When I was old enough to drive, my favorite trip would be the long way to Wallis Sands State Beach in Rye, New Hampshire. I can probably still do the drive in my head. I would stand on one of the rocks and process all those crazy teenage emotions that muddle things up. Looking past the Isles of Shoals, a group of islands off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine, I would wonder what was out there. My thoughts would often turn to God as if the real bread of life should have been broken on the altar of that rock along with the waves relentlessly driving ashore.
If asked, I would tell you I joined the Navy because my sister, Cheryl, took me to USS Massachusetts in Fall River, or because my grandmother took me to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. I might also tell you that I had to join the Navy to pay for college. None of that is a lie, but it does not tell the whole truth. That truth lies in the hours spent thinking about what lies past those isles that are such a part of the mythology of the New Hampshire seacoast.
And you know what I found out? Nothing. There is nothing past those isles, lots and lots of nothing. But, if you think nothing is not magical, you have never been to sea. Sitting on my bridge wing chair, I would look out at ocean all the way to the horizon. The clouds seemed low enough to reach out and touch. Sometimes they blocked the sun, but when it broke through, it lit up a golden path that eliminated any wonder why the original mariners went to sea in barely sea-worthy craft thousands of years ago. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it led to the Pot of Gold.
On my first deployment almost 30 years ago, I crossed the Pacific. As a point of reference, the Pacific is really, really big … and really, really deep. We would navigate our way using charts scaled to cover the largest area for days with nothing but ocean for thousands of miles in every direction and water depths as intimidating as the distances to landfall. Talk about nothing. If you ever wonder what inspires a mariner to believe in God, it is this Nothing. When faced with nothing for thousands of miles around and thousands of fathoms below, faith becomes more than a good feeling, it becomes the fuel that moves us forward.
What I believe in today is different than what I believed in as a kid; it is a belief in something far more powerful than me and was defined in the face of that nothingness. Perhaps like Emerson or Thoreau, it cannot be contained in a church or a creed. It inspired the actions of my teams of sailors that saved the lives of some mariners whose boats had sunk from underneath them. When there is no hull to keep you afloat, the only thing keeping you from becoming one with Nothing is the compassion and commitment of a fellow mariner who has room on his ship for you.
Steve Fuller retired from the U.S. Navy in 2019 after nearly 27 years of service serving at sea on ships as small as frigates and as large as aircraft carriers. A visit to the Driftless and a desire for a radical course change brought him home to Wisconsin where he lives on a small parcel of land with chickens and horses and … more to come! He has been a creative writer since he first saw U2 perform in Live Aid, and now as he returns home after a life of service, he looks forward to sharing more of his writing with willing readers.