Saturday, February 18, 2012

Home is the Sailor

It's Saturday morning here in the farmlands.  The night's rime of frost is already melting away as I watch crows circle over the fields I can see from my den.  According to the forecast it'll be unseasonably warm today and once I finish my second cup of tea I'll get busy on a few projects I've successfully put-off 'til this morn.  The swale out front needs clearing once again, and I'll want to finish some work on the garage today before the weather moves in again.

Home on leave.  Home after half-a-year at sea; a single month off from shipboard duty in which to experience six months' worth of life deferred--to catch up on the many aspects of life that are of necessity put on-hold while cresting an Atlantic swell, dodging pirate skiffs in the IO, or riding a gale in the Med.  A month to enjoy the varieties of color that are absent on a ship at sea, to work the "honey-do" list, to walk the dog in the woods, and to hold the hand of the one you love during a soul-stirring performance by a guitar trio.

I need this time at ease; every seaman does between long voyages.  Stargazing in the back yard, enjoying a fine meal in a restaurant, relishing the embrace of a loving partner, exchanging tales with neighbors and friends, and most of all taking the time to absorb the very idea, the essence of home, family, and community.  I need this reinforcement, every few months, as a parched land craves rainfall.  I'm home, and I need this feeling.

And yet...

This morning I dozed to the crash of surf in my ears, to the whine of rigging, and the slope of the deck in a heavy seaway.  In my comfortable bed in upstate New York, in an environment as antipodal in nature as it is possible to be to that of a steel ship cresting a heavy swell under a lead-grey sky, I sailed in my dreams.  As the rumble of screws and groaning of hull metal gave way to the purring of our elderly Persian cat and the mattress' motion as my wife rose to make coffee, I awoke with a vague sense of loss.  Loss and shame, a sense almost of infidelity.

I honestly do live two lives, and therein lies the source of my guilt.  One existence is defined by comfortable surroundings, a loving wife, family and friends, the other by cold HY-80 steel and solid Shipmates, raging storms and starlit nights on lookout duty.  The sweetness of the first accents the hardness of the second, the long separations in turn make the reunions seem magical.  This dichotomy could be said to summarize me; these two nearly opposing realities form my paradigm, and though being away hurts me and my dearest ones I can not imagine giving either up willingly.  To do so would change the very balance of my life.

When far away upon business in great waters I dream of home, and when safe in our little house I look forward to the next deployment, the next voyage.  But I can take comfort in the knowledge that I am not unique.

Many times in my career I have seen this tableau; the ship is anchored off the shore of some island, some enticing foreign port.  The crew are aching to be ashore, thronging the decks in anticipation of "liberty call".  All eyes are directed shoreward, all details noted and pointed-out as the libertymen await the 'water-taxi' or whaleboat ride to shore.

Finally, the boat arrives; boarding seems to take forever as the long line of men creeps down the gangway to the waiting tender.  Still conversation and sightseeing are concentrated on the distant land.

But once the water-taxi casts off, and the liberty party is underway for their days' adventure, a shift takes place.  Eyes that feasted on "the beach" ahead of the small craft now turn astern, cameras concentrate on the receding hull of the ship that the Sailors have just departed.  Minds pass from anticipation of the pleasures to be had ashore to consideration of the sleek gray vessel that has brought them here, and which will carry them away again.

In extreme cases I have seen Sailors in waterfront cafes and bars, on beaches alone and in groups, gazing out to sea, out to the "boat" in fascination, as if to ask how something so important, so large in their day-to-day lives, can seem so small, so insignificant in the distance.  They speak in hushed voices, as if their fascination with an inanimate shape of steel and aluminum is something to conceal from passersby.  A secret to be zealously kept.

Two weeks remain of my leave.  Already I am setting-aside items to pack, equipment I'll need when I report aboard my next ship.  My mind-set is beginning to change, day by day; by the end of the month I'll be quite impatient for the next assignment, the next challenge.  My wife has dealt with this part of my career and nature for nearly a quarter-century, and while no doubt the words "deployment" and "separation" mean very different things to her, she has always supported me in my chosen vocation.  This is what I am.  This is what I do.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said Tom. I guess you could say there are similarities with my job, however my deployments are a mere 4 days a week