The Unknowable Fleet
By R. D. Flavin


Oedipus and the Sphinx.

“What creature walks on four legs in the morning, on two at noon, and on three in the evening?”  Sophocles' “The Riddle of the Sphinx” as asked to Oedipus [Note: The ancient Greeks acknowledged the Ethiopian origin of the sphinx and installed it at the gates of Thebes in Boeotia, central Greece.]

     Maritime activity precedes Homo sapiens sapiens (us) with Home erectus traveling to the Indonesian island of Java sometime between 1.9 million years and 70,000 years ago. They likely just floated on logs, yet must still be acknowledged as the first substantial crossing of a distance of water by Homo. It would be many thousands of years before the naval fleets of the earliest civilizations appeared (i.e., Egypt, Chinese, and Indian, with the Phoenicians and the Romans coming later to the nautical party). Such time epochs and eras, along with our brief life-spans, seem fleeting in the greater context. As much of the past, our present, and the future is unknowable, we sail along the cultural currents unsure, yet sentient and hopeful.

     Recent news of North Korea possessing a submarine capable firing anti-ship cruise missiles will certainly upset its neighbors, but poses no risk to the U.S. In a similar ironic vein, the nine-ship Iranian fleet bound for Yemen to give weapons and aid to the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, turned around after being followed by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the guided missile cruiser, the USS Normandy. While Iran, despite its current brutal theocracy, has a significant past which stretches back to the pre-Mohammedian Persian Empire and the mysterious proto-Elamites who flourished during the Chalcolithic (copper and stone) period and the historical Elamites who invented an early script (still un-decyphered) which many date as early as 2800 BCE, though some believe examples may be as old as 3100 BCE, i.e., on par with Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Iran has a solid and proud past, while North Korea is a quasi-communist dictatorship based on a personality cult. Sure, there's evidence of paleolithic pottery from 10,000 BCE, bronze metallurgy from the fourth millennium BCE, but the modern Democratic People's Republic of Korea has only existed from 1948 and they seem to disregard their past and appear only concerned to re-take South Korea, destroy Japan, and constantly threaten to nuke the United States one day. Again, life, as well as political regimes, are fleeting and appreciating the moment seems an unknowable concept to “Best Korea.”

A graphic depicting the 'ages' of man.

     For many, the years are fleeting, time seems to 'fly by, and events and perceptions of long ago seem like merely yesterday or perhaps the day before. The all-too-common advice to “appreciate the moment” has many variations (some with a religious grounding), such as “Be Here Now,”, “Pay attention,” “Wake up and smell the coffee (or 'roses', depending the conversation), “Focus,” “Center Yourself,” etc. One unshakable trait of our species is to give great advice, yet in our own lives do pretty much the opposite. The Christian proverb, “Physician, heal thyself “ (Greek Ἰατρέ, θεράπευσον σεαυτόν) from Luke 4:23 has been argued by theologians to refer to the saying as an insult leveled at Jesus during his ministry or while hanging from the cross (as some hold). I personally believe it's an instruction NOT to be hypocritical of others, but that's just my opinion.

The 18th century merchant vessel, a Hudson River sloop, discovered last year at "Ground Zero," the site of the 9/11 attacks against NYC's World Trade Center.

     No less incredible than the discovery of the 1912 RMS Titanic by Dr. Robert D. Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts in 1985, was the recent uncovering of the remains of a merchant ship from the 1790s at the bottom of “Ground Zero” beneath the Twin Trade Towers. Archaeology, especially maritime, is a discipline of hard work, chance, or good fortune. I'd vote for a combination of solid research and a fair amount of luck. The merchant sloop at “Ground Zero” was insanely fortunate!

     Ancient historians praise the fleets of the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Romans, while historians specializing in the Late Middle Ages often cite the discoveries and exploits (mainly through funding of Infante Dom Henrique de Avis, Duke of Viseu (1394 – 1460), better known as Henry the Navigator). And, of course, we have the renowned fleets of the 18th and 19th centuries of the English Royal Navy (combined with Royal Scots Navy) and regarded as the largest naval force in the world at the time, as well as the 130 ships of the Renaissance Spanish Armada in 1588. However, in modern times, most regard the assembled ships which took part in the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of Europe as the greatest fleet of late. Yet, our present numbers are nothing to sneeze at either...

USS Constitution, a 44-gun United States Navy frigate, launched in 1797, and the oldest commissioned warship afloat.

     The Americans possess approximately 1,387 ships and related water-craft in the US Navy, the US Army still maintains some 50 vessels, and the USS Coast Guard has at least 1,400 boats and 47 ships (cutters, icebreakers, and tugs) in service (with more on reserve). Russia, ever grandiose, has some 133,431 ships and boats, while China manages with only 478 ships in their fleet. But, ever the good patriot, I must point out that the United States still has “Old Ironsides,” launched in 1797 and remains the oldest ship still in active commission (though basically it serves as a 'tourist' attraction at the Charlestown, Massachusetts Naval Yard, it is staffed by a commander and a full-time crew).

     We often advise that 'life' is fleeting as the statistical life expectancy (in the U.S. it's 79.8 years for men and 82.2 years for women) is in no way comparable to an individual life-span, as anyone can step off the wrong curb with lethal consequences. Numbers may pretend to compensate for causality, yet when one's time is up still remains unknowable. Not counting fatal illness or suicide, of course. And, there's homicides and wars... We sail into the unknown, expecting one thing, though usually ending up with another.

Paddling through rough waters, 

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