Tales to Set Your Hair on End

To pass the time on the darkest and loneliest of nights, mariners have been swapping tales of the unknown since the first boat went to sea. Those rooted in science and practicality reject all of them. “There’s a reason for that,” they quickly proffer, but I suggest otherwise.

You most likely have heard of the Flying Dutchman, a ship that sailed around the tip of Cape Hope and made such great time that sailors and landlubbers alike swore the captain had sold his soul to the devil. To this day, it can never dock in port. What it  does, however, is carry the lost souls of the damned for eternity.

Off the coast of Chile, the Caleuche is involved in a more positive event. According to one account, mermaid-like figures take the souls of drowned sailors to the ship. Once on board, it’s not a hell that awaits them but the chance to continue to live their lives contentedly. I cover this and numerous other incidents in a book  about pirates, mariners, and the eternal sea that I’m close to finishing. In my extensive research, I’ve come to realize there’s just too many incidents like these to just summarily write them off.

But the sea isn’t the only place where the unexplained occurs. I’m reminded of stories my mother told me for years. One incident occurred when she was about five in a row home in the 1920s Philadelphia. It was Easter and her brothers and sisters were all huddled in bed expecting the Easter bunny to come. Excited, she had a hard time sleeping. Then peering out from the blanket drawn to her chin, she saw him. A white form glided through the wall and stood at the foot of the bed bending over as if studying her. The five-year-old suddenly realized this was no Easter bunny at all as she squinted, shut her eyes then reopened them only to see the figure continue to stand there for several minutes before gliding backwards and disappearing through the wall.

A child’s imagination run amok? It’s not that easy to explain away when you consider several other incidents just as bizarre that occurred in the house. Not much later, my mother was home with her six-year-old brother John while the rest of her brothers and sisters were in school. Her mother was in the kitchen doing what stay-at-home moms have been doing for centuries. Kneading dough for several loaves of bread. With fingers deep in the dough and flour covering her arms, she didn’t hear her two children creep down the steps.

The little girl and her not much bigger brother heard the piano in the living room clunking as they came down the stairs. Mommy is dusting the piano, the little boy and girl thought, but as they descended the stairs and the piano came into view, they realized it wasn’t mommy at all. Terrified, they flew past the piano and into the kitchen where mommy was elbow deep in flour and dough. Her mother was as shocked as they were as they told her about the piano.

Several other incidents occurred in the house that finally provoked my grandfather to find a new home in the suburbs. Many of the older homes in Philadelphia were lit by gaslight in those days, and the little five-year-old always insisted my grandfather leave it burning at night. The first night in her new home, my grandfather was surprised as he tucked his little girl into bed. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she whispered, “You can turn out the light, daddy. I feel safe here, and I don’t need it anymore.”

What about you? What was the strangest thing that ever happened to you? It’s comforting to have a reasonable explanation when the bizarre happens, but mariners and landlubbers alike know we sometimes have to live with the uncertainty of the bizarre and the supernatural.


A Hanging Offense

While doing research for a writing project, I came across a disturbing incident that occurred over a century and a half ago which costs several teenagers their lives. A Hanging Offense: The Strange Affair of the Warship Somers recounts a tragic event that unfolded on an American warship when several teenagers threatened mutiny while on training exercises. The story has a lot of twists and turns, and we’ll never really know what was in the minds and hearts of those who participated.

Several teenagers confided to their shipmates that they were going to commit mutiny, murder the officers then sail away to a country that would offer them asylum. Was it a few teens feeling their oats, boosted by an unhealthy dose of bravado? Was it just talk by malcontents full of hot air? That was the key question facing the officers when they uncovered the plot.

I paged randomly through this book by Buckner Melton, Jr., and I have to tell you, as tragic as the story is, if you love stories set against the backdrop of the sea, this is a book you’ll want to read. I’m proud to have it in my library right between Robert Kurson’s Pirate Hunter and Scourge of the Seas by Angus Konstam. I think they’re going to get along just fine together, swapping tales of mystery, cunning and betrayal.

It’s a tragic story, but one rooted in history, and if you gravitate towards stories of the sea, you should get yourself a copy because you’re not getting mine.

                                                Bill Hegerich

                                               The Uncommon Mariner

Key West Light: Guiding Mariners and Drunks Home Since 1825

If you ever get to Key West, you’re pretty lucky. If you’re a lighthouse aficionado and you wake up in Key West, you’ll probably think you died and went to heaven.

