The Work Gods Are Too Busy to Tend To

Name: Karl E. Taylor
Branch: United States Coast Guard
Station: All through New England
Rank: Yeoman (Petty Officer Second Class)
Term of Service: 1986 – 1994 (8 Years)

“At least when we go out, we know there are men trying to kill us. We know what we are up against. But you guys, when you go out, you never know what you’ll be facing. You guys are the crazy ones.” (Compliment paid to the members of USCG Station Boothbay Harbor, Maine, Winter of 1987, by a member of a Navy SEAL Team.)

All things being equal, and all humans being frail, the sea is something to avoid. But avoid it I did not. I could not avoid it; I had a family to feed, and a child to raise. And I had no career. So I did one of the few things I swore I would never do. In the summer of 1986, during the high point of the economic downturn, I enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. I would celebrate my 26th birthday in boot camp, and would miss my son’s first birthday as well. I graduated 4th out of a company of 150 members. Little did I realize what was in store for me at that time.

I selected as my first assignment USCG Station Boothbay Harbor, Maine, a small boat search and rescue station in the center of the Maine coast. Maine is a beautiful place. Granite shores, tall majestic pine trees, explosions of colour in the fall. Absolute wonder. But Maine hides a deep dark secret. A terror that humanity will never conquer, and one that can never be beaten. I have seen this terror firsthand, and I have helped, in a small way, to snatch a few lives from its ever-hungry grip. It is a cold terror, a deep terror, and a powerful one.

It is the North Atlantic. Wonderful and peaceful when calm, but quick to turn ugly, and dangerous when riled. Men and women still ply their trade of fishing and lobstering along this coast. They know all too well what the sea can do, and have mourned the loss of many a friend. We trained hard to try and keep those lost numbers as low as possible. And we succeeded more times than we failed.

I have been told that a god created all. That this same god is all-powerful, and all-knowing. That this strange god helps out those in need when they need him most, and never gives us more than we can handle. Well, I don’t know about gods, I have no faith in them. I am an atheist, and while I may never have seen combat, nor been in a foxhole, I know fear. And I know this thing called death very well. I have seen it do its hideous work a number of times.

Imagine a boat, 44 feet long, out on the sea. Now imagine a wave coming up to that boat, 60 feet wide, and 20 feet tall. Your boat is only 13 feet tall above the water line. Now imagine that same wave coming at you every three to five seconds. Unless you’ve been in it, your mind can not conceive of it. And why are you out there in that? Because another boat is sinking, and three men will die if you don’t go. Because a wife called and said her husband is overdue at the town dock, and you have to find him. Because a flare was seen in the night sky, and you don’t really know what launched it. That’s why you are there. There are lives in the balance, people in danger, children screaming in terror. And you might be the only thing standing between them and a cold, watery grave. And where are the gods?

Where is this creator of the universe when people need it the most? Where is this all-knowing, all-powerful being that men and women pray to when they lose their car keys? Where is this divine healer of the sick, the injured, the destitute? Obviously, busy finding car keys and enriching the wealthy preacher. While men and women in blue, on small white boats, risk their lives to save others. Fight with skill and luck, to cheat death one more time, and come home to tell about it. And sadly, sometimes, some don’t come home at all.

They fight not against bullets and tanks, aircraft and warriors. They fight the elements, they fight against time, and they fight against their own fear. Their fear of failure, fear of being late, fear of having to tell a mother or father that their son won’t be coming home again. And they fight against their own fear of death. And never once did I hear a single member of my boat crews cry out to a god to help us. Not once did I ever pray, “Just let me come home one more time, sweet Jesus.” Not once did I ever ask for the help or protection of something that seemed far too busy to lift a finger in the first place. I always felt that if there were a god, there would be no need of the USCG.

In contrast, I have heard a number of people exclaim, “Thank God you came.” I wanted to puke every time I heard that. A god had nothing to do with my crew and me being there. A god was not helping us save them at the risk of our own lives. Our skill, training and luck is what saved them, not some mythical being. There were times when I heard the “thank god” phrase that I wanted to throw them back and see if a god really would answer their prayers. But I’m a humanist, and human beings are more valuable alive and growing than floundering in the sea. Nevertheless, some days, the temptation was great.

But most times, after the job was done and the people were safe, the swell of pride you feel does away with the disgust you felt. You know that you did a good job, and you know that, even if they misplace their thanks, those people will live another day. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll realize that gods had nothing to do with their continued living. It was people that kept them alive.

I don’t know if there are atheists in foxholes. I never really wanted to find out. But I can tell you this much: there are atheists on small boats in the North Atlantic. Doing the work, that the gods are too busy to tend to.