Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sailing the Rough Galleon

This morning after sitting I was reading about Thomas Paine's youth, at the time he left Thetford for London in 1756.

Imagine this young man. The average life expectancy then was 37 years. That's how old I am now. At age eighteen, an intelligent and energetic young man could look across the horizon knowing his life might be halfway over. Middle-aged at 19. In the United States today, the average is now 77.8 years -- and yes, I looked that up and divided it in two.

Paine took off for London and initially signed up to be a privateer, essentially a legalized pirate. He was about to board ship when his Quaker father showed up at the dock and talked him out of it. Instead, young Paine got a job making corsets in slavish conditions somewhere in Covent Garden. The typical workday ran from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM, pay was low, and unions (or "combinations") were illegal.

In just a couple of months, he boarded a pirate ship after all and spent six months squinting across the ocean for a sign of hostile ships to capture and loot. He was highly literate, and may have passed the time reciting poems or maybe composing bawdy verses to amuse his shipmates. We don't know what work he was assigned to do. Maybe making and repairing sails? Most of the guys on the ship were low-skilled, warm bodies needed for fighting. Indeed, Paine's ship narrowly avoided an exchange of cannon fire with another vessel. Many people died when ships fired on each other not because of the cannon balls themselves, but because of splinters - huge ones that could impale a man.

Young people do sometimes make choices and find themselves impaled upon them. You hazard that risk and board the galleon, it sets sail and your commitment is at that moment irrevocable. You're on board and things will happen to you. At that point, the game is whether you can make it back where you started having obtained something new and useful.

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