No Good Reason To Start Here. No Good Reason Not To.

2/16/2010. Nate Sanders

The Oregon II — Where I Learned from Nate

Consider someone as tall as an oak tree, and just as imposing. Must have been close to 7 or 8 inches beyond the six foot mark. Huge hands that would make a pipe wrench look like a toothpick. A bushy afro cut that leaned toward the top and back of his head. And a smile and personality that dwarfed his physical stature. Met him early in my tour at NOAA, but didn’t really get to know him until I signed up for my first stint on a research vessel. It was a 17 day trip — two legs…Galveston to the margins of the EEZ, and back. He was the chief scientist on the Oregon II, one of Uncle Sam’s ocean-going research vessels that plied the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Nate was definitely not what I was led to believe a “chief scientist” would look like. For the most part, those titles had been reserved for white men with Ph.d. degrees. But this dude was old school…and he knew his stuff. He’s probably one of two true “old salts” I ever met in my life. On this boat, there were two leaders…the captain was lord of the ship, and immediate boss of the regular crew. The chief scientist ran the show for everyone else…mostly visiting or temporary science staff.

His sense of humor was unmistakable. The man had huge round eyes. Behind the beard, if he smiled, the room seemed to light up. Perhaps it was the contrast — his skin was blacker than coal. He was the type who gave the impression that he could clear out bar full of drunks in a heartbeat, or rescue a sparrow that had a broken wing. Ying and Yang. Hard, but tender. A giant teddy bear perhaps. Real.

He’d spent so much time at sea, he reveled in the simplest things. The different personality quirks of each and every one of his “crew”…temporary or permanent. The way someone talked. Their mastery of knowledge, or science (real or supposed). The arrogance or the energy of the younger ones. He’d seen just about everything life had to offer, and thus often found enjoyment in the trivialities of others. He just shook his head sometimes when he knew someone was just so self-absorbed. Yet I never heard him utter a negative thing about anyone…at least not that I can remember. Not that he didn’t disagree with folks…in fact, he was just like the oak when he needed to stand his ground — immovable.

Safety was most important to him. Getting the job done was equally important. Relationships mattered, but those were secondary to performance and safety. He’d seen enough potential risks on the ocean, mostly caused by inattentiveness or idiocy — he wasn’t going to have any lapses on his watch. On a ship at sea, everything is a hazard…perhaps because the very ground you walk on is constantly moving, rolling. Anything could be a potential (and costly) emergency — the roll of the boat on the ocean, a rogue wave, the throttling back of the engines when we arrived on station — and those are just the things that upset the timing of a footstep or an activity. Unsecured equipment on deck; heavy, watertight door hatches that you had to step over and through; the short, squatty bunk berths for sleeping — sit up too quickly in a waking stir and you’ll acquire a nice contusion on your forehead.

Nonetheless, he had that sixth (and seventh) sense…sometimes he’d just get up and leave…go check on something or someone. And sure enough, he’d find something that needed tending to. I wondered if he ever slept. He was a presence on every duty watch. In the morning. Through the afternoon and into the evenings. In the middle of the darkest nights. He’d just appear, and usually just in time to correct an error, adjust a station track, revise a procedure, or just to check in on everybody.

Having women on the boat may have seemed to be just as challenging for him — but it wasn’t. Many old fishermen believed it was bad luck to have women on board…an invitation to anger the gods of the sea. For him, he realized they were especially at risk of two things: 1) crewMEN (regular or scientific), and 2) their own independence. Back in the ’80s, women were coming into their own in the field — in an area that traditionally was the domain of men. Their gains in the field meant that their presence was more common on the research vessels. On a boat, there are too many places to hide, and nowhere to run. The young college girls were at risk of too much attention…and that could lead to problems everywhere; inattentive men (or women) on a ship usually results in stupid accidents…sometimes serious ones. Aggressive men yielded all kinds of other challenges — and there was no tolerance for harassment. The older women, more established scientists, perhaps felt they still had to prove themselves in this arena…and their relentless pursuit of place could sometimes put others at risk as the prevailing norms (and sometimes guidelines) were challenged. But he watched them all…watched us all. Like a guard dog overseeing the sheep.

