A man none of us knew invited us inside his head. A gift you don’t get every day.
The fellow wasn’t asked to. Our adult education seminar was considering the definition of morality, when all of us witnessed the lowering of the drawbridge into the new acquaintance’s psyche. What we heard from him puzzled some; foolish or innocent or honorable they thought, depending …
The question before us was how society sets rules for acceptable behavior. In ancient Athens or America’s pre-Civil War South, disapproval did not attach to keeping slaves. As southern defenders noted, slavery is in the Bible, without condemnation.
“Good” is relative. Group allegiance matters. Killing the enemy, for example, is required in war-time; not at home in times of peace.
The recent classmate appeared unremarkable at first: slender, sandy hair, and the casual dress of retired folk. Another look, however, revealed weathered features, as if living had gotten the best of him.
He’d been in the Navy in early adulthood. Once home on leave — then temporarily a civilian again — time beckoned to contact old friends and revisit the world of flirtation and love. Or so he hoped.
After several days passed, his sister asked him how that was going.
“Not so well,” he said.
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“Once I tell them I’m a sailor, they aren’t interested.”
“What don’t you tell them you’re an engineer? You are.”
“But I’m a sailor.”
Mariners of our antique time were not thought the most savory individuals. Moreover, when telling young women you are in the employ of your country, they understand you will soon be off to somewhere else: not an enticement toward prospective permanence.
One wondered, as his sister did, why he chose the disadvantageous identity over the no less accurate, more attractive one.
“I was a sailor, trained to value the corps over the self, the group over the person. I identified myself as a sailor first, as did all who served together. My particular job assignment came second. I couldn’t describe myself other than the way I did.”
One man in the class asked if that ever worked out — how he managed the dating business later on. Better after he left the military, he told us, but not the reason he left.
You might be thinking not all naval personnel live a celibate life for the service they honor. Or, you could be psychoanalyzing the ex-seaman, wondering if he used his allegiance to his mates as a way of inoculating himself against potential rejections that could otherwise have been taken as personal.
The young man didn’t use a common approach to meeting and mating, the kind we almost all employ almost all the time. We lead with our best qualities, tell our secrets and open our imperfections later, if at all. Assuming we admit them to ourselves.
A few classmates talked about this gentleman after the session. One found him too naïve and self-sacrificing; another admirable and principled, a third inflexible, impractical. Tribal allegiance came up, too, from a woman who thought the guy no different from the unthinking political types who always take their party’s side.
Perhaps you’ll be amused to hear another response. I mentioned the story to a charming, sixty-something divorcée not in school with us. When I finished, Sophia remained quiet for a bit, as if listening to an internal conversation with herself.
A moment later she asked, “Is he single?”
I said I didn’t know.
“OK. But find out. If he is, I’d like to meet him.”
The first image is called Sailor and Rum by Joe Machine. The one following is World War I German Sailor with an Iron Crescent (Medal). Finally, a portrait of Sailor Malan by Cuthbert Orde. All three come from Wikimedia Commons.