Thursday, October 6, 2011


Three different yet linked thoughts came together earlier this evening as I made our way home from an away school volleyball match. Driving east on the Long Island Expressway I noticed the white lights, and flashing blue tail light of a helicopter hovering in the mid-distance, some five miles ahead of me, at an elevation of thirty degrees and thought: What are they doing? I then recalled a recent report on the BBC News website. I will put the link here:

But as the BBC will probably at some future moment delete this story I will quote from the headline in full:

A rescue search was carried out off the coast of Tynemouth Longsands after a member of the public mistook the planet Jupiter for a distress flare. (BBC Report October 4th, 2011.)

And then the personal thought, or rather memory. It’s one of my naval stories, so if you wish to climb on a chair and swing the lamp in your room I won’t blame you.

When I was… No, please let be begin again. I was serving in the Type 21 frigate, HMS ACTIVE. It was the late autumn of 1990, and we were heading west across the Atlantic Ocean to assume duties as the West Indies Guard Ship. Via Bermuda, where we would have to spend at least four days – necessary for reasons both operational and otherwise. And on night five of that transit, I was on watch on the bridge.

Not the Officer of the Watch, you have to understand, but as his (and it was masculine at the time) deputy. The Second Officer of the Watch. An understudy. A student. I was certainly that, yet studying hard in matters navigation and radar, hoping to gain my watch-keepers “ticket” within the next year. Those were the times when Chaplains were permitted, even encouraged to do such things. Such attitudes changed, however, and when the new Chaplaincy Services branch was created in 1996, their message to all priests and ministers was to stop such non –religious activity and participation. Whatever.

I was on watch on the bridge. The Officer of the Watch was one Perrin Towler. He and I had become good allies in many an occasion and run ashore, as well as matters pastoral, and developed a firm trust. And it was one-thirty in the morning. Both of us were perplexed at a yellow light that seemed to be flashing blue miles ahead of us, at an elevation of about thirty degrees. We peered at this sighting through binoculars, through the bridge window and out from the bridge wing. And there was nothing on the radar. Yet it seemed to be moving. An aircraft? Probably a helicopter. But this far out? Ten minutes passed, and eventually Reggie (that is Perrin) said, “I think we’d better alert the captain. “Captain, Sir, Officer of the Watch ….”

Captain Mike Johnson, Royal Navy arrived on the bridge two minutes later. He picked up a pair of binoculars and briefly examined that light. He looked at the compass, and then at his watch, and announced: That is the planet Jupiter. Good night, gentlemen!

No comments: