I Tip My Hat To The Men And Women Of The Sea

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A while back I wrote a column explaining why someone like me, who grew up beside the Atlantic Ocean, should have chosen the Air Force over the Navy.

When I started that column I intended to talk about the other side of the coin — the men and women who choose to serve on the sea — but as so often happens I never got to it.

If you read that column you already know that I stayed away from the sea when I enlisted in the service, not because it was an unknown to me, but because I knew it all only too well. I had not only lived near it — in fact almost in it — for most of my life, I’d had the highly educational experience of crossing the North Atlantic in a troop ship in September, a time of year when it’s not known for Sinbad’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.”

I learned a quartet of things during that voyage.

One, it is possible for waves to be higher than the highest point of a tubby freighter.

Two, the Atlantic is paved with Zippo lighters dropped out of shirt pockets of GIs clinging desperately to the rail as they spew out everything they’ve eaten for the past six weeks.

Three, eating the dill pickle the Navy sticks on your breakfast plate each morning will avoid that hanging-over-the-rail thing.

Four, sailors chuckle as they watch the troops trying to get their sea legs. Sailors, it seems, find nothing odd about climbing a deck instead of strolling one.

I also learned a wee bit about the immensity of the sea, a thing which is truly hard to grasp until you spend a week or two out of sight of land — out of sight of anything except the sea, the sea, and more sea. Only then does it begin to dawn on you just how much of this planet of ours is covered by salt water. And how much courage it must take to voluntarily place yourself on a tiny chip of wood or metal and sail forth upon the vast areas where land ends and “adventure” begins.

Coming from a Navy town I’ve known many men and women with that special brand of courage. There’s something different about those folks, something that makes them willing — sometimes even eager — to hazard themselves upon the oceans, the one place on this planet which will forever remain a frontier.

The sea is inherently dangerous. Even today with weather satellites circling the globe and sending back information, it is still unpredictable, still beyond our control, still as ready to punish the unwary as it was in the days of our ancient forebears.

Think of how the ocean must have appeared to those ancients. Consider for a moment what they must have thought of it. Now, it is true that much of the world was a mystery to them, but of all things unpredictable, of all things unknown and unknowable, the sea was the ultimate.

True, there were times when things happened on land which caught our ancient forebears flat-footed. Rain fell in mountains located hundreds of miles from their homes, swelling rivers to flood stage and sweeping away entire villages under clear blue skies. Storms appeared out of nowhere and lashed the land. Mile-wide columns of spiraling wind swept across the landscape, leaving behind a swath of death and destruction. The summer sun burned them. The winter snow froze them. Sometimes the solid ground beneath their feet betrayed them, shaking down upon their heads the very walls they had built for protection.

But most of the time the land was their friend and protector. It fed them, clothed them, housed them, warmed and cooled them, and remained reasonably constant. By and large the ways of the land could be learned, understood, predicted.

But the sea ...?

The sea gave too: Fish, cooling winds, things that washed up on beaches from who knew where. But it extracted a terrible price for what it gave.

Recorded in the legends of humankind even before we learned to write are tales of days when the sea suddenly receded from the shore and fish lay stranded upon the sands as though the sea had chosen to uncover its riches for humankind.

But when they ran out upon those sands to reap the sudden unexpected harvest the sea returned, an irresistible wave that poured inland mile after mile, sweeping away everything before it.

As a youngster I read a Chinese fairy tale about a boy who could draw up the sea into his mouth and hold it. The villagers, hungry for the fish they could gather, begged him to do it. He agreed, warning them first that he could hold the sea in his mouth for only a few minutes. Heedless of his warning, the villagers overstayed their time, greedily gathering fish. When he could hold the sea no longer he released it, drowning the entire village. Is there any doubt that tale tells of a tsunami?

Ancient peoples, though they traveled thousands of miles upon the seas never ventured out of sight of land. They skirted the edges of the continents, finding new lands, new peoples, and vast riches, but they never dared head out into the unknown.

In time, over thousands of years, short trips began to be made out of sight of land. Ancient mariners learned to climb the mast to extend their view, to watch the sky for the bright line on the horizon — called ice blink by the Norsemen — which told of ice, and hence land, beyond the horizon. They learned to watch for shore birds, or for land birds heading out to sea, knowing that whence went the birds, there lay land.

They studied the curving horizons of the sea and that of flat deserts. On the sea they saw masts appear from below that horizon. In the desert the camel caravans appear literally out of nowhere. They looked up and observed the round shadow of the Earth when it came between the sun and the moon in a lunar eclipse.

From all this they concluded the earth was round.

And so Columbus ...

The three ships that Columbus sailed across the Atlantic were mere cockleshells. In truth, the smallest of them, the Nina, was not much smaller than the Santa Maria, the largest. The Nina could have been towed down main street of any town in the country on a good size flat bed truck. It slept 24 — on the deck.

Next week: Iron men and wooden ships.

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