Hulls and Humanity

While Galveston was seeking new ways to celebrate Mardi Gras and South Padre Island continued to hope for a successful spring break, Port O’Connor began cleaning rods and repairing reels in anticipation of the spring flounder run.

Port O’Connor knows how to party, but in Port O’Connor, fishing comes first.  Lying at the end of the coastal road, clinging to the edge of Matagorda Bay like a derelict boat that refuses to die, the town is salted with spray: rusted and grayed, weathered from decades of storms. At first glance, she seems an unpromising destination, but beneath the surface of her bays, redfish and  trout school and scatter. Beyond the intracoastal waterway, across the barrier island and over the dunes, surfcasters work the waves; offshore, marlin, snapper, and tarpon lure the adventurous with the promise of exhilarating combat.

Some years ago, I spent time in Port O’Connor maintaining a classic sailboat. Owned by land-locked partners who wanted to keep their boat near the Gulf for easy access to offshore sailing, it was a delightful opportunity. I labored through the days sun-lit and warm as a basking turtle; evenings were filled with equal delights. After dinners of fresh-caught shrimp or fish, a lamp-lit cabin and uninterrupted time for reading or sleep were there for the taking. If I happened back onto the dock to gaze at stars or watch passing barges, an old fellow who lived aboard two slips down sometimes came to visit, glad for a few minutes of conversation.

The man loved to tell stories, and his tales were memorable. Generally, they involved long, intricate meanders through the details of weekend bar fights: harmless confrontations fueled by drink and boredom. But he watched visitors to the marina with a sharp eye, and recounted their antics with amusement.

My favorite of his stories, a Hemingwayesque account of a young man and the bay, involved a novice who went out to fish in a lightweight dingy without a motor. He hooked the big one he’d always dreamed of, then found he couldn’t land it. The fish towed the dingy across the flats until the line broke. At that point in the story, between snorts and guffaws, the old story-teller would gasp, “Damn fool never thought to cut his line, but even if he’d had the thought, it wasn’t gonna happen, ’cause he didn’t have a knife. No knife! Who goes fishing without a knife?”

Sometimes the old man shared his recipe for ceviche, or bragged on the boys who hang trophy marlins, or reminisced about the old days, when life was simpler. Always, he ended with The Storm. The Storm was Carla, the mythic hurricane that landed on Matagorda’s shores long before Katrina, Rita, Harvey, or Ike provided their own dramatic narratives.

Carla was a Cecil B. DeMille kind of storm: a storm so vast, so compelling, that decades later people still gasped at the memories. Carla carried wheat straw from fields and drove it into the brick walls of homes. She left rattlesnakes hanging from trees, and broke the legs of cattle. Her unearthly howl so unnerved one woman that she ran into her back yard and howled back in defiance, until her panic-stricken family dragged her back into the house and made her drink whiskey.

Almost as an afterthought, Carla raged through Port O’Connor’s collection of boats. Skiffs and jon boats were scattered or destroyed. Shrimp trawlers plowed into fields; sport fishers were carried inland by the surge. Barges forced miles inland were strewn up and down major highways like old-fashioned toys. When it was over, there was nothing to do but gaze over the scene in numbed astonishment and think, Well.

Loss wrought by storms is at least understandable. When wind, waves, and surge tear at rigging and batter hulls for hours at a time, some boats will survive, but many let go before the implacable forces of nature, tossing and tumbling to their deaths.

What isn’t so easily understood is death by inattention: the death of a boat that’s been abandoned — left neglected and lonely, allowed to rot away in marshes, at docks, or on out-of-the-way moorings.

Like dogs or cats callously thrown into the world to fend for themselves, unwanted and unloved boats know they’ve been abandoned, and they grieve. Deserted by owners too busy to give them care, relinquished in favor of other pursuits, cast off as no longer romantic or affordable, they are ownerless in truth if not in fact.

Bereft of attention, they begin to decline. Unused hoses harden and crack. Unlubricated winches seize up; barnacles colonize the bottom. Rust blooms, paint flakes, and hanging gardens of algae begin to ring the waterline. Eventually, as time and weather shred the canvas and dry the wood, the boat begins to settle on her lines, leaning inexorably into dereliction.

Anyone familiar with boats has seen it happen, and knows the truth. A boat has to be loved, used, and maintained, lest it die. But when inattention has led to a boat’s dereliction or seeming death, nothing satisfies more than bringing it back to life.

