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Original Essays | August 18, 2014 0 comments
Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
Source Notesby David Masiel
When I was older and working at being a writer, I tape-recorded hours of him talking about the old days on the Sacramento River and at sea. Though his stories were based on truth, it was somehow understood that the truth was always worth bending for a good story. His tellings bore a crusty irony, as if he was warning you that life was a strange, bittersweet pill to swallow, and you better be ready to wash it down with strong drink and a wry laugh. He told sweet stories sometimes, like how he met my grandmother on the river, but mostly, his stories weren't romantic in the least. They were chiseled down to bare metal.
My father had gone to college instead of to sea, so I didn't grow up in the world of my grandfather, but on its periphery. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, images of work boats and ships were all around. Matson freighters in the port of Oakland, or Crowley tugs operating out of Pier 9 in SF, or the Cal Maritime Academy in Vallejo, the training ship Golden Bear docked in the straits beneath the bridge. The idea of "going to sea" haunted me. I remember standing at Point Richmond when I was eight or so, looking straight out the Golden Gate, the sky wild and foggy behind, thinking, that's it, that's where you go when you go to sea!
When I was twenty-one, I went to work for Crowley Maritime, reporting for work at an offshore camp forty miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in the Beaufort Sea. We lived on barges and worked on tugboats. My first day, I was sent to work with this old guy at least he was old to me. He was in his late fifties then, a teetotaler and a nonsmoker who kept absurdly fit by hiking all over the woods to hell and gone, and pouring concrete, and working twelve-hour days as a barge laborer. He liked to tell stories even more than my grandfather did. An able-bodied seaman for forty years, he was also a logger, a journeyman cement finisher, and a hunting and fishing guide who had killed ninety-seven bears, four of them at arm's length, and two in hand-to-hand combat. His stories were numerous but not varied. He had three subjects: sex, storms at sea, and killing, in that order.
At war he'd been bombed, burned, kamikaze'd, and sunk. After war, he'd been married, had one kid, got divorced, got a vasectomy, and went on a sexual tour of the world while working on merchant ships. He'd had sex with women in all countries, possibly in an unconscious attempt to retrace the steps of his own father, who had been a merchant seaman beginning in the age of sail. His father had gone around the world sixty times and "sired" (his word) an average of one child per voyage.
Many I knew didn't believe his stories; they were so extreme.
Until he showed proof. Not that it mattered to me, particularly, but he had home movies of war and shipwrecks, photos of women he'd known, and letters from an Aussie half brother of his, who said he'd tracked down thirty-eight of their siblings, providing names and addresses. He let me read the list of names. The locations were a scattering of world ports: Burma, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, East and West Africa. Wherever there was a dock, it seemed, there was a half sibling. He'd been an only child growing up, and the thought boggled him. "Imagine it! Sixty brothers and sisters I never met."
He was a good mentor. As a greenhorn, you felt safe around the guy, like he'd been through the shit and he could show you how too. No matter how bad things got he'd know what to do, and hanging close to him saved my bacon on more than one occasion. He taught me the basics of line work, knots and splices, how to work long-shore without getting something dropped on you, and some useless things that only he could do, like how to write your name in wood with a very large chain saw. He never grew angry or impatient, and most importantly, in the excruciating boredom of hard labor, he regaled us with stories that would have made my grandfather blush.
The last year I saw him, he was fifty-nine and had just received a thick file from the Feds. Some class action lawsuit had been filed over the Bikini Atoll H-bomb tests after the war, during which he'd been a launch operator, ferrying scientists back and forth between their various ships and ground zero. The Navy had been careful to limit the time spent by scientists on the atoll, but not so careful about the boatmen taking them there, who wound up absorbing ten to twenty times the radiation of anybody else. Forty years later they were dropping from a smorgasbord of cancers. My friend's response to the class action suit was predictable: "I'm not going in on any chicken-shit lawsuit. I seen kids eighteen years old get their heads blown off right in front of me. Anybody survived the war should just shut their traps and be grateful they got the forty years."
A year later he was dead.
Those who knew him better than I did reported that he'd undergone some kind of change near the end, "got all weepy" as one put it with a hint of shock, and even distaste. My friend had asked some difficult questions about God and judgment that nobody there had been able to answer; they just stood there, stunned to see this veteran of war and typhoon crying over his impending doom. Where this had come from, they couldn't tell me, because he hadn't offered much. I knew him to be an atheist, or at least unconcerned with spiritual questions, but I had seen a similar response to death from my grandfather, a man who'd led life wildly and willfully on his own terms, only to turn toward dark questions in the end.
As regards my friend, I later heard claims. Accusations of a kind.
I was sitting in an Anchorage bar working on my fourth beer waiting for a flight to Seattle when an engineer from an ocean tug, working on about his tenth beer, began spouting off about my friend, saying he knew about him all right, he knew the things he'd done aboard ships and he was no kind of good person. His accusations pretty much ran the table of heinous acts. I defended the man. He was two years dead by then. "I roomed with him for two years on a barge in the Arctic," I said. "I think I would have gotten some kind of creepy vibe" etc., etc.
Then I went away and tried not to think about those claims, and of course, failed. I imagined all those horror stories, and while I couldn't reconcile these sordid, violent scenes with the man I'd known, in another way I could. I pondered a host of what ifs. What if he had done these things engaged in violent, sexual acts aboard ships and in ports at an earlier time in his life? What if by the time I knew him he'd come to a different place? What if that accounted for his spiritual quandary at the end? Maybe the thing he and my grandfather had both sought was a kind of redemption.
I've always been intrigued (and a little frightened) by extreme personalities, and the thought of someone facing their own past, a possibly ugly one, energized me. He would strive for, and possibly achieve, some kind of moral rebirth. I wanted to write a story that did justice to both my friend and my grandfather, not because they were "good" people though they were, in many ways but because they were morally complex people. It strikes me that this kind of complexity is far closer to the truth of human experience than a thousand lectures on good and evil. Also, it makes a better story.