Of Baling Wire, Chewing Gum and Sinking Ships
It sounded like a good idea at the time, ‘the time’ being a drunken outing with the other boys in the crew. The next day everyone would get up real early and head over to the local slip for a morning cruise on Joe’s ‘new’ boat, a 24’ Boston Whaler he picked up for a song from the dealer at the mariner. In between Tequila shots he had raved about the two hundred horse power Mercury outboard motor and the pretty railings and deck fittings. Shaking off the morning hangover I gulped down some coffee and donuts, then headed over to Joe’s place to meet up with the rest of the crew.
Since parking was at a premium at the local slip, we all piled into one car and quickly arrived at the pier. Joe, a novice boater, was beaming from ear to ear as he led us down the narrow walkway to his pride and joy. Being the newest member of the crew I was last in line so I didn’t get a good look at the boat until it was directly in front of me. While the other guys were laughing and carrying on as they climbed aboard I stopped short as the hairs on the back of my neck went into full alert mode.
After giving it a quick once over from the safety of the pier I asked Joe “Well I see the baling wire, so where’s the chewing gum?” Seeing his confused look I pointed to the two marine batteries strapped down to the deck in the back of the boat with miles of rusty baling wire, obvious evidence of electrical shorts having melted each layer of wire before another winding was added. “That’s the way it came when I bought it. It’s supposed to be that way,” he assured me. Right…….
Ignoring the other guys who were hollering at me to just shut up and get my butt in the boat, I pointed to the open bilge hatch and the fact that it was filled to the brim with sea water. “And that,” I asked? Joe glanced down and then snorted. “The automatic pump has a short in it so it fills up overnight. When we get going it empties automatically,” he promised. “It’s designed that way,” he smugly added.
It was decision time for this landlubber. While Joe turned his attention to his guests as they stowed their gear and popped the morning’s first beers, I had a few more seconds to carefully consider which fork in the road I would take. We have all had at least one these moments at some point in our lives and this was the first for me of what turned out to be many over the next decade or so. In this case it was a freight train that hit me square in the face, but other times it was much more subtle. The question is not just what you do, though that is of course very important, but if you even recognize the decision point to begin with.
The boat was a wreck, something even my inexperienced eye could easily discern. The transom, essentially the back of the boat where the outboard motor is attached, had clearly been severely damaged and just as clearly sloppily repaired. The outboard motor was not attached to the transom by factory clamping hardware, but with two carpenter’s metal clamps, once of which was loose and sagging. That motor was a few nautical miles from coming loose and going overboard.
There was an obvious gasoline leak dripping from one of several repairs to the fuel line and what looked like another gas leak seeping from the bottom of one of the two portable gasoline tanks, both of which were not secured or even safely contained in one area of the deck. Worse, each of the ten gallon gasoline tanks sported several large rusty dents, evidence of many close encounters with hard objects. Incredibly the two marine batteries were ‘secured’ right next to one of the gas tanks, the one that was leaking no less.
Moving a bit forward, there were two large areas along the hull on the starboard side that had recently been patched, one of which was already breaking loose from the pounding of the waves while motoring. God only knows what else was going on under the water line in the way of leaks and structural integrity. Several recessed deck light fixtures and overhead running lights were half hanging out while wires everywhere were hanging loose or simply unconnected. The radio and depth finder were clearly not operable since they were not even connected and the throttle had been jury rigged with some screws and metal brackets. But just like Joe said the upper deck railing had recently been replaced and was brand new and quite shiny.
I could go on, but I had seen enough and for me the decision was obvious. Heading out onto a shallow lake in this death trap was one thing, but heading out onto the wide open Atlantic Ocean was another thing entirely. The problem for me now was how to back out right here, right now, and still save face with the new crew. While I wanted to be accepted by the guys I also wanted to live another day. I could feel my heart racing and my head pound as the pressure ramped up. I needed to choose right now. What to do, what to do?
I’m not sure if it was the hand of providence, last night’s Tequila or the adrenaline surging through my body at that moment as I contemplated death if I were to step foot onto the unsinkable Molly Brown, but my excuse not to board involuntarily pushed its way forward as I suddenly projectile vomited all over the side of the boat. Chance favors the prepared mind, the weak stomach and dumb luck.
The chaos and hollering that followed was music to my ears because the entire crew was screaming at me to get the hell away as they frantically untied the mooring lines and pushed away from the dock, desperate to put distance between me and them lest I let loose another volley of last night’s Tequila and this morning’s fried dough and java. As I turned to leave I heard the big Merc sputter, then fire up while some of the guys threw buckets of sea water on my deposit in a futile effort to wash it away. It was a shame the bilge pump was on the fritz.
