Wednesday, February 09, 2005


A day later the survivor came to and confirmed that Nathan had indeed been aboard the Viking when she went down. And so that was that.

The survivor was not able to fill in too many details about the accident, all he knew was that he was asleep down below when he was wakened by a loud ripping screeching metal scraping metal noise, and then water was gushing into the cabin. He remembered coming vividly awake and feeling the shock of being slapped by the harshest cold and climbing the stairs to get to the bridge because water was already pouring over his shoulders in the cabin. When he was at the middle of the stairs, the water had already risen to his waist. And it was so cold, like liquid ice, cutting on the skin like knives, so cold it was shocking and debilitating. And water was pouring down the stairs from the opening in the bridge floor shoving him back down the stairs. The boat was going down that fast. He was reaching up trying to pull himself up the stairs but the frigid water was cascading and wouldn't let up. Then he felt a hand on his neck grabbing the collar of his shirt and someone trying to pull him up. This helped him to get up into the bridge - but by the time he got up water was at that level. The crewman who helped him up was already outside in the water. The survivor never saw who had helped him. On the bridge the water was quickly rising up to his waist, he waded out the rear door, and then he was in the ocean and the boat was just gone - swallowed by the sea, as if in a kind of mad vortex, taking it all even the smallest dent. He felt himself getting sucked down in the draft - but then a wave crashed over him and when his head rose and broke the surface he saw the cargo container near him, bobbing like a huge cork. He swam over and grabbed a chain that was hanging and banging over the side; grabbing it he pulled himself up and climbed onto the side of the container and held on. Luckily it was a long chain, he had several feet of slack to work with. He hung onto the steel side, his feet - shod only in socks - stood in the water atop the sharp edge of a corner frame member between indentations in the corrugated side panels. The steel was harshly cold sapped any remaining warmth from his body – clothed only in long underwear. He began shivering uncontrollably, shaking all over severely. All he could see were gray waves and other huge containers bobbing in the water nearby, his body was feeling weak, holding the chain and standing on the rail was so tiring. Then he started feeling warm and thought how he should just let go and fall back in the water – that warmth and peace and rest was in the water. But he fought off all that. He knew and was still able to think that when feeling warm and ready to cash in, he knew that hypothermia was setting in. Death was at the door. He wrapped the chain around his chest under his arms so, even if his body gave out, he would hang on the side of the container. If he was going to die he would die on the side of the container, that is what he kept thinking – that he must not die in the water. This probably saved his life for it was a long time before the boats came, almost a half hour. He was lucky again in that it was only when the boats showed up that other containers bobbing in the water started colliding with his container on the side he was on. When the first one hit it crushed him real good, he could feel his leg and ribs getting pined and being crimped and smashed. Fortunately his almost frozen and all but dead body helped to dull the pain – and likely mitigated any internal injury. After the second collision with the container he thought he felt more of his bones breaking and moving within his skin, and he felt very weak, he just let himself hang hoping the chain would hold him. There was nothing he could do, he really wasn't in much pain or discomfort It was in God's hands, and the tensile strength of the chain.

For the Northern to rescue him, one of the crew had to strap a line around himself, jump into the water, swim over, pull the survivor off the side of the container, free him from the chain, and tie a line to him. Then the rest of the crew on the Northern pulled the two into the boat. All done while the sea heaved and with the specter of the other containers bobbing nearby. Truly a heroic effort. And it was a story that would never be chronicled in any newspaper. It would just be another story, among many, that would be told among the fisherman.

I liked thinking that it was Nathan, as the boat was going down, who had the coolness of mind to take the time to pull his fellow crewman up from the stairwell. And - or, was the survivor who made his way atop the cargo container and directed the rescuers to hold off on him, because he was okay, to save the crewman, clinging for his life on the side of a container. It would be like Nate to do those things, I imagined. But I knew there was no way to know, and I knew also what was important was that someone had actually done those things. That was important, be it Nate or not. Still when I told Mrs. Browning the story I embellished it by placing Nate in those roles. I hoped it helped her take the loss. But I couldn't tell, she took it all rather sullenly. It was a strange thing for me this young death, and one so unexpected really, so unexpected. And it was ever more strange these days because, as Nathan had once said - no one dies anymore. And he was gone, just like that. So fast. Here today, gone tomorrow. And with it all, the attendant if only's. If only we had not gone on this foolhardy venture, if only Nate had not gotten another boat job, if only Kennedy had not gone to Dallas, or Lincoln to Ford's theater, or Ceaser to the Senate on the Ides of March. If only, if only. Yet, one had to live, that was all there was to it. Come what may.