I have to admit that for most people, seeing the Key West Lighthouse is not at the top of their list when visiting Key West. But turn on to Whitehead Street, one block off Duval Street, and go far enough, and there it stands. It’s almost across the street from Hemingway’s house, about a minute’s walk if you’re sober. If you’re doing the Duval Crawl like some of the permanent residents of Key West and visitors, it could take up to an hour or more.

When Hemingway told a friend that he had bought a house in Key West across the street from a lighthouse, his friend replied: “Now you can crawl home from Sloppy Joe’s Bar just by following the beam from the lighthouse.”

The lighthouse that stands in Key West today was not the original lighthouse. The original one was 65 feet high and was completed in 1825. Its purpose was to guide mariners through the dangerous reefs to Key West harbor.

The original keeper was Michael Mabrity, assisted by his wife, Barbara. When he died seven years after it opened, she continued caring for it. Unfortunately, the powerful Havana Hurricane of 1846 wiped it out, killing 14 people who were hiding from the storm. Barbara survived. The current lighthouse stands proudly at 73 feet and is made of brick. It became operational in 1848.

It’s hard to look at the Key West Lighthouse or any other one for that matter and not feel a longing for something deep in the soul that is nameless and eternal. Sometimes I think each of us is called to be a lighthouse and harbor for others. Just as we need shelter from Life’s storms, sooner or later, we all need the light of a friendly soul to guide us on our way.

Just as important, we need to remember that we carry within ourselves the light others need, and it’s as comforting and certain as the light from a lighthouse standing firmly on a dark shore, pointing the way. Did you ever visit Key West Lighthouse or any other one for that matter? Did you climb those ancient steps till you finally reached the top and could gaze at the watery horizon alive with a million blinding beams of light? Breathtaking, wasn’t it? Whose breath will you take away tomorrow when you share your light?

                                                     Bill Hegerich

                                                     The Uncommon Mariner   


Welcome to National Trivia Day

 Welcome to Stump the Pirate!.

January 4 is National Trivia Day, and everybody I know loves a challenge which is why Jeopardy as well as Trivia Pursuit has been so popular all these years. I’ve got a little game for you called Stump the Pirate, and it tests your knowledge of four categories. Pirates, Explorers, Shipwrecks, and Mother Ocean. There are five questions for each of the four topics. If you score perfectly, I promise to share my next haul of doubloons with you. Answers appear at the end of the quiz. Good Luck! Aarrrgh!


One. When there wasn’t a physician on board a ship, who served as surgeon? a. the captain b. the quartermaster c. the cook   d. the gunner

Two. What was once considered the most evil pirate haunt in the world? a. Madrid, Spain b. Port Royal, Jamaica c. Santiago, Cuba   d. Murrells Inlet, SC

Three. Who was Spain’s most famous buccaneer? a. Sir Francis Drake b. Ferdinand Magellan   c. Ponce de Leon   d. Jose Cruz

Four. Which of these was the only pirate who retired successfully? a. Blackbeard b. Black Bart  c. Capt. William Kidd   d. Henry Every

Five. Which place became a pirate stronghold known as the Pirate Republic?  a. Nassau, Bahamas b. Jamaica c. Cartagena   d. Santo Domingo


Six. Who was the first to use the name America on a map? a. Gerald Mercator b. Amerigo Vespucci c. Christopher Columbus    d. Abraham Ortelius

Seven. Which explorer was lost at sea after his crew mutinied?a. John Davis b. Ferdinand Magellan c. Henry Hudson   d. Joseph Bannister

Eight. Which one of these was a ghost ship guided by the devil?a. Celeste b. Davey Jones c. Flying Dutchman   d. El Diablo

Nine. Who was the first navigator to sail completely around the world three times? a. Francis Drake b. Ferdinand Magellan c. William Dampier   d. John Davis

Ten. Who discovered the Hawaiian Islands? a. James Cook b. Henry Hudson c. John Franklin   d. Henry Morgan


Eleven. On which ship was the policy of ladies first into the lifeboats adopted? a. Titanic b. Birkenhead c. Lusitania   d. Rhone

Twelve. What did the collision of the Imo and the Mount Blanc in 1917 result in? a. Total destruction of Halifax, Nova Scotia b. a minor explosion   c. an oil spill   d. the cause of World War I

