had promised, James turned southwestward over the Atlantic and set a course for sightseeing.

The first waypoint was Wood Island Light, just a few minutes’ flight from the Biddeford airfield.  Flying high enough to avoid the turbulence but low enough to see the lighthouses clearly, James next took the aircraft offshore and out to sea around Goat Island.  The coastal communities of Biddeford Pool and Fortunes Rocks passed by on the starboard side.  The broad, blue Atlantic stretched out infinitely to port.  This was my favorite part of the flight, and I enjoyed the ineffable feeling of simultaneously being at sea and at sky gazing down upon the sea.  It was sublime, supernal, and serene, despite the continuous hum of the motor.  After passing Goat Island to starboard, James continued southwestward toward Boon Island.  Kennebunk, Wells, and Ogunquit came into view on the starboard side.  The great, blue Atlantic remained omnipresent to port.

The time seemed to slow down as I stared at the open Atlantic on this leg of the flight.  I could have looked at it all afternoon and been very content.  But then, suddenly it seemed, we reached Boon Island.  James turned to port, rounded Boon, and headed next for the Nubble.  Long one of the family’s favorite spots, we had visited Nubble Light often when James and his siblings were younger, and from that vantage point had sighted the Boon Island Light on the horizon several  miles distant.  Seeing both lights from the air was a new experience, a broader and more breathtaking perspective.  At the Nubble, James turned the aircraft once again to port and followed the sea to the Isles of Shoals on the Maine-New Hampshire border.

Once again, I looked out to port and imbibed the view of the wide, blue Atlantic.  It was tremendous, but unfortunately we would fly over it for only a few more minutes.  We came upon the Isles of Shoals all too quickly, and James circled around them so we could see the small white lighthouse on White Island.  This beautiful little archipelago lies only about seven miles offshore.  The time was not slowing down now; it suddenly seemed to be going by much too fast!  After a very brief further interval of blissfully looking down at my Atlantic, the little aircraft came over Hampton Beach in New Hampshire.  My view of the wide-open ocean was then replaced by a view of the densely built up seaside resorts of Hampton and Seabrook.  From this point westward, we flew overland back to Nashua.

My mind remained at sea, however.  Today’s flight over water reminded me of two previous journeys that I had made, one long ago and one fairly recently. 

The first of these two flights took place aboard The Portlander, a small Bar Harbor Airlines Beechcraft 99, on Friday, December 16, 1977.   Enroute from Bangor, Maine, to Boston, it flew just offshore and paralleled the coastline from Penobscot Bay to Winthrop Neck near Logan Airport on a clear and sunny afternoon with excellent visibility.  The views of both the snow-covered New England coast and the cold, blue Atlantic Ocean were magnificent beyond description.  I’ve made many airline flights over the years, and this one ranks high on my list of favorites.

The second flight took place aboard a Tam Airlines 767 enroute from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to New York.  In the very early morning of Mother’s Day, May 8, 2016, I opened the window shade next to my seat on the port side of the aircraft and gazed contentedly down at the western Atlantic between 20 and 30 degrees of north latitude.  I had sailed on this stretch of ocean many times aboard several ships, and it felt good to be back.  I would have been perfectly happy to sit quietly and look at the Atlantic Ocean for the rest of the flight to New York, but this was not to be.  After a little while a cabin attendant came to my seat and asked me to please lower the shade.  It was letting too much light into the darkened interior of the airplane, she explained, and the cabin crew wanted the passengers to sleep as long as possible before they served breakfast.  I lowered the shade as requested.  As I did so, however, I glanced around and felt bad for the other passengers.  Very few of them had window seats, and I supposed that even fewer had any interest in looking at the great Atlantic Ocean.  And here, after all my voyages, I felt like a plank owner of the Atlantic!

As our homeward flight drew to its conclusion, James descended to about 1,500 feet and passed directly over his old school in Hudson, the Presentation of Mary Academy.  Then he brought the little Cessna back across the Merrimack River and over downtown Nashua.  At 4:15pm he landed on runway 32 at Boire Field, and our journey was complete.

In two hours of flight, we had seen the beauty of the sea and the sky, two of the primordial elements of the Earth.  The aerial voyage brought to mind the words of the psalmist:

                        They that go down to the sea in ships,
                        that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord,
                        and his wonders in the deep (Ps. 107:23-24).

This applies to airmen as much as to seamen, for both traverse the vast stretches of sea and sky in their voyaging.  Whether on a ship looking out at the sea and up at the sky, or on an airplane and looking out at the sky and down at the sea, these magnificent elements speak to the human soul and touch the human heart.  The psalmist further asserts, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1), and more recent revelation informs us that, “The elements are the tabernacle of God” (D&C 93:35).  Whether at sea or at sky, then, the opportunity to experience Divinity and commune with Deity is at limitless as the elements themselves.

