"I wonder your nervous system isn't completely wrecked," said Mrs. Cheyne.
That is from a conversation near the end of Kipling's tale of maritime adventure, Captains Courageous. The story is simple. A clever but thoroughly spoilt and useless teenage boy is on a luxury cruise to Europe with his mother. When he boasts to a knot of men that he smokes cigars, they try him with a foul stogie, and he's sick over the side of the ship, in rough weather.
A fortunate wave sweeps him off, "the great green closed over him, and he went quietly to sleep." But the unconscious boy is picked up by one of the dories of a fishing boat, the We're Here.
The skipper is an upright judge and ruler of men named Disko Troop. The crew look to him as the shrewdest man for fishing the Grand Banks, a man whose mind is always at work, considering the weather, winds, season, habits of sea creatures, and the telltales of his competitors.
His own son Dan, of Harvey's age, regards him with a merry eye, knowing that "dad's jedgments" are almost always right, and enjoying the rare occasions when he's wrong.
It's a new world, then, that Harvey Cheyne awakes to — a man's world. At first he doesn't understand. He accuses Disko of having swiped money from his pockets. He demands to go to New York forthwith, or else. He's a popinjay, boasting of his father's wealth and power, sneering at the mere fishermen who have saved his life.
For reward, he finds himself sprawling against the scuppers, with a bloody nose. "I warned ye," says Dan. "Dad ain't nowise hasty, but you fair earned it."
This is discipline indeed, meant to teach. Fishermen of the Grand Banks stay at sea for the better part of the year, and that gives Harvey plenty of time to learn how to fish from the dories, to use the sextant, to man the tiller, to climb up the masts, to slit the fishes and chop off their heads, and load them in the keel for hours and hours on end. And how to enjoy, for the first time in his life, the esteem of a real friend, Dan, and the rough care of a man who becomes his own "dad" by proxy.
When the We're Here at last puts in at Gloucester, Harvey wires his parents who trek by railroad from the west coast. His father, a great industrialist who began from penury, thinks he is meeting a lad he never knew, but also, finally, his own true son. Disko apologizes for having pounded the boy once:
"Oh yes," Cheyne replied. "I should say it probably did him more good than anything else in the world."
By the end of the novel, Mr. Cheyne and Harvey have come to their first understanding, which is manly, farsighted, and deeply moving. Harvey will go on to college and learn things his father had never learned; that is Mr. Cheyne's plan. But then he will assume responsibility for his father's newly purchased line of merchant ships; that is Harvey's plan.
And the irrepressible Dan will volunteer for service on those ships. Dan was Harvey's master, and soon Harvey in turn will be Dan's master; and they will be fast friends for life.
Now what I find most notable about Kipling's yarn is not the new or unusual thing he was trying to prove, but the old and well-known thing he assumed did not need to be proved: and that is the goodness of patriarchy. For patriarchy has become a victim of its own grand success.
Look round. Not one road, building, airport, ship, truckload of food, pipe full of oil, string of wires binding the world — not one nation worth fighting for, nor any army that can fight — comes to us without the love that nowadays dare not speak its name, the camaraderie of men who unite to tackle a difficult or dangerous job.
Set aside the battle of the sexes and consider men by themselves. Without hierarchy, one cannot even dig a straight trench to drain fields, let alone expose a mere matchbox to the uncertainties of the sea.
We take these things for granted: most of us now do not farm, fish, fight, lay roads, mine, quarry, or climb the skeleton of a tall building. I can imagine an egalitarian fishing boat — at the bottom of the sea.
But I am claiming more than necessity here. In the friendship-through-obedience that father-rule requires, men have a chance to find themselves by losing themselves. The virile man is sometimes selfish, but the effeminate man, who thinks himself better than his black-handed fellows, and who will obey only under protest, always is.
The crew of the We're Here will sometimes quarrel, but always look out for one another. And though they do not utter the word "love," yet love there is, and often at great sacrifice.
A lesson, then, for the Church? Perhaps we can learn more about what the priesthood is, or ought to be, from fishermen, than from professionals, even if they're theologians, who have never beheld the weather approaching from the west.
Captain's Courageous with Spencer Tracy, 1937
Anthony Esolen. "The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name." The Catholic Thing (July 4, 2012).
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