My last memory of that moment was of Joe running back and forth from the captain’s chair to the motor at the stern while the rest of the guys settled in, the strong smell of fresh gasoline hanging in the air. I walked the three miles home in a daze, both my head and stomach churning from the close encounter. Since the crew had rejected me for ‘medical’ reasons I was fairly certain I was still on the in. Whether there would still be a crew by the end of the day was much less certain.
As it turned out they did return, though it was not smooth sailing by any stretch of imagination. Setting aside the fact they got ‘lost’ because Joe (who couldn’t read a navigational chart if his life depended upon it……and it did) turned to Port instead of Starboard, everything that could have happened did happen…..and then some. It seemed Joe repeatedly electrocuted himself at the control panel (there’s that pesky short circuit) each time promptly stalling the Merc while smoking the baling wire and batteries.
By now they were out way past the breakwater and into some rough seas, essentially going in circles because the compass was broken and fog had obscured land. Someone at the bar had once told Joe to always turn ‘left’ if you get lost on the ocean and soon enough you will find dry land. Joe may have been stupid but he did know how to follow directions.
They were taking on water but weren’t too worried because as long as Joe, who earned the nickname “Shark” from the boss after this adventure, kept the boat moving forward the bilge would empty automatically. After all it was designed that way. However after losing power for the third time and now unable to restart, they began to slowly sink, that damn bilge pump coming back to haunt them once again.
Somehow they managed to attract the attention of another boater just before sunset, someone who actually possessed a sea worthy craft. He promptly radioed the US Coast Guard for help, then backed away and put plenty of distance between his craft and the rapidly sinking drunks. Eventually they were unceremoniously towed to the nearest mariner around 3 AM courtesy of the US taxpayer, only to finally sink 100 yards from the dock. Their three hour tour almost turned into another Gilligan.
I learned of their escapades late the next day when once again we all gathered at Joe’s house, this time to commiserate the ‘accident’ while rolling around in all the gory details like a dog in his feces. I was declared ‘lucky’ I had ‘missed’ the boat; interestingly no mention was ever made of my safety concerns or my ‘medical’ issues. Joe vowed revenge upon the mariner owner who sold him the boat of death, though under light questioning he reluctantly admitted he had bought it ‘as is’, thus the reason for the great price.
Now safely on dry land and once again liquored up, in hindsight the boat’s problems were readily apparent and glaringly obvious. Sadly it was all chalked up to bad luck and an even worse boat with absolutely no consideration given to carelessness, hubris, alcohol or gross human error. There were plenty of scapegoats roasted at that gathering, though none of them happened to have been on the actual boat. Will wonders never cease?
As I listened to the various stories and the heckling and joshing back and forth as each guy related their own version of the day’s events, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if I had boarded the boat and my 250 lbs of beef had been added to the volatile mix? A quick mental calculation told me I equaled 32 gallons of sea water by weight, a drop in the bilge from one point of view, the tipping point to an earlier sinking from another. At least the crew hadn’t rejected me for being a coward or pussy. I’d rather be known for a weak stomach than for weak nerves.
As previously mentioned over the next decade there were several more decision points similar to this one as I entered, and then passed through, my own period of peak insanity. And while I remember them all too some degree or another, this one is prominent in my mind as the pivot point that made all the others possible. Sometimes despite our poorest efforts we survive our own stupidity and live another day. But to this day I sometimes wonder if I would have had the guts to actually say “No” if my projectile vomiting had not saved me from crossing the Rubicon.
The similarities between the true story above and the world today are in my opinion glaringly obvious. The ship(s) of state are a complete mess with nearly every private and public institution structurally deficient, their formerly seaworthy hulls severely damaged and undermined by the very same people tasked with managing the systems. Economic fluids are leaking everywhere with market disconnections and short circuits the norm.
Regardless of the reasons why the boats are not seaworthy and rapidly becoming even less so, this fact seems of little apparent concern to the world’s citizen boaters who feel little can go wrong as long as there are mood altering beverages in the cooler, fiat gas in the can and a central banker at the wheel. Amongst some of the occupants there appears to be a sense of deflated resignation to endure whatever comes their way since they don’t control the ship of state. To counter this lingering repressed despair and depression no opportunity for an emotional buzz derived from mindless entertainment is lost.
The real question isn’t why this condition exists or even how it persists. The pertinent question is far more personal and much more interesting. You are standing on the dock looking down at the death trap as the rest of the crew piles in, mostly because no one is telling them specifically to get out and the herd mentality runs riot with one lamb leading the next to slaughter.
This is your decision point, the proverbial fork in the road, the cognitive gathering place that will change everything from here on in. Not so much because of the actual decision you make, but because you understand that the space/time continuum occasionally squeezes down to a point directly in front of your nose and offers you an opportunity to tickle the beast, then quickly explodes back out to infinity only to repeat the process for the next person in line. You may get a dozen more chances or you might only get one…………and this is it.
