Navigator Me

“Dead reckoning allows a navigator to determine his present position by projecting his past courses steered and speeds over ground from a known past position. He can also determine his future position by projecting an ordered course and speed of advance from a known present position. The DR position is only an approximate position because it does not allow for the effect of leeway, current, helmsman error, or gyro error.”

-Nathaniel Bowditch
The American Practical Navigator

Dead Reckoning is a good metaphor for the way I’ve experienced life so far. We’re rarely sure where we are and usually less sure where we’re going. The charts and maps are there, but they only provide generalizations for the uniqueness of our individual lives; the shoals and reefs are many. Our best information usually comes from where we’ve been, and we base our future course on that experience. As Bowditch suggests, where we are at any given time is at best an “approximate position.” The errors of our lives can affect our course.

Bill Tracy

Bill Tracy

My name is Bill Tracy, and I have been navigating this realm for 71 years. The Asian cultures, generally speaking, would give some deference to my survival for those years. I might be somewhat respected. Our culture provides no such generosity, so I’ll let you judge based on the short biography that follows.

I’m the firstborn in an Irish-Catholic family of six children, fourth-generation removed from the “old country.” Those roots go deep. We arrived from Ireland spring of 1861, and we bought our way in with blood. My great-great uncle, Thomas Tracy died with the 12th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers in the Civil War, May, 1863. The Tracy family farm in Orange, CT was the incubation site of the Knights of Columbus, the Roman Catholic fraternal service organization, in the early 1880s. Father Michael McGivney was the front man since he was a priest, and all power in the Irish-Catholic community proceeded from the Church; not much was possible without that blessing. My great-grandfather, in addition to being a farmer was in the insurance business and knew a captive market when he saw it.  So the Knights were formed to take care of the needs of widows and orphans in the Irish Catholic community, and insurance was a prime vehicle of care. Insurance was sold and the Tracy family apparently prospered.

The next generation wasn’t quite so civic minded. My grandfather, as I’m told, apparently had lots of energy and a willingness to try new things; he may have been a bit of a rascal. At one time he was a Connecticut state legislator. Another time he was a carny, traveling with a circus-like operation. My father told me of traveling with him in the summers and sleeping nights in the car. In the 1920s he foresaw the developing chicken farm industry on the Delmarva Peninsula, and he went there to get in on the ground floor. He settled the family in Denton, MD along the shores of the Choptank River. Apparently that didn’t go as expected so he left the family, leaving my father as a teen to provide much of the support. Then the war came along and my father did his part flying around Africa and Europe in B-24 bombers. With that inconvenience out of the way, he came home and married my mother who was raised a good Catholic girl in west Philadelphia.

As a prison inmate might say it, I did “an eight-year stretch” at Catholic elementary school. From September, 1953 until June, 1961 I was guarded by IHM (Immaculate Heart of Mary) nuns at St. Teresa’s in Runnemede, NJ. While many girls probably didn’t see it that way, we boys saw the nuns as the Church’s storm troopers. Discipline was harsh, at least we thought so. Truth is there was surely more love than harshness, but you know how little boys are.

After eight years of storm troopers, singing in the choir, altar boy duties, etc., I announced that I wanted to be a priest. So the Camden Diocese assigned me to Mother of the Savior seminary in Blackwood, NJ (what is now a campus of Camden County College) at the start of the 1961-62 academic year. The family probably re-mortgaged the house to buy the necessary clothes needed for this “boarding school” adventure. My seminary experience lasted until April, as I recall, and I left under what the military would classify as “less than honorable” conditions. I decided they were nuts too. For the balance of that school year I lived at home and went to Triton Regional High School in Runnemede where I had many friends and was quite happy. It was the happiest couple of months of my high school “career.”

That summer we moved to Pennsauken, NJ and the real adventures got underway. I was now a sophomore at Pennsauken High School where I knew no one and no one knew me. I was not socially adept so I adopted anti-social behaviors to win friends and influence schoolmates. That got me invited into a little “gang” known as the Demons. So, in less than a year I had gone from being an angel in a Catholic seminary to a devil in a public high school.

