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Page 18
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<< 17. Nam19. The Brothers >>

The Brotherhood of the Sea

By George Critch

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It is impossible to look at a picture that I was a part of and imagine what I was thinking at the time of the scene.

I am one of the barebacked kids, uppermost in this shot. I have borrowed some words from my favorite author, Conrad:

"For there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence."

"I do not know whether I have been a good seaman, but I know I have been a very faithful one."

But try as I did, I can only use my perspective of today to think as an 18-year-old from the city streets of Camden, NJ, with a 50-year-long view of a life lived; I am one of the bare-backed kids looking down upon the vessel that had been drawn closely alongside us for boarding and inspection. What I do remember were the smells, the human smells of bodies living in cramped quarters mixed with the ever-present odor of rancid fish and rotting wood rising from the sweating deck under the intense heat of the sun and the damp, and tattered canvas sails in need of repair.

The sailing trawler and its family of inhabitants on this inspection were not especially memorable, but today, I can only reflect upon the scene knowing how my life has evolved; the picture shows me gazing down upon the vessel, and with today's eyes, I see not simple seaman but highly skilled fearless people of the sea. Mother Ocean provided them with much, and with what little they possessed They harvested her offering despite nature's many hazards. They ably sustained themselves and others of their village because of their courage and conviction. When I say hazards, I think back upon the many swim-calls taken in the intensely briny opaque mixture of monsoonal runoff. My hesitant participation in swim-call stopped entirely after a day in the delta anchored up close under the jungle canopy; the land breeze was pulling the intense jungle smell toward us. We had some Navy Seals berthing with us, and we were offering support for their operation, so we were manned and at the ready.

Watching artillery under guidance from Army spotter planes, I stood at my station dragging on a Marlboro as the sulphuric-laden layer of air drifted down the deck mixed with the jungle fug.

Across the headset, I heard a lookout report of something in the water port side. I peeked out from behind the 50 and saw something resembling a snake. Now I'm from the city; I never saw a snake in the wild, but in the water? Never! I didn't realize snakes lived in the ocean. Or that there was such a monster. Next over the headset, I hear, "Number two 50 get me a sea snake!" Our CO wanted us to kill it! We put the 50 on single shot, took aim at 20 yards, and put one through the snake. Up and out of the water, it writhed skyward, and you could see the sky through the perfectly round wound; the snake had to be as big around as my thigh and twelve feet long! So I never responded to swim-call again. The CO Insisted we paint a sea snake on the boat as a sign of a "kill."

I remember the fishing trawler people as seaman because at the present period of my life, I know the sea!

After working all of my life on the water, it is only now, as I look at this picture of me looking DOWN at these people, at that early stage of my apprenticeship to the sea; that I began my exposure and learning in the company of seaman of the world and all aspects of the nautical discipline. I should have been looking UP at those people on the deck of the trawler because they were born to live their lives at sea. I was born to cross their path, and only now do I realize we were ALL from the BROTHERHOOD of the SEA. I hope they survived our incursion into their simple lives.

Recently, a conversation about money was going around the table, and my casual approach was criticized. It was said that I had grown up "poor" and should have more respect for money!

As a kid from a large family in Camden, New Jersey city streets "I should know poverty". I was quick to defend myself because as a seaman I had traveled and seen poverty; but I was never "poor" compared to some of the places I had visited such as Vietnam. I realized that poor and poverty are constructs that are used as a SCALE by the "ACQUISITOR class" of the materialistic world. Only now do I understand how rich those subsistence fishermen were. I am jealous when I think of laying on deck staring up at the dark canopy of starry patterns while "Mother Ocean offered her gentle pulsating rocking rise and fall motion as if her heave was like her breath as she mimicked the process of aspiration."

As the years and miles accumulate, we can only hope that our horizons expand along the way to encompass a more insightful view of our fellow humans and their individual experiences and struggles. This analogy of shared lives on the sea as a bond transcending the more artificial cultural differences resonates deeply within me. We could also remark about the shared struggles with repressive governments. People worldwide have modest but non-negotiable needs: the freedom to form a family, the economic freedom to provide for them, and the freedom of association with like-minded individuals pursuing similar goals. Sail On, mates!

"I do not know whether I have been a good seaman, but I know I have been a very faithful one." —Conrad

I recently have been reading a book of Vietnamese poetry called Poems From Captured Documents, which reveals these ancient people's quality and depth of character.

George Critch served in the United States Coast Guard from 1967-1971. He was BM3 USCG Boat Coxswain 30'& 40' rescue craft and a seaman on ocean station weather cutter and service in Vietnam. He retired as a merchant seaman (tugboat captain). He resides with his family in Ocean City, New Jersey.

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