Piloting the retired and restored New York City fireboat JOHN J. HARVEY back to its berth, at first Bob brings it in at a right angle to the dock, then signals the engine room to slow it down. He brings the stern over to starboard, angling in gently. Coming up close to the fenders on the dock, he gives us time to secure the bowline to a cleat on the dock. That line will work as a pivot point, allowing him to slowly turn the boat and bring the stern around so it can be secured as well.
The “us” is Karl, the bo’sun; John, the assistant engineer – who doubles as a deckhand – and myself, newest of the volunteers to sign up to crew on the boat. Built in 1931, the JOHN J. HARVEY was rescued in the 1990’s, when a group of investors who love boats was organized to save her from the scrapyard. She was pressed back into service briefly on 9/11, helping to pump water out of the Hudson River for the firemen battling the Twin Towers fires when the water mains were out of service for several days. (The boat’s story is well and completely told in Jessica Dulong’s MY RIVER CHRONICLES.)
This is my first time crewing on the boat and, as Karl told me, it’s mostly my job to watch. Which I’m glad to do. I’m comfortable enough with applied mechanics to understand using the cleat/bowline combo as a pivot, but theory and application aren’t always the same. What the theory doesn’t account for is the fact that another crewman – the assistant engineer become deckhand – has to work his way along the guardrail that rims the dock (along with being the fireboat’s berth the dock is also home to a popular waterfront restaurant, hence the guardrail) and I have to pass the heavy hawser to him,making sure that I feed him enough slack so he isn’t pulled backwards as he works his way along the narrow edge between the guardrail and the dock’s lip. Nor does the theory account for the fact that the hawser, once secured, will stretch and complain loudly as it is tensed by the docking maneuver. Karl advises me to stand away from the hawser once it’s secured to the clear and Bob brings the stern around: if it breaks it will shoot straight back. If that happens and I’m standing there, I will be severely injured if I’m not killed outright.
Today, theory and application coincide. Though it complains mightily, the bowline does not break; the stern is brought around and secured. There is a little more jiggling back and forth as the lines are adjusted. A few minutes later the engine room goes quiet. The boat sits quietly at its berth.
Thinking later about this simple maneuver, I think about the chain of trust that linked us. Bob, the pilot, trusted Karl to understand his signals, both yelled and conveyed by hand from the wheelhouse. As well Bob trusted the engineer Jessica to respond to the signals he sends down to the engine room from the wheelhouse. Karl has enough confidence in me to let me help with the tying up, albeit under his watchful and alert eye. John trusts me to feed him the line he needs to fasten the bowline to the cleat on the dock without pulling him backwards. And Bob trusts all of us not to screw up.
Think about it. Trust is an essential lubricant in every part of our lives. A soldier says of a fellow platoon member, “he’s got my six.” (With the soldier at the center of the clock, facing forward is 12 o’clock; directly behind him it’s six o’clock.) You’re not going to let someone have your six if you don’t trust them. Less dramatically, I trust a friend to meet me at a place and time we agreed upon a week before. We trust the butcher not to put his thumb on the scale when he weighs our order. We trust the dairy coop not to water down the milk. (In one of his journal entries Thoreau says – I paraphrase – that you know your milk’s been watered when a trout comes out of the bucket.)
I’m not the kind of thinker who can start with an abstraction. It takes something concrete like bringing the boat in and tying it up to set me to thinking about trust: in our personal lives, our social lives and in our political lives. Trust and mistrust fill the political air these days. Republicans do not trust Democrats; Democrats don’t trust Republicans; the Tea Party doesn’t trust anyone (a bad sign as it may soon stop trusting itself and consume its own children); it’s Right versus Left; Rich versus Poor; the West versus Islam. And if you don’t have a dog in one of those fights, just go online. You’ll soon enough find someone or something to distrust.
In his slender book TRUST: SELF-INTEREST AND THE COMMON GOOD, Marek Kohn reminds us that distrust of politicians, their motives and their actions, is built into the structure of government. Hence the various national and local schemes for separation of powers, sunshine laws and term limits. Unfortunately, the kind of distrust afforded politicians these days goes far beyond institutionalized distrust; it is all-encompassing and it is corrosive. It extends beyond the politicians themselves and calls into question the very structure and practice of politics itself. Anger cuts all across the political spectrum, though in this season it seems to be most powerful on the right. (In its intensity and its totality it reminds me of the American left’s all-consuming anger about Vietnam in the latter part of the 1960’s.) Nowhere are there clear signs of the kind of chain of trust that allowed us to safely dock the boat that day.
When your trust is violated, you feel betrayed. You may not be justified in feeling that way. Your initial trust may have been clearly misplaced, or you may have invested too much trust in the relationship. But if you trusted and if you no longer trust, then you will feel betrayed. And if enough people feel betrayed; if the anger grows; if a movement grows out of the anger and demagogues waiting in the wings see their opportunity, then you are in real danger.
Because, if you know your history, you will know that in 1918, in defeated Germany, there began to grow the great legend of betrayal, the “stab in the back.” German soldiers who had fought in the Great War; patriotic German civilians who had given so much for the war effort (including their children); Germans loyal to the Kaiser: many wondered why, at the end of the day, Germany had been forced to surrender, to suffer a humiliating defeat and even more humiliating armistice and peace conference. They wondered and they turned their attention to those who they thought were to blame, most notably the Jews and the “socialists”. Eventually they turned their fury on both groups, exorcising the ghosts of “betrayal”, avenging the “stab in the back.”
Am I comparing America in 2010 to inter-war Germany? If, by comparison, you mean “the same”, then no, I’m not. Historical situations are never the same, especially when they are separated by an ocean and 90 years. But I am saying that history teaches us, that if we do not look at ourselves and our actions in the light of history, we run the risk of committing the same mistakes that others have committed before us.If we allow ourselves to lose all trust in those who govern us and in the institutions we have built up since the American Revolution – and that seems the goal of many – then we are danger of crashing the boat into the dock, injuring or perhaps killing ourselves and many others in the process.
Think about it: trust.