A few photographs from our journey:

Portsmouth Harbor.  The Piscataqua River separates Kittery, Maine, on the left, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the right.  Several local landmarks are clearly visible:  the Navy Yard, the three bridges, Albacore Park, Prescott Park, Fort McClary, Fort Constitution, and downtown Portsmouth.

Boon Island, about six miles offshore from Cape Neddick and Nubble Light.  This is a very isolated spot, despite its proximity to the mainland.

The Atlantic Ocean.  This view is to the southeast from a point between Boon Island and the Isles of Shoals.  As I looked out on the wide expanse of the blue sea, I also observed the wing of our aircraft, and I marveled at the fairly recently discovered principle of physics that enables air to support the weight of the airplane, and its passengers, cargo, fuel, etc.

A few of the Isles of Shoals.  Depending on how one counts them, there are about ten islands in the cluster, which is bisected by the Maine-New Hampshire border.  They are easily accessible by ferry from Portsmouth.  This places them far enough from the madding crowd without being too isolated.  They look like a great location for my retirement home!

 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Four College Degrees


When I joined the freighter Comet in October of 1983 in Bayonne, New Jersey, Mr. Z was already embarked as the chief mate.  About the same age as my parents, he was a graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy and held an unlimited license as Master.  After one voyage to Europe and back, he left the ship, went on vacation for a month, and then returned aboard.  Prior to his vacation, he was an unfailingly pleasant and helpful shipmate.  After his vacation, however, this started to change.

At first it was just little things.  A snide comment here, an undeserved criticism there, then starting arguments, and finally an attitude of resentment and superiority.  Mr. Z had difficulties with numerous crewmen, including several of his fellow officers.  Almost all of these problems were trivial in nature and hardly worth the effort of getting upset.  For the most part, I continued to get along well with him, but I became increasingly puzzled by his behavior toward and his remarks about others.  Central to his new attitude was his level of education, which he began to advertise more than was either necessary or appropriate.

Mr. Z claimed to have four college degrees.  The first of these was his bachelor’s degree from the Merchant Marine Academy.  A second reportedly came from Columbia University.  The sources of his third and fourth degrees he did not identify.  He also never mentioned if he had studied the humanities or the sciences, or if he held graduate or undergraduate degrees, or for that matter, if these were actual degrees or just certificates for having taken a few random courses here and there.  For all that he repeated about having four college degrees, he never really said anything specific.

Mr. Z often raised the topic of his four college degrees during or after a dispute with someone else.  For example, after a minor disagreement with Captain Iaccabacci, Mr. Z stuck his nose up in the air and asserted, “Well, I’m still smarter than he is!  I have more education than he does!”

After a second such episode with Captain Icky, Mr. Z similarly stated, “Well, he may be the Captain, but he never went to college!  I have four college degrees.  I’m better educated than he is!”

College educated or not, Captain Icky was one of the most cheerful and affable shipmasters in the fleet.  He never had an unkind word for anyone, even when it was deserved.  Just why Mr. Z was having disputes with him seemed very strange indeed.  But it was not just Captain Icky.

One day an ordinary seaman ran afoul of Mr. Z.  Evidently tired of experiencing the superiority complex and hearing about the four college degrees, he spoke his mind on the matter.  “Dat don’t be raahht, mate.  Ah know yo’ went tah college an’ awll dat, but we be equal, man.  Di’ here be Amer-hicca, mate, and we awll be equal!”

Mr. Z disagreed strongly and replied, “Look, we may have been equal when we were born, but not anymore.  I have four college degrees, and you don’t.  I have a Master’s license, and you don’t.  I’m smarter and better educated than you are.  So we’re not equal at all.  I’m vastly superior to you!” 

Even without disputes with his shipmates, Mr. Z frequently raised the subject of his four college degrees with no obvious prompting.  A typical soliloquy would include, “I have four college degrees.  I’m the smartest and best educated person on the ship.  I went to Columbia University.  I have an Ivy League education.  I should get more respect than I do.  What do these guys think I am?  I have four college degrees!”   It was comical for a while, but then it grew tiresome.  Perhaps the prophet Jeremiah said it best: “How long shall thy vain thoughts lodge within thee?” (Jer. 4:14).

One day, I had heard enough about Columbia University.  Desiring to take the wind out of his sails, I mentioned to Mr. Z that my mother had also attended Columbia University, and that she had a Master of Arts degree from Columbia.  He paused momentarily, and then asked me what kind of work she did.  I replied that she had taught in the public schools in East Meadow, Long Island, for forty years.

