By Joe Cooper
Rodney, the man with a face that would stop a runaway semi-trailer whose memorable quote, “I don’t get no respect,” could be on his gravestone. Respect is a commodity in somewhat thin supply these days if one watches too much social media. The people versus the politicians, people, some of them, versus the police, a fool’s errand at the best of times. Kneeling athletes and saluting police… At the time of this writing, a goodly portion of the world’s leaders were arriving in London to pay their respects to the late Prince Philip. Curiously, almost all of them may have never met the man, but “here we are paying our respects.” Respect seems to be, well, rather like a monumental ding in the topsides of our society these days. Fortunately, as sailors we by and large know better.
Well, except for the guy on the charter Beneteau who steams into the anchorage at dusk and anchors in a location that, once his anchor drags, as it will, puts him right on top of you. But you know something? I have had this happen a couple of times and a polite conversation with the master works wonders. Most assuredly not a good imitation of a roaring wounded walrus bellowing with some choice Anglo Saxon phrases direct from The Canterbury Tales. My approach of choice was to rather quietly putt, putt over to him in the dinghy and engage him in conversation for a moment, and then bring up his position. Works a treat.
And working with high school sailors, one of the early instructions from me is, “There are no referees on this game. YOU are responsible for righting your wrongs.” Right about here is a good time to read them the famous quote from the late Great Paul Elvstrøm: “If in the process of winning, you have lost the respect of your competitors, you have won nothing.”
When I was a kid, I am not sure what we think of as Respect today was called Respect. I think it was more likely called being polite, or perhaps sometimes civil. In thinking about this column, I cannot remember my parents, well my Mother, actively teaching me, telling me to stand up and give my seat on the bus to the older lady standing. Where does this kind of intelligence come from then? Opening doors for people, holding them open, opening car doors for females, especially your date, and more so if her mum was watching. Asking to leave the table. NOT interrupting when someone else was talking. Though listening to Question Time in the British House of Commons was a pass on the not interrupting rule. Please. Thank you. May I, not Can I…Who else has received the curt response, “Yes you can, but you MAY not.” Returning your shopping cart. The subject of some perhaps faux-psychology discussion on Facebook of late. Does instruction in issues like this even exist anymore?
Where on Earth is this coming from, you dear reader, may well ask? Well, I’ll tell you. From a mighty Faux Pas…sometimes known in Chez Cooper as a Foxes Paws.
I had cause to travel to Safe Harbor New England Boatworks in Portsmouth, RI the first week of April. The way in is a road running north/south. There is, at the entrance to the property, an oversize guard shack, occupied these days, by the Recorder of COVID Data. Visitors pull up, fill out the form, and drive off. My trade has me in and out of yards like this all the time, so naturally one gets to be noddingly acquainted with the folks one sees. This day the chap was a tall burly fella, smiling and by far the most pleasant “guard” I have crossed tacks with in a while, except for the late William at the Shipyard, and he is a different column. We exchanged pleasantries and I carried on to my meeting.
Twenty minutes or so later, I was done and heading out. The way out, at least from where I had been, involved traveling east on a side lane that intersects with the inbound road with the COVID Shack just off the starboard bow. The main drag in is thus somewhat obscured by the fence and so has a stop sign.
I hove-to at this sign, and the friendly guard saw me, smiled, and waved me on, around the corner of the fence. Now, here is where you need to pay attention.
In the manner that I think so many of us over the years have seen and would recognize, the guard again smiled and began a wave. Then, in the style equally common amongst us I think, as I drove around the corner I swung off a very flabby, loose-wrist, sloppy left-handed salute. He responded with a gold-medal, AAA, Class One Marine Staff Sergeant salute. I humor myself that I saw him bring himself erect and formal and peel off this perfect salute. In the two or three nanoseconds of his salute, I was past the shack and driving away. Immediately, I was struck, by something and it took me a minute to come to grips with. “It” was the respect thing. I was driving south on the Burma Road alongside Narragansett Bay, in the thick of U.S. Navy Property and I was thinking on the nature of the salute: the silly, sloppy casual one I had presented and the proper Military Salute that was returned. Somehow the idea of respect penetrated into my consciousness. The possibility occurred to me I had been hugely disrespectful of the idea of the Military Salute. As I drove south, the idea fermented in my mind.
The idea of “The Salute” has a long history, commonly ascribed to the Middle Ages and knights in armor and iron helmets. The idea being that knights about to engage in combat would, with their right hands, raise their visors. Behind this is, I suspect, the idea that looking into an opponent’s eyes provides a greater insight into the owner of the eyes, and their possible immediate actions, than can be considered were the eyes lurking behind a visor. Respect then derives from the openness of the approach, a willingness to expose that window into the soul, the eyes.
The idea that my salute was so far off the mark as to resemble someone waving away a noisome fly away, struck me as a poor way to recognize the personal intimacy between two warriors studying each other’s eyes. Not counting myself as a Warrior, but thinking on the possible work history of the friendly guard.
It occurred to me that The Salute is likely one of the very first instructions drilled into new recruits. I can see how the idea of performing this timeless sign of respect is one of the most important lessons a military person might be instructed in. Laid against this was, in my current case, the poor showing of respect to this chap, perhaps not him personally but the institution where the salute is a critical component. Halfway down Burma Road, I pulled a U-turn and drove back. I mainly wanted to ask if he had been in the military.
I pulled up three lengths from the shack and off to the side. He was outside taking the air, saw me pull up and again smiled. I walked up to him and asked if he had been in the military. He said no. Nonetheless, I went on to explain why I had returned. The precision of the salute he presented to me, in response to the pathetic offering I had made, and so on. He listened, still smiling all the while, and when I was done, he smiled even wider and offered his thanks for the gesture.
Heading off down the Burma Road again, I lapsed into a kind of buyer’s remorse: “What were you thinking, Cooper? It was not a big deal – why did you think you had to go and explain yourself to this guy?” There is where I come to the tension line on the topic of respect. Is it possible that if more of us were instructed, as children, like the “ole days” we hear so much about people wishing to return to, there would be less angst in the world? How does one absorb lessons like door holding if it is NOT introduced early on?
Working on the word respect, one avenue to investigate is Rodney himself. I went and found some old Rodney Dangerfield clips on YouTube and the one with Johnny Carson is hysterical. Carson himself is doubled up almost the entire time. But the funny thing is, if one parses this clip, there is little respect for women, for “ugly people” and a host of others, the “usual suspects” of the Butt of Jokes fraternity. It is curious that the man who “don’t get no respect” was so successful at getting laughs out of us all while shortchanging others.
I don’t know the answer at all other than to think that my Mother would not have accorded Rodney much, or perhaps any, respect. ■
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.