Thirteen. What is a ghost ship? a. A ship rumored to be haunted b. a ship denied access to a port c. a ship wrecked on a foreign shore   d. a ship afloat but with no one on board

Fourteen. What ship sunk off Nantucket Island in 1956?  a. HMS Pinafore b. Andrea Doria c. Franklin   d. USS Enterprise

Fifteen. The ferry Estonia sank in 1994, killing over 800 people because: a. The captain fell asleep b. a bomb on board went off  c. an explosion in the boiler room ripped through the hull  d. someone forgot to close the bow doors

                                                                 Mother Ocean

Sixteen. What causes tsunamis? a. Typhoons in the Pacific b. earthquakes c. volcanoes   d. rogue waves

Seventeen. What’s the only male sea creature that gives birth to its young? a. Lemon sharks b. dolphins c. sea horses   d. box jellyfish

Eighteen. Sawfish sharks aren’t really sharks at all but: a. dolphins b. pirates looking for a meal c. stingrays   d. an octopus

Nineteen. Which turtle has no shell? a. Olive Kemp Ridley b. loggerhead c. hawksbill   d. leatherback

Twenty. What’s the biggest creature in the sea? a. Mako shark b. blue whale c. humpback whales   d. killer whales

Time’s up, Kiddies. If you got five or less correct, you need to spend more time chasing pirates. If you got six to ten, you’re better than a landlubber, but I recommend an extra week’s vacation at the beach this year. If you scored, eleven to fifteen, you’re a pretty good mariner. Keep hoisting those sails. If you scored sixteen or above, I know a couple of sea captains that would love having you on board chasing adventure on the High Seas.

  1. c. the cook. 2. b. Port Royal, Jamaica  3. a. Sir Francis Drake 4. d. Henry Every   5. a. Nassau, Bahamas   6. a. Gerald Mercator  7.  c. Henry Hudson  8. c. Flying Dutchman   9.  c. William Dampier  10. a. James Cook   11.  b. Birkenhead  12. a. Total destruction of Halifax, Nova Scotia   13. d. a ship afloat but with no one on board   14. b. Andrea Doria  15. d. someone forgot to close the bow doors  16. b. earthquakes    17. c. sea horses   18. c. stingrays    19. d. leatherback   20. b. blue whale

                                               Bill Hegerich

                                              The Uncommon Mariner


What Are You Doing This New Years Eve?

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like to be done with the old and worn-out and welcome a New Year with its promise of a new chance at Life. Maybe it’s the reason some pirates liked to rename their ships. Perhaps they felt it would give them a new lease on life. At the very least, it confounded the authorities if only for a little while.

The very mariners who deliver the goods you snap up in your local stores represent a wide variety of countries with some very interesting New Year traditions. I suggest you check them out. They may very well bring you the luck you’re looking for if not radically alter your life.

This New Year’s Eve besides watching the ball drop in New York’s Times Square, you might want to consider adopting one or two of the following customs. Let’s start with Italy. There and in some Hispanic countries, it’s a good idea to put more than a little thought into what color underwear to put on. If you want to attract money, wear yellow. Guys, stains don’t count. Ladies, if you’re looking for love wear red panties. In some countries, red underwear is given as a gift though I wouldn’t recommend you try it with your next-door neighbor.

In some parts of Columbia, South America, people carry travel bags or other small pieces of luggage with them so that travel will be an important part of their life in the New Year.

Brazilians have a unique custom that is easily adapted to anywhere in the world. For luck, they swim in the ocean, diving into the waves seven times in honor of Yemenja, goddess of the ocean. Each time you jump in the waves, make a wish. How much fun is that unless you live in Anchorage, Alaska or the South Pole?

In some parts of Latin America and Europe, you are sure to have luck if you eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight. Each grape you pop into your mouth represents a month of the New Year. And don’t forget to make a wish with each grape you eat.

Many Filipinos keep round things near them for good luck as they begin the New Year. Some wear polka dot clothing, or eat 12 round fruits, one for each of the 12 months of the year. At the very least, keep change in your pocket and to encourage wealth to come to you, jingle it frequently throughout the day.

You don’t have to wait for St. Patrick’s Day for this last one, nor do you have to be Irish. Put a little mistletoe under your pillow and your future loved one will appear in a dream.

