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).