Monday, March 26, 2007

Happy Birthday, Sterling Hayden

If you use The Google™ to find quotes from Sterling Hayden, you're bound to find a bunch of people who never got past page 24 of his majestic 400+-page memoir Wanderer. They unfurl this massive banner, a pithy quote of introduction which seems to lay down some onboard rules of conduct:

"To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea -- "cruising" it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about.

"Little has been written about the ways a man may blast himself free. Why? I don't know, unless the answer lies in our diseased values.A man seldom hesitates to describe his work; he gladly divulges the privacies of alleged sexual conquests. But ask him how much he has in the bank and he recoils into a shocked a stubborn silence.

"'I've always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can't afford it.' What these men can't afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of "security." And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine - and before we know it our lives are gone.

"What does a man need - really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in - and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That's all - in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade.

"The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life? What follows is not a blueprint for the man entombed..."

I like this book by Sterling Relyea Walter Hayden. And not because of this quote. Often folks cite this without the second paragraph, probably because he says "sexual," or since it is ludicrously anachronistic in this age of hedge fund braggarts, campaign finance corruption, and ostentatious blingbling. Hell, money's all we talk about today. Yes, we have "diseased values," as Sterling noted 45 years ago. But, a few pages later in the book, he summarizes his dislike for "the businessman," describing "the businessman" as "the vulture of a cannibalistic society." Whom he admits to emulating, admiring that ruthless dedication. But instead of profit, Hayden sought self-respect. It's complex here on the Beach for a kid who ran away to sea at 17 and learned one unassailable truism: "Whatever you haul, you put your back into it." Hayden was appalled at the idea of standing in front of a camera, breathing somebody else's cleverly written line and then picking up a check for it. He was appalled at his own "ratting" before the H.U.A.C. He was appalled at the Nazis and was willing to sign up as a Marine with the O.S.S. as "John Hamilton" and parachute with Tito's guerrillas to change the world.
I think I started to read Wanderer some time in junior high school, and my dad shook his head and called Hayden "crazy" or something dismissive and obscure. I was sure my dad was harping about "those commies" or the fact that Hayden "kidnapped" his children and "endangered" them on some boat or other. My dad called people "crazy" when he didn't agree with their politics or didn't get their jokes. My dad was doomed to cruising a "routine traverse," although to him every league seemed a particular struggle. Good luck with that.
Somehow I picked up a little philosophy that rafted up with that in Wanderer. I recognize "voyaging" from the Gloucester dragger who beat Bluenose and wrote Wanderer. Although I'm here on this preposterous gadgetry, I won't be buried under it. I have made this voyage by relying on a trusty compass, putting my back into it, mostly, and every port is home and every other working hand is a mate.
Thanks, Cap.

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