However you celebrate the New Year, I wish you not only health, good luck, and wealth, but the fulfillment of your most precious dreams. Happy New Year.

                                    Bill Hegerich

                                    The Uncommon Mariner






A Merry and Blessed Christmas

          May this Christmas bring you all the joy and peace your heart can hold. And may all your Sail-Away Dreams come true this coming year. For those mariners on cargo and cruise ships, tankers and tugs, far from family and friends, remember how much you’re ;loved and thought of. A special thank you to all the men and women around the world who stand and serve their country, you are remembered with love, respect, and gratitude today.

                                         Merry Christmas

                                         Bill Hegerich

                                        The Uncommon Mariner

Strange Christmas Customs from Around the World

If you’re home in your easy chair, sharing Christmas with your family, I hope your holidays are filled with all the love and peace the season brings. If you’re one of the thousands of mariners whose only family on Christmas Day is your fellow shipmates, thank you for the sacrifices you make no matter what sea you sail upon. And I hope you realize how much you’re loved and missed by your family. I pray your voyage will be short and you’ll soon be home in their nurturing arms enjoying the comfort and warmth of their love. 

At this very moment, thousands of mariners on nearly 100,000 merchant ships are out on the sea, carrying some kind of cargo that you’ll sorely miss in your local store in a few months if they don’t do their job. These mariners come from over 150 different countries and will be unable to be with their families this Christmas.

This is a good time to say a prayer for them and reflect on what Christmas traditions they’re foregoing because their job calls them thousands of miles from home for months at a time. As a tribute to them, I’d like to introduce you to some of the lesser-known Christmas traditions around the world. They all belong to those folks out on the sea.

Let’s begin our voyage with Norway, shall we? There, Santa doesn’t visit homes on Christmas Eve. But a very hungry gnome called Niese does. Just as believers in Santa leave milk and cookies, the children of Norway leave him risengrod, or rice pudding. If he’s happy with his meal, he’ll bring good luck to the house in the New Year. If he’s disappointed, he’ll be playing tricks on the family for a long time.

Folks in Norway don’t just have Niese to worry about. On Christmas Eve, many families hide their brooms because that’s the night witches and spirits roam the earth. Leaving a broom unattended is just asking for trouble.

As strange as it may seem, children in Iceland might have good reason to wish for underwear or socks along with their other gifts. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, they’re encouraged to do their chores. Those who do will get new clothes under the tree. Those who don’t better watch out for the Yule Cat known as Jolakotturinn. He’s as big as a house and walks from house to house on Christmas Eve looking in the window. If new clothes are under the tree, he moves on. If there are no clothes under the tree, the naughty child had better not sleep that night because the Yule Cat will get him.

Christmas is obviously a Christian celebration, but a number of traditions of the season date back to pagan times. In Iceland, Gryla, the Christmas witch. Is one of them. She lives in a cave with 13 trolls called Yule Lads. Before Christmas, she searches out bad children to kidnap them.

Frau Perchta is a German and Austrian version of the Christmas witch. If you’ve been good, you get money in your shoe. If you’ve been bad, parents warn their children, she’ll cut your stomach out and fill it with rocks.

If you’re a bibliophile or book lover, you’re going to love this next tradition of Iceland. It dates back to World War II when everything but paper was in short supply. The folks there practice a custom called Jolabokaflod. Literally translated, it means Books of Christmas Flood. On Christmas Eve, family members exchange books and then spend the rest of the evening reading to each other. No cell phones. No texting. No computers. No Facebook. Just families reading to each other. How bizarre can you get?

Many folks are aware that an important holiday of the Christmas season in Germany is the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. On the eve before, he fills boys’ and girls’ shoes with candy and small gifts. What many don’t know is that in parts of Germany and Central Europe, a terrifying spectre called Krampus, accompanies St. Nicholas, giving the night of December 5, the name Krampusnacht. A creature that is half goat and half demon, the Krampus visits bad children either to punish them or kidnap them much like the bogeyman.

A more benign German tradition that has blossomed in recent years is the hanging of a pickle in the Christmas tree. On Christmas morning, whoever finds the pickle hidden among the tree branches and ornaments receives a special present.