Recovering his stride at this information, Mr. Z launched into another soliloquy.  “Well, if all she did was teach, then she probably went to Teachers College, which is not really a part of Columbia University, but a separate school that just wants to be with Columbia in order to get in on the name....”  Perhaps it was naive of me, but I had expected a more professional and less denigrating response than this.  Clearly, Mr. Z thought otherwise, though, and on he rambled.  I walked away, regretting having said anything to him on the matter.

Mr. Z got his comeuppance one day in Oakland soon after the Comet had returned from the Far East.  The newest ship in our fleet, the Stalwart, was tied up across the pier from us.  At lunch time, Mr. Z went ashore and started over to this vessel to take a look around.  Standing on the bridge deck and watching him come across the pier were the Stalwart’s Master, chief mate, and maybe one other person.  Of course, Mr. Z had no authority over them, and they knew it.  As he approached the Stalwart, one of these fellows shouted, “Look!!  There’s [Mr. Z]!!  The man with more degrees than the thermometer!!”

Mr. Z stopped short, looked up at the source of this announcement, and turned red in the face.  Then he angrily shook his fists in the air, grunted loudly, and turned away and stomped back to the Comet.  Everyone who witnessed this performance burst out laughing.  After this we heard no more about the four college degrees.  It was a fine illustration of the scriptural assertion, “He that exalteth himself shall be abased” (D&C 101:42).

Following her return from the Orient, the Comet discharged her cargo and then spent four mostly idle weeks at the pier prior to being taken out of service.  I was frequently on night watches with little actual work to do, so I used this down time to study stability in preparation for the chief mate’s license exams.  I had purchased a stability textbook at a nautical supply shop in San Francisco.  With this book and several papers full of drawings and diagrams spread out on the chart table, I set to studying.

Mr. Z worked in the daytime hours and almost never went ashore, so he had little to do and often appeared bored in the evenings.  When he found me studying stability while I was on watch, I asked him if he would like to help me, as he obviously valued education, and I felt somewhat deficient in the subject.  This he seemed happy to do, and the arrangement worked out well.  Mr. Z was a very good tutor.  He had a tremendous talent for explaining complex material, and he did me a great service which I appreciated very much.  But once again, things changed.

On Saturday, May 18, 1984, the Comet participated in the Maritime Day festivities which were held in Jack London Square in Oakland.  The ship was open for public tours, and we hosted many visitors.  On the previous day, the ship had shifted berths from the Military Ocean Terminal to Jack London Square, and on the Monday following the event, she shifted berths again and returned to the Military Ocean Terminal.  This entire operation proceeded quite smoothly, but something about it sent Mr. Z over the edge.  Angry about everything and at everyone, and with absolutely no provocation from anyone, he lashed out at me just after the Comet docked again on Monday morning.  Now, I’ve been called many things in my time, but Mr. Z’s outburst was the most grossly obscene appellation I’ve ever endured.  Several of the deckhands witnessed this, and they stared at him in complete astonishment, as did I.  Then Mr. Z stomped away in a huff.  As I watched him go I recalled him saying many times previously, “I don’t like to use that kind of language.”

That was a small point, though.  More memorable were his final remarks to me later in the day.

I was discharged from the Comet that Monday evening, May 21, along with three other men.  We were all due to leave from the San Francisco airport that evening.  Captain Icky, ever the soul of kindness, volunteered to drive us to the airport so we would not need to pay for an expensive taxi ride.  Before leaving the ship, I said good-bye to my colleagues.  Wanting to depart on good terms with no lingering ill will, I made it a point to bid farewell to Mr. Z and thank him for his assistance with my study of stability.  This interview did not go well.

Finding Mr. Z in his quarters, I offered my valedictions and my gratitude, and we shook hands. Then he turned on me.  “I’m going to give you some advice,” he began.  “You’re never going to be more than a third mate.”

Startled by this pessimistic prediction, I reminded him, “I’ve sailed as second mate.”

“Well, then,” he retorted defensively, “you’ll never be more than a second mate!”  He then fired a long and bitter stream of invective at me.  This tirade did not contain a shred of advice or even harsh but constructive criticism; it was nothing but blatantly insulting vituperation, the purpose of which completely eluded me.  Finally, with tremendous volume and great agitation, he concluded with, “You’re nothing but a night watchman!!  That’s all you are—a night watchman!!”

Well, I had not come to listen to this, and I did not want to argue with him.  That would be pointless.  Besides, Captain Icky and the others were waiting.  So I simply said good-bye and wished him well and walked away.  The subsequent ride to the airport passed uneventfully.