He always got your attention by starting any comment with the phrase, “Say looky here”…although it was very much accentuated by his southern style and his African-American intonation…so it came out like, “Say…lookee heeyah”. By the way it came out, you could tell if you were in trouble or being prepared for a lighthearted anecdote. If he boomed it, (SAY….LOOKEE HEEYAH!), then you knew something serious was in play — and you snapped to alert mode with a quickness. If the attention getter rolled off his lips with a whimsical chime, then you’d listen closely, for something funny or entertaining was about to be introduced. And nobody wanted to miss his humor.

The man taught so much, in so little time. When we were “on station”, we collected the plankton samples from the “bongo” nets. We sorted and processed the fauna that came up from the trawls as well…the contents of the hauls were dumped into a baskets, then into a bin that emptied the stuff along a conveyor belt. Four or five of us stood along the conveyor belt and sorted each species. We counted, measured, weighed much of it. He took his time with the greenhorns — the first-timers at sea. He knew that if you teach someone the best way (or the preferred way) at first, he wouldn’t have to spend much time correcting our errors later.

He showed us how to work the lines; where to position yourself for maximum leverage, efficiency, or productivity; where NOT to stand if you wanted to live to see another watch; how to handle the crabs without losing any of your valued fingers. He seemed to be able to say anything he needed to just by raising an eyebrow (it must’ve lifted 3–4 inches when he did that). If he raised his brow a certain way, you knew…”don’t touch that fish…it will bring you a deep and long lasting pain”. And it was pretty easy to tell if the eyebrow warning meant he was mad, interested, or just plain humored. From studying the gesture, you knew whether to cease and desist, or just join in the laugh with him.

He taught me how to play and spades, hearts, crazy eights and poker (damn, he was good at that). It was like getting a lesson in the “Art of War” directly from the master Sun Tzu himself. But partaking in his teachings on how to conquer the “solitaire” was like watching Einstein relay the Theory of Relativity. Solitaire was perhaps a metaphor for his life at sea. When every horizon is filled with two tones blue — that of the sky and that of the ocean — then solitude is the only word that describes what one might feel.

Most importantly he taught me how to get a task done — to get it done quickly, and with quality — but always to have fun doing it. It was never a dull moment. At the end of my first trip, I complained about having to be on the “cleanup crew”…the last shift, processing the last set of samples. Thus we had to clear and clean the decks, the labs, the processing stations, everything. I was told by a colleague that only the “cleanup crew” gets to partake in the special pre-dawn incentive while everyone else slept — a single can of ale from a six-pack stashed on board by one of the visiting scientists. No, it wasn’t he that was responsible for that, but he just smiled as if to say, “listen closely little grasshopper, for that one speaks the truth”. With a final, brief celebration, we created a special bond with the man that led our charge on that first ocean voyage.

On a couple of successive trips at sea, I learned he had so many talents you didn’t readily notice. He would write constantly…and just for himself sometimes. He could carve wood into all kinds of incredible designs. And he could braid rope like no one else, teaching us all the special knots while making simple keepsakes for others. After some years, I didn’t get to go to sea anymore and was more often bound to the laboratory and the coastal estuaries. But he’d still come around looking for his former shipmates when the boat ported locally. And he always gave everyone these enormous and heartfelt hugs. He was authentic and genuine throughout.

Certainly, time warps the minds’ eye and distortions of history may be inevitable; others may have a different recollection. But this is how I remember him. He’s one of those people I’ll never forget…and one who pops into my memory from time to time. When Katrina slammed into the Gulf coast, I thought of him often. First I wondered about his safety, but then I knew he’d be ok, and that he’d take care of business — first at home for his family, then at the locale of his employ — for he approached life with integrity, ethic, and humor. I could just imagine him saying…”Say lookie here…things are gonna be fine”. My gratitude is boundless, for he shared his knowledge, his experience, his culture, his teachings. I carry them with me always.

Former Scientist. Social Change Activist, Amateur Photographer. I care about Democracy and Community Development. I live and love in New Mexico.