I suppose I could concoct elaborations about the complex and subtle emotions and nuances of thought that would attend me with Nate's loss. But frankly, I have to lean more to the simple view, perhaps I was in step with my times, a shallow soul from the latter half of the twentieth century, what I felt was at first simply disbelief, then a slow sinking in. It was not like my losing Jane. There was a dull vacancy, but not the anguish. That was my year for chalking up the losses of those who were very dear. What was I to say or do? Just live with it, as all must live with whatever, with life and its regularities and vicissitudes, and with death and its loss, unknowns, and its apparent nothing. Legions before have done it, legions to come will continue to do so. I had so admired much in Nate, and he had done me much good; had taken me really, when all was considered, from a hesitant kid on a Pop Warner football team to a Bering Sea crab fisherman - where I watched true gambler's rolling the dice, endured unrelenting elements, my body's fatigue, and my whining spirit - too inundated with ease, comfort, and anxious conformity. Indeed he had been a pathfinder, and a fine one. A brief candle. Too brief. And I would say as much when I eulogized him at a funeral service that was put on for him.

My father would be the one that would tell Mrs. Browning. I had telephoned him to fill him in on the apparent bad situation once I got to Port Moller, then he apprised Mrs. Browning. Then after I found out the dire news, and was sure of it, I phoned him back. I also phoned the SAE house and told Brad. It took me a couple of days flying to work my way home from Port Moller. Once home I visited Mrs. Browning myself and told her and Nate's brothers what I knew. By the time I had gotten home word had spread around town about Nate. There was even an article about him in the Progress Bulletin. It was decided to have a service at the Pomona College Community Church, there near our houses on the College grounds. It is a non-denominational church within a long high building, with the walls slightly cambering outward from the bottom to a flat roof. Along the sides are long narrow stained glass windows, placed at even intervals, rising with the camber. Inside the ceiling is high, the sun shines in through the narrow windows, the floor is covered with wood pews all facing a simple alter and a large cross placed over the front wall. For the service the pews were covered with people, it was quite a turnout. Many of our fellow students from high school came, many of his fraternity brothers, and a few college teammates, and many friends from town. Brad came home, and with him came also to attend, the SAE's Karl and Ben. Maryline's parent's I noted did not attend. I wasn't surprised by the size of the crowd. Of course, Nate was not there, in body anyway, as the body went down to the sea. But then, while the body was lost, Nate himself, that I wasn't so sure. And of course I would never be. I hoped, still do, that somewhere somehow he could have seen it – it was quite a turnout - and some fine things were said. Brad and I, his younger brother, and a couple of others that knew him well were asked to give eulogies. In mine I said: "We've heard today a few amusing and many antidotes that describe Nate, but I think his most important attribute, as the turnout here indicates, Nate was someone who, given all and all, was liked by almost everyone that got to know him. I think it had to do with how he truly was – he was demanding, he was a leader, but at the same time he brought people together, he was not a divider, he sought to include. He wasn't into status - though he had all that. He was into what he was into, and with it he always brought to it leadership and a sense of fellowship." I told a little about how he was in our games growing up, and about how he led us up north and kept us going. I finished by saying: "As with all young deaths the tragedy, the sadness here, I guess, is that it reeks of unfulfilled legacy – especially so, I think, with Nate - so the question I suppose now becomes – what would Nate have become? Well I can tell you this – no matter the endeavor - he would have become, I know, just what he had always been – the leader, the pathfinder, he showed us the way, he believed in something larger and better for him – and wanted to bring us all along - and he took us there. Just like he used to say in our games - we can win this thing, you go here, you go there, I'll get you the ball; and just like he did when he took us up North – I remember at one point he said something to the effect - it's in my mind and we can do this thing, we can go there - and that, I think, typifies what he would have brought to whatever - that was Nate."

