Lessons of the seafaring life arrive firmly but gently. Don’t let ‘em scare you off!
It was the year 2000 and Starship, a salty, Northern Marine trawler, lay at anchor in the hazy distance, hard by Hiliwau, a tiny village of thatched stilt-houses on the Papua New Guinea coast. The RIB we’d come ashore in was tied amongst some dugout canoes. One of the villagers, who sported an amiable smile and a wide-brimmed hat, was explaining about “The Skull Cave,” a nearby spot where, in years gone by, his tribe had amassed trophies related to local hostilities.
“Let’s go,” somebody said.
The steep, slippery climb up the mountain behind the village was a humdinger. When we finally topped out at the cave’s entrance—a dark hole in the ground not much wider than a dinner plate—everybody was panting, sweating and side-eying the hole. “There are many skulls you will see … BUT,” the villager emphasized gravely, “You will see snakes also—maybe python and other snakes. So, I beg you, be careful.”
We’re talkin’ a pivotal moment here, folks! I’m terrified of snakes—not just pythons, but all snakes, good, bad or indifferent. Even pictures of snakes freak me out. So hey, I had to make a decision—either expand my limited horizons and drop down into the cave, or hang back, stymied by my reptilian neurosis.
A rather similar sort of situation arose a few years later. While embedded with the U.S. Coast Guard in 2003 at the start of the second Iraq war, I was accompanying boarding teams in fast, heavily armed RIBs on the Shat-al-Arab River, a wide, brown, desert waterway that flows south out of Basra and separates Iraq from Iran. The Coasties, at the time, were tasked with preventing Sadam Hussein and his minions from fleeing the country by hiding on board southbound freighters. As we approached the Jacob’s ladder hanging from the first freighter on the first day, I was reminded of the conversation I’d had the night before with the ensign in charge. Dealing with the ladder would require both hands, he’d advised, so the ascent to even a small ship’s deck would be “a little dangerous,” although cover via shotguns and assault rifles would be ongoing from below. The trickiest part, he’d added, would be close to the top.
Screeeech! The RIB’s starboard side scraped the black, rusty hullside. The ensign moved purposely astern, toward the ladder, after giving me a look that said, “You comin’, buddy?” So again, it was decision time. On the one hand, as an infantryman during the Vietnam War, I’d been shot at enough to know I didn’t particularly care for it. But on the other, it was obvious the kid going up the ladder with a stout heart and a holstered Beretta was quite possibly offering a glimpse of history in the making.
As if for emphasis, I had to deal with one more quandary of the same type in 2011. I was attending a gala at Havana’s Marina Hemingway after fishing the Hemingway Tournament. The evening was roaring along, with an international cast of characters on hand. I’d just told a guy, “Sure, I’d love to write about Hemingway’s boat” when a hand fell upon my shoulder like a rock.
“You are NOT a journalist in Cuba,” said the big, well-dressed Cuban who’d been standing behind me, apparently listening.
“Ha,” I grinned, thinking he was joking.
“No,” he continued, going all steely-eyed. “You are not. Because if you are a journalist in Cuba, you go to jail.”
One of the great truths of life, I think, is that the human imagination is way more lethal than reality. So, I ignored the big Cuban’s warning and, once back stateside, wrote a Power & Motoryacht story featuring, in part, Hemingway’s boat, complete with photos I’d stealthily shot myself. And as for the aforementioned pythons, and the Jacobs’ ladder? I ignored all my related imaginings as well. After all, if there’s a game-show aspect to life, where you get to choose amongst an assortment of scary doors, who says you gotta pick just one?