The process of restoration is neither mysterious nor complicated. The only requirements — apart from money — are a few simple tools, a good bit of time,  and a high tolerance for tedium. It’s also helpful to understand that 19th century techniques don’t always lend themselves to 21st century schedules, and to have a passing acquaintance with the basics of weather. But with diligence and focus, even the worst damage can be undone. With patience and persistence, wood turns silky, fiberglass shines, and machinery that clanked, rattled, and banged begins to quietly hum like an absorbed and happy child.

As work progresses and the boat begins to realize that she’ll sail again, you can sense the signs of new life. A boat with hopes of leaving the dock rides differently in the water. The rigging no longer howls like a woman facing down a storm; it sings in the breeze with overtones of satisfaction and joy. When a boat no longer feels abandoned, when she once again hears the call of the sea, she begins to gaze into the depths of her watery mirrors with a sense of restored dignity. 

When I find myself working on a more-or-less abandoned boat, it becomes  impossible not to think of parallels between its condition and the plight of people left to bob and rot in the backwaters of society. Decades ago, ‘derelict’ was a word reserved for bums, drifters, and vagrants. To be called derelict was to face moral judgements built upon assumptions that you were negligent, undependable, untrustworthy, and irresponsible.

Certainly, there are irresponsible and deeply untrustworthy people in the world, just as there are people who seemingly prefer disconnected and unproductive lives. But some who wander our world have more in common with derelict boats than with skidrow bums or amoral profiteers. Abandoned by family, neglected by friends, or rejected by the institutions and structures of society, their dereliction is less a matter choice than of circumstance.

If transformation is to come, what holds true for boats will be no less true for such people. No matter how damaged a heart, no matter how hardened its lines, no matter how tattered its dreams or hard its grounding onto the shoals of unhappiness, there is nothing that time, patience and loving attention cannot restore.

Repairing a heart certainly requires dedication, an acceptance of the vicissitudes of daily life, and a willingness to engage in repetitively difficult or unpleasant tasks. Certainly it profits from steady faith and a willingness to believe that even when the past makes its presence known, even when its reflections linger and shimmer in the brightness of newer days, all of the shabbiness, disrepair, and simple ugliness of dereliction eventually can be undone.

In a season dedicated to exchanging hearts as tokens of affection, it’s worth pausing a moment to ponder these less romantic realities of life and love. Somewhere, docked at the edges of our lives, moored just beyond our concern, run aground in a marsh of indifference or neglect, a derelict heart leans inexorably toward desolation: forsaken and forlorn. It may be time to begin its restoration.

Comments always are welcome.

Watching a Christmas Star

Daystar
Like so many others, I sought out the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in last night’s evening twilight. Less than a degree apart, their shining presence brought to mind a favorite experience from childhood, retold here for a new Christmas season.

Perhaps she noticed my absence. Perhaps she only felt a draft from the partly-opened door and rose to investigate. In either case, drawn onto the porch that cold Christmas night, my grandmother discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, and entirely unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.

“Good heavens,” she said.”What’s wrong? What are you doing out here?” Surprised by her question, I confessed the truth. “I don’t want to go home.” “Of course you don’t,” she said, lowering herself to sit next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to meet her gaze, I murmured the complaint voiced by generations of children: “I wish it wasn’t over.”

A front porch in winter is no place for conversation, but my grandmother seemed lost in thought, and reluctant to move. Finally, she said, “But it isn’t over. Not yet. Let’s go in the house and have some cookies.” As she led me through the sea of relatives that had flooded the front room, someone — an aunt or uncle, or perhaps a parent — asked, “What’s going on?” “We’re going to the kitchen,” she said, and that ended the questions. Everyone knew better than to interfere with Grandma when she seemed bent on a mission.

While she brought cookies from the pantry, I filled my glass with milk. We settled in at the table,  and I waited to see which direction the conversation would take. “Did you watch for Santa last night?” she asked. I had. “Did you see him?” I hadn’t, of course, but the heap of presents in the living room provided all the proof I needed to know that he’d stopped by.

“What if I told you there was something to watch for tonight?” I stopped in mid-dunk, milk dripping from the bottom of my cookie. “What?” Busy with her own cookie, Grandma said, “Miss Luksetich says that if you watch in the east every night at midnight until the Feast of The Three Kings, you might see the Star of Bethlehem.”