I had a long wait at the airport as my plane wasn’t scheduled to depart until shortly after midnight.  During this interval, I considered Mr. Z’s remarks and thought everything over carefully.

Never more than a third mate?  I had spent ten months on the Waccamaw as second mate and one month on the Comet as second mate when the original second mate went home for a family emergency.  Furthermore, when this second mate had joined the ship—his first assignment as such—he turned to me for help with the voyage planning and great circle sailing calculations.  And now, with more than enough sea time, I was poised to take the exams for the chief mate’s license.

Nothing but a night watchman?  I had spent many nights at sea working on star sights, coastal navigation, weather observations, shiphandling, and more, and also many nights in port docking, undocking, working cargo, and assisting Mr. Z with emergency equipment.  My most intense nighttime experience was threading the Comet’s way through the enormous fishing fleets off the coasts of Japan and Korea.  I had learned the techniques of this difficult business previously by watching Captain Viera maneuver the Rigel through the fishing fleets off the coast of Spain.  I sweated through those busy and stressful nights while Mr. Z slept in his quarters.  Not bad for a night watchman, I thought.

Joseph Conrad expressed it very succinctly in describing the career of a young mate:  “he had to bear the criticism of men [and] the exactions of the sea.”[1]  The sea, which strictly obeys the laws of Nature, is a stern but inherently fair taskmaster.  Men, however, subject to the laws of abnormal psychology, are as often as not merely capricious.

One thing that impressed me was the irony of it all.  When I had left the Waccamaw the previous year, Captain Rigobello had bestowed upon me more praise than I thought I deserved.  Now, on leaving the Comet, Mr. Z bestowed upon me more condemnation than I thought I deserved.  I had gone from one extreme to the other!

Back home on the East Coast, I studied diligently for the license exams.  It was hard work, but I passed them and emerged with an unlimited license as chief mate, plus a limited-tonnage endorsement as Master.  Then I sailed as second mate on the Bartlett and afterwards as chief mate on the Kane.  So much for never being more than a third mate.

A dozen years later, I was working as a college librarian and simultaneously studying toward a college degree.  My colleagues—librarians, professors, and administrators—all held multiple degrees.  Many had three; several had four or five; one man had six, of which two were doctorates.  None of them ever advertised the number of degrees they held.  I learned of their credentials only from reading the college catalog.  As part of my academic program, I went to Columbia University one day in April of 1995 to do some research in the famous Butler Library.  There I beheld the names of the ancient luminaries inscribed in stone over the main entrance: Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, and Vergil.  I was studying these and other authors, and I thought of Mr. Z.  Somehow he just did not fit in with these great minds of ancient Greece and Rome.  But other men I had sailed with, such as Captain Rigobello, for example, most certainly did.  I could easily see him not only as a student but also as a very distinguished professor at Columbia.

I also learned that Columbia, like other large universities, is subdivided into several academic units such as Columbia College, Barnard College, Teachers College, the Columbia Law School, the Columbia Business School, and so on.  Teachers College is thus very much an integral part of Columbia.  My mother’s master’s degree, which now hangs in my home library, unmistakably reads, “The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. . . ”  and is signed by both the President of Columbia and the Dean of Teachers College.  So much, then, for Mr. Z’s allegations about Teachers College.

Whether or not his claim of having four college degrees was true, Mr. Z was intelligent and possessed valuable skills and talents.  For all his education and travels, though, he displayed no interest in culture and demonstrated no knowledge of any language besides English, both standard indicators of intelligence and higher education.  When not advertising his four college degrees and promoting himself by sullying others, he talked only about his work and making money.  One would have expected better of such a supposedly well-educated man, for “unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48).  And since “the test of a man is his conversation” (Si. 27:6, JB), Mr. Z failed to measure up.  Quite sadly, he manifested intellectual mediocrity in place of the superior knowledge and wisdom that his colleagues would naturally expect from one so extensively educated. 

With the retrospect of three decades, I feel sincerely sorry for Mr. Z.  I understand better now than I did at the time that there are compelling psychological reasons for such inappropriate speech and deplorable behavior.  Emotional instability, personal insecurity, insufficient self-esteem, egregious immaturity, and other factors can combine to bring out the worst in some people.  I think Mr. Z was essentially a very unhappy man.  He did not really hurt me or anyone else by his remarks and actions, but he did himself a great disservice, and he illustrated Saint Augustine’s point that “every disordered mind should be its own punishment”[2]  He ought to have been capable of so much more!