Before leaving Germany, let me share a legend told in some parts of Germany and the Ukraine about a family too poor to decorate their tree after putting it up. Saddened, they went to bed with the tree bare. When they awoke in the morning, something magical had happened. As the light of dawn shone through the window, the tree sparkled with webs of silver and gold woven by spiders that had nested in the tree. Today, when German and Ukraines decorate their Christmas tree, they add an ornament or two of spider figures for good luck.

Close by are several Slovakian countries whose people who are just warm and thoughtful people. Quite a few of the families there observe some beautiful Christmas traditions. When the table is set, an extra place is set for a family member who is deceased. Coins are placed under each plate to guarantee everyone will have a prosperous year ahead. Finally, an apple is cut into pieces, a slice for everyone at the table. This gesture symbolizes the hope that they will all meet together next year.

Next, I’d like to take you a little farther west to southern Wales where revelers dressed as horses are apt to appear outside a home. The main horse’s name is Gray Mare, and like wassailers in other cultures, the revelers roam from house-to-house singing songs or reciting verses. The homeowner is expected to outdo the Gray Mare’s ditties. In good time, the revelers are then invited in for something to eat and drink. The tradition is called Mari Lwyd.

As we travel farther south, there’s a region of Spain called Catalan, home of the Catalan Poop. Here the Catalan log is the focus of Christmas Eve. For the previous three weeks, a hollowed-out log with a face is cared lovingly by the children in the house. Every day they feed it, and every night they tuck it into bed by placing a cover over it.

Then on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, the children beat the log with sticks while singing a song, urging it to poop. If the log feels that it was cared for, it defecates candy, nuts, and other delicious treats along with small gifts.

On the other side of the Pacific, the folks in the Philippines have their own take on Christmas. They’re fond of displaying parols or star-shaped lanterns. It doesn’t make any difference what they’re composed of or how big they are. For the Filipino, it symbolizes hope. Their Christmas capital is San Fernando in the province of Pampanga, 40 miles north of Manila. The city is famous for its elaborate Christmas lanterns and the Giant Lantern Festival. Like Christmas celebrations in the Western World, it originated as a religious holiday. A novena of prayers beginning on December 16 culminated on Christmas Eve when everyone brought their lanterns to church.

It’s no surprise that Christians in China are in the minority, maybe around two percent of the population. They call their Christmas Sheng Dan Jieh. Translated that means Season of the Holy birth. Dun Che Lao Ran or Old Man Christmas fills children’s stockings. Like the Philippines, paper lanterns are an important part of Christmas celebrations.

Before heading back into port, I’d like to share a cherished tradition from my own childhood. Writing a letter to Santa and mailing it in a most unusual way. One cold, dark night a few weeks before Christmas, my brother, sisters and I would write our letters to Santa Claus. Since a six-year-old knows little about spelling, my older siblings guided me. My letter wouldn’t earn any points from Sister John Miriam, but it was written with all the sincerity and heartfelt love a six-year-old’s heart could hold.

When we were ready to mail our carefully printed letters, they were gently folded and bundled by my mother as my father watched smiling from his chair by the fireplace. Crouching down, my mother pulled the handle that opened the flue, and a cold waft of air from a bitter December night hit my cheek. Then she pointed, and one by one, we slipped our hopes and dreams into the darkness of the chimney. When the last one was in, my mother pulled the flue handle, and it closed with a thud.

A flood of worry filled me as I pointed out how windy it was outside. “What if our letters don’t make it to the North Pole? What if they’re lying in the street in the morning, and Santa never sees them?” My mother assured us they would arrive safely during the night. One glance at my father’s face and his gentle nod, and I knew I had nothing to worry about.

I don’t know what Christmas traditions you cherish, and I don’t know what you want for Christmas. Maybe it’s something you can’t wrap and put under the tree. Like a car or an exotic vacation to the South Pacific. Or maybe it’s good health for yourself or a loved one. Whatever it is, I wish you all the peace and happiness your heart can hold.

                            Merry Christmas

                                     Bill Hegerich

                                     The Uncommon Mariner





St. Lucy’s Day: Don’t Get Swallowed up by the Darkness

The darkness inside the caves of the Baths on Virgin Gorda is insufferable for some. This break of light halfway through is a reminder that no matter how dark our situation, hope offers us a light that despair never can.

We’re losing light fast these days, and we’re still eight days away from the shortest day of the year. A lot of people are struggling to find something to celebrate as the days grow shorter and darker. It can be depressing for many affected by SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is real and can be devastating for those particularly susceptible. Signs of SAD include sadness, depression, and fatigue. Half a million people in the United States have it. That’s not to mention millions of other people around the globe including folks in Australia, Germany, and England.

