Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Libertarian Lifeboat

I'm a bit tied up with an ongoing research project, so here's another repost from way back.  I think it's particularly relevant in light of some of the essays and comments I've seen circulating the blogosphere recently.  As I wrote in a recent post, American society has been unstable from the start, due to the emphasis by the Founding Fathers on "liberty" (as in the right to do whatever one pleases) without a counterbalancing emphasis laid on our duty to each other as members of a civil society.  Yet there are still credulous people pushing "libertarian" ideals and champions such as Lew Rockwell and Ron and Rand Paul.  I'd like to say to such people, "So...we got into our present fix because some people found out how to get filthy rich at the expense of all the rest of us by dirty, yet legal tricks.  Now they are making us all suffer.  And your solution is to keep promoting a supposed right to the very selfishness that got us into this mess.  Hmm...what's that saying about insanity consisting of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?"

I'd like to take a break from considering alternatives to our present breaking corporatist economic and societal systems, in order to tell a couple of stories that need to be told. Also, I have taken a number of pictures of people over the last several weeks, promising those whom I photographed that I would post their pictures on future installments of The Well Run Dry. So, God willing, the next two posts will tell needful stories, and the following post will have pictures relating to bicycle transportation.

The story I am about to tell you is one I heard a few years ago. It is a very strange illustration of the potential for bizarre human behavior. It took place several years back, aboard a double-bottomed, Handy-sized sea-going bulk cargo ship whose name escapes me at the moment. The ship was old, and had seen many voyages, some through very severe weather, both in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Its crew was a volatile mix of quirky, memorable types and experienced, wise, level-headed men. One of the strangest and most quirky characters was the boatswain (or bos'un for the nautical initiates), a big-boned, burly, sandy-haired, square-jawed man of indeterminate age.

The bo'sun was a fearsome sight to the deck crew whom he supervised as he directed sharp glances all around, swiveling his large head on his bull neck while barking commands, muscular biceps flexed as he rested his large hands on his hips. Those who crossed him usually did it only once, as the punishment he dealt was swift and severe. Aside from giving orders, he almost never talked to any other shipmates. This was unusual, since the three licensed officers on board were quite friendly with all the crew, figuring that pleasant voyages contributed to crew effectiveness.

The bo'sun tended to keep to himself when not on duty or at meals, preferring to remain in his quarters rather than mix with the crew. Almost no one ever saw the inside of his quarters, but the one or two crewmen who were able to get a glimpse said that on one wall was a Confederate Rebel flag, and that there was a bookcase underneath containing books such as The Politician by Robert W. Welch; The Way Things Ought To Be and See, I Told You So, by Rush Limbaugh; and Robert Lewis Dabney: The Prophet Speaks by Doug Phillips, along with several copies of The New American, a magazine published by the John Birch Society. He also had a life-sized poster of Rush next to an old VCR with which he frequently played a battered copy of Birth of a Nation. (At times while on watch, other crew members could hear him muttering scenes of the movie from memory.) Somehow amid all the clutter, he had also managed to stash 250 pounds of cast iron free weights, a couple of dumbbell bars and a barbell bar, all of which he used religiously.

His physical training served him well on the particular voyage we are now considering – a voyage that took the ship from the tropics up into the North Pacific during the height of typhoon season. The ship was carrying a load of some grain – rice, I think – and its course carried it right into the path of a tropical depression that was also moving north. The loading of the rice had been supervised by a junior officer without much experience, and as a result, the cargo settled, then began to shift as the ship ran into increasingly rough weather. The depression strengthened into a storm that grew into a typhoon, and began to produce dangerous rogue waves. Most of the crew had experienced typhoons before, and they were therefore not terribly worried, until two rogue waves hit the ship within five minutes of each other and caused her to heel hard to port. This caused the cargo to shift dangerously, making the vessel list. Then a third rogue wave hit and downflooded the engine room, causing the ship to go dead in the water.

The vessel's situation was now serious. Yet even at this point she might have been saved if the engineer had been able to restore power quickly. But by this time the ship, which was old as has been mentioned before, began to suffer the effects of corrosion and metal fatigue as the pounding of the storm proved to be too much for her. Within thirty minutes of losing power the front hold began to flood, and the flooding quickly spread to hold number two. By the time the crew realized their peril it was too late for many to escape. Only one lifeboat could be launched in the minutes before the ship sank, and those who were lucky enough to be nearby piled into it in whatever condition they found themselves, with whatever possessions they happened to be carrying. It was night when she sank.

The dawn revealed that seven men had survived out of a crew of twenty-four. Amid somewhat calmer weather, they looked at each other with mostly frightened eyes. There were two able seamen, the second officer, an oiler, the steward's assistant, an ordinary seaman, and the bo'sun. The steward's assistant shivered in the wind and rain, as he hadn't had time even to put his clothes on before the sinking. One of the able seamen had been able to don a survival suit, as had the bo'sun. The second officer had a fractured leg. The ordinary seaman had suffered a concussion. All were badly shaken – except for the bo'sun.

He had managed to grab several items before getting into the lifeboat. His stash consisted of a number of blankets, some tins of meat, water and hardtack, several Army-style can openers, a solar still, an emergency fishing rod, a knife and a first aid kit. In all he must have carried over a hundred pounds of supplies with him into that boat. Of course, this was in addition to the supplies with which the lifeboat was normally stocked. The other survivors cheered up greatly when they saw the bo'sun's stash in addition to the lifeboat's regular supplies. But their cheer was short-lived.

