Although whaling ships were long before my time, I understand what the author, Herman Melville, meant when he said in Chapter 24 of “Moby Dick,” “A whale ship was my Yale College and Harvard.”
I came across this statement when I was reviewing the books I’m covering in my “Literature of the Sea” OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) course at USM this fall. The reading list includes “Moby Dick,” “Billy Budd,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” “White Jacket,” “Captains Courageous,” “Lord Jim,” etc., all available free online at “Project Gutenberg.” The course is also free with OLLI membership, and I’d love to have you onboard.
For whatever reason, none to be proud of, I wasted 12 years of public schooling. When I graduated, at the absolute bottom of my high school class, officially I knew how to read, write, count, and type. That was it. No awards. No commendations. No scholarships. Not even a pat on the back. Perhaps only a sigh of relief from teachers and administrators who had given up on me a long time before. I never caused any trouble – just a face in the crowd, sitting on the back row, unengaged, the outsider, watching and listening. What no one knew was that I had my own education plan going. On my own, starting in the 7th grade, I read just about every book in the high school library. I validated this claim years later when I taught English for a year in the same school, while waiting for my Navy commissioning date, and I found my name on the checkout slip of most old library books.
It wasn’t until I went into the service upon graduation from high school that I realized “self-fashioning” of learning wasn’t such a good idea. Very soon at boot camp, I learned that one had to settle down and get with the program if you expected to survive. Otherwise, the “system” would play whack-a-mole with your head. I won the academic award in bootcamp for the highest-class average, and I sent the paper certificate, the best report card I ever received, home to my mama in Lumberton. I asked her about it when I got home on leave a few years later, and she remembered making out a grocery list on the back of it. Once I got a reputation for being an “egg head” in boot camp, my shipmates would come to me for academic assistance at night and they, in return, would help me where I was deficient – like in tying knots. The Navy apparently hadn’t discovered clothes pins, and your laundry, which you washed every day, had to be secured to the outdoors clothesline with the “knot of the day.” If the drill instructor, a crusty old World War II-era boatswain’s mate, didn’t like your knot, or if he just felt like it, he would cut your laundry loose and stomp it into the mud. He also didn’t like what he called “smart guys,” so I had a lot of dirty laundry.
I wouldn’t recommend doing high school by independent reading. It’s hit or miss and leaves big gaps in your education. I always sailed with a bag of books, carefully rationing the reading while off watch so they would last the entire cruise. An eclectic reader, I wasn’t disciplined enough to focus on one subject, so I read about everything. Looking back, I daresay I learned as much “reading before the mast” as I learned in any college classroom. Again, I had something in common with Melville who said in Chapter 32 of “Moby Dick,” “I have swam through libraries.” As far as Harvard, my connection is more tenuous. Across the street was as close as I ever got. Early on, I was on a ship in the yard in Charlestown, a suburb of Boston, and on the Sundays when I wasn’t painting or chipping rust, I would ride the MTA (subway) to downtown Boston, get off at the Massachusetts Street Station, and walk over to Tremont Temple Baptist Church which was just across the Boston Common from the Harvard campus. I would go to Sunday School and sit quietly on the back row and listen to the Harvard students who made up most of the class, soaking up their big vocabularies and the glib way they discussed the lesson. A person can learn a lot by just listening.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but the Charlestown section of Boston, settled early on by Irish immigrants, was a hot bed of support and a collection point for funds going to the Irish Republican Army during the sectarian war that plagued Ireland during the “Troubles” of the early sixties. It was also ground zero for the notorious Irish street gang headed by Whitey Bulger, later infamous as an informer for the FBI, but they never bothered any of us. I guess they knew that sailors didn’t have anything worth stealing.
When I was stationed at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, I learned about St. John’s College, just over the wall from the Academy. This school, which also has a campus in Santa Fe, is famous for basing its entire curriculum on the so-called Great Books. For example, in math classes, you might study the works of Euclid, the “Father of Geometry;” in psychology, you could read the works of Sigmund Freud, or maybe some of his acolytes like Carl Jung or Karen Horney; in philosophy, you might study the original works of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates; or in political science you would read Karl Marx or even “Mein Kampf.” Obviously, such texts are used as a departure point for deeper study. At the time, their medical and law school admission rates were among the highest in the nation. As soon as I could, I got a copy of their reading list, and it became my guide.