Of course, there’s Christmas with all its merry-making, but the folks on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia and the Swedes have come up with a stopgap measure. St. Lucia or St. Lucy’s Day. It may surprise you to know that her name means light in Latin. With the days growing shorter, it’s a great time to celebrate St. Lucy’s Day.

As the Uncommon Mariner, I love learning about how other cultures celebrate different holidays of the year, and St. Lucia is no exception. Oddly enough, the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark have adopted it as their own as well. It’s likely it spread into their culture from Italy where St. Lucy lived.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we? Saint Lucia Day, also known as St. Lucy’s Day, always falls on December 13. Obviously, the island nation of St. Lucia, pronounced, Saint Loo Sha, was named after the saint. Lucy was a real person who lived around 380 AD and died about 403. Exact dates are hard to come by when you go back that far in history where people lived without Facebook. Just as hard is tracking down the legends that spring up around people.

According to one account, Lucy was betrothed to marry a powerful man but had reservations when her mother was going blind. During a dream one night, a saint appeared to her and told her to have faith in God, and instead of marrying, to give her dowry to the poor.

Once the man she was to marry found out, he was outraged. When she continued to refuse his advances, he decided to have her thrown in a brothel. The day he arrived to drag her away, something strange happened. Her body could not be budged despite how many men attempted to force her. He finally built a bonfire and attempted to burn her at the stake, but each time the fire failed to consume her. Finally, he had one of his men lance her in the head. Still, she would not die till she had time to make her peace with God.

Lucy lived during the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians. You’re probably aware many were thrown to the lions. To survive, many hid in the extensive catacombs under the city of Rome. Lucy is said to have brought them food. Each day she would slip into the dark dungeons with her arms loaded with victuals. Because the catacombs were pitch black, she relied on the light of a candle. In order to carry supplies in both arms, she wore a special wreath on her head which held four candles.

Wherever her feast is celebrated today, part of the celebration includes a procession of young girls wearing white robes symbolizing purity. The girl chosen to lead the procession as St. Lucy wears a special wreath on her head with four candles.

Before the switch was made from the old Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, St. Lucy’s feast landed on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. How appropriate since dispelling darkness with light is an essential part of St. Lucy’s Day.

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you’re experiencing some of the shortest and darkest days of the year as you read this. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, don’t worry! Your turn is coming. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone tried to be the light in someone’s dark world over the next few weeks? Think back to when you were going through a rough patch and someone was there to throw a little light on your path when you were stumbling. Maybe it was a little whisper of hope, or an ear that listened, or a helping hand.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States once said, “We are not here to curse the darkness but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.” You could be a light in someone’s world today, and you won’t diminish the light from your own candle by doing it.

I wish all of you reading this and the folks of St. Lucia, a happy St. Lucy’s Day. And if your path is ever blotted out by darkness, I hope you find someone to help light your way. Meanwhile, I’m going to lie down and take a little nap. Maybe a beautiful mermaid will come and wake me before spring.

                                         Bill Hegerich

                                         The Uncommon Mariner 





What a Grade School Dropout has to Teach About Life and Being Happy

After Mark Twain sailed around the world, he wrote a book Following the Equator. He learned a lot on that voyage. His education pretty much continued till the day he died. Check out some of the things he learned. 

Most people agree the more education you have, the better you’ll do in life. A good education not only gives you knowledge but strategies for dealing with life’s problems, develops life-skills, including decision-making, broadens your horizons, and gives depth to your insights. With an education, a person’s chances of success are higher than someone with little education.

But I’d like you to meet a grade school dropout who has something to tell you that could make you happier, wiser, and even more content. I know what you’re thinking! “Hegerich, I have a Masters Degree, and I know a lot of people who have their Doctorate. What does a snot-nosed twelve-year-old have to teach me? Why he’ll be lucky if he can avoid unemployment or worse yet prison. At best, he’s destined to live out a life pockmarked with menial jobs.”

Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, let me introduce you to someone who never went to school after twelve. When his father died, he had to drop out of school to help his older brothers support the family. I doubt he was upset. Judging from what he wrote, 12-year-olds were meant for fun and adventure, not sitting in school, but that’s just the way Mark Twain was. Yes, that Mark Twain, the one and only Sam Clemens that you read about here recently. You can revisit that conversation at https://billhegerichsr.wordpress.com/

With no formal education, Twain’s options didn’t look promising. But he did have two things going for him. He was motivated. And he had a dream. Motivational speaker Stephen Covey in his book First Things First calls it a Compass. Well, we all know how Twain’s life turned out. If you sift through the writings of this 12-year-old-dropout-turned-author, you’ll find some extremely valuable lessons they didn’t teach you in college. Except for the investment of five or ten minutes of your time, Mark Twain offers you these lessons for free. And, if you already learned some of them, just remember that we all need a refresher course now and then.

Here are ten extremely important things Mark Twain would want you to remember if you want to live a happy, content, stress free life. I present them in no particular order.

“If you’re going to eat a frog, do it early in the day because that sucker ain’t going to get any prettier by the hour.” Of course, Twain was addressing the tendency we all have to procrastinate when we have something difficult to do. How many frogs do you eat for supper? I’ve had my share.

“A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” Reading expands our minds, introduces us to new ideas, takes us to places beyond our wildest imagination. Reading can take you beyond the stars, show you breathtaking possibilities for yourself, or help you fathom the depths of the oceans or your very soul.

“Endeavor to live so that when you die even the undertaker will be sorry.” We’re all going to die sometime in our lives. Why not make it at the end? There are those who die in their twenties or thirties or forties. Their family and friends just haven’t held the service yet. Live! Live like you mean it. If you immerse yourself up to your eyeballs in Life. I’m sure the undertaker will gladly wait.

“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” No matter how stressful your life is, no matter how profound the disappointments you’ve experienced, no matter the tragedies you have endured, you must never forget laughter. The French philosopher Albert Camus said, “For all your ills, I give you laughter.” Doctors have been telling us for years that laughter is the best medicine. When his doctors told him that he was dying of cancer and there was nothing further they could do for him, Norman Cousins went home, not to die, but to live. He gathered the funniest movies and shows he could find, and laughed himself silly. He knew instinctively what the doctors didn’t. Laughter has an incredible power to heal physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I think the Gospel writers did Jesus a big disservice by not showing him laughing. I bet there were times when he laughed so hard, he nearly peed in his tunic.

“When I was younger, I could remember anything whether it happened or not.” Sometimes we get into such a mental rut, that we keep replaying tapes in our head that cripple us from being content. Over and over, we remember a slight or the way we were treated, and soon the comment or deed looms larger than life. Our memory is often influenced by what others tell us. Be careful what others are putting into your head.

“I can live two months on a compliment.” How sad compliments are so few and far between. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because people are just too busy to say something nice. Or maybe it’s jealousy. Some can’t stand to see you get ahead. They don’t mind you doing well, just not better than they are. Others are just absorbed in themselves or their problems.

Take the time to compliment someone today. It doesn’t cost any money, and it can profoundly affect a person. And while we’re talking about compliments, don’t be embarrassed when someone compliments you. You don’t earn any points with your saints and guardian angels because you belittle yourself when complimented. When someone compliments you, take it and run with it. It might be the last sincere compliment you get for a long, long time. Maybe two months.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” The Dalai Lama once recommended everyone travel at least once a year. It’s akin to a spiritual awakening where you get outside yourself and see what a small world you live in. Other people, other lands, other cultures all teach us something if nothing more than that our outlook on life isn’t the only valid one there is.

“Kindness is the language the deaf can hear and the blind see.” Like compliments, treating someone with kindness doesn’t cost anything, and though it may not seem like much, it can change someone profoundly. Your kindness may be the only comforting thing in someone’s life that day. And when we’re kind, it changes us deeply as well. It’s a chance to touch in a very real way the essence of what makes us human.

“I am an old man and have known many troubles; most of them never happened.” What worries you? What keeps you up at night? What wakes you up in the wee hours of the morning? How many times have we worried about something so much that our problems have turned into gargantuan monsters we can barely face? Some of those worries are legitimate, but so many do nothing more than sap our strength and our power till we are paralyzed. Mark Twain nailed it when he said, “Worry is interest paid on a debt we may not owe.”

I end with this last life lesson by Twain, and it applies whether you’re nine or ninety-nine. And the sooner you observe every part of it, the happier you’ll be. “Life is short. Break the rules, forgive quickly, kiss slowly. Love truly, laugh uncontrollably, and never regret anything that makes you smile.”

