A Millennium Behind, a Millennium Ahead

(c) Dr. Arthur Holub, Dec 1999


February 1, 1999 was a sad day. It may have passed unnoticed by most, but for me it signaled the end of an era. It heralded just another of those things in life that passed out of existence with nary a whimper.  On that day, February 1, 1999, the world's Merchant Marine radio officers passed into history.

I was saddened because for many years I was a radio officer in the United States Merchant Marine. If you aren't familiar with the Merchant Marine, we are the civilians who man the world's commercial vessels. I followed in the tradition of Jack Phillips, the radio officer on the SS Titanic who tapped out the SOS that signaled the tragedy on that night of April 15, 1912 and then went down with over 1500 of his fellow crewmembers and passengers. And there were many others since who stood by their equipment, sending Morse code signals. Some were rescued and others went down with their ships.

But the world changes. When I first went to sea, briefly in the 1950's and later from 1986 until I retired in 1998, we still used Morse code to communicate between ship and shore. But by then we also had single sideband radio which allowed us to speak from ship to shore often in deep static and with fading signals but, never the less, communicating with another human voice.

Then came the satellite communications systems that allowed us to pick up a telephone handset anywhere on the world's oceans and dial a regular telephone number and connect instantly to land with clear, unwavering signals.

Morse code became something from the past, used only occasionally by those of us who wanted simply to keep up our skills.

But even our skills needed to change. Since the days of Jack Phillips there have been radio officers aboard all merchant vessels because we possessed those unique skills needed to communicate with the outside world in case of disaster. Now any of the ship's officers can pick up a satellite telephone and be connected to worldwide rescue stations or medical facilities.

Most of us made the transition to "electronics" officers. We were responsible for maintaining the vessel's navigation equipment; its' radars, Global Positioning System equipment, computers and a host of other sophisticated devices. But maritime law still required us to be there with our dusty Morse code keys "just in case."

I spent my days at sea, not listening for an SOS in the static, but near my telephone waiting for the inevitable "Sparks, the computer just ate something." My fingers no longer were poised over the Morse key but now were the fingers that could unsnarl a wayward computer.

But in executive suites around the world, bookkeepers analyzed vessel costs and questioned why a radio officer still was required by international law to be aboard their vessels. And they solicited the International Maritime Organization to change the law, to replace us with new equipment where anyone could press a button and, in theory, summon help.

So it came to pass that by February 1, 1999, every merchant vessel worldwide, foreign or domestic, was required to have new equipment called GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System).

My vessel installed this new equipment early in 1998. My shipmates put a sign on it calling it "Iron Doc" in my honor. I made plans to retire. No more late evenings on the bridge of our vessel, stepping out onto the bridge wing to feel the sea air on my face and look up at the millions of stars which gazed down upon us as we traversed the dark oceans. No more evenings in my bunk where the gentle motion of the vessel would rock me to sleep, or those occasional evenings when I had to place a life preserver under one side of my mattress to prop it up so that the not so gentle motion wouldn't rock me out of my bunk.

I now find myself back traversing the streets of Tustin instead of the streets of Yokohama; Singapore; HongKong; Algeciras, Spain or Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

But what's the point of this trip of nostalgia? What does it have to do with a computer column? Maybe it's because the new Millennium is upon us and we should take a few moments to look back. But I guess what I really am saying to my fellow older adults it that we don't retire, we just change direction in our lives and move ahead. We face many changes and new challenges and should approach them with vigor and inquisitiveness and a desire to learn new things. Remember, computer classes start again the first week of January. Hope to see you there.

Happy Computing and, in radio terms, 73's (bye for now and good luck)


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