The first memory I have of my grandfather was a Christmas, when I was little. I had become obsessed with the movie The Polar Express, in which a young boy embarks on an adventure of a lifetime and meets Santa Claus along the way. Santa Claus gave the boy one of the sleigh bells, which you could only hear if you really believed in the spirit of Christmas (I believed, of course). So, Christmas morning came and I opened one of my presents. There it is! The bell! I ran excitedly around the house making it ring for everyone to hear, but no one could. My grandfather told me then that the sleigh bell was broken, that no one could hear it, and, as I walked away, I could hear him laughing to himself. I know now he gave me the bell to make me believe in Santa Claus and Christmas, and he listened to me ringing that annoying sleigh bell all day long pretending not to hear a thing.
My grandfather is sitting in his favorite old leather chair, facing the fireplace and the television. He has a glass of whiskey next to him and is about to roll one of his cigarettes. My grandfather always looks a bit intimidating. He has a head full of curly black hair, and he wears glasses that fall low on his nose. He is a tall man, who commands the presence of a room by his stature alone. Little does everyone know that on the inside lies one of the most caring and interesting men in the world.
—I always wanted to go out to sea. I knew it when I was a boy. But I didn’t want to stay at the bottom, I had to work my way.
My grandfather, Mike Sellars, was a ship captain for over twenty years, working first as a second officer and a senior officer for another twenty. He started on cargo ships with small companies and then moved on to transporting oil for larger companies, such as Mobil Oil. At the beginning of his career, he went out to sea for more than a year; once as long as 18 months in a row. But towards the end, as captain, he would intersperse three months on the ship and three months off. “You get used to it”. Mike sighs taking a minute to continue. “Then, it got a lot harder, after getting married and having my daughters. I enjoyed my work, I was quite happy. You have fun initially, but things change the longer you are there. It was like living two different lives. ”
As captain, Mike was in charge of the ship, which he always called “a village.” His main tasks were to take care of the crew, pay their salaries and fulfill the orders of the central office. On the ship he was a father figure to all the boys, whom he took care of, making sure that the food was good, that their salary was paid and that their general well-being was good. Managing the crew was the most important thing for him. He liked dealing with the men at sea and their company very much. But his main job was that of a Navigator. “You remember bad days more easily. Once, we were caught in one of the biggest typhoons I’ve seen … It almost sank us.”
Mike finishes lighting his cigarette and, sitting in his armchair, says smiling, “the best day was when I won the rank of captain.” Then he adds, “towards the end, I received special tasks, you know, doing the jobs that other people couldn’t do, technical things.” Then, my grandfather looks at me and tells me, “I loved going through the Pacific Islands, in the tropical zone.”
After a draw of his cigarette, he states without hesitation for a moment that he would love to return. “I’m not sure I can be captain again, but of course, of course I would return,” he said.
Then, after giving him a moment to think, I ask my grandfather what he is most proud of. I hope to hear something about the feat of navigating through a storm, or when they made him captain, but instead, he looks at me for a moment and replies, “the way my girls have grown up.”
For that man who was a merchant seaman for more than forty years, the greatest achievements in life have been his daughters, my mother and my aunt, and his grandchildren. The man who commanded a whole ship through a typhoon is the same as my grandfather who gave me that rattle on Christmas day.
Then, with a serious tone, he tells me, “in life you pick up things all the time and you never stop learning just because you have left university. Life goes on and you keep collecting information and knowledge all the time. ” I think this is one of the most important lessons I will ever receive in life.