I’d never known my grandmother to lie, and Christine Luksetich was one of her best friends. It was worth pondering. “Really?” I said. Wisely enough, Grandma sounded a few cautionary notes. “You have to look right at midnight, and not a minute before or after. It could be cloudy, or you could fall asleep. But if you keep looking, you might see it. It’s there.”

Entranced, no longer reluctant to leave Christmas Day behind, I headed to the living room and began picking up my gifts: more than eager to return home, scurry off to my east-facing bedroom, and begin scanning the skies.

I didn’t see the Star of Bethlehem that year. I didn’t see it the next year, for that matter, or the year after that. Given my grandmother’s fondness for Swedish folk tales and her friend Christine’s Croatian heritage, it occurred to me that their reappearing Star of Bethlehem might be a legend akin to tales of animals talking on Christmas Eve, or oxen kneeling in their stalls.

Still, I watched: scrutinizing the skies each year to see if something might appear. And then, it did. One night there were only the usual faint twinkles in the eastern sky above our cherry trees. The next, a brilliant star shone there: pulsating, glimmering — so bright it seemed to light the snow-covered countryside. For as long as I could stay awake, it never moved. The next night, it was gone.

With the deep, pure certainty of childhood, I knew that I’d seen the Star of Bethlehem. I told no one — neither friends, nor parents, nor even my own grandmother — although no one could have convinced me that I didn’t see it. Still, I was reluctant to be ridiculed, or tempted into an argument.

Over time, the memory faded, and my habit of looking eroded. Most years found me otherwise occupied in the days after Christmas — traveling, or visiting, or cleaning up kitchens — and if I remembered at all, I gave the skies no more than a cursory glance.

But one year in Kansas, halfway between Monument Rocks and the Cimarron Grasslands, I stopped to admire some cottonwoods. A brilliant star, created by sunlight shining through leaves, erased the decades. Remembering my vision of the Star of Bethlehem so many years earlier, I thought:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Star follows us, just as surely as the Wise Men followed the Star?

This year, it was the same sun but a different tree which brought that childhood experience to mind, along with the fanciful, centuries-old legend of kneeling oxen and talking animals.

‘Fanciful,’ of course, is our polite way of describing events we imagine to be impossible. Unwilling to appear naive, stupid, or silly, few adults admit to clinging to such legends. Still, barns continue to beckon on Christmas eve, and hills laid bare beneath winter skies shimmer still, awaiting Bethlehem’s star, and those with eyes to see.

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold,
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh, the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
                             “Christmas Poem” ~ Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome.
To read Thomas Hardy’s poem about the legend of the kneeling oxen, please click here.

A Season to Celebrate Waiting

The key sits loosely in its lock: unturned, unnecessary. In a neighborhood where children drift from one house to the next as freely as wind-tossed leaves and women freely borrow milk or sugar from unattended kitchens, no one locks a closet.

In this neighborhood, closets hold no treasure: no jewels, no gold, no banded stacks of bills. They overflow with life’s necessities: shoes still tidy in original boxes, purses and shirts, a wardrobe of ties. Where two closets nestle side by side, hers is an obvious jumble of quilting scraps, extra pillows, photographs, and report cards. His, more intentional, has been arranged more precisely into a purposeful array of hunting vests, stamp paraphernalia, drafting tools, and gun cases. It’s a perfect marriage of closets.

Dimly lit and cave-like, the closets are mysterious, compelling and sancrosanct. Few children dare enter them without permission, but in the weeks before Christmas, a child might forego caution after being tempted by the faintest whisper of possibility: There might be presents…

It’s a special kind of hide-and-seek, this business of children searching out what parents have tucked under the bed, into the basement, or on those out-of-the-way shelves behind the washer. Inevitably, any child will be tempted toward the best hiding-place of all: a parent’s bedroom closet.

When I decided to invade the closets, I found their locks less of an impediment than a bottom hinge. It had needed oiling for months, and protested with a rising, audible whine whenever the door eased open. Hesitation only increased its volume; pulled firmly, resolutely, it remained silent.

More dangerous was the oak floor board lying halfway between the room’s threshold and the closet. However firmly or lightly someone stepped, it creaked beneath their weight: the sound sharper by far than the scrape of branches on winter-frosted windows. Counting from the threshold, it turned out to be the twenty-eighth board that complained. Careless or inattentive, I sometimes failed to watch, count, and count again before crossing the floor. One step on the vocal board would be enough to raise a different voice from the living room below: “Get out of that closet!”

