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Shipmates, friends, and family affectionately called him “Captain.” Throughout his long years in the merchant marine, and until his dying day at the age of seventy-five, Thomas Cromwell spun many a captivating yarn, enthralling the hearts of young and old alike.
Sweltering in the summer heat of 1920, this proud seaman, in the prime of his youth, gambled his modest home and a small sum of cash as collateral against the purchase of a dream. He bargained for a seaworthy wooden schooner and commissioned himself as its captain.
Banking on the odds that goodness and justice eventually prevail against adversity and tribulation, he spent not so much as a dime on insurance. His only surety was the policy he had inherited from his parents, that sticking to his dream would see him through life’s ups and downs.
With cargo, crew, and a few passengers aboard his newly acquired vessel, he set out upon the maiden journey of his lifelong odyssey at sea, with rights to trade in a certain commodity.
The captain’s eyes scanned the glistening Caribbean waters that encircled the Cayman Islands from whence hailed his hearty clan of Gaelic descent. With his broad hands and gangly fingers protracting from his towering physique, he took hold of the ship’s helm.
Possessing a natural disposition for a seafaring life, his ruddy complexion, sturdy countenance, and gentle spirit radiated a contagious smile that reassured all who looked to him to master the winds and waves of a sometimes wild and tumultuous sea.
It was toward evening at the sunset of Cromwell’s inaugural day as pilot of his ship that he descended below deck to retire until daybreak for some well-deserved rest.
Freed from focusing upon the ship’s compass or a distant object on the horizon, his thoughts returned to that morning’s departure from his wife and young children gathered at the end of the pier.
Outside, the rose firmament, which only minutes earlier had set fire to the shimmering Caribbean, now enshrouded his ship beneath a canopy of darkness. Inside, Cromwell lay on his bed, ready to encounter Morpheus as the captain of sleep.
As with all who in their youth are inclined to think that the scores of years that lie ahead are endless, Cromwell happily hummed to himself and prayed to the God of his Scots forbearers—the God who “creates, sustains, rules, and guides all things.”
In quarters fit, not for the repose of a king, but for a yeoman attentive to noble ideals rather than to royal fetishes like shiny brass fixtures, vintage wines in crystal goblets, and china plates garnished with quail eggs and caviar, Cromwell drifted into the realm where dreams composed of fantasy soon awaken to the harsh realities of stark fact.
Suddenly, an abrupt knock at the door bolted the captain out of his slumber as a crew member shouted, “Captain! Captain! We’re in trouble!”
“What is it?” the bleary-eyed skipper asked.
“It’s a passenger liner. It’s bearing down upon us, sir. Come quickly!”
By two leaps and a bound Cromwell scaled the ladder and peered out into the night.
Sure enough, deck lights reflecting from a shadowy, menacing hulk of steel could be seen approaching all too close to offer wide berth to the smaller wooden craft. There was little time to avoid an impending catastrophe.
As the surging passenger liner drew clearer into view, its colossal bow induced panic.
“My God, it’s going to hit us!” Cromwell shouted.
The captain ordered every woman, man, and child to take to the lifeboats. Within little more than the twinkling of an eye, all were huddled, shivering in the dinghies.
The seizure of chill took hold, less from the cold night air than from the paralysis of fear. Each lifeboat was packed to the gunnels with the flesh-and-bones drama of a living nightmare. A dread encounter-of-the-last-kind had struck with a vengeance. All watched in horror as their demolished ship sank beneath the surface.
Meanwhile, the lights of the passenger liner flickered into the distance until they faded into oblivion.
“Why? How could this have happened?”
“Who could be so cruel?”
“Where is sympathy for the little guy?”
“Why did that bully of a beast strike and then flee?”
“To whom do we now turn?”
“Where is the Almighty? Does he so little care? Are we to perish in the vast ocean of death?”
The captain was such a skillful raconteur that we, the eavesdroppers, upon hearing his recounting of the calamity, were huddled on his living room floor as though we too were cowered with the crestfallen in the basins of the lifeboats. Cromwell said that he was the only person among his crew and passengers who did not make it into one of them. He lay instead with his body parallel to the ocean’s surface, with his arms outstretched above his head and his broad hands and gangly fingers grasping at the gunnel’s edge.