Fun for the Demons was drinking, fighting and stealing cars for the most part. On April 8, 1963 it all came apart. If you get a copy of The Courier Post for April 9, the story of four kids being apprehended in a stolen car in Moorestown, NJ appears. So now we’re facing grand theft, weapons and other charges. The criminal justice system came calling in its heavy-handed way, and that suggested a course correction. I turned it around, but not enough to get through high school. I quit in early 1965 and joined the Air Force. The Vietnam War was building up, and they were looking for a lot of men, good or otherwise.

Patriotism, duty, etc. had nothing to do with it. My plan was to get a GED certificate in the military, maybe take some college courses and have the GI Bill available to pay for college when I got out. I was the only one who endorsed my plan, but surprisingly, that’s pretty much how it turned out. I survived Vietnam and in May 1977 graduated from Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. I had wanted to be a writer, and I got a shot at Chilton Company in Radnor, PA. At first I was writing and editing automotive repair manuals, but eventually I went to writing feature articles for trucking industry magazines that Chilton published. I got well known in the industry and that got me recruited to work for a trucking trade association in Washington, DC. So in the spring of 1984 I moved myself to the Washington, DC area.

An odd thing about Washington was that I saw a lot of people there I hadn’t seen or even thought about since high school. I developed a theory that there were three distinct groups of kids in high school, and they’re sort of distributed on a bell curve. The first group is small at one end of the curve. They’re the really cool kids. The big hump of the curve represents the mass of ordinary kids who wanted to be cool. And the third was the small segment on the other end — the nerds. After high school I never saw the nerds again — that is until I went to Washington. That’s when I discovered that’s where all the nerds had gone. They were working as the legislative aides and assistants to legislators and regulators. They were the economists working for think tanks and trade associations and government. Wow, did I feel out of place.

Before long I had become the Executive Director of The Maintenance Council of American Trucking Associations. Apparently I was kind of a big shot in that little world. They were flying me around to industry meetings. I was writing and delivering technical papers at meetings of The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). Our Council was wildly successful in the world of American Trucking Associations. Life seemed pretty good. In my spare time I was doing ultra-marathon bicycle events — ride 600 miles or so non-stop. That required a lot of training so I was riding a bicycle 10,000 to 15,000 miles per year — more than a lot of people put on their cars. So I was keeping busy, too busy to notice an upcoming course correction.

An eerily mystical thing happened somewhere around 1990. In my mailbox one day I found a copy of The Catholic Worker newspaper. I remembered that in 1977 I had read something about this and had sent to New York asking for a copy. They never sent me one. Now, 13 or so years later at a completely different address in a different state a copy arrives unsolicited. Like anyone who had never heard of the Catholic Worker movement I was rather incredulous. Surely these were unreconstructed hippies or some other deluded group needing a good dose of reality.

At best this Catholic Worker outfit was espousing open socialism, at worst, communism. And finally, they said we should be poor!

“The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge and belief in love.” (Dorothy Day) By embracing voluntary poverty, that is, by casting our lot freely with those whose impoverishment is not a choice, we would ask for the grace to abandon ourselves to the love of God.”

Those days, I’m a guy putting on a crisply starched white shirt, silk tie and expensive suit every morning. I spend my days meeting with important people talking about important things in the capital of the most important country in the world. How could any of this voluntary poverty stuff be relevant to my life? So, I stuffed the newspaper away and didn’t think about it again until winter came and I wasn’t doing so much bicycling. I had obviously gotten on their mailing list so every month or two another Catholic Worker newspaper arrived. This paper was published out of New York City, but they have “houses of hospitality” as they call them all over the country. They are places where people calling themselves “Catholic Workers” serve the needs of poor people — shelter, clothing, food, the usual. There was a Catholic Worker house in DC so I decided to pay a visit and see what the real story was.

It turns out the real story was so real it turned my life upside down. Before this the “poor” were the unreality of statistics, mostly from the government, and the occasional annoyance of some street person asking me for money. Suddenly, at this Catholic Worker place, the “poor” were real people – and I liked them. They came for a meal or clothes or a haircut or just a safe place to be for a little while in an uncertain world. They could be troublesome (and very troubled) and annoying and even devious at times, but they were not the charming, smiling snakes I was accustomed to dealing with in government and corporate managements. They really were “real” people, and I was refreshed being with them. So I kept hanging out at the Catholic Worker House. The contrast was too much for me. I was now living in two worlds, one so real it made your heart ache, the other so unreal it made your soul ache. So I made a decision to save my soul.