I lived for several years with that twenty-eighth board, plotting and planning my way across the bedroom floor like Meriwether Lewis confronting a cataract. Even today, faint beneath the raucous holiday traffic and insistent, obnoxious advertising, I sometimes hear that murmuring hinge and the floor board’s muffled creak. Their memories evoke more than amusing sorties and nostalgic sounds. There is the sting of regret; the slight, bitter taste of deception; and the chagrin of learning what life can hold for a child who refuses to wait for Christmas.

The year impatience overcame me, the tree already was upright and strung with lights, ready for cranberry garlands and tinfoil bells. The first of the Christmas cookies had been baked and decorated, and the menu planned for Christmas dinner. Still, the house felt empty, bereft of the excitement and anticipation stirred by the sight of gifts.

No bits of wrapping paper decorated the trash; no extra Scotch tape or out-of-place scissors suggested seasonal activity. Most suspiciously, no tell-tale car doors slammed after I’d been sent to bed. I wasn’t precisely worried, but recent exposure to Santa rumors had left me cautious, and just a little nervous about my best friend’s contention that kids who don’t believe in Santa don’t get gifts. Eventually, I thought, I’d need to check things out.

A week later, our family was invited to a neighbor’s open house, and my mother allowed me the choice of coming along or staying home. Sensing opportunity, I choose to stay home, muttering vague justifications about needing to work on school projects. From an upstairs window, I watched my parents cross the yard, then disappear into our neighbor’s home.

With my parents safely occupied, I sprinted out of my bedroom and into their room, heedless of the squeaking board. As I opened the door to my dad’s closet, the thin, lambent sunlight of late afternoon barely lit its contents.  I pulled the chain hanging from a single, overhead bulb, and the sudden explosion of light confirmed my worst fears. Nothing was out of place. Half-heartedly, I pushed back some shirts, and peered at the familiar shoe boxes. No packages huddled in the gloom, no paper or ribbon hinted at Christmas glory. Perplexed, I shut the door.

Despite my conviction that any gifts would have been secreted in my father’s closet, I glanced into my mother’s closet, then stepped inside the already-opened door. Even after turning on the light, I nearly missed the glint of candy cane striped foil. Lifting up what appeared to be a hastily tossed heap of mending, I gasped at the pile of waiting boxes, neatly wrapped and ready for bows. Each carried a tag, and of the few that I could see, most carried my name.

At the time, I’d not heard the phrase ‘crime of opportunity,’ but on that day I had opportunity, and I fell easily into crime.

Carefully, cautiously, neither moving the mending nor unstacking the boxes, I lifted the clear tape from the neat, vee’d fold of paper on one end of a box. The wrapping paper, heavy, smooth, and slick to the touch, remained intact. The tape peeled up perfectly, the sharp, crisp folds of paper popped open easily, and I discovered the contents by reading the end of the box.

Oddly, I no longer remember the box’s contents. I recall only my sudden sense of guilt, a dread of being discovered, and the disappointment I experienced when unwrapping the package on Christmas morning. Guilt, disappointment, and dread would have been punishment enough, but worse by far was my first, unhappy taste of dishonesty’s primary consequence: having to pretend all was right when, in fact, everything was wrong.

My unwillingness to wait, born of a child’s desire for immediate gratification and an inability to trust that gifts would be given, had left me unable to celebrate. I spent that terrible day wishing only for Christmas to end, and I never engaged in untimely unwrapping again.

Today, during this strange season of demands and disappointment, the beginning of the season called Advent extends a gracious invitation to delay gratification, and learn a deeper patience.

A season of silence and shadows, Advent whispers an uncomfortable truth: waiting is the condition of our lives. From birth to death, from our coming in to our going out of this amazing, implausible world, we live our lives in a state of perpetual waiting.

We wait for arguments to be resolved and peace to be restored; for bitterness to ebb and pain to flow away. Season after season, we await the budding of spring and the gathering of the harvest: the coming of the storm and the clearing of the sky. Sleepless after midnight, we wait for time to pass until the coming of the dawn. Exhausted by the day, we wait for the blessing of darkness, and the restorative powers of sleep. Always, we wait for laughter; for love; and for the simple, unexpected gifts of life.

