The rain was coming down so hard that night I could barely see the ship, painted haze grey and standing at least five stories tall, moored alongside Lava Pier in Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines.
It was the monsoon season, and I had been out in the ville for a meal of pork adobe and a walkabout, ignoring the rain because it had been coming down 24/7 for what seemed like two weeks straight, and everyone stayed wet all day, no matter how hard you tried to stay dry.
As I crossed the quarterdeck, the officer of the deck, a friend of mine, pulled me aside and said, “Listen, I need to give you a heads up and a warning. The Old Man left word that he wanted to see you in his sea cabin the minute you came back aboard. I don’t know what’s on his mind, but he was very upset and you had better be careful.”
He knew as well as I did that we worked for a martinet, a bully, maybe even a psychopath, but certainly the most unstable person in history to ever command a major naval warship. He wasn’t necessarily a bad person, and was incredibly smart, with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and who had come to us straight from his previous commands of three boomer submarines in a row. It was clear, however, that all the responsibility and stress of shepherding three different loads of ICBM nuclear-tipped weapons of mass destruction around the oceans of the world had left him used up, worn out, running on empty, and maybe a little crazy.
You always hope your commanding officer is sane because, in the Navy, a ship’s captain has pretty much absolute power, short of mayhem. Old sea lore says that while a captain might not be God, he still sits on His right hand. Flogging sailors was prohibited in the 1840s, and sentencing a person to the brig on bread and water for trivial offenses had, thankfully, already been outlawed. Otherwise, this guy would have ranked right up there with Captain William Bligh from Mutiny on the Bounty. As the ship’s chaplain, I had to attend Captain’s Mast for non-judicial punishment every Friday; and I always tried to put in a good word for the defense, but usually I got shouted down.
I had seen him fire junior officers and throw them off the ship for simply asking what he deemed a “stupid question.” The ship’s barber told me he had cursed him out for saying “Good morning, sir.” One night, during the midwatch on the bridge, I watched him berate the Executive Officer (the ship’s Number 2) so badly that the man actually cried. He wasn’t speaking to me at the time because he had recently accused me of sending too many men home on emergency leave, especially nuclear-qualified personnel, saying that, if I had my way, there wouldn’t be enough left to get the ship underway. So, it was with some trepidation that I climbed the series of ladders that led to his sea cabin, just aft of the bridge.
As I knocked on his door, I couldn’t help but remember an Executive Officer that I’d had on an earlier ship who was also borderline mad. He had a sign outside his stateroom door that paraphrased the Italian version of the inscription on the entrance to hell in Dante’s “Divine Comedy:” “Knock, Enter. Abandon hope all who enter here.” He wasn’t exactly “Mr. Congeniality,” either.
So, you can imagine my shock when I entered the sea cabin and found the captain sitting cross-legged in the middle of his bed, fully dressed, and crying like a baby. He had just received word that his wife, back in the States, had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, and it had pushed him over the edge. I earned my money that night. I won’t say that we became “best buddies,” but he did start attending my Sunday church services and he went on in his long career to be promoted to Vice Admiral before he retired. His wife also did fairly well and lived for several years afterwards.
I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. That said, I’ve noticed that even the strongest individuals can reach a point in their lives where “things fall apart.” That rather pessimistic assessment has registered with me ever since I first read the novel of that name by the Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe (1958), which depicts several years in the life of a chieftain in the fictional Nigerian clan of Umudfia as he dealt with the pressures of European colonialism in the latter part of the 19th century. You probably read it in high school or college. No matter how hard he, Okonkwo, tries, events seemingly beyond his control sent his life on a downward death spiral. Many critics consider it to be one of the most influential books of our time, and it was one of the first significant books to record the impact of foreign imperialism and ethnocentrism from the African perspective – an insider’s view, so to speak. While the novel is considered the archetypal example of African identity, nationalism, and decolonialization, the title has always been, for me, a metaphor for how things go wrong in our personal lives.
Hopefully, your life has always been on an even keel; unfortunately, I can’t say the same. Perhaps the lowest point of my professional career, when things fell apart, came in the early 1970s when I felt responsible for the suicide of a young mother despondent over the absence of her husband who was on a ship deployed to Vietnam. I was serving as chaplain to a destroyer squadron of six ships, and we had just returned from a seven-month tour providing close-in gunfire support along Highway 1 in Vietnam. During this trip, I managed to be on the only Navy ship that was attacked by North Vietnamese MIG fighter jets during the war (My battle station was in the ship’s officers’ wardroom which served as the “hospital,” and the dining table also served as the medical operating table; however, we had no casualties).
