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.

Messages in a Bottle

Flannery O’Connor with editor Robbie Macauley in 1947 (Wikimedia)

Even among the literati, mothers can be difficult to impress. In a letter written to author Cecil Dawkins in 1959, Flannery O’Connor congratulated Cecil for being paid $1,000 for a story — a figure that more than doubled Flannery’s current top payment of $475. Somewhat wryly, Flannery added:

Your sale to the Post ought to impress your mother greatly.  It sure has impressed my mother, who brought the post card home. 
The other day she asked me why I didn’t try to write something that people liked, instead of the kind of thing I do write.  Do you think, she said, that you are really using the talent God gave you when you don’t write something that a lot, a LOT of people like? 
This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc.  All I can ever say is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.

I still laugh when I read that passage. Shortly after my first computer arrived, my mother began nosing around it like a wary dog circling a snake, asking questions of her own. “What are you going to do with it?”  I didn’t know, and said so. “Well, how much did it cost?”  I did know that. Despite reservations born of experience, I told her. The disapproving silence thickened. “You spent all that money for something, and don’t even know how you’re going to use it?” 

Clearly, she regarded my computer as nothing more than the newest version of the hula-hoop or Mr. Potato Head, and I was her idiot child, consumed with a child’s breathless longing to possess the same toys as my friends.

As the months passed and my mysterious toy began demanding ever more time, her perplexity increased. She’d come to understand the practicality of email and the profitability of eBay, but the hours spent on my new blog confounded her. “Why are you still on that machine?” she’d say, peering over the top of her knitting. “Who reads those things, anyway?  Why not do something productive?” 

Since she refused even to sit at the computer, I began printing out occasional blog posts for her to read. She’d murmur some nice, motherly compliment, but usually ended by asking the question that would have made Flannery O’Connor’s mother proud: “When is somebody going to pay you for all this?”

Equating dollars with quality is natural enough. The first and only local writing group I joined once published this food for thought in its newsletter:

“Never give your writing away. If you don’t receive payment, your writing is worthless.”

Everyone in the group believed that, and for months I fussed over the issue, unable to refute either the logic or the assumptions of members who kept asking, “When are you going to start doing some real writing?” The question of worth was everywhere, and many of us in an online writing group recognized the dilemma expressed by Becca Rowan as our own:

 I find it all too easy to sink into pessimism about my own writing. “What’s the point?” I sometimes find myself thinking. “Who cares what I have to say? Why bother struggling to find just the right word, to come up with the perfect idea, to create an evocative image?  What difference can it possibly make to the world?”

Reading Becca’s words, I sensed her effort was justified, as was mine.  I remained convinced  my writing was worth the hours stolen from sleep; the decisions to forego evenings out; the end of television and social media. I simply didn’t know why.

Eventually, I found the beginning of an answer in an off-handed remark made by a woman with decades of experience in the classroom. “Teaching is like throwing out words in a bottle,” she said. “Sometimes you’re lucky, and the bottle reaches shore.”

Her metaphor seemed apt: as much for blogging as for teaching. Like a message in a bottle, each post is tossed into the currents of the great cyber-sea to bob, tumble, and drift about until safely reaching shore, or being broken and destroyed on the rocks. 

For blog-bottle throwers, of course, letting go is everything. Whatever the content of the bottle’s note, its words and images will have no opportunity to touch people, to clear their vision, to bring comfort, to elicit a wry smile or a sigh of satisfaction until the bottle is set free to travel.

It does take time for bottles to bob their way to the beaches of the world.  It takes even more time for someone to find them, and sometimes it requires pure luck for the message to be plucked out and read. Today, I can’t help being amazed by how many of my own metaphorical bottles have been pulled from the surf and preserved in one way or another.

A woman in Salisbury who’d put her own writing on hold felt an implicit challenge in one essay, and began writing again.  A St. Louis executive found a lesson for the workplace in Godette’s choice of inspiration over competition.  Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head in Clarksdale, Mississippi reprinted some reflections on their Juke Joint festival in one of his newsletters. The Moon Lake Improvement Association included my story of a visit to Uncle Henry’s roadhouse in the history section of their site. An astronomer added The Comet Watchers to his links.

Each of these connections pleased me, but nothing represents the satisfactions of blog-bottle tossing as well as my experience with “Search Pattern,” a poem written in response to the death of Roger Stone.

Safety Officer aboard the sailing vessel Cynthia Woods during the 2008 Regata de Amigos offshore race from Galveston to Veracruz, Roger lost his life while saving five crewmates from death after their sailboat capsized.

He was well known in the local sailing community, and while I’d never met him, I was deeply affected by his death.  While the Coast Guard conducted their search and rescue mission, and during its sad aftermath, there was little else I could do, so I wrote a poem titled “Search Pattern.”

