Musically speaking, the 1960s were a “mixed bag”. Tucked between the sweet securities of the ’50s and the tumultuous creativity of the 70′s, the decade included everything from the Beatles to Bobby Vinton, Strawberry Alarm Clock to Nancy Sinatra. Depending on your perspective, the decade’s nadir or zenith was that bit of fun and frolic held out at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York. And even while Woodstock was taking place, a Canadian named Richard Bachman was writing lyrics for a song.
Originally entitled White Collar Worker, his song sounded remarkably like the Beatles’ Paperback Writer. Even the guitar riffs mimicked the more famous song. The similarities were so obvious publication was out of the question and the song was put on the back burner for several years. In 1973, it was pulled from the files, revised and recorded. By then Bachman’s band had a new name – Bachman Turner Overdrive – and their re-worked song became the classic Takin’ Care of Business . BTO’s counter-cultural anthem still pops up from time to time – for years it provided an innocuous musical lead-in for Office Depot’s commercials - but in the 1960’s, no matter which side of the cultural divide you lived on, you knew the lyrics.
You get up every morning from your alarm clock’s warning, take the 8:15 into the city.
There’s a whistle up above, and people pushin’, people shovin’, and the girls who try
to look pretty.
And if your train’s on time, you can get to work by nine and start your slaving job to get your pay.
If you ever get annoyed, look at me, I’m self-employed; I love to work at nothing all day.
Every generation has its own way of making Bachman’s point. For my father and his friends, it was through references to the “rat race” or the “daily grind”. Today’s friends speak disparagingly of “cube farms” and being “Dilbertized”. But in the 1960’s, “taking the 8:15” was the catch phrase, and everyone knew what it meant: life in a corporate or bureaucratized world where a good bit of the “pushin’ and shovin’” was related as much to the climb up the institutional ladder as to the press of people on a train station platform.
In an interesting historical coincidence, at the same time Bachman was writing his paean to jumping corporate ship, British sailor Sir Francis Chichester was undertaking a record-breaking circumnavigation aboard his 53’ ketch, Gipsy Moth IV. At the time, Chichester had a few miles under his own keel. Sixty-five years of age, he was the butt of jokes, the target of dismissive articles which predicted his failure, and gloomy musings on his assured death. But in 1967, after 226 days at sea, 28,500 miles of ocean and innumerable difficulties, he made fast his lines in Plymouth Sound and proceeded to write an account of his adventure in a best-selling book entitled Gipsy Moth Circles the World.
He had achieved a number of records, including:
* Fastest voyage around the world by any small vessel
* Longest nonstop passage made by a small sailing vessel (15,000 miles)
* More than twice the distance of the previous longest passage by a singlehander
* Fastest singlehander’s week’s run (broken twice, by more than 100 miles)
* Fastest singlehanded passage by sailing speed (1,400 miles in 8 days)
Asked why he embarked on his circumnavigation in Gipsy Moth IV, Sir Francis was quoted as saying, “Because it intensified life”. J.R.L. Anderson, in his epilogue to Chichester’s book, reflects on the meaning of the voyage in more detail:
“The longest singlehanded passage, the fastest runs, the true antipodean circumnavigation – these things will stand in any book of records, but they are not what drew the crowds to Francis Chichester. The essential Chichester achievement is something more deeply personal – and personal not alone to him, but embedded in the hearts of every one of us. He has succeeded in making dreams come true; his own private dreams, and the dreams that most men have from time to time as they are on that ‘long fool’s journey to the grave’.
For 99.9% of humanity, dreams remain locked up in the secret compartments of the soul. Not for Chichester. For him, to dream is to determine, and to determine, to achieve. People will say, ‘Oh, yes, but he has been lucky. He has made money, he has found rich backers. He does not have to travel daily on the 8:15.’ But surely this is part of the achievement! No one HAS to travel daily on the 8:15!”