Of course, in the process of waiting, there are choices to be made and consequences to be suffered. Like over-eager children before a pile of gifts, we can be tempted to rush our lives, demanding immediate satisfaction even though our willingness to slip away a ribbon, lift a bit of tape, and unfold a sheet of love-creased paper may destroy our joy.

But when patience is learned, waiting becomes a mysterious and compelling experience that arrives hand in hand with whispers of possibility. T.S. Eliot clearly understood that waiting can become the greatest gift of all: a gift that nurtures and deepens our humanity.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

 

Comments always are welcome.

This Hour, and That One

Sunset on the prairie

After lying dormant for months, the familiar complaint rises again, grumbling across the land as the days shorten and nights grow cold. Repetitive and predictable as the season, the end of daylight saving time and the need to reset clocks surprises some, but irritates others: primarily those who care not a whit which official time prevails, but wish for an end to the continual changing of clocks.

Most consider ‘falling back’ or ‘springing forward’ nothing more than a relic of the past, like barn-raisings and butter churns. Over the years, the practice has been justified as a means of saving energy, protecting school children, and ending our nation-wide vitamin D deficiency, but definitive answers to those and other questions are no more possible than enlightening people who truly believe that we’re going to lose an hour of daylight when the clocks are changed.

Since I work by the sun and not by the clock, the lack of answers doesn’t bother me. Like my grandparents, I work from ‘kin to cain’t’ — from the hour the first bird takes flight into the dawn until the last light fades against the hills. Gauging the hour by the slant of the sun, I pace myself accordingly.

Still, living in the midst of a clock and calendar world, I need to take that world’s realities into account, including this weekend’s transition to ‘standard’ time.

At every time change, I remember a friend who took the mandate to change her clocks at a specified time so literally she would set an alarm. If the authorities said it should be done at 2 a.m., then 2 a.m. it would be. She had no desire to miss meeting her civic obligation.

She did it that way for years, and for years I gave her a hard time about it. She wouldn’t be swayed; she truly believed that, if only everyone in the country would set their clocks in the middle of the night as the experts advise, the world would be a better place.

In all the time I knew her, I never dared confess my approach to the end of daylight saving time. Not only do I avoid changing clocks in the middle of the night, I don’t bother resetting them before I go to bed, and I don’t adjust them while making coffee in the morning.

Instead, I consider the hour we ‘gain’ as we ‘fall back’ to be a gift from a minor god: a little chunk of time left lying at the edge of my life, waiting to be disposed of as I please.

Every autumn, I save my hour of reclaimed time until I need it, or find a frivolous use for it. While others busy themselves resetting clocks, I watch from the sidelines with a smile on my face, secure in the knowledge of the secret hour tucked into my pocket. Eventually I make use of that hour, but only then do I reset my clocks, putting myself more or less back in synch with the rest of the world.

Sunrise on Matagorda Island

Years ago, when different work meant different expectations, it wasn’t so easy; I had to make an effort to be on the same schedule as co-workers. Even now, there are practical limits to how long I can keep my extra hour; it isn’t feasible to keep it for Christmas shopping in December, or an especially pleasant February afternoon when a trip to the prairie becomes nearly irresistible.

Still, the ability to choose a use for that extra hour can become a delightful exercise.

Imagine, for example, that you’ve spent an afternoon doing paperwork, or laundry. At five o’clock, you decide you’ve had enough. You pull out your extra hour, declare it four o’clock, and sit back to relax with a book.

If you’d prefer a leisurely, late-afternoon walk, it’s just as simple. Tuck your extra hour into your bag and set off at a brisk clip until you feel yourself tiring. Then, take out your hour and slow down, secure in the knowlege that you’ll arrive home for supper with time to spare.

Over the years, I’ve used my extra hour to repot African violets, read The New Yorker, watch the sunset, and brush the cat. I’ve spent it talking with a friend, and browsing a bookstore. Once, I took a nap. I’ve used the time early, and I’ve used the time late. What never varies is using it with full awareness that it is my hour to do with as I please. If I choose to save it until Monday morning and dedicate it to an extra cup of coffee or sweeping the patio, so be it.