“All at once,” motioning with a sweep of his arm, he said, “I realized that I had lost everything—my ship, my house, my savings, my precious cargo, my dream. It all went to the bottom. And as I reached to feel the weight of my trousers pulling me down, I knew they had to go, too. I was naked before God.
“As the minutes and hours passed, there was no way to know whether we’d bake, or starve, or drown to death. Or whether by some fluke of fate perchance we would float off to some island paradise.
“So we prayed. We prayed desperately for our salvation.”
The captain leaned forward in his chair, drawing closer to us as he pointed to something across the room, toward which we turned our heads.
“Now, you won’t believe this,” he said. “But over there in the distance, after half the night is spent, we see a flickering light appearing from the same direction where the ocean liner had disappeared.
“Fact of the matter is, unless you’d been in those dark waters with us, you couldn’t imagine how even the faintest ray of light way over yonder could give you the brightest glimmer of hope. We shouted for joy, even though we didn’t know for sure that we could believe our eyes.”
Yet it was true that the same shadowy, menacing hulk of steel, which had taken aim at the captain’s wooden schooner and capsized it, returned to the scene of the crime, pulled alongside the lifeboats, raised their cheering occupants to safety, wrapped them in warm blankets, fed them, and delivered them to the port of Havana.
To everyone’s astonishment, however, the captain of the passenger ship refused to meet and greet the rescued refugees.
“But a very strange thing happened to me,” said Cromwell.
“Several years later, after I had gotten myself back together and become the chief of a banana boat not of my possession, I docked at New Orleans where I ran into an acquaintance named Jones whom I had not seen for a while. He too was a captain in the merchant marine.
“He said that he had heard about my near disaster and wondered if I had ever received an explanation as to why the passenger liner turned back and rescued us. I said I had no idea, but it puzzled me greatly that any captain would hit and run.
“Then Jones asked me if I remembered a young woman standing on the bow of my freighter as the lifeboats were unleashed.
“‘Indeed, I did,’ I said. I can see her now, stationed in the shadows with her baby in arms. The child’s cries still haunt me.
“So Jones gave me his version of what happened. I don’t know where he got it, but he said, ‘Well, Cromwell, you know it really was a very strange thing, but another woman was standing on the bow of the passenger liner. She too held a baby in her arms. When she saw what was about to happen to the young mother on the bow of your freighter, clinging to her child for dear life, she pictured herself and her own little one being in the same predicament.’
“’So she ran immediately to speak with her captain and begged him to turn around and save your people. But her captain resolutely refused. And that made her so angry that she persisted in pestering him for several hours until at last she threatened him, saying, “If you don’t turn around now, then when we get to Havana, I personally will see to it that you never sail your ship again!” And with that her captain got the message.’”
Shortly after telling those of us seated in his living room this story about his first day at sea as a captain, the beloved Thomas Cromwell suffered a heart attack and sailed his “earthen vessel” into the eternal deep.
His story was told at his funeral service to which crews of various races and tongues, from the ports where he had docked and the ships he had sailed, came to honor him.
Captain Cromwell loved to tell this story because it answered mystery with mystery and left his listeners wondering just who his acquaintance in New Orleans, named Jones, really was.
Was Jones possibly the captain of the obscure, menacing passenger liner that had capsized Cromwell’s schooner that fateful night at sea?
Which leads to another question . . .
Is God the irascible old he-captain of what Kipling called “that packet of assorted miseries which we call a Ship,”* who judges the Earth’s inhabitants with unexplained tempests of capricious and demonic fury, as though Satan himself could not have fallen as one of the angels if God had not permitted it?
Or, is this same God a she-captain who is quite determined that justice shall be done where justice is due, and that grace full of compassion will be vindicated on the face of the Deep as never before—the final victory of her continual coming and pleading and threatening and demanding that “love never ends”?
*Rudyard Kipling, A Book of Words, XV, “The First Sailor.”
Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian Church USA pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the editor of George Buttrick’s Guide to Preaching the Gospel (Abingdon Press) and the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books).