So what do you do?
Screw questions of morals or ethics, of right or wrong, good or bad. Lock your ego away and consider your choice with a sober mind and a steady hand. It doesn’t matter who is in the boat and wants you to join them or who is not and tells you you’re an idiot if you do anything other than step back. This is about you and only you. At this very moment your spouse, kids, job, education, family, friends, home, cars and various other toys; none of these people, places and things exist.
While I called the boat a death trap you could quite easily get on, take your trip and return drunk and happy, ready to do it all again the next day and the next and the next. Or you could climb aboard and be sleeping with the fishes within two hours. There is no way to know for sure other than to assess probabilities. And considering the condition of the world today the probability is that sooner or later all hell is going to break loose and the ship of state is going to experience rough waters and a breached hull.
So what do you do?
Maybe I should clarify something here to make this a bit easier for you. I have described the situation as one where you come to a decision point and now face a choice. And I used the story above to illustrate the concept where you walk up to an unseaworthy boat and need to decide if you should board or not. But in fact the situation is quite different. You are not actually waiting to board the rickety ship; you are already on board and have been since the beginning.
That stink filling your nose is the fiat gasoline vapors permeating your cloths and hair. You are exhausted from constantly running on the endless wage slave exercise wheel just to maintain your standard of living, too drunk from consumerism to recognize your own insanity. Your head is woozy and your legs weak from being repeatedly fleeced and shocked by the rigged economic system.
So the question needs to be restated after the premise has been clarified. You have been a micro share owner of this ship of state since birth and have enjoyed many great days and nights out on the sea during the last several decades. But long term capital improvements and even basic maintenance has been deferred, delayed or minimally done for so long now that the infrastructure is no longer sound and the basic structure is well past the point of simple repair.
We are now looking at a complete dry dock overhaul and one or more lost seasons of use as the fundamentals are completely rebuilt. It is no longer a question of if you will lose the ship at sea, and possibly your life with it, but when if you do not take immediate corrective actions.
So what do you do?
Our tendency is to remain seated simply because we believe we are more familiar with the dangers we ‘know’ than those we consider unknown or not very likely. Basically we fall into the previous-investment trap, where we believe all the time, effort and energy expended in the past should be heavily weighted when considering the future. This applies whether we are examining our fiat investment portfolio or our life as we sit ankle deep in cold sea water convincing ourselves if things get really bad we can still get out. Get out to where exactly? In case you have forgotten you are on a boat with just about everyone else.
This is a colossal cognitive bias of the first order skewed towards inaction and the status quo that speaks loudly of Stockholm Syndrome, itself a product of the slave mentality that plagues all of us to some degree or another. No longer a field slave laboring day after day in the hot sun, after decades of hard work and subservient loyalty we are now more comfortable kitchen staff, stable hand or possibly the personal man-servant to the master or one of his kin. With this promotion came perks and privileges along with the promise of even more if we kept our nose clean and continued our hard work.
The promise of even more to come, along with all that we did to ‘earn’ the already bestowed privileges, becomes an anchor around our necks when the boat sinks, propelling us even faster to the bottom. The irrefutable fact that the thousand times we rode in the boat prior to now without sinking helps convince us that the next time, and the time after that, won’t be much different. So there we sit, now calf deep in dirty bilge water, the sheen of gasoline shimmering on the surface, the sickening smell of refined hydrocarbons thick in our nose and cloths, the engine sputtering and shaking in its mount, bare live wires dangling to the left and to the right, dark clouds on the horizon, rough seas dead ahead.
We can easily imagine all the work it took to get here while never clearly visualizing exactly what ‘here’ now is. The promises of the master, used as currency to compel and reward our willing participation, can no longer be fulfilled since the economic system that is the ultimate delivery vehicle for those promises is about to sink beneath the waves.
But so many of those who came before us did make it to the Promised Land, and we worked so hard to faithfully follow in their footsteps, careful to adhere to all the rules and skirt all the storms. Now that we are so close, our promised reward within sight, we desperately wish to believe that with just a few more rotations of our well worn routine, just a little more hard work, is all that is needed to achieve our goal. So close, so very very close.
So we remain seated in water now up to our butts, a constant low voltage tingle coursing through our body as the now submerged batteries continue to discharge, the motor long since fallen off the damaged transom, the gas cans spilling the last of their contents into the stinking pool of debris filled sea water now nearly up to our chest. The bad news is the wind and waves are really picking up now; the good news is there on the horizon we can see the Promised Land.
So what do you do?
No Where To Go But Up
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