The Cain Mutiny is a Pulitzer Prize winning WWII novel by Herman Wouk.  It was adapted to the screen and became a hit and an all-time classic on leadership and the Navy (with Humphrey Bogart as the mentally unraveling Captain Queeg).  At the heart of the movie is Ensign Willie Keith (a once spoiled mama's-boy en route to becoming a good man in the service of his country).  And at the heart of Keith's character is a letter he receives from his father, who is about to die.  It is a great letter addressing several of the themes that I consider important.  Therefore - at the risk of infringing a handful of copyright laws - I here transcribe the entire thing.  In is longish, but good.  If you like it, do yourself a favor, go read the book, and rent the movie.


“Dear Willie: By the time you read this letter, I think I will be dead. I’m sorry to startle you, but I suppose there’s no pleasant way to break such news.  The trouble I’ve been having is due to a rather vicious disorder, malignant melanoma. The prognosis is one hundred per cent bad. I’ve known about my condition for a long time, and figured that I would probably die this summer... I suppose I should be in a hospital at this moment (two nights before you leave) but I hate to spoil your departure, and since there’s no hope anyway, I’ve postponed it. I’m going to try to stall until I know you’ve left San Francisco.  Your mother doesn’t know anything yet. My guess is that I won’t last more than three or four weeks, now.  I’m a little young to go, according to the insurance tables, and I must say I don’t feel ready, but I daresay that’s because I’ve accomplished so little. I look back on my life, Willie, and there’s no much there. Your mother has been a fine wife, and I have no regrets on that score. But I seem to have led such a thoroughly second-rate life—not only compared to my father, but in view of my own capabilities. I had quite a feeling for research. When I fell in love with your mother I thought I couldn’t marry her without undertaking general practice in a high income community. It was my plan to make a pile in ten or fifteen years of such work, and then return to research. I really think I might have done something in cancer. I had a theory—a notion, you might say—nothing I could have put on paper. It needed three years of systematic investigation. Nobody has touched it to this day. I’ve kept up with the literature  My name might have meant as much as my father’s. But now there’s no time even to outline the procedure. The worst of it is, I now feel your mother would have stood by me and lived modestly if I’d really insisted. But I’ve had a pleasant time.  I can truly say that I’ve loved reading and golf, and I’ve had all of that I wanted. The days have gone by all too fast. I wish I might have met this girl of yours. It seems to me that she, or the Navy, or both, are having quite a good effect on you.  And believe me, Willie, that is by far the brightest thought I take with me into the hospital. I’ve let slide my relationship with you as I have so many other things, through plain sloth; particularly since your mother seemed anxious to take charge of you. It is too bad that we had no more children. Just bad luck.  Your mother had three miscarriages, which you may not know. I’ll tell you a curious thing. It seems to me that I have a higher opinion of you than your mother has.  She regards you as a hopeless baby who will have to be coddled through life. But I am coming to believe that though you are pretty spoiled and soft at the surface you are tough enough at the core. After all, I see, you have always done pretty much as you pleased with your mother, while giving her the sense of ruling you. I’m sure this was no plan on your part, but you’ve done it anyway. You’ve never had a serious problem in your life, up to this Navy experience. I watched you in the forty-eight demerits business very closely. It had its comical side, but really it was a challenge. You rose to it in an encouraging way.  Perhaps because I know I’ll never see you again I find myself sentimentalizing over you, Willie. It seems to me that you’re very much like our whole country — young, naive, spoiled and softened by abundance and good luck, but with an interior hardness that comes from your sound stock. This country of ours consists of pioneers, after all, these new Poles and Italians and Jews as well as the older stock, people who had the gumption to get up and go and make themselves better lives in a new world.  You’re going to run into a lot of strange men in the navy, most of them pretty low by your standards, I daresay, but I’ll bet — though I won’t live to see it that they are going to make the greatest Navy the world has ever seen.  And I think you’re going to make a good naval officer — after a while. After a great while, perhaps. This is not criticism, Willie, God knows I am pretty soft myself. Perhaps I’m wrong. You may never make a naval officer at all. Perhaps we’re going to lose the war. I just don’t believe it. I think we’re going to win, and I think
you’re going to come back with more honor than you believed possible. I know you’re disappointed at having been sent to a ship like the Caine. Now, having seen it, you’re probably disgusted.
Well, remember this: you’ve had things your own way too long, and all of your immaturity is due to that.  You need some stone walls to batter yourself against. I strongly suspect you’ll find plenty of them there on the Caine.  I don’t envy you the experience itself, but I do envy you the strengthening you’re going to derive from it.  Had I had one such experience in my younger years, I might not be dying a failure. Those are strong words, but I won’t cross them out. They don’t hurt too much and, furthermore, my hand isn’t the one to cross them out anymore. I’m finished now, but the last word on my life rests with you. If you turn out well, I can still claim some kind of success in the afterworld, if there is one. About your singing versus comparative literature — you may have a different outlook when the war is over. Don’t waste brain power over the far future. Concentrate on doing well now. Whatever assignment they give you on the Caine, remember that it’s worthy of your best efforts. It’s your way of fighting the war. It’s surprising, how little I have to say to you in these last words. I ought to fill up a dozen more sheets, and yet I feel you are pretty good at getting your way, and in other matters, any words I might write would make little sense without your own experience to fill the words with meaning.  Remember this, if you can — there is nothing more precious than time. You probably feel you have a measureless supply of it, but you haven’t. Wasted hours destroy your life just as surely at the beginning as at the end — only, at the end it’s more obvious.
Use your time while you have it, Willie, in making something of yourself. Religion. I’m afraid we haven’t given you much, not having had much ourselves. But I think, after all, I will mail you a Bible before I go into the hospital. There is a lot of dry stuff in the Bible about Jewish wars and rituals that may put you off — but don’t make the mistake of skipping the Old Testament. It’s the core of all religion, I think, and there is a lot of everyday wisdom in it.  You have to be able to recognize it. That takes time. Meantime get familiar with the words. You’ll never regret it. I came to the Bible as I did toeverything in life, too late. About money matters. I’m leaving all my property to your mother. Uncle Lloyd is the executor. There is a ten-thousand-dollar policy of which you’re the beneficiary. If you want to get married, or go back to school, that should be enough to enable you to carry out your plans. Money is a very pleasant thing, Willie, and I think you can trade almost anything for it wisely except the work you really want to do. If you sell out your time for a comfortable life, and give up your natural work, I think you lose the exchange. There remains an inner uneasiness that spoils the comforts. Well, Willie, it’s 3 am by my old leather-covered desk clock. A waning moon is shining through the library window, and my fingers are stiff from writing. My toe is giving me the devil, too. Sleeping pills and bed for me.  Thank God for barbiturate. Take care of your mother if she lives to be very old, and be kind to her if you come back from the war with enough strength to break away from her. She has many faults, but she is good, and she has loved you, and me, very truly. Think of me, and of what I might have been, Willie, at the times in your life when you come to crossroads. For my sake, for the sake of the father who took the wrong turns, take the right ones, and carry my blessing and my justification with you. I stretch out my hand to you. We haven’t kissed in many, many years. I liked to kiss you when you were a baby. You were a very sweet and good-natured child, with wonderful large eyes. God! Long ago. Good-by, my son. Be a man.

As I type and reread this letter I think of my Dad.  I think of my Son.  I think of how important this is.

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