Indeed. Sir Francis, meet Richard Bachman. In different ways, both men made quite personal, quite intentional decisions to step off more familiar paths and begin to journey as they pleased. It doesn’t always happen that way. From time to time a person will trip, or jump or even fall off the 8:15 in a moment of clumsy irrationality without knowing it has happened until much, much later.
I never “rode the 8:15” in a literal sense. Commuter trains weren’t part of my world. I took buses in Kansas City and walked in West Africa. I bicycled in Berkeley and car-pooled in Houston, but did it all to the same purpose: getting to work at 9, or 7, or noon, and putting in my time. Over the years, some of the work fit Bachman’s category of a “slaving job”, but not all. Certainly there were politics (office and otherwise), some drudgery, occasional ennui or conflict – but they were balanced by satisfaction, variety, responsibility, creativity, and the occasional opportunity to make a difference in peoples’ lives.
In short, my working days and years passed happily enough, with no particular sense of restlessness. When a friend called in 1987 and invited me to join her birthday celebration aboard a chartered catamaran on Galveston Bay, I agreed without much thought. It would be a nice occasion, a break from the routine and nothing more. At the time, I was no sailor. But I loved my friend, and if her idea of a good time was to cast off from shore and admire the sunset from the deck of a boat cruising a muddy, shallow bay, who was I to argue?
I still have photographs from that party. None of them captures the essence of the hot August evening: a freshening breeze as we loosed the lines, the light lapping of wavelets against the hull, a sudden hush as the sun touched the horizon before disappearing into the dusky twilight. As the first stars began to emerge above the mast, I felt a sudden impulse. I walked back to the stern and asked the captain, “Do you teach people to do this?” Giving me a glance, he said, “No one’s ever asked…” But in the end he agreed, saying, “Fine. But if you want to learn, you’re going to learn it all.”
Over the months, I did learn. As my confidence grew, one thing led to another until I moved to keelboats, then on to teaching and chartering. Eventually I was invited to crew on a 65′ sailboat making a trip from Hawaii to Alaska. It was a spectacular opportunity. The vessel, Alaska Eagle, was a Whitbread Race winner being used for open-ocean sail training by Orange Coast College in Newport Beach, California.
Once the offer was made, I realized I didn’t have enough accumulated vacation and personal time to make the trip. My choice was clear: stay employed, or join the crew. Everything in my genes, my upbringing, my environment and my brain screamed, “DON’T QUIT THAT JOB!” My heart whispered, “Go…” And so, in a wonderful burst of unthinking enthusiasm, I resigned my position. I flew to LA, then on to Honolulu. I boarded the boat with the rest of the crew and we sailed away: through the Molokai Channel to Kauai and then north, to Alaska and Glacier Bay. After the trip I flew home, stowed my foul-weather gear, looked around my world and said, “Now, what?
At the time, “Now, what?” was a purely practical question. Through a combination of decision and circumstance, I had tumbled off the 8:15, but I certainly couldn’t spend the rest of my life lying on the station platform. Since boats had brought me to that point, it seemed reasonable boats should carry me forward. Assessing the possibilities, I decided to learn the art of refinishing wood. Five hundred business cards and a few reams of sandpaper later, I was a varnish worker, a scandal and an offense to my family, and a sterling example of downward mobility.
In their own way, the next years were as filled with adventure as my sailing career. Not only had my life changed significantly, I was single-handing as surely as Chichester. Each day’s questions meant calculating my own answers in the midst of uncharted waters, and reaffirming those answers in the face of life’s occasional storms. Whatever else “stepping off the 8:15” meant, it surely meant a greater degree of self-reliance, an increased awareness of my own values, and a more fearless commitment to personal dreams.
Today, I keep the quotation from Anderson’s epilogue close at hand, tucked into a corner of my desk. When difficulties or decisions present themselves, whenever I feel myself tempted toward expediency or avoidance, his words serve as a reminder of lessons already learned under the tutelage of Chichester and others: that the best decisions in life are made with the heart as much as the head, that what lies around the next bend in the road rarely is predictable, and that the future is far more vibrant and alive than we possibly can imagine.