It’s a game, of course: this pretending that I have a time-treasure hidden away in my pocket like a shiny new dime. But it’s a game that provides multiple pleasures, and having the time tucked away is only the beginning. Deciding how that hour will be spent is the point. As Annie Dillard reminds us in her book, The Writing Life:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

Each year, in the deciding and in the spending, I re-learn Dillard’s lesson: what is true for an hour is true for a day, and as those days add up, they become the sum and substance of our lives.

On any given morning, the time spread out before me as I rise looms larger than any play-hour, but it’s no less my time, and my responsibility to determine how it will be spent. Decisions already made — to be employed, to seek education, to raise children, to work within the community — necessarily predetermine much of our day’s course, but bits and pieces of time  remain ours alone: hours waiting to be used for creation, renewal, reflection, and relationship.

Despite our plaintive cry — I wish I had more time! — we have all the time there is. “There is no shortage of good days,” Dillard continues. “It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample, and its passage sweet.”

Sunset on the bayou

As we move from equinox to solstice, leaving the summer’s light and moving again into the darkness of the year’s bleak end, it can be easy to believe that the days themselves are shrinking: that our hours have shriveled, our minutes crumbled. But time is ample, enduring in daylight or dark; pouring into our lives from eternity’s store; waiting to be disposed of as we will.

Of course, time’s flow can be neither stopped nor reversed. In the words of Tennessee Williams:

[Time] is slipping away while I write this, and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, Loss, Loss — unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Comments always are welcome.

Tristan’s Truth

The Court Jester

Some years ago, Oakland, California’s FOX News Affiliate KTVU allowed itself to be pranked in a most remarkable way. After broadcasting false names for the captain and crew of the ill-fated Asiana Airlines Flight 214, the station attempted to deal with the ensuing furor by insisting that the National Transportation Safety Board had confirmed the crew’s identities.

In turn, the NTSB claimed it wasn’t their fault —  at least, not officially. It was the fault of a summer intern: a youngster who’d roamed just far enough off the reservation to allow a Bart Simpson-like joke to make it all the way to the national airwaves. As the NTSB put it, rather primly:

Earlier today, in response to an inquiry from a media outlet, a summer intern acted outside the scope of his authority when he erroneously confirmed the names of the flight crew on the aircraft.
The NTSB does not release or confirm the names of crewmembers or people involved in transportation accidents to the media. We work hard to ensure that only appropriate factual information regarding an investigation is released and deeply regret today’s incident.
Appropriate actions will be taken to ensure that such a serious error is not repeated.

After discovering the online hubbub, I feared I was suffering heatstroke. I couldn’t imagine even the most loosely-run or inattentive news organization failing to pick up on names that clearly were fake, and that had made the rounds of Iowa playgrounds more than fifty years ago.

But they weren’t paying attention, they didn’t take the time to read the names aloud, and they went live with a “breaking news” update that surely made the Monday morning staff meeting a nightmare for someone.

Watching the video of the broadcast a second time, I confess I laughed. I laughed because of the word play, and I laughed from astonishment that such a thing could happen. Most of all, I laughed at the speed with which the entire event moved from mistake to embarassment to apology to pending lawsuit. Today, things move even more quickly, but even so, it took only minutes for the apology to be issued and the facts clarified. In two more days, Asiana began muttering about lawsuits, and the firings began.

Two decades ago, things moved more slowly. When sailor, author, and adventurer Tristan Jones died on Phuket Island, Thailand, in 1995, one obituary appeared in the British newspaperThe Independent. Written by Euan Cameron, Jones’s British editor and quite an admirer of the man often called, without apology, “the old rum-gagger,” the obituary tended ever so slightly toward hagiography:

Tristan Jones’s life was a series of adventures. Since he was a Welshman, a sailor, a romantic, and a story-teller in the best seafaring tradition, the adventures were so plentiful that they filled eight books of autobiography and were sometimes so improbable that they defied belief.
It all began with a breach birth [sic] in a full storm, aboard a British tramp steamer, 150 miles north-east of Tristan da Cunha  (hence the Christian name) in May 1924. Mrs. Jones was the ship’s cook and both she and Tristan’s father came from a long line of Welsh master mariners. “By God, this one will always land on his feet!” the ship’s mate was reported to have said, as he delivered the baby from the 10-hour ordeal. “He may be a candidate for hanging one day, but he’ll never drown!