The steward's assistant spoke first. “Hey there, bo'sun,” he said, “could you pass me one of those blankets? I was in bed when the ship started to sink.” One of the able seamen said, “Say, bo'sun, the second officer's in bad shape. Is there any Advil we could give him?” The oiler chimed in and said, “Oh, no! The launch of the lifeboat caused us to lose all of the can openers in the boat's survival kit. Hey, bo'sun, could you spare an extra?”

Their requests died away into silence as the bo'sun merely stared at them for several seconds. Then he spoke. “You're not expecting a handout, are you? That's socialism!” He spat derisively over the side of the boat. “I earned what I have by my own effort,” he continued. “I won't give handouts, but I will let you earn the privelege to use what I have. That's what our Founding Fathers believed in.”

Now the rest of the survivors were silent in their turn, staring with shocked faces at the bo'sun. Finally, the able seaman who had asked about the Advil spoke again. “But that's totally wacked out, bo'sun!” he shouted. “Look at the second officer! He's in no shape to earn anything! Why are you being a jerk?” An instant later, the bo'sun's fist crashed into his jaw and he crumpled to the bottom of the lifeboat.

“Now hear this,” said the bo'sun in a low, dangerous voice. “I don't give free rides to anybody. If you don't pull your own weight, you get nothing from me. Why, next you'll want me to socialize medical care! Ain't gonna happen. If the second officer is motivated enough, he'll do what it takes to get medicine. You who want the extra blanket!” he shouted, pointing at the steward's assistant. “If you want a blanket, get over here and grab this fishing rod. You gotta catch thirty pounds of fish. That's my price.”

Thus began the miserable journey of the survivors as ocean currents pushed them slowly northward. Needless to say, the second officer died within three days, and the others dumped his body overboard on the bo'sun's orders. The only epitaph the bo'sun spoke was to mutter about “freeloaders on society getting what they deserved.” He also muttered frequently that it was his manifest destiny to be the boss of that lifeboat.

Afterward, all the survivors were kept busy from sunup to sundown catching fish, cleaning fish, sun-drying fish and operating the solar still. In return for their labors they were allowed to eat just enough to stay alive. But the bo'sun ate his fill every day, and his stocky build began to grow chubby. By this time almost everyone in the boat was shirtless, since the weather had entirely cleared and had grown quite warm as the boat drifted out of the tropic zone into Northern Hemisphere summer conditions. The other survivors took notice of two large tattoos across the bo'sun's chest, one of which was an artist's rendition of Ayn Rand's face, and another which was a picture of a gnarled hand with the name “ADAM SMITH” written below.

The bo'sun himself noticed his increasing chubbiness, and began a two-hour regimen of calisthenics and body-weight strength-building exercises every day (although he never used his strength to do any actual work). Meanwhile the other survivors grew weaker and weaker, and one more man died. By now it was late July or early August, and though the boat had drifted north of the 35th parallel of latitude, it was still quite hot. The bo'sun was bothered by the heat, especially because it made him sweat a lot and grow thirsty during his workouts. But the solar still was slow in producing fresh water and the canned water was by now used up.

One day the bo'sun had a brilliant idea. “We're gonna do things a little different,” he said to the others. “We're all each gonna get his own space on this boat. However much space you get depends on how much you can fight for, and since I'm the strongest guy on this boat, I get the biggest space. Stay outta my space,” he said. Later that morning, he took most of the remaining blankets and made a shade covering over his newly created “space.” But still, he felt hot. Frustrated, he racked his brain for a solution. Then he smiled broadly as a new idea occurred to him. He found a hand drill and some large wood drill bits from the stash he had brought on board, and began to drill a hole in the bottom of the boat under his “space.”

The other survivors looked at him aghast. “Hey man, what are you doing??!” they all shouted at once. “I'm making a little fountain for my space, to cool my feet,” the bo'sun replied. “What's wrong, are you jealous?” “Dude,” they all shouted back, “you'll sink this boat and kill us all!” “What I do isn't gonna kill us or ruin this boat,” he growled, “and besides, what I do in my space is my business, so lay off!”

At this, the man telling the story broke off, overcome by emotion. “That dirty, selfish...” he finally said, then began coughing uncontrollably. The cough turned into a gag as our chief steward turned the man's body to the side and held a bucket up to his mouth. He retched up a last bit of swallowed seawater, then lay back on the steward's bunk, gasping. The steward noticed that the man was still shivering, ten hours after being pulled from the sea.  As the steward readjusted the man's blankets, we briefly glimpsed the sunburns and multiple salt water sores that covered his bony, emaciated body.  Under the blankets he was naked, for shortly after pulling him from the water, we had disposed of the tattered rags that had served as his clothing during his long months as a castaway.  At least he was no longer cyanotic.  Had we not spotted him at just the right moment, things would have turned out much worse for him. The ship's doctor gave the man an injection, told the cook to bring more hot water bottles, and told the rest of us to let the man have some rest.

P.S.: The story I have just told is entirely false. Anyone who has actually worked on a ship can probably tell that I haven't. But I told this story in order to prevent it from coming true, if you get my drift. As a very influential Man once said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

P.P.S.: The Bo'sun in this story is a caricature of a particular ideology. Yet there are many ideologies of selfishness in the world today, and they must all be guarded against if our society is to successfully navigate the downside of Hubbert's Peak.

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