The aging captain, gray at the temples now, had steered the great ship for many years, and now was retiring. On a bright fall day of white clouds and melancholy, the ship’s passengers, thousands of them, gathered to see him off. The departing captain had been a kind and unflappable skipper for many years, through seas turbulent and tranquil, and watching him descend the gangplank brought many of the passengers to tears.

Among the citizens of the ship there were carpenters and teachers, painters and professors and plumbers, and they had come to the ship from the planet’s every corner. They did not always agree on everything, but they shared a history, and over many decades together they had faced death and birth, glorious sunrises and nights of unease, war and sorrow and triumph and tragedy. Through it all they had developed a sense that they were mad, ragged quilt of humanity, full of color and contradiction, but unwilling to be separated or torn.

With the old captain leaving, the passengers talked about who should take the helm. There were a number of possible replacements for the old captain — a dozen or so women and men who had steered great ships before, who knew nautical navigation and maritime law. There were at least ten men and women, in fact, who had worked on this particular ship for decades and knew its every last gauge and gudgeon.

As the passengers were contemplating which of these qualified women and men could take the helm, one of the passengers spoke up.

“I’ll do it,” he said loudly with a voice at once hoarse and high-pitched. This man was round, and a bit hunched over, and wore a yellow feather in his hair. All the passengers knew him well. They knew him to be a small-time salesman who sold cheap souvenirs near the putt-putt golf course, a man who liked to tell off-color jokes during open-mic nights. They knew him by his lumpen shape and by the incongruously delicate feather that decorated his head, and they knew him because he was crude and loud and had, for many years, said anything that popped into his head.

“I like that guy with the feather,” said one passenger. “He says anything that pops into his head.”

The man with the yellow feather had never been a captain before. He had never steered a ship of any kind or size, and had insulted the previous captains loudly and often. In fact, for years this man had been telling his fellow passengers how much he didn’t even like boats. He had said, over and over again, that all ships were bad, and everyone running them was a criminal. “Let me be captain!” he yelled now.

Many people laughed, because all the passengers knew this man to be clownish and not the least bit qualified. He often joked crudely, and they assumed this, too, was a crude joke.

“This time I’m not joking,” he said.

“Hm,” said another passenger, a mother of two who in every way was sensible and true. “Maybe we need someone like this to shake things up.”

The passengers all mulled this idea, and began discussing it in earnest. The idea of shaking things up — anything from one’s toothpaste to one’s shoes—held a certain inherent appeal to most of the passengers. Shaking things up held the promise, however irrational and unproven, that everything shaken, or tossed randomly into the air, might come down better. Somehow, in the flying and falling, steel might become gold, sadness might become glory, what had been good might become great.

“Shake things up! Shake things up!” This was a chant begun by a gaggle of teenage boys, who were only half-serious, and had most recently been found urinating their names onto the shuffleboard court.

Amid the noise, the ship’s first mate, a courageous woman who had stood by the previous captain’s side for too many years to count, stepped forward.

“My fellow passengers," she said, "with all due respect, the last thing we need is someone shaking things up. This is a ship. A ship full of humans, all of them in our care. Outside, the ocean is vast and deep and teeming with the unknown — from squalls to sharks to typhoons. The sea provides enough uncertainty and chaos. The last thing we need is a captain providing more of all that.”

But many passengers had become intrigued with the notion of the man with the yellow feather occupying the most important position in the ship.

To be sure, there had long been a maxim on the ship, spoken by every parent to every child, that stated, “On this ship, anyone can grow up to be captain.” It was a dictum that spoke of the ship’s dedication to opportunity and equality and an ostensibly classless society. When this sentence was first uttered, though, its originator meant that from any humble beginning, through decades of rigorous study and apprenticeship, certifications and examinations, anyone might eventually ascend to the captain’s chair.

But over the years, this maxim had come to mean that any fool might decide on a certain Monday to become a captain, and by Tuesday, with no qualifications whatsoever, could take charge of a 30,000-ton vessel and the thousands of lives contained inside it.

To underline the point, one thoughtful man stepped forward, a pedagogical index finger in the air. “If we truly believe that anyone can grow up to be captain,” he said, “we should prove it by electing the least qualified, least respected person on the ship — a man who has never done anything for anyone but himself, a man who has palpable disdain for all previous captains, and no respect at all for the builders of the ship, its history, everything it stands for. To prove our belief in a just society, we must elect a man who just believes in himself.”

To many of the passengers, this made a wonderful kind of sense. To prove they were all equal, they should, the logic followed, be led by an imbecile.

Amid the discussion, a girl of twelve stepped forward. As a child, she did not have a say in the voting over who would guide the vessel, but still, she spoke up. “I’ve been listening to this debate,” she said, “and I have to say I’m flabbergasted that this idea is even being entertained. I mean, there’s no way a rational group of adults would ever give such power to a man like this, over our very lives — a man who has absolutely no relevant experience, who has never sailed even a dinghy — a man known only for a crude mouth and a yellow feather, a man who at this very moment is trying to feel up my mother” — for he was — “Please. Give yourselves some credit. We are all noble people with a storied history. We deserve to be led by the finest and most sober, noble and kind among us, not the loudest, cruelest, most selfish and foul.”

- - -


“I like being captain,” the man with the yellow feather said. He was installed high on the bridge, and now surveyed the seas with swelling pride. The ship’s passengers had elected him to steer the ship and he was very pleased about it. They’d even given him a parade around the upper deck, and he loved parades.

Now, standing on the bridge, the captain looked at all the electronics and whistled. “There sure are a lot of screens and buttons here!” He whistled again. “This is already more complicated than I thought.” He decided he needed some help.

Immediately he thought of a woman he’d been seeing around the ship. He’d been watching her for as long as he could remember, admiring her comely heart-shaped face and her glorious figure and her hair, which was silky and straight and as yellow as his feather. He often talked to other men about how attractive she was, and how good she smelled, and how much he’d like to date her. He wanted such a gorgeous creature near him always, so he asked her if she would help him steer the ship.

“Okay, Dad,” she said.

- - -

Look for new installments of “The Unsteady Captain” every Friday.