Due north from south
then south again
the heart flies,
anxious in its unexpected space,
winging over absence
with an osprey’s climbing curl,
unfettered but forlorn.
From east to west
frail rising hope streams light
across conviction’s shattered hull;
love’s fruitless oars, adrift
beyond this longing reach
float half-submerged,
splintered as the fragments of a dream.
What life remains,
preserved through night’s long tumult
to wash, exhausted, onto shore?
The osprey climbs.
The oars drift on.
The heart resumes its wheeling flight
due north from south,
then south again,
across a bowl of tears.

After writing and posting the poem, I moved on. Then, nine months later, I found this comment appended to the poem on its blog page:

Hi,
I am Roger Stone’s widow. I ran across this poem just now, and I want to thank you so much for it.  The introduction was so touching, too.  If I would have seen this before his service, I would have loved for you to have read it. 
I miss Roger every day, and seeing this at this time touched my soul. Thank you again.
Linda Stone

That she had found the poem at all, that she had been kind enough to comment, and that the one person I wished could read the poem had, in fact, done so seemed extraordinary. In the brief correspondence that followed, I gave Linda permission to use the poem as she saw fit.  At the time, she intended to enlarge and frame it, and then to hang it in Roger’s office in their new home – the office he never got to use.

Somewhat later, on the Mitchell Campus of Texas A&M University at Galveston, Linda Stone once again described events of that tragic day as she accepted the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal on behalf of her husband. The medal, established by Congress in 1874, is awarded by the Coast Guard Commandant to any person who rescues, or endeavors to rescue another person from drowning, shipwreck, or other peril of the sea.

Roger and his medal ~ U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Petty Officer Patrick Kelley

Watching Linda receive the award on behalf of Roger, envisioning my poem gracing the wall of the office he never used, and still astonished by her improbable discovery of my blog months after the loss of the Cynthia Woods, all I could think was, “Some worth can’t be calculated.”  

I still believe that. Not every cause has an immediate effect, and not every hour invested brings immediate return. Only a willingness to take the longer, less calculating view of things allows any artist to keep tossing bottles into the sea ~ bottles filled with treasure that one day, some day, will wash onto a receptive shore.

Comments always are welcome.

Selling Bill Buckley’s Boat

 

Ship-shape at the end of the day ~ Port O’Connor, Texas

More than a home, far more than a means of transportation, the cruising sailboat combines art and engineering, design and construction, ages-old tradition and modern efficiency, all in the service of joining sailors to the sea. Spend enough time with a boat, and you’ll soon gain the sense that, although she may not be human, she most certainly is alive.

For years that liveliness has characterized the relationships I’ve had with boats in my care. Moving about on their decks as easily as I navigate within my own home, I talk to them, occasionally curse them, and eventually come to cherish them.

Given time, I also learn their foibles and their faults. I know which toe rail wasn’t caulked properly during construction. I can point out the soft spot in the decking that indicates water damage, or the creased stainless steel railing that suggests someone arrived at the dock under less than perfect control.

Certainly damage to fiberglass, varnish, or sails keeps a lot of us in business, but every time one of my boats is damaged, it stings just a little. After Hurricane Ike, the sting was nearly unbearable.

Family Time had been lifted up by the storm surge and taken to the grass.

Tranquility crossed a parking lot, then came to rest against a palm tree.

Dockmates Coral Caye and Muriel June survived hours of hitting against one another, with significant, albeit repairable, damage. Legacy, badly bruised, didn’t require a trip to the boatyard, but Gemini had gelcoat issues, and required weeks in the yard to dry out.

Treena simply disappeared, and never was found. Though not precisely lost at sea, she most assuredly had been struck by the hand of the sea.

Of course there are other ways to lose a boat, and over the course of years I’ve seen them all. Poor navigation brings an encounter with the rocks; poor maintenance results in a trip to the bottom. From time to time, customers load their boats onto trucks and take them overland, to other ports of call.

Oddly, of all the ways to lose a boat, selling seems especially painful. When the decision to sell comes as a result of ill-health, changed financial circumstances, or the increasing limitations of age, ambivalence usually makes the process both long and difficult, no matter how small the boat or how prominent the sailor.

I still remember the day I learned Bill Buckley would sell his boat.

For years I’d been dipping intoThe National Review, the journal of conservative thought William F. Buckley, Jr. founded in 1955, and watching his appearances on television’s Firing Line. Throughout those years, Buckley’s lectures, columns, and books made him ubiquitous; whether you agreed with him or not, he couldn’t be avoided.

In the course of being exposed to his opinions, I developed one of my own. Buckley, I decided, was both insufferable and brilliant. Acerbic and bold in his writing, a polemicist at heart and not much given to the sort of subtleties designed to deflect criticism, he wrote like a painter wielding a palette knife: laying on vocabulary, subjunctive clauses, and parenthetical phrases until his meaning began to sink beneath layers of language. Often, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I kept reading and listening.

His distinctive enthusiasms and joie de vivre certainly helped to increase interest in politics and campaigns, drawing in people who might otherwise have remained disengaged. During his 1965 candidacy for mayor of New York City, someone asked Buckley what he would do if he won the election. True to form, he dead-panned, “Demand a recount.”

