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A MARITIME MEMORY
June 8, 2012
 
I remember still how brave and smart he was. The vessel on which he was Chief Engineer had not paid its crew for months, and the captain was responding to complaints about it with increasing belligerence. The gulf between captain and crew, always an ambiguous relationship, grew too vast too cross. Things got dangerously crazy very quickly -- one afternoon the captain went after one of the men with a spanner. The Chief barricaded himself and the rest of the crew into the mess room.

This was in the days before cell phones: there was a pay telephone in the yard, but that was too close to the vessel -- anybody who tried to use it would be easily seen. Our phones were just down the street, not a quarter mile away. Not that calling the company was a solution: whatever chaos had caused it not to pay its men would also preclude any useful response to this crisis, and it made itself scarce. But the Seamen's Church had secure phones, and we also had lawyers. The next few days were a tense dance, with many partners: the Chief, the frightened crew, the wary port police, who balanced the captain's hysterical demands that they arrest everybody on board with our insistence that this was a protected job action.

I no longer remember each step of the process -- how we got to the company, and when, how and when we got the vessel itself arrested, thereby stopping time until the matter could be settled. I don't even recall the ship's name. I do remember the Chief's calm manner with his men. I remember their fear. I remember that he, too, was frightened, though he couldn't show it. I know because he told me: he might never work again after this -- the world punishes whistleblowers. His family and everyone else's would suffer. There might even be reprisals at home. I remember that he was from Peshawar. I remember that he had infant twins, a boy and a girl, and a large extended family dependent upon him.

The outcome, when it came, was majestic: the company was found and forced to pay everyone's contract and repatriate them. About the captain, I don't know -- that man needed a good rest, and maybe a change of profession. The crew and I had a final dinner together, and pledged eternal friendship. I remember one of them telling me that this was the best night of his life. Some months later, I received an elegant envelope in the mail: an invitation to the wedding of the Chief's sister. The return address was that of another shipping company. So he did work again, after all.

I think of these things now, decades after my days on the waterfront of New York. You will not find me a sympathetic audience for union-bashing, though I do understand that not every action of modern unions carries the moral authority of the Pullman Strike. What happens when people's collective rights are ignored can be violent and cruel, and an individual cannot face it alone. "Gentlemen," Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said to the other signers of the Declaration of Independence, "We must all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang, separately."

We should always be loving to those we must oppose. But sometimes we must oppose: acquiescing in another's violent oppression is itself a violent act -- vicariously violent, violent with clean hands.

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Remember to reserve your place at the Geranium Farm's luncheon at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis on Friday, July 6th. Email deaconj@geraniumfarm.org.
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