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My Chief

AN-KD-Chief1I was always the Captain. This was not by choice, but at the insistence of another; he was the Chief Engineer, and I was the Captain. At the time, I didn’t understand the meaning of this –– just thought it was amazing that I could be the one in command, to have the responsibility, to make the decisions. As a six-year-old, I would be the best starship Captain my grandparents’ house had ever seen.

And he was always the Chief Engineer. I’m sure I offered the Captaincy to him, because I adored him so. He had fought a real war and sailed in real ships; he was a gentleman and a hero. The chair was his, but like Montgomery Scott, he never wanted it. You see, every ship has a Captain, and a Chief Engineer. One is the head, one is the heart, and neither is the lesser for it. If they lack in synergy, they can defeat each other. If they are truly bonded by a single purpose, they can raise each other to greatness.

As goes their partnership, so goes the ship.

Dick Barron was my Chief Engineer, and grandfather. He was never possessed by ego; he sought not to exercise his will over anyone, but instead to try to make sure those dear to him could accomplish what they set out to do. With my mother, that meant he hiked across a beach to touch an Iceberg… meant he struck a bargain with fate to see her well, at such great cost to himself.

Damned right.
Damned right.

With me, it meant I was the Captain; every time we played, no matter our particular adventure, he insisted I set the course. We were always bound for the stars, and as a lifelong sailor and engineer, he took over our engine room –– my grandmother’s kitchen –– and made certain all the corners of the cosmos were within range of our engines.

I do not know why he had such faith in me –– why a man who had watched men die, had feared death himself, and undoubtedly had been required to take life too, would trust a child with that chair. Should he not have been bitter… should not a child at play have been told to do so within the confines of reason? Perhaps, like many men of his era and experience, he believed that the dreams of children could steer the world into better waters.

So I would point to something and say: “Let’s go there.”

And he would size up the challenge, then reply: “Aye, Captain.”

Imagine the magic of those moments. Imagine being so young as I was, and feeling as though the whole world –– the entire cosmos –– was within reach. To have such an Engineer saying that a thing could be done gave me license to dream bigger dreams. Anything was possible… as long as I led well.

Because with leadership comes responsibility. That lesson was implicit –– I don’t remember how he helped me understand it, just that it was fundamental to all our voyages. I understood that, if I were to be worth the faith he placed in me, I would have to prove myself responsible –– make the best decision about where to go, what to seek. I would be responsible for the choices I made, the adventures we undertook, and the well-being of all those who came with me.

Conference between Captain and Chief Engineer
Engine room below, bridge above, and an important conference in the middle.

That is the sacred pact between Captain and crew. Before the age of ten, I understood –– deeply believed –– that while it is for the Chief Engineer to bring us places unimaginable, it is for the Captain to make certain those are the right places. Most importantly, it is for the Captain to protect the lives of all those who grant him the privilege of leadership –– the crew who trusts him –– no matter the cost to himself. Back then, my crew consisted of some teddy bears, a genius dog… and my Chief Engineer.

Nineteen years and one day ago, he died.

No matter how smart I thought I was, no matter how I tried, I could not save my Chief. It was impossible for anyone to do so… but I still should have found a way. He put his trust in me –– made me his Captain –– and while he would never expect me to change the rules of life and death, it was my job to do just that. I couldn’t. Rightly or wrongly, I will always feel responsible.

You will not understand what it meant to me, at the age of eleven, to be the one who lowered his coffin into the ground. I heard the veterans from the Legion play the Last Post, I felt the cut of a cold wind, and then I flipped the switch that sent my Chief Engineer, my grandfather, forever into the soil of Newfoundland. With him, so many dreams could have gone away. But soon after that day, I discovered something important: even without their Chief, the engines could still go.

People have asked why I’ve been so driven these past dozen years. So many books, so much work… why not party more, worry less about consequences, and focus on being young? Because time is short. Because I watched my friend, my Chief, my grandfather fight to the death. I put him in the ground. It is to me, now, to continue our mission in his absence.

I wanted to voyage out amongst the stars. Dick Barron looked for those stars, but never quite reached them. When next I see him, it is vital that I be able to hold my hand up to the cosmos and say: “All those stars you looked for? We visited as many as we could. We missed you, but we never quit.”

We won’t stop. Not until they make us. And oh the stories we will tell. Because my Chief believed that the stars were within range of our imaginations. They always were, and they always will be. And I won’t stop until I’ve seen all those I can reach.

Each series I write begins with a dedication to Richard Joseph Barron, my grandfather, because every new adventure takes us to one of those places he wanted me to see. I hope the voyages have been worthy, and that there are many more still to come.

Second star to the right…