A Simple Twist Of Fate
I was deckhand on the Coast Guard Cutter Acushnet in the mid-1980’s. I didn’t want to be a deckhand. I applied to be the Yeoman Striker in the ships’ administrative office; an apprentice Yeoman. To my surprise, and to the shame of the Coast Guard, my request to strike for Yeoman was actually approved. I would then work my days, not on deck chipping paint under the hot Yucatan sun, but in the ship’s air conditioned office under the tutelage of the Yeoman First Class.
My administrative abilities would be cultivated and I would become a pusher of papers, an organizer, and a correspondent. This was in the early days of personal computing – pre-Microsoft. The Convergent Technologies C3 word processor and data storage system was the technology which the Coast Guard implemented.
The C3 had a small CPU, and a 13” monitor with a green LED display. Inside the CPU was a slick combination of voodoo, witchcraft and a floppy disk-drive that enabled the manipulation of words. I was able to cut, paste, and re-form my paragraphs as well as my thoughts, in ways which I could never do on a legal pad or with a typewriter – it was like having a pallet and an array of brushes for my words.
Petty Officer Jim Linder was and Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class on the Acushnet. He was from El Paso, Texas and of Native American ancestry. Jim was diminutive, quiet during working hours, and generous to a fault. I have no memory of ever speaking with, or even seeing Jim when he was not smiling – not one.
Sometimes It Just Sneaks Up On You
I had just finished having dinner with a shipmate and his wife at their apartment just a few miles from the pier where the Acushnet was moored. It was a hypnotic May evening in Gulfport, Mississippi. I rode my motorcycle slowly from my friend’s apartment back to the ship so I could enjoy the charm of the night. My moon-lit trance was momentarily broken as a fire engine and a few police cars headed toward the apartment building I was leaving. Still, I thought little of it, stared back up at the pines on one side of the road and the coastline up ahead and continued my ride home.
At the pier and off my motorcycle, I approached the quarterdeck to board the ship. On my arrival, the Officer On Duty advised me that shipmate, Jim Linder, had just been shot – an apparent suicide. I was told that he might have been fighting with his girlfriend, and leaned his chest into a shotgun or a rifle. This action had taken place in an apartment not too many feet away from the one where I had just enjoyed dinner with my friends. Now, the fire engine and police cars made sense, though I never heard the gunshot.
Thoughts From A Couple Of Shipmates
Mark L: “I used to tease him that it was an old Indian legend that if someone took your picture, they stole your soul. I don’t recall if he confirmed or denied believing that. He had a short-bed fleet-side Ford pickup, about a 1977 model, painted white. He scraped up both sides of it, front-to-back on an exit ramp late one night on the way home. To keep the scraped areas from rusting, he sprayed them with primer which made the truck look like a palomino horse, or a jersey cow, depending on your perspective. An Indian needs a horse, right? We had a lot of laughs about that”
Cliff T: “I relive that night over and over. Over the years I have lost other friends under tragic circumstances and each one has made me flash back to Jim. Jim was one of the best electricians I ever worked with. I learned so much from him in the short time I was on the ship with him. If Jim had not taken his life he would have become legend in his abilities. Jim was a smart and generous individual.”
Slight Of Hand
We were to get underway for a 30-day patrol within several days of Linder’s death. With the exception of the confines of the EM shop where Linder worked, little was spoken among the crew about Linder’s death. Nothing was done by our command to celebrate his life. There was no grief support offered to the crew. A few words were said, we got underway for our patrol, and it seemed that Linder’s life would just be a thing of the past – so far as our command went.
Several weeks into our patrol, our commanding officer hand drafted a letter to the family of Linder. He wrote to let them know what a good a good shipment Linder was and that we, as a unit, were sorry for their loss. The Captain brought that letter to me in the ship’s office, that I would enter his words into the new word processor, print it up for his regal signature, and mail it to the family of Linder on our return to port – nearly a month after Linder’s death.
I was embarrassed reading the letter my Captain had written. Though his intentions were good, it was clearly written out of obligation. The letter was clumsy, awkward, and lacked any grace whatsoever. He was good leader, but not much of a wordsmith. At a great risk to my job in the ship’s office, and my future in the Coast Guard, I would re-write the Captain’s letter, that Petty officer Linder’s family might feel a legitimate sense of loss by our crew.
Somewhere Between Voodoo And Witchcraft
With the help of the modern word processor I wrote, worked, and molded what I thought to be an exceptional letter to the family of Jim Linder. I cut, pasted, and re-worked the letter again and again – until it was near perfect, and it was near perfect. The problem was…
… the only words on the letter written by my Commanding Officer were his names on the signature line.
With a lump in my throat, and a knot in my stomach, I printed the letter and took it to my Captain’s stateroom for his signature. My hope was that he would glance at it, sign it, and send me on my way – his usual way of handling correspondence. He did exactly that. As I was about to exit his stateroom, he called me back. Shit. He took the letter from my hand and read it again. I stood with sweat on my forehead and my knees trembled as I watched the pattern of his eyes confirm that he was reading it word-for-word. He paused, and stared into space for a moment.
He then looked at me and said, “Thanks Cohen, you did a good thing – you have a gift.” I swallowed hard and said nothing. He then (jokingly) told me to “get out” before he had me put in the brig for undermining his authority. It was at that moment, I knew I could write.
Coming Full Circle
In a month without technology, the only thing I truly missed was writing with help of my computer. Writing, as much as exercise, is what does it for me these days – what connects me to the essence of who I am. I may earn my keep as a fitness trainer and gym owner, but writing is what I do – even if it never earns me a penny.
I have known too many people who have taken their own life – a few I have been very close with. Most of them I knew much better than I knew Jim Linder. Despite this, Linder’s death has haunted me more than any other. In part, I suppose, because of how poorly my Command handled the situation. Jim Linder deserved much better – he was a class act.
It was in part due to Linder’s death that I discovered I could turn a good phrase. I would like to turn a few tonight in his honor:
The act of suicide is often referred to as ‘selfish’. Those who are left behind are often resentful of, and bitter toward the departed. I don’t subscribe to that belief, and if you are one who does, I ask you to reconsider.
We who remain behind in the wake of suicide, have no idea what thoughts may have been colliding, nor how hard or how long those collisions might have been taking place inside the head of someone that desperate to end their life. That is a judgment no living person is qualified to make.
There can be no way to understand that moment – that chaotic moment when a life, a future, a legacy, and the all the relationships that go with it, no longer hold any value. It must feel, in that chaotic moment, like the universe has not yet begun, or has already ended, and therefore there is nothing to lose.
I scarcely knew Jim Linder, but I have thought about him nearly every week since his death over 25 years ago, and I will continue to think about him because, regardless of how he died, he was a good man and he was always kind to me. Be well. rc
Please check back in two weeks for my 2,000 word diatribe on the value of moving weights more slowly. Oh, and the is this from George Harrison, for Jim Linder. Enjoy…