The man who made me feel small
by Glen Doss, Major –
Looking back, I realize that before the Lord came into my heart I was a small person in many ways. One of the best examples of this is the way I treated Gary Fisk.
Gary, 22, a thin young man with delicate features, reported aboard the USS Robison DDG 12 a few months after I did. I had been recently promoted to work center supervisor and was feeling the power. When it became evident Gary had difficulty getting to work on time, I rode him hard.
On the first leg of a Western Pacific cruise, we pulled into Pearl Harbor for a weekend of refueling and restocking. The next morning our section had the duty. But when the day dawned—no Gary. I was standing topside when I finally spotted him straggling aboard, looking the worse for the wear. Dashing down the ladder, I dressed Gary down, calling him a dirty dog and every other colorful term that came to mind. He said not a word in defense but recoiled, downcast. Afterwards, an officer pulled me aside, voicing his contempt for my leadership style. This made me even madder, and I went gunning for Gary. I knew a way to get even.
Gary had recently been promoted to petty officer third class. On this particular write-up for unauthorized absence, I criticized his performance as a new noncommissioned officer—detailing all his infractions, particularly his chronic tardiness and recommended reduction to the rank of seaman. I omitted the fact that Gary was an excellent technician and had good interpersonal skills—this irritated me especially, for I couldn’t understand why others could get inside his shell, but I could not—I knew him not at all.
Captain’s mast (a disciplinary hearing) was held on the fantail on a sunny morning as dolphins leaped alongside while we carved the placid waters on our way west. As I approached the group of men standing in formal procession for the grave event, Gary emerged from below decks, and our paths briefly crossed. His eyes met mine for what seemed the first time ever, and the chilly look he cast still stings across thirty years. It was a bitter, accusative glare that cut me to the quick, a judgmental gaze that said I had been weighed in the scales and came up wanting. I had been so sure of myself; now I looked around, disoriented and befuddled.
As the captain spoke the solemn words that divested Gary of his single stripe, my gut felt suddenly empty—the sense of satisfaction I thought would be forthcoming was disappointingly absent. For the first time I felt a twinge of guilt and, at some level, realized I was wrong.
A week later, pulled into a south sea island port, I was assigned as officer of the deck for the 4 a.m. watch, and Gary was assigned as messenger of the watch under my supervision. When he failed to report on time for duty—as had happened so many times before—I went looking for him.
Approaching his rack in the near total darkness below deck, I could not believe my ears: eerie, soft, sobbing sounds were issuing from it! “Fisk! You’re fifteen minutes late for your watch! Get up, you lazy ________!” The cruel words that escaped my lips were too malicious and cutting to repeat, and I grieve that I ever said them, for I can never take them back. Upon my return to the quarterdeck, I was surprised to see another seaman reporting to pull Gary’s watch. He told me what he thought everyone knew—that Gary had received a radio message the evening before informing him his father had died suddenly. A chopper was set to pick him up at 6 a.m. and fly him out to a carrier where he would catch a plane back home.
I was stunned! Now it all made sense. I felt as small as a man could possibly feel. Watching by early morning light as Gary ascended by way of a cable to the helicopter hovering over the ship was as close to a religious experience as this atheist had ever come. I was a lonely, cowering man, lost against the vastness of the sea.
Today I wonder if I had given Gary a listening ear, perhaps he would have opened up and provided me an insight of the man inside the shell. But without God in my heart displaying his curative love, I was incapable of this. I have come to see that our love of God is the basis, the driving force, of our love of self and others. The commandments our Lord said are the greatest are about love of God, other people, and ourselves. All are integrally related and hold the secret of true compassion.