Second in the summer school lessons series. For part 1, click here.
In July of 1990, I had a bad day. The plan called for heels dug into the hot sands of Athens, Greece accompanied by great friends while I gazed at crystal blue water as far as the eye could see. The reality? I had the water part. I had the friends part. The problem? They were as cranky as I was because crystal blue surrounded us as far as we could see on all sides.
Instead of the port call to Athens, among other popular locales, my buddies and I bobbed in the open ocean, captive on a naval destroyer off the coast of Africa. Civil war had erupted in Liberia and our ship, the fastest in the battle group, diverted in a frantic rush to lend assistance. Goodbye France, goodbye Spain, goodbye Greece.
After two months of continuous steaming in a square mile pattern far enough over the horizon so the only glimpse of the coast entailed the occasional mirage, stir crazy didn’t begin to describe us. There were bright spots.
One sailor threw a lure over the gunwale where it arced the vast distance to the water below to trail beside the ship. After a few sailors claimed the fisherman would catch nothing but a sunburn, the line buzzed. Fluorescent green and yellow flashed in the blue water, a mahi-mahi. The captain stopped the ship and dispatched the whaleboat, the only way to haul the huge fish on board. The whole ship ate well that night, the first fresh seafood in months, courtesy of John Nye, optimist and fisherman extraordinaire.
We also had swim call, a chance to jump off the side of the ship and float in the open ocean, the first ever in my two years aboard. The casual swim’s only downside came in the disturbing image of two sailors hovered 30 feet above us with machine guns to ward off hungry sharks. I had two separate hopes as I swam: one, I hoped there was no need to use the guns. Two, if there was a need, I hoped the sailors had outstanding aim.
But most days crushed us under the equatorial heat. On this day in July, I worked alone on the the ship's large stern—my nose literally to the grindstone—armed with goggles, an ear protection headset, and a rotary grinder. You haven’t lived until you’ve sanded paint off the decks of a navy ship in 110 degree weather. As the sanding wheel cast sparks in every direction, I remember one thought spinning through my head:
I’d rather be any place on earth than here right now.
After a while, I grew tired of listening to myself gripe. I ripped off my goggles and ear protection, tossed them onto the shirt I’d peeled off earlier, and stepped to the side of the ship to clear my mind while a molten breeze singed the sweat off me. Something occurred that I’ll never forget.
On our rear quarter, port side between 7 and 8 o’clock, the ocean bubbled and frothed on the horizon. Initially, my mind couldn’t comprehend what I saw. Tidal wave? Undersea volcanic eruption? Feet welded to the deck, I studied it. Should I call the bridge to alert them? But alert them to what?
There are times in life—I hope you’ve glimpsed it too—when the world tilts and for a few, precious moments, the curtain of the universe sways open to reveal the workings behind it. At that moment, an overwhelming peace descends and you know, no matter what happened before, or what happens tomorrow, all will be fine because there is more to this world than meets the eye.
Hanging over the side of that ship, eyes wider than they’d ever been, one of those moments rushed me like never before.
Shooting from the water in long, graceful arcs, not one, not twenty, but over 300 dolphins raced toward me. I believe it was closer to 400, but am mindful of perceived exaggeration. I’m comfortable saying over 300 because should I err, I’ll do it on the low side.
The random synchronicity of so many dolphins arcing across the water, their school stretching wide across the horizon, growing larger as they bounded in playful leaps toward our ship, was the single most beautiful event of nature I’ve witnessed in my life.
Right before I opened my mouth to alert anyone within shouting distance, someone amidships beat me to it in a triumphant call. “Dolphins!”
I leaned over the side to peer along the edge of our ship as excited souls crowded its sides. The dolphins swept past the ship, parting to skirt our gunmetal gray insignificance that claimed a tiny spot in a vast ocean. So many sailors sprinted to the other side of the ship at the same time I half expected it to lean starboard under their shifting weight.
As we watched the dolphins leap their way to the opposite horizon, only one thought leapt through my mind.
There is no place on earth I’d rather be right now.
Cesare Pavese wrote, “We do not remember days; we remember moments.”
Truth speaks volumes. I didn't have a bad day; I had a bad moment, followed by a glorious one I've carried with me all my life.
The summer school lesson I tucked away from the experience is we all straddle a fine line. Sometimes we focus so hard on the bad, we miss the good. I cringe to think of the sight and experience I’d have missed had I not taken that moment to clear my head. With the ear protection and noise from the grinder, I’d never have known something miraculous passed by me.
What negative fills your vision while the universe plays around you? I guarantee, if you pull your eyes from it and look hard enough around you, a miracle, be it large or small, is over the horizon ready to sweep into your life.