While in our homeport of Newport, Rhode Island, I had to take my turn as Chaplain/Counselor/Social Worker for the hundreds of military dependents whose spouses were on the large number of ships that were deployed around the world. One day, while I was on such duty, a young woman came into the office and told me she wanted her husband home. I explained to her that, while I was certainly sympathetic, there had to be a genuine emergency and that it had to be verified by the local Red Cross chapter before I could send a message to her husband’s ship requesting emergency leave. She had no such emergency, but listened to me calmly. I thought she understood; and she left my office. The next day, I learned that she had jumped to her death off the highest section of the Newport bridge over Narragansett Bay. I will carry guilt over her death until my dying day. Things fall apart.
A few years later, I taught ethics to the 4,000 midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. In conjunction with my boss, Captain John J. O’Connor, who later became John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, and probably the only American who ever had a real chance of being elected Pope, I developed a curriculum to not only teach ethics to potential warfighters, but bedrock moral principles as well. Incidentally, he had been in charge of the counseling center in Newport where I saw the young lady described above.
We sought to produce junior officers who took care of their people and “did the right thing” as a matter of course. Most of my input was informed by situations in the past where I felt like I had failed. Here are just four of the points we taught, updated with anecdotal examples from my own experience - a simple “toolkit” you can mentally stash away and break out for help the next time things fall apart in your life. And they will; but if you try the following, I guarantee you will feel better.
Praise others. Although psychologists tell us that the name we love to hear the most is our own, be quick to praise others. A kind word goes a long way. I can remember almost every compliment I ever received. My high school English teacher once said to my class, “Benny is the only one in here who understands Shakespeare.” I didn’t, of course, but her off-hand comment changed my life.
Never throw in the towel. I coached several boxing teams while I was in the Navy. Some were pretty good. Once, we heaved to in the middle of the Pacific and had a “smoker” (boxing match) against a shipload of Marines on a six-month float out of Camp Pendleton, California. My guys gave a good account of themselves, except that I had to “throw in the towel” (concede) and end the heavyweight match. My fighter, who really wasn’t a boxer but just a big, tough guy out of the engine room, was bleeding badly and staggering around the ring. Later, he came up to me and said, “Coach, sir, with all due respect, if you ever stop one of my fights again, I will knock you out.” I believed him because he outweighed me at least 100 pounds, but I understood. He wanted to keep fighting as long as he was standing up. So should we.
Be a good citizen. In Vietnam, in a scene right out of Joseph Conrad’s novella, “Heart of Darkness,” I was on a small boat that accidentally ran over a native fisherman. He lost his right leg in the accident. We pulled him out of the water, and I had his head in my lap. He was dying. I knew he was dying, and he knew he was dying. There was something in his shirt pocket that he wanted me to see. He was in shock and his fingers didn’t work, so I helped him unbutton it. Do you know what was in it? A picture of his wife? Money? No, it was only his South Vietnamese government identification card. In his moment of death, he wanted to prove that he was a citizen. Most of us don’t think like that, and I think perhaps we should. We need to give thanks that we live in a place like the United States of America.
Finally, keep some higher power in your life. I was once on a ship running plane guard duty for an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, and one of their flight deck personnel got blown over the side by a jet exhaust blast. We immediately started looking for him; he had a life jacket on, and the water was warm; however, the waves were extremely high. After two unsuccessful days of searching, I figured, at best, we were looking for a body. But, lo and behold, there he was: half-naked, minus his life jacket, sunburned, covered with jellyfish, and treading water like crazy. When things calmed down, I went to sick bay to check on him. I asked him, “How did you ever manage to tread water for two days?” His answer was simple: “I turned my life over to God.”
You have, no doubt, heard that old trope, “The federal government now recommends you wear a blindfold along with your mask to prevent you from seeing what’s really going on.” Don’t fall for it. Keep your eyes open, and never “take a flyer.” Stay in the game, no matter how things fall apart. If I ever write a book, the title will certainly be, “The Things I Wish I’d Said and Done.”
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: email@example.com.