A Tale of Two Captains

An incident I describe in To Find the Way of Love has remained in my memory for many years because of what I omitted in the telling. As a 23 year-old I had reactions to the interaction between the Captain and the Turk.

I was a 23 year-old hotshot Navy fighter pilot. My squadron was stationed aboard the USS Coral Sea, an aircraft carrier almost 1,000 feet long with a crew of 3,000. There were 5 squadrons with 125 aircraft. We were imposing. The ship was anchored in the harbor of Istanbul, Turkey, in 1951 during the Cold War. One morning, we were taking on provisions in preparation for departure. It was perfect weather. Since we worked seven days a week, all days felt the same and I can’t say on which this occurred but it was midmorning.

As the junior officer of the deck that morning, I was responsible for supervising the enlisted men’s aft gangway. From my post, I could observe the forward gangway, which was reserved for officers and VIPs and was supervised by the Officer of the Deck. I saw a self-propelled scow, about 60 feet long, loaded with fresh produce, approaching the forward gangway. There was a man standing in the bow, guiding the scow’s approach. Using a bullhorn, the Officer of the Deck ordered the man to take the scow to the opposite side of the ship. “No! No! port side” he said.

The scow continued its approach. When the OD repeated his order, the man on the scow said, in perfect English, “I want to speak to your captain.” Again, the OD repeated, “No, no, portside,” to which the man, a Turk, responded, “Are you the captain of that ship?” The officer said, “No.” The Turk said, “Well, I’m the captain of this one and I want to speak to your captain.” After a moment’s silence, the OD called for his captain who appeared. The two captains exchanged greetings, then, the Turk took his scow to the port side of the ship.

My reaction as a young man was admiration and surprise at the Turk’s display of independence and audacity. I had developed respect for the Turks from personal experience on shore. This was, for me, a most unusual event and I had silently cheered the Turkish captain on. That was more than 50 years ago.

Today, I think of the event from a much broader perspective. The Turkish captain’s demand to speak to the Captain of the aircraft carrier was honored and supported by a longstanding naval custom that Captains greet Captains. Could this meeting have happened without that custom in place? It’s doubtful.

Society is shaped and influenced by rules, laws, traditions and customs, some of which can help us to be our better selves but our better, more generous feelings ultimately have to come from within. “Captains greet Captains” was probably influenced by an acknowledgment of the tremendous responsibility all captains had. Similarly, Presidents show respect to other Presidents as they alone know the challenges that go with the job.

To Find The Way Of Love describes how in humanity’s early days, repeated behaviors led to customs. Later in our civilizations developing history, custom began to shape behavior. If you Google the terms “Custom” and “Behavior,” you will get a sense of how they differ from country to country and culture to culture.

So, what are customs? According to Michael V. Kline in the Encyclopedia of Public Health, Customs are derived from social norms, which are those rules or standards that guide, control, or regulate proper and acceptable behavior of a group…From the moment of birth, the customs into which people are born shape their experiences and behavior. Deeply embedded customs are inherently resistant to change but over time, with appropriate role modeling that reinforces respect for brotherhood and civilized ways of, clan or tribe to include others not “like me.”

That would help to develop new customs and behavior, which emphasize our interrelationship for survival and lead to more participation, equality, freedom and respect between human beings.

Oliver & Barbara

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