If Mr. Z could have just seen the good in others, I believe that he would have discovered the best in himself, and thereby he would have been a much happier person.  After all, “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). 


[1] Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., p. 6.


[2] Saint Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, tr. Msgr. John K. Ryan, Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960, p. 55 (I:xii:xix).

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Stream of Consciousness


In a shoreside job that is not always intellectually stimulating but often quite mundane, I frequently find myself being led by the uncontrollable force of memory to the sea.  While performing my appointed tasks largely on autopilot, thoughts of ships and voyages and ports and crewmen crowd upon my mind.  They come and go in a steady stream.  Some enter, pause only briefly, and then leave as quickly as they came.  Others linger longer and allow me some time to focus on them.  Still others remain for hours and induce me to take notes and look something up after I get home.  And a few special thoughts compel me to write about them.

Like a character in a Modernist novel, I do my work amid “the flow of thoughts of the waking mind”[1] with its “impressions, emotions, [and] reminiscences, often without logical sequence.”[2]  Thus I may start the day recalling a transpacific voyage aboard the Comet, then consider the calculations for the local hour angle of Aries, next remember taking evening stars aboard the Rigel in mid Atlantic, and finally recall the stability formulas for determining a ship’s center of buoyancy and metacentric height.  By then, it’s time for lunch.  I resume my seafaring stream of consciousness in the afternoon.  Often I think of people—crewmen full of tall tales because they’ve gone everywhere and done everything, and docksiders full of even taller tales because they’ve gone nowhere and done nothing.  And frequently, as interruptions from the job at hand arise, my mind flits idly from one thing to another “without logical sequence.”  Hence my meditations on the sight reduction tables may be cut short and replaced by recollections of my first transit of the Panama Canal aboard the Mercury.

Then, at the end of the workday, I return to the present, go home, and tend to the family.  It’s a good life.

For all these hours of idle reminiscing, though, there are greater hours of philosophical contemplation on what I think of as the mysticism of the sea.  The cargo ships that carried me across the oceans were, of course, man-made objects built for strictly utilitarian purposes.  There was really nothing spiritual or mystical about them, no matter how remarkable they may have been as works of engineering and technology.

The sea, however, is an element of Creation. As such, it abounds in spiritual and mystical qualities.  I think of this often.  In my mind’s eye I gaze upon the surface of the sea and then look upward to the dome of the sky.  I recall many dark starlit nights, and some nights with a full moon faintly illuminating the gray horizon.  I remember many sunrises and sunsets, some with extraordinarily colored cloud banks hovering in the distance.  I consider the action of the wind upon the water, and note the undulations of the waves and swells across the surface.  I feel these elements of Nature, too, as the ship rides through the water and as the wind blows through my hair.  The wildlife of the sea participate as well.  Dolphins frolic in the bow wave.  Flying fish dart from wave crest to wave crest.  Seagulls perch in the rigging,  The sciences of oceanography, meteorology, astronomy, and biology surround the ship and its crew, and their natural beauties bear witness to the genius of a Creator-God.

I contemplate this magnificence of Nature in Augustinian metaphysical terms.  On the great seas of this Earth, “the fields and spacious palaces of my memory,”[3] I am able to “see the invisible things of God,”[4] and begin “ascending by steps to him who made me.”[5]   Going to sea is thus a mystical experience, an opportunity to commune with the Deity through the medium of his Creation in its most pristine and unspoiled state.  The seemingly aimless and random musings of my idle mind on the sea—“without logical sequence”—also lead me to the Divine.  The mystique of the sea, then, like the constancy of the North Star, unfailingly provides the direction to the Summit of all human aspiration.

While my seafaring youth is now long past, my memory preserves it and reminds me of my great good fortune in having gone to sea all those years ago.  The experience of traveling by sea to distant countries and continents, to go where and how the typical tourist does not, to experience peoples, cultures, and languages vastly different from my own, and most significantly of all, to actually live on the sea and commune with it and practically be a part of it for extended periods, is to be educated and edified in the most sublime way possible.  It is an ineffable experience.  Fellow merchant seamen would naturally understand, but to the layman it remains incomprehensibly and immutably foreign.

The sea gives so much more to us than we can ever give back to it.  In considering the sea, there is much to think about but comparatively little to say.  Most often, it seems appropriate to simply maintain a reverent silence and let the sea speak to us.


[1] Margaret Drabble, ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature, fifth edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 944.
[2] Ibid.
[3] St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, tr. Msgr. John K. Ryan, Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960, p. 236 (X:viii:xii).
[4] Op. cit., p. 235 (X:vi:x).
[5] Op. cit., p. 236 (X:viii:xii).