Four or five days ago my little brother, Mark, was on my mind. I couldn’t remember the date he died. By yesterday my desire to know was almost an obsession. It was an obsession easily satisfied. All I had to do was google his name and ‘obituary’ and there it was: June 24, 1989 — today – twenty-five years ago today. Something about suddenly knowing that made tears well up in my eyes and for some reason still is, even as I write this.
Mark was nine years younger than me, the second of our parent’s three children. From an early age he wanted to be a harbor pilot, following in the footsteps of one of our parents closest friends, who was the harbor pilot in Freeport, Texas, on the Gulf Coast. Mark pursued this unwaveringly. He went to the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, and shipped with Lykes Lines for a few years, working his way up through the Mate ranks until he was Captain of some of the huge new container ships. After a few years at sea he joined our friend as a partner in the harbor pilot company. It was a welcome change for his wife, son and daughter to have him home.
Jonnie Sue and I and our children visited them once and went out with him and another pilot on the pilot boat to either put a pilot aboard a ship to bring in to harbor or to pick up a pilot who had taken one out. I remember being shocked to see how pilots get on and off the ships. When a pilot boards a ship, a rope ladder is hung over the side of the ship, which does not slow down at all. The pilot boat is right along side, moving at the same speed, and the pilot gets on top of the cabin of the small pilot boat and at just the right moment grabs the rope ladder and climbs up and aboard. Getting off is done the same way: climbing down the ladder and leaping onto the pilot boat. I don’t know if you’ve ever been close to a big ship like that, but on a pilot boat running along side of one, it is like a huge mountain moving through the water and pilot boat is like a little cork bobbing along next to it.
Mark was taking a ship out one day – a geological survey ship – ahead of a hurricane that was coming in. There were questions about whether they should wait until the storm had come ashore, but the ship owners were insistent, and Mark agreed. After he got the ship safely out of the harbor and into open water, the seas had become very rough. The storm had become more intense. As he was coming down the ladder to board the pilot boat, it rose on a swell and bumped against the ship. Mark was between them. He fell into the water but came to the surface. His shoulder was dislocated. The other pilot went into the sea and got a life ring around him and tried to get him aboard. The fumes from the engine were overcoming them, so the other pilot went back aboard to shut off the engine. When he got back to where Mark was, Mark had slipped through the ring. The other pilot dove and dove looking for him, but Mark was gone.
We went to Freeport immediately, as did the entire family, to wait and watch during a search. Some of the experienced seamen who knew the currents knew where to go, about 100 miles south along the Gulf Coast. His body washed up about three days later, almost exactly when and where they expected.
I don’t know why I started thinking of this so strongly a few days ago. It is like the sudden urge I had to call him and just chat the day before he drowned, something I just never do.
“Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.”
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 24-June 2014.