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I Am What I Am
The Cruel Sea
Nicholas Monsarrat
This book literally changed my life.

In the eleventh grade in Greenville, South Carolina, i had an English teacher who designated Thursday as "Free Reading Day" and encouraged the entire class to read anything they wanted to (well, within limits -- "Playboy" would have been Right Out, i'm sure) -- and, in case you had nothing of your own, she laid out an assortment of magazines and books on a table at the front of the room.

On that table, one Thursday, was a copy of "The Cruel Sea". Since i've always been at least a bit interested in sea stories, and it looked interesting, i picked it up. From the first i was hooked solidly.

In the next three or so years, i reread it twice at least, possibly more than that.

And then i joined the Navy -- and i am sure that it was because of what i read in this book, and what i sensed behind it, in what Monsarrat -- who, like his viewpoint character, Lockhart, was there from the beginning, working his way up to command his own ship before the end of the war -- didn't so much say as assume about the sea and the Navy -- any Navy.

Monsarrat presents us here with a brotherhood of the sea, corny as that idea may sound. Sailors, more than the other Armed Forces, tend to regard other sailors -- even enemy sailors -- as brothers in arms, and, as Monsarrat says, the only true enemy is the cruel sea itself.

As he shows us here, the sailor who was your enemy five minutes ago, who was trying to kill you as you tried to kill him, is merely another survivor to be rescued from the cruel sea once you've sunk his ship.

And, even more so, as Monsarrat portrays it, there is a kind of brotherhood that binds sailors in the same Navy together in very much a family manner -- you may not like your cousin, but you want to know what's happening to him and, when all is said and done, he IS your relative.

The best summation of this sort of attitude (which i felt to some extent myself during my time in the US Navy) comes when Ericson, the Captain, is touring his new ship as she stands under construction in a Glasgow shipyard; he meets one of his future officers, and mentions the name of his previous ship, which was lost with over three-quarters of her crew, and realises that
"He's heard about Compass Rose, he probably remembers the exact details--that she went down in seven minutes, that we lost eighty men out of ninety-one. He knows all about it, like everyone else in the Navy, whether they're in destroyers in the Mediterranean or attached to the base at Scapa Flow: it's part of the linked feeling, part of the fact of family bereavement. Thousands of sailors felt personally sad when they read about her loss; Johnson was one of them, though he'd never been within a thousand miles of Compass Rose and had never heard her name before."

To be part of a band of brothers like that is a proud thing, and Monsarrat captures it perfectly.

He also captures the terrified boredom of being in enemy territory with nothing happening as you wait for the enemy to make the first move, and the shock, confusion and horror of combat (particularly sea combat, in which the battlefield itself is the deadly, patient enemy of both sides).

And he captures the glories and rewards of life at sea, the beauty of a glorious clear dawn at sea, the stars and the moon and the wake at night and so much more.

This is the book that made a sailor out of me.

It will tell you what it is to be a sailor.