Which of these life lessons resonate with you? Which one strikes a chord in your soul? Which of these do you wish people paid more attention to? Select one and focus on it this week. You may be surprised at how much happier you are.

                Bill Hegerich

                The Uncommon Mariner     

Happy Birthday, Sam, Wherever You Are

Twain loved being on a ship whether on the river or at sea. This picture captures a reflective and relaxed Mark Twain.

It’s a bleak November day here in South Carolina and the shadows keep getting longer as the days grow shorter. But there’s one thing to celebrate. The birthday of Mark Twain. He was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on Nov. 30, 1835 in Florida. No, not that Florida. Florida, Missouri.

Twain came from a family of seven, something I can appreciate since I came from a family of seven too. Strangely, he was born next to the last, as was I. Sadly, he lost three of his siblings before they made it out of childhood. I was lucky. All my siblings grew into healthy, able-bodied adults.

While Twain was still a toddler, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, an upstart town on the Mississippi River where riverboats visited three times a day. The town was destined to figure largely in a book he would go on to pen later in life. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

When he was 12, Twain’s father died unexpectedly, and he left school to help support his family. That was the last of his formal schooling. But Twain was a curious and voracious reader and became by-and-large a self-educated man. At 19, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a Mississippi riverboat pilot under the tutelage of Horace Bixby. Bixby was a crotchety and demanding teacher, but Twain learned his lessons well. Unfortunately, his career ended when the Civil War began and it became too dangerous to be on the river with the Yankees and Johnny Rebs wanting to press him into service.

After two weeks of fighting for the South, he realized he had no appetite to fight for someone else’s right to own slaves when he had no interest in owning one himself. He went out West to find his fortune as a gold miner. He failed. But while there, he learned the craft of writing- and suddenly found himself catapulted to fame by his story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Over the course of time, Sam Clemens adopted several pen names. Josh, Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, and, finally, Mark Twain. The name comes from his experience as a riverboat captain. The depth of water was measured by a fathom, or six feet. Twain, or two fathoms, was the perfect depth to navigate a riverboat safely.

I have to tell you when I think of mariners, Mark Twain always surfaces near the top of my list since he piloted majestic riverboats on the Mississippi. But in many ways, he was an even greater mariner in literature, navigating his way through a whole new type of literature, inventing a style that would shock even some of his own family. He broke new ground when he introduced vernacular into his stories. People couldn’t believe characters in his book talked like real people in real life.

Shocking! Critics were taken aback. Everyone knows literature should be formal and highbrow. Ernest Hemingway was so impressed by Mark Twain’s contribution to American literature that he commented: “All great literature comes from one source. Mark Twain.”

Even some of his own family were somewhat embarrassed by what he wrote and wished he produced more books like his early work, Joan of Arc. He made people squirm because he dealt with their hypocrisy and social issues like prejudice and injustice. Using earthy words like sweat instead of perspire and showing the seamy side of characters was just too much for some readers.

I can understand how he felt. I have some family members who would never recommend my work to friends or acquaintances either because my next piece might be embarrassing or awkward for an unsuspecting reader. Or they fear the child in me who does not realize it’s not nice to ask, “Who farted?”

When they first came out, Twain’s books were banned from libraries in Boston, New York, and other places. As one librarian put it, novels like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were banned because of the characters’ “coarseness, deceitfulness, and mischievous practices.”

Twain’s writings were troubling to those who didn’t want him to rock the boat. Treatment of slaves, inequality, and prejudice were all topics he wrote about through the eyes of a child. He prided himself on being outside the boat, rocking it ever so subtly. He once said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

Twain told the truth and used wit and satire to do it. As a result, he became known the world over as a humorist. All he really wanted was to be a writer and tell the truth of his characters, even if it made people uncomfortable. Twain knew that hypocrites have a lot to squirm about, and he didn’t mind making them do it.

Twain was born the year Halley’s comet came into view. He predicted his own death when he said, “I came in with the comet. I may as well go out with it.” Nearly 75 years later on April 21, 1910, he passed away from a heart attack. He would no doubt find humor when an asteroid discovered Sept. 24, 1976 was named 2362 Mark Twain. Mark Twain, writer and humorist, will always shine among the stars.