Confession time. I am a conservative, west Texas born and raised, retired military, orthodox and evangelical Christian pastor who embraces a Calvinist soteriology and traditional dispensational, premillennial, pre-tribulational eschatology. And I am a Parrothead. The first sentence summarizes my background and beliefs. The second is added flavoring.
For those who do not recognize the term, a “Parrothead” is a coined term identifying a person as a fan of Jimmy Buffett, singer/leader of the Coral Reefer Band and marketing mogul. He trademarked the titles of some of his hits and parlayed musical success into restaurants and sales of a wide range of “lifestyle” products. Parrotheads cover the full spectrum of loyalty. At one end are the closeted souls who enjoy his music (in the privacy of their own homes), and at the other extreme are the outlandishly dressed and accessorized denizens (those who want to be “Jimmy Buffett”) camping out at Parrothead conventions called “concerts.”
I was introduced to his “Gulf and Western” music in the late 1970’s through the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO or “E-dub”) on my B-52 crew. A fellow Texan, we were both drawn to the light-hearted mischief and allusions to an easy, sun-baked lifestyle presented in his music. During this phase of Mr. Buffett’s career, his albums were a mixture of tunes related to the consumption of rum or tequila-based concoctions, word twisting to humorous effect (“The weather is here, I wish you were beautiful,” for example), and an occasional quiet, reflective ballad that indicated a soul beneath the “party-on” exterior. It is one of these ballads, “The Captain and the Kid,” that touched me then and has hit me profoundly now that I have reached the status of “The Captain.”
The song was written in honor of Mr. Buffett’s paternal grandfather, Captain James Delaney Buffett, and was occasioned by the man’s passing (“He died about a month ago, while winter filled the air”¦”). The grandson attributed his sense that life is an adventure to be lived and enjoyed from climbing “upon his knee, listening to his many tales of life upon the sea.” When they “went sailing on Barkentines” (a sailing ship with 3-5 masts) “and talked of things he did, the world was just a day away for the Captain and the kid.”
I was reintroduced to this song shortly after a visit with my son, daughter-in-law, and 18 month old grandson, Grant. As Mr. Buffett noted, waddling grandfathers and toddling grandsons together occupy a world that is untouched by any other human being. In one afternoon, Grant moved quickly from copying Dad and Granddad working (using his toy replicas of real tools) to requesting to use the cordless drill (the real thing), holding it correctly, and then to showing his proud grandfather how to properly use the tool ““ even installing and removing drill bits. Reading stories became telling stories to a rapt audience of one. The little morality tales for a toddler will soon give way to great stories from the adventure and joy and excitement that is military flying. I can’t wait.
Such was the relationship of which Mr. Buffett sings through the first verse: “tales of life upon the sea.” The second verse begins with a harsh reality: when you become a grandparent, you are already feeling the ravages of time.
“His world had gone from sailing ships to raking Mom’s backyard.
He never could adjust to land, although he tried so hard”.
The dauntless sea captain who physically wrestled with the power of wind and sea now finds physical challenge limited to “raking Mom’s backyard.” The seasoned sailor and leader of men who barked orders to move sails and to steer a ship on a course and away from danger now accomplishes a menial task quietly and alone. The grandfather tried, but never adjusted to this phase of life ““ on land.
No man truly adjusts to a life without adventure and physical challenges, for loss of the adventure means a loss of personal significance. The best we can hope for is redefining challenge, in hopes of discovering new adventures. While the ravages of time affect the body, their results are felt in the soul.
“Ravages of time:” a bleak prospect for any person, but most profound for one whose adventure was linked to inherent dangers in his profession. For the sailor or the airman, life on land does not promise danger like the sea or the sky.
Mr. Buffett observes the change, and in his response as a grandson points us in the direction we grandparents need to consider.
“We both were growing older then; wiser with our years.
That’s when I came to understand the course his heart still steers.”
Growing older is unavoidable; growing wiser is a choice. “Older” can mean “bitter,” or it can wisely be seen as the new adventure of impacting a follow-on generation. For this task, God provides inherent ability: deterioration of the physical body makes the heart clearer to others. And clearest of all to a child who has no other connection to a life lived in a time gone by.
“The course his heart still steers.” In the context, the reference is to steering a course while sailing a three to five-masted Barkentine. This serves as a metaphor for the direction of his grandfather’s life ““ the heart steering the life. When the old man lost the sea to live out adventure, he took on the task of steering his grandson into the realization that life is an adventure: “the whole world is just a day away.” He was successful, as Mr. Buffett, reflecting on his grandfather’s death concludes, “Although I cried I was so proud to love a man so rare.”
Let’s stop and consider the concept of steering a course. In the literal sense of sailing it means:
The sailor and his craft are dependent on the wind for propulsion and subject to its whims.
Steering a course means going with the wind, across the wind, or against the wind ““ but always with the destination in focus.
Changes in wind speed have both a positive and a negative effect. The harder the wind blows, the greater speed the ship can attain, but the rougher the sea becomes. Calm wind means still sea, but you go nowhere.
Closer to land ““ to your destination and harbor ““ means greater likelihood of encountering hidden danger from reefs or sandbars. Vigilance is heightened as you approach the familiar.
In facing these challenges, the only constant in the equation is the destination.
Take the facts from the literal sense of sailing and compare them to the metaphor of the heart steering the life:
Wind and sea picture the circumstances of our lives. We control neither but must constantly be adjusting for their changes. Sometimes we go with circumstances, other times across or against them. Our destination determines which tack to take.
Changes in wind and sea are both positive and negative. The greater the challenge, the greater the reward and the greater the risk. Like the sailor, we view times of absolute stillness ““ the doldrums ““ with a jaundiced eye. No challenge means we personally are going nowhere.
And there is danger of shipwreck in our lives even in the area of the familiar. Vigilance in our attitudes, relationships, character, and morality is the constant watchword for the day.
And the only constant in the equation is the destination.
So the question to ask in this light is, “What do you see as your destination?” We are moving through choppy seas and adverse winds ““ to what end? Like the sailor on the open sea, the destination is not in sight. We must depend on an external source, a compass, to guide our ship of life toward our destination. What direction does your compass point?
I see “the course his heart still steers” as my challenge: “What destination will Grant understand that grandfather’s heart steers toward?” My destination is Heaven. To that end, should my compass point upward or earth-bound? Toward people or away? Toward Christ or toward self? Toward joy or toward bitterness? In each of these options, the former is rare, the latter is common.
I have little eyes that will see, and a young heart that will follow. My prayer is that he will be proud to have loved a man who was rare.