Many years ago, a young man named Tom made up his mind to go to sea. He had been
brought up in the port city of Buffalo on the shores of Lake Erie where the barges and tankers and cargo ships
that plied the Great Lakes were a familiar sight. The dream of travel to faraway places beckoned powerfully.
Tom was a bright and hard-working young man and he won an appointment to the United States Merchant
Marine Academy. His father was very proud of him.
So off Tom went to the Academy at King's Point, Long Island. Tom did very well there. He studied hard and adapted well to the rigid discipline that the Academy imposed on first-year students or "plebes" as they are called. He learned that on a ship stairs are called ladders, walls are bulkheads, ceilings are overheads, floors are decks (and need to be swabbed frequently). He also learned that centerline is not something of which you can cut off a length and deliver as ordered and skyhooks nowhere to be found on board any ship that ever sailed, steamed or even warped. (Those are traditional jokes played on unsuspecting new seamen.)
Yes, Tom took to the Academy life like a fish to the water you could say. And then he went to sea. The Academy requires Midshipmen to spend a year at sea on a working ship. Tom loved every minute of it.
If you have ever been out on the sea on a ship that is crossing the wide ocean you will never forget the things you see.
Sometimes you look away across the water and there is a tall pillar of clouds with ominous darkness lurking underneath; it's a squall, a storm with high winds and waves and rain racing across the water; but it's far away and it won't touch you.
There are days when the sky is perfectly clear and the sun shines down on the hard, blue water with unbearable brilliance. The waves sparkle and shimmer with light. The sea and the sky become one and the ship floats through a region of sheer brilliance. And as one of these days draws to an end, the sun drops abruptly below the horizon and you see the green flash. It's just some kind of optical illusion caused by the sun's light refracting through the earth's atmosphere, but try telling that to someone who's just seen it for the first time.
There are moonlit nights with no wind at all and fog floating over the water. The moon's light can angle under the fog and illuminate the swell waves, the long, rolling waves that pulse through the water but leave its surface unbroken, like molten glass. When you lean over the side of the ship and look down on those swells, you know the deep, powerful, serene heartbeat of all the world.
There is the life of the crew going on, routine, but full of memorable events. I served once on a ship -- a warship named Francis Marion. I was a navigator. One time we were steaming into the harbor of the great city of Baltimore and it had begun to snow. The air was full of huge, fluffy flakes that collected all over the ship as the men scurried about doing all the things necessary to bring her safely alongside a pier.
When she had tied up and the Captain gone ashore, then, we had the snowball fight to end all snowball fights. From the masts, from the bridge, from the fo'c'sle, from the gun turrets, from the helicopter pad, salvo after salvo of snowballs sailed through the air. A rather naughty snowman appeared on the hurricane deck. The snow fell thick and soft from the gray sky, softening the gray steel outlines of our beloved Frannie Mae.
So Tom spent his days as a Midshipman in this kind of environment until the night came when he had, as only a few of us ever do, a vision that would change his life.
There are nights at sea when the sky is heart-breakingly clear. Every star to the furthest end of the Universe can be picked out clearly. The Milky Way billows brilliantly across the sky. Mars is blood-red and Venus a shining jewel. Meteors blaze. The constellations announce themselves by name.
It was on just such a night that Tom looked up to the sky above to see the constellation Orion. The ancients saw him as a fierce hunter coursing through the forest with his weapons and his hunting dog.
The story goes that Orion surprised seven beautiful and scantily-clad sisters who were swimming in a pool where they thought no one could see them. Suddenly, this huge, fierce man dressed in the skin of a lion crashed out of the bushes and startled them. They were frightened and ran. He pursued. The gods did not like what they saw going on there and so they took Orion, his dog and the seven sisters and set them up in the sky for all time as a warning to men to mind their manners in the presence of ladies -- and to curb their dogs.
Tom was a grave and serious-minded young Midshipman; but on this occasion, a playful thought entered his mind and he let it stay. It spun very quickly out of control. He found himself looking up into the shimmering night sky at a vision of where his life was going to go.
Orion was no longer a wild hunter. He was tamed and civilized, even himself a tamer and a civilizer, for he was transformed in Tom's vision to one of the grave and courteous State Troopers that he had seen patrolling the roads and highways of rural New York. The billowing Milky Way was a shining highway of stars laid out across the sky and Tom could see himself one day as one of those Gray Riders, patrolling that starry highway, helping people in trouble and keeping the fierce creatures among the constellations from bothering and frightening motorists. And wouldn't you know? The first time I met him, many years later, he was wearing stars -- two pair of them and brand new, at that -- on the collar of his uniform.
Then the highway of stars transformed in his vision into the highways of all the world's commerce from city to city, nation to nation, over land, over sea, through the air. The shining dust of stars he could see polluted with the poisonous white powders that infected that commerce. Out in the dark, the Dragon, the Hydra, the poisonous Scorpion raged and threatened -- they had become the powerful and evil international criminal conspiracies that would do any terrible thing to disrupt the world's peace and prosperity, terrorize those who would oppose them, corrupt everything they touched, make slaves of people and destroy families everywhere. Tom knew that he would have to do something about that.
Then he turned to the Seven Sisters and his fate was sealed. Those seven stars are very far away from the Earth. They are not among the brightest nor are they of equal brightness. So he saw first the brightest one. She was a beautiful young woman with a simple name, an old-fashioned word that means "compassion." Tom fell in love right then and there and that was that.
The other stars? The Pleiades, as they are known? Well, don't you know, he saw that they weren't all sisters -- they were brothers and sisters -- for they would be the six children that he and Ruth would have together over the years.
And that, too, was that.
So Tom, as we men of the sea say, "swallowed the anchor" and resigned his appointment to the Merchant Marine Academy to go home to Buffalo to find Ruth and ask for her hand. It wasn't as easy as all that because King's Point is a long way from Buffalo and it was the dead of Winter. Tom's Dad was not at all pleased by the young man's decision to quit the Academy and wouldn't send him the bus fare.
So Tom packed up his seabag with everything he had -- the most important thing being the motto of the Merchant Marine Academy: Acta non Verba -- a Latin phrase that means "Deeds not Words" and that would be his watchword always -- and stuck out his thumb.
It took a long time to get back to Buffalo. The highways weren't as good back then as they are today; but people were kinder to hitch-hikers in those days. At long last, the skyline of Buffalo appeared over the horizon. And you'll never guess what happened next.
It was the dead of Winter and snow had been piling up in grimy, dreary Buffalo for many months. Cutting winds howled off Lake Erie. There were clouds and darkness.
But suddenly, all the snow vanished. The ice on the lake cracked, broke up and disappeared. The frigid winds blew warm and soft, the sky broke out in the bluest of blue and the sun poured down golden light all over that old town. Flowers bloomed everywhere -- not just your Spring crocuses and lilacs, but the roses and lilies of high Summer, the Autumn chrysanthemums and wild purple asters and tall, tawny goldenrod, and even the Christmas poinsettias burst out in bloom. And Ruth said: "Tom, I thought you'd never ask"
Story by Terry O'Neill. Copyright 2000
by Constantine's Circus, Inc.
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