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Minnich: Crisis a reminder of previous time spent alone, of what really matters

Anyone who tries to write needs some quiet time to themselves, but this is a bit much.

The last time it was this easy to just sit down and punch a keyboard without feeling anti-social was a long time ago on a Navy resupply ship ‘way up north in the Tonkin Gulf. It wasn’t a pleasure cruise.

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The only amenities were unlimited supplies of coffee and mealtime. You could get excited over the prospect of something other than bologna between two slices of dry white bread.

Socializing over food was work time; it was from the few minutes between rendezvous with warships needing “beans, bullets and black oil” that I gleaned information about the enlisted crewmen. They’d talk – or not – to a visitor, and I’d go sit in solitude and write a feature for their hometown paper.

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The enlisted mess offered bologna sandwiches 24-7 for changing shifts and the demands of the care and feeding of navy ships and crews — underway replenishments. The light was artificial; It could have been noon or midnight above decks; didn’t matter.

For three weeks it was a surreal life lit mostly by red blackout lamps below decks. Not so much as a porthole glimpse of the blue China seas I knew were sliding by. The routine was eat and gather info from some American boys who I would not see again, go to a shared desk in a dark space and punch out stories, grab some sleep in another dark compartment among fatigued men sleeping off the grind of round-the-clock labor offloading food, fuel and ordnance to warships.

When huge ships ply water alongside each other they create a class four rapids between them. There is danger and orchestrated chaos for a time, and then the same unchanging high sky, the same undulating blue seas, the same interminable distance to a horizon in any direction. Exhausted sailors slept at their workstations on deck, among the winches and pallets of supplies ready for the next transfers.

Repeat, day after day. To break up the monotony, I became engrossed in the fiction formulating in my imagination. I finally had the perfect situation to write a novel. In the dark solitude below decks, I cranked out 200 pages of Subic in less than two weeks.

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It took days before my routine coincided with the hours of two clerks whose office I shared.  The plan was to use the windowless office when the usual occupants were off duty. But something remarkable changed my mission.

It was, in retrospect, the reality of a need for real human connection —communication and meaningful conversation.

One of the best things about my job is mining the richness of personal experiences from people I meet. But this was unique, perhaps in part because of the enforced isolation of a ship at sea for weeks.

Both of my new friends were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — Mormons. Both were well educated. We talked about arts and politics and philosophy and — of course — religion. They did their best to make a good Mormon of me, but I said I had been neither a very good Lutheran nor a Methodist. We debated and discussed and agreed to disagree, and it was stimulating. The remaining two weeks disappeared in the wake of our ship.

The novel was put aside for another 15 years. But that isolation-bred encounter left me with a new perspective on how much we have in common — perhaps because of our differences. And how much we want to keep in touch.

These recent days are a reminder of what matters.

Dean Minnich retired from journalism and later served two terms as a county commissioner. His column appears every Thursday. His email address is dminnichwestm@gmail.com.

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