In April, 1993 I walked away from the smiling snakes of Washington. Like Thoreau when he went to Walden Pond to live, “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life….” Living like the Catholic Workers made sense to me. Unlike Thoreau I was not to build a physical house so I found myself telling a real estate agent in Atlantic City, NJ that I was looking for a house but that I was poor and did not want one I had to pay for. They say Faith can move mountains, and the summer of 1993 was one of many miracles. By year’s end Little Way House was a reality in Atlantic City and the little support community and I were housing homeless HIV/AIDS people and ministering to their needs. I lived in the house with them, ran the administration of it all and learned something about what it really means to be poor and deprived and victimized and powerless in these United States.

In June, 1996 I left Atlantic City. Living in and running the house had worn me out. Three years of working 24/7/365 is the equivalent of 12 years of working 40-hour weeks. The summer of 1995 was unbearably hot, unusual for a beach town, and we had no air conditioning. One man I knew from the Our Lady Star of the Sea parish community told me he had stopped sleeping with his wife and was sleeping with a towel instead. The winter that followed seemed like one endless blizzard. I remember it snowing one day in May. So I decided to go someplace warm and rest my weary body and heart.

As any good monk would, I went to the desert. In 1996 I settled in Tucson, AZ. It’s a wonderful big town/small city surrounded by the world’s most beautiful desert and scenic mountains. For financial comfort, I published technical support Web sites for Intuit (TurboTax, Quicken, etc.). For the first year I never went beyond the city limits. In the warmth and serenity of the Sonoran Desert I rested and recovered my spirit. Then the new millennium came and with it a new way to do the work of the heart and spirit. Around 2001 I went to work in California state prisons.

My Little Way House experience had given me a basic understanding of drug addiction. Most residents there were recovering addicts, parolees, probationers, etc. Although I don’t have the disease of addiction, I had spent many hours in the meeting rooms of Narcotics Anonymous with the folks from the House. That gave me enough competence to do substance abuse counseling at California Institution for Men (CIM) at Chino. For a couple of years I bounced around the three local prisons there – Chino and California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco and California Institution for Women (CIW). I took one brief detour for nearly a year – with California Highway Patrol in San Diego. I worked as a public safety dispatcher and hated it. I have come to believe there are basically two kinds of people in the world: “What” people need to know what is happening; “Why” people need to know why it’s happening. I’m a why person so when a woman dials 911 and says she is stranded on the freeway because her husband just tossed her out of the car, I want to know why. CHP’s mission is to go get the woman, and there is no interest in why it’s happening. So I went back to the prisons, happily.

In 2006 I moved up north into the Sierra foothills (California’s “Gold Country”) to work at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione and Sierra Conservation Center near Jamestown. I had the great privilege of doing case management with inmates. That meant everything from parole planning to family reunification to parenting education. It was the most intense and rewarding work I ever experienced. Unfortunately, by 2009 the economic conditions in California had become virtually untenable, and I became a casualty. Although available for work, the economic conditions precluded that, and I’m now looking at what’s called retirement.

In 2017, we look back and call it the “great recession.” I call it the time when the rich people stole all the money. After that, I called in the IOU on my Social Security retirement, moved to southern New Jersey, the place where I was raised, and settled in for life as a “senior citizen” or “pensioner” as it may be called in some other countries. I now live a quiet, settled life. I have gone back to photography as a hobby and I do a lot of walking and taking pictures. Around town here, people know me as “that old guy who goes around taking pictures all the time.”

While I try hard not to pay attention to the troubles of this world (my “leave things be” philosophy), it’s not easy. Using guns to slaughter one another has become a part of our national character. We now have nearly one “mass murder” (four or more killings in a single incident) every day. The corporate powers have taken control of our government, and the citizens, so called, are content to let them do what they will as long as they are allowed to have big-screen televisions, super bowl games and beer and barbecues. Meanwhile, our empire wages war on the entire world and the corporations use this to further enrich themselves. I watch as we seem to descend into barbarism and savagery. As I said in my first post, I’d like to be quiet about it. I want to be quiet about it. But I have a duty to all those in our past who have not sat idly by and watched. Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King and Michael Doyle would never let me be quiet; they would not let me quit.

So, if you’re going to read these posts/rants I write, you’re going to get an earful, sometimes an eyeful too. Disagree if you will, but know it’s coming from the heart.

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