But Buckley was more than a political iconoclast and sharp-witted pundit. A dependable friend known for unfailing graciousness and wide-ranging interests outside the political world, he was equally well-known as a sailor and lover of the sea.

Like critics in the political realm, sailors often regarded him with disdain. His was the world of yachting, with all the class distinctions that yachting implies, but it was part of the package you had to accept — or at least tolerate — if you were interested in Buckley as sailor.

His first boat was the result of a deal struck between father and son after Buckley’s father decided, in 1938, that he and his two sisters should be schooled in England for a year. Given the strength of Bill’s opposition, his father finally resorted to a little bribery, promising his son that he could have a sailboat when he returned to the States.

As Buckley tells the story, he named that first boat Sweet Isolation as a tribute to his father’s political leanings at the time. It was a 17′ Barracuda class sailboat, and Buckley raced it with all the passion of a Whitbread competitor. Years later, he caught sight of a 1930’s America’s Cup J-Boat, and the slide down the slippery slope began.

In 1954 he became the owner of The Panic, a Dutch-built steel cutter. After nature did her worst to that boat, he moved on to a Sparkman and Stevens Nevins 40 named Suzy Wong. Suzy eventually gave way to Cyrano, a beautiful but extraordinarily large schooner which cost so much to maintain — even by Buckley’s standards — that he came, as all sailors do, to his final boat: the Patito The Spanish diminuitive for duck, Patito happened to be the pet name Buckley and his wife used with one another.

s/v Patito ~ AFP photo, Martin Bernetti

Eventually, the day came to release even Patito.  One circumstance led to another until, as Buckley put it, “the joys of ownership  began to be overcome by the pains of possession.”  In an essay about the decision-making process published inThe Atlantic, he added, “When such things happen,  one can either putter on – or quit.”  His decision was to quit, but, being William F. Buckley, Jr., that was not quite the end of the story. 

With Buckley, no opinion came without added reflection, and his reflection on the decision to sell Patito was especially poignant:

So, deciding that the time has come to sell the Patito, and forfeit all that, is not lightly done, and it brings to mind the step yet ahead, which is giving up life itself.

Eleven years ago, that “step yet ahead” was taken, and decades after I first read Buckley’s words, his voice was silenced. When death comes to a person long admired but never personally known, an individual whose presence loomed large for decades while shaping the lives of innumerable strangers, the experience of grief can be as surprising as it is real.

Combing through the columns and op-ed pieces written after Buckley’s death, reading and listening to the stories and memories shared by those who knew him best, I came across Peggy Noonan’s contribution in the Wall Street Journal, striking in its simplicity and continued relevance:

With the loss of Bill Buckley we are, as a nation, losing not only a great man.  With Bill’s passing,  we are losing his kind — people who were deeply, broadly educated in great universities when they taught deeply and broadly, who held deep views of life and the world and art and all the things that make life more delicious and more meaningful. We have work to do as a culture in bringing up future generations that are so well rounded, so full, and so inspiring.

Perhaps inevitably, Buckley died at his desk, still working vocabulary, phrases, and clauses into his unmistakable prose, even as he contemplated the nature of the path he was traveling.

Thinking about Buckley and Patito, I realize there will come a time in my own life when the boats must be let go: when for one reason or another it will be time to stop puttering, and move on.  When that time comes, and the decision to “forfeit all that” brings to mind an inevitable future, I suspect Bill Buckley also will come to mind: a memorable model for considering all such next steps with courage and grace.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Brief Resurrection Of Dale T

Lydia Ann Channel Lighthouse ~ Port Aransas, Texas

None of the roustabouts, deck hands, or dock workers along the middle and upper Texas coast seemed to know how Dirty Dale got his nickname, and Dale wasn’t telling.

Gracie, who’d given up life on an oil rig to put her cooking talents to work in a land-locked café, served him breakfast every morning. She insisted his name came from his good-natured willingness to pursue every female in sight. Certainly, no matter how oblivious, uninterested, or irritated the object of his attentions, Dale’s confidence was absolute. Sliding into a seat next to an unaccompanied woman, he’d murmur, “Hey, darlin’. I’m here to improve your life.” Most didn’t feel the need for improvement, but he remained willing to try.
Continue reading

A Season Of Turning

Woodworker, carver, sailor, musician: Gordon Bok is an American treasure. Until several years ago, I’d not heard his name and might have missed his artistry forever, had it not been for the graciousness of a reader.

We’d been exchanging thoughts on music, and in an emailed post-script to our discussion he added, “I can’t think of a better song than Gordon Bok’s Turning Toward the Morning.”  Pointing me toward Albany, New York’s WAMC and their Saturday night broadcasts of the “Hudson River Sampler” he said, “I can almost guarantee you’ll hear something by Bok: if not this Saturday, then next Saturday for sure. And something by Stan Rogers as well. But you’ll also hear songs you’ve never heard before and will want to hear again.” Continue reading