The irony is that, for someone who basically ignored high school, when I walked onboard a ship, I found myself in an environment similar in many respects to a school. Surprisingly, at least to me, there are many similarities between the two seemingly different entities. Many are obvious, differing in title, but not much in function. For example, ships have captains, schools have principals; ships have chow halls, schools have cafeterias; ships have brigs, schools have in-school suspension. Life on a ship is divided into “watches,” while schools have “periods.” Both are regulated by the ringing of bells. Some similarities are more complex, however.
Public schools have been the focus of racial integration in the United States, and on July 26th, 1948, President Harry Truman issued his Executive Order 9981 which abolished segregation in the armed forces and ordered full integration of all the branches, including Navy ships. Schools and ships are and have been the poster boys for multiculturalism. On my first ship, I shared a berthing compartment with Filipinos, Hispanics, Italians, Irishmen, and a lone Frenchman who was worth his weight in gold when you went on liberty on the Cote d’azur. Looking at the roster for the last college English class I taught, I can identify at least four probable national origins; however, and this is important, sociologists note that America is now a “mixed salad” rather than a “melting pot.”
Sailors wear “crackerjacks” (bell bottoms) or specific uniforms which are also becoming “de rigeur” in many public schools. Both have a “captive” audience with some who don’t want to be there, although the penalty for being AWOL (away without leave) or Missing Movement from your ship is much more severe than that for playing hooky or skipping school.
Testing and test results determine your fate in each setting. Where you end up on a ship, your job, is determined in boot camp by your intelligence and aptitude scores. At least that’s what the recruiter will tell you to entice you to enlist. The reality is that, if you have the basic qualifications, you will end up wherever the Navy decides to put you. I wanted to be a corpsman to take care of people and save lives, but the placement officer told me my scores were too high. I thought to myself: so, you must be dumb to save lives?
In a school, everything obviously revolves around testing, retention, and class ranking. I never bothered with any of them in high school, but I somehow knew how to read when I started the first grade, as I had been reading the funny papers in the New Orleans “Times Picayune” for some time. I’ve since learned that I must have taught myself through what is known as the “whole word approach.” Had I not known how and had been taught reading through the phonics approach that is used in Mississippi today, I would have been placed in special education classes for looking out the window.
I could go on with these simple analogies, but let me share some deeper, more existential similarities between the two. In both settings, it’s the people you meet who make the difference in your life. While I had some wonderful professors in college, I had some authentic “mentors” onboard ship who were willing to invest time and interest in a “nobody.” I remember my first Division Officer, a recent Yale graduate, who sat down on the deck with me as I chipped paint in the forward officer’s head on a rough day in the North Atlantic and told me that I was smart enough to go to college. That man changed my life.
Another significant person early in my life, on my first ship, was the curmudgeon of a Master Chief Petty Officer who, in his own gruff way, took me under his wing. When I reported onboard from my electronics school, I was the junior man and pretty much an afterthought – lost in the shuffle, overlooked and ignored. I just went about my business, standing watches, working on gear that was down, biding my time. One day, an air search radar that was essential to the mission of the ship conked out and no one could repair it. The suits were running around, wringing their hands, and the Old Man was getting madder and madder. There was even talk of sending back to the manufacturer for a tech rep to come aboard and repair it once we got into port. Since we were overseas, it could be a long wait. I remember the Master Chief’s exact words. He said, “Let the ‘Reb’ do it. He can fix it.” And I did. Because of his confidence and support, I had “made my bones.”.
Finally, in their own way, both ships and schools have “destinations.” The destination or goal of a school is to make you a productive citizen and to graduate you. That of a ship is to make it to the next port, everything else is secondary. But to get there, all the moving parts, the men, the machinery, the weather, must come together into a harmonious whole. Otherwise, you run the chance of dissention, mutiny, shipwreck, and heartbreak. To be honest, I never paid much attention in my early school years. I was always an outlier. I might have been sitting on the back row, but in my head, I was always someplace else - thinking about my next destination. It wasn’t in the curriculum of my high school, but I remember reading Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” on my own, not sure what the rest of the class was doing. When he wrote of that “wine dark sea,” I knew what my destination was. But, even then, I knew the day would eventually come when, like the travel-worn Odysseus, longing to find my own Isle of Ithaca, I would one day put an oar on my shoulder and walk so far into the countryside that someone would ask me what it was. That day has come.
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.