After the ceremony I was walking from the church, with my father and mother, to Nate's mother's house for a small gathering, it struck me what a bright warm day it was, though we were in the midst of fall. My father said to me as we walked, the sun slanting down through the leaves and boughs of the fine large trees, he said, "You boys did a fine job today; Nate was a fine young man. A great friend."

I nodded, "Yeah he was." I said. Then I said something I knew my father would appreciate, "At least he died with his harness on huh?"

"My father smiled and I think even chuckled ever faintly. Then not to be outdone said, "Yes he did; and I wonder where he is, and who he is."

Then it was my turn to smile, in full appreciation of having had such a friend and such a father.

A couple of months after I returned home to Claremont, Klug showed up on my doorstep. We went to Stan's for a couple beers. He had heard about Nate from the Seattle SAE's. We compared notes on the fishing. "Not too bad really," he said, "except for no sleep man."

"Yeah - great for the insomniac."

"You get seasick?"

"Yeah, got it a couple times. But not like Nate."

"Yeah, strange how Nate got so sick."

"The only thing I got was a broken finger - but it was so cold it never bothered me," I said, and showed him my finger, healed, but slightly bent outward - not having been set properly.

He looked at it and gave a nod, apparently not too impressed, then said, "All I got was this." He then pulled up his sleeve and revealed a long thin scar - a faint line from his wrist to his elbow. "Sliced it open, scraped it on the edge of a pot. Blood kinda made a mess."

"But no big deal - like my finger."

"That's right man, no big deal. We got lucky. I got real lucky." And indeed he had. He had earned over thirty five thousand. And he had a job in the spring for halibut season if he wanted it. But he was leaning against it. Surprisingly, he was considering getting a real job like everybody else and purchasing a house with the money he had made.

"I thought you were going to Hawaii to surf the big North Shore waves?"

He shook his head, "Naw - I've surfed enough.” Then his face brightened as a thought came to him and he said, “Hey man – if you want, if I don’t go take the job for halibut season, since you got experience maybe I can hook ya?”

“Another boat job?”

“Yeah man, make some good dough.”

I shook my head, “Naw.”

He gave an understanding nod.

We sat quiet and drank from our beers a moment, then I said, “Nate would have gone.”

He smiled agreeing, and of Nate he said, "He was a lordly rhino. He knew we could do it. He was right."

"That he was." I said; then speculated talking mainly to myself, "I guess if he hadn't been mearly middlin' rich, he might have been a great man."

To that Klug just gave me an odd look and made no comment.

A few days after I saw Klug I left Claremont for New York City to live and forge a career. I decided law school was definitely out – just didn’t fire up the smithy of my soul. My intentions were to get a job with a newspaper. I planned on starting my job hunt with the New York Times then grope my way from there. The evening before I left I took a stroll around town. Just a walk, nostalgic perhaps. I walked past Nathan's house, it looked strangely dark and quiet. The old eucalyptus still stood big and majestic. Across was the science hall, black and somber. The atom sign glistened gold in the setting sun. I walked down to the corner to Ivy. I thought about going in the direction past Jane's house, but then thought better of it. I walked the other direction instead. Soon I came to the cemetery yard. I walked slowly past the black rod iron fence separating me from the gray stones, the sun cast long shadows off the stones over the grass. Then coming into view, as I walked, I saw the small white cross toward the rear of the yard. I stopped and looked over at it, at what was left of the passion and struggle it stood guard over. And stood for eternity. I remembered what Nate had once said about it not being much compared to eternity. But the cross, though it was small, was nicely bright and white compared to the gray blocks marking death all around. It stood out showing forth rather. And it occurred to me how appropriate it would have been to have placed another like cross next to that one, carved with Nate's name and the years of his life. That it would truly say something fine rather for those that would do the placing and that are doing the remembering; I thought how it would say, as does the cross itself, something worthy, hopeful, and good. Of course I realized, though a pretty thought, it would never happen. Some things were just too worthy, hopeful and good to ask for; and I had already received more than my share.

Then I walked on past the yard and up the street toward Yale. And I thought how it would have been good, before embarking east, to spend my last evening with Nate at Stan's grousing over the usual talk of the town. Yes, that would have been alright. But then I knew - knew full well - those days were gone.

June, 2004
Pomona, Ca.


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