Cameron went on to note that throughout Jones’s life, as might be expected,  pinpointing the sailor’s location could be difficult. He kept landing on his feet in out-of-the-way locations, and sending letters home requesting that money be cabled to Bahia Concha in Columbia, or engine parts dispatched to Constanta on the Black Sea.

It seems never to have occurred to Mr. Cameron that Jones’s sudden disappearances and vague itineraries might be the work of a trickster: a prankster, a sleight-of-mind artist. But at the time there was no reason for suspicion. His books, filled with roaring oceans and exciting landfalls, appeared regularly and sold in the thousands. His book signings at boat shows brought in hundreds of sailors. When I met him at a fall boat show in the late 1980s, I was utterly charmed. One of my acquaintances, even more impressed, signed on as volunteer crew.

Still, there were mysteries. His eventual biographer, Anthony Dalton, remembers that Jones didn’t want his biography written during his lifetime. His books were autobiographical, he insisted, so there was no need for a formal biography. He felt so strongly about the subject that he included a stipulation in his will that no biography was to be written until at least thirty years after his death. Later, he amended that to a financial condition. No biography could be written without payment of $100,000 to the Tristan Jones Trust.

His reasons for not wanting his true story told, Dalton discovered, had little to do with modesty and far more to do with a lack of probity. As he began piecing together Jones’s life, one accidentally discovered falsehood led inexorably to another.

The man who claimed to have sailed more than 345,000 miles in boats under forty feet, who said he sailed 180,000 miles solo, and who told his readers he had crossed the Atlantic nineteen times under sail…had far less experience at sea than he was prepared to admit. The man who claimed to have been torpedoed three times before his eighteenth birthday, who said he had taken a sailboat farther north into Arctic waters than anyone else, who told his readers of being trapped in polar ice for months at a time, was something of a fraud.

Despite the details of Euan Cameron’s obituary – details picked up and passed around the world for years – the man who said he was born at sea on his father’s ship in 1924 actually was born on land five years later, and Dalton has the facts about “Tristan” Jones.

Arthur Jones was born in Liverpool in 1929, the illegitimate son of a working-class Lancashire girl, and he grew up in orphanages with little education. Too young to see action in the World War II naval battles he would later write about so movingly, he joined the Royal Navy in 1946 and served fourteen unremarkable years.

Why would a man who was an accomplished sailor, a beloved raconteur, a remarkable adventurer, and a successful author feel the need to ‘prank’ his audience? Dalton points to cultural heritage as one possible explanation.

If we accept that he was Welsh, as he claimed he was and as it’s possible he was, he was far from alone in his ability to weave fabulous tales. British author Melvyn Bragg, in his biography of Welsh actor Richard Burton, said, “In his cups [Burton] was a story-teller who embellished whenever necessary, and he expected the brightest listeners to understand the art.”
As Bragg put it, “The Welsh way was to talk it up. Celtic stories were tall tales, and if your audience was daft enough to swallow it whole – so much the worse for them. He truly didn’t give a damn.”

And perhaps that is the key to unlocking the mystery of Tristan Jones. There simply was no reason for him to give a damn. If his persona was invented, his knowledge and love of the sea was real. If he engaged in trickery on shore, he knew the tricks of his sea-trade as well as anyone, and was willing to share them freely. He may have pranked the whole sailing world for decades, but in coves and in bays, sheltered at tiny island anchorages and buffeted on interminable offshore passages, his books continued to inspire and entertain the people dearest to him – the ones who put to sea.

And as for those ashore? He was happy for their company, too. As he liked to say, some sail the oceans and some do not, but everyone sets sail on the sea of life, and the lessons of the sea apply to all. I came across a favorite passage from one of his books when making a sea passage myself, and never have doubted its truth:

The Sea knows nothing of money or power.
She knows only loyalty and audacity
and determination and courage
and, by God, she knows an unthinking, unseeing fool when she encounters one.

She knows awareness.
She knows patience.
She knows staunchness.
She knows foresight.
Yet she knows nothing of our longing for riches or fame
or even of our efforts to overcome or thwart her.

She gives an illusion of freedom,
but in reality she demands restraint, caution, self-discipline,
and a deep belief in the grace of God.

If we have none of these attributes
when we join her,
we shall have them when we have known her
for any length of time,

or we will be defeated or dead.
~ Tristan Jones

Comments always are welcome.
My photos were taken offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Eastern Pacific, and in Glacier Bay.