A book I shouldn't write about, and death, courage and love

On Books

April 11, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

People who do reviews here are told: "Writers should not review any book written by a close friend, a close professional associate, or by anyone with whom they have or have had quarrels or bad blood." I treasure the credibility of these pages.

Today, I write about a book I should not be trusted to judge with stainless objectivity. It is by a man who has been a treasured friend for some 30 years. It is about him, and especially about a woman who was the center of his life for 13 years.

She has been dead almost seven years now. I knew her simply as a warm and occasional friend, but I loved her wonderfully. She had a greater energy of joy than anyone else I can remember. Irrepressibly, she insisted on giving every occasion, every moment, its fullest measure. I don't think I have ever heard more nourishing words than her "Go for it!" -- a trademark she could apply equally to the lightest delights and to matters of the profoundest importance.

The book is "Dark Wind: A Survivor's Tale of Love and Loss" by Gordon Chaplin (Atlantic Monthly Press, 192 pages, $23). Despite friendship, I believe I can be fair in saying the book is extraordinarily moving, courageous and powerful.

Chaplin is an accomplished writer, newspaper-toughened and war-hardened, diligent and deliberate. He learned some of his craft at The Sun, a generation ago, when I first knew him, and when I was an editor in Philadelphia, where his parents lived.

His father, Charlie, was a sailor and a gentleman-adventurer. He planted in his son the sense of a destiny to sail around the world. About a dozen years ago, Gordon Chaplin and Susan Atkinson, also a writer, decided to do that circumnavigation. They bought a sturdy, sea-tested motor-sailer. They started by crossing the Gulf of Mexico, westward -- a trip recounted in his book "Fever Coast Log."

In this sequel, they sail on, into more difficult and dangerous waters. They are two people, both well out of bad marriages, each with two daughters of college age or a bit beyond, undertaking with mutual and equal enthusiasm an expedition of arguably irresponsible risks. They are in love, with each other and with life and with adventure.

Both had deep insecurities, about themselves and about each other -- their love, judgment, prudence. Chaplin is characteristically withdrawn, private. At the beginning of the voyage, they had lived together for almost a decade and had never married, though she would have liked to. Susan is a survivor, a very conscientious one. She is dauntless, but only at the price of swallowing fears, of wrestling with her own vulnerability.

Chaplin's narrative confronts his own fears with courage and clarity -- about the trip, about their closeness, about his own capacity for giving of himself. This is a book about love, its elusiveness, its power, its necessity. There was static between them. They worked at it, dealt with it.

There were delays, awaiting appropriate seasonal winds, and explorations on land, trips back to their farm in upstate New York. They finally got through the Panama Canal and north to Costa Rica. Two years had passed. They were ready for the longest single out-of-sight-of-land sailing leg in the world -- America toHawaii.

They did that well, learning all the way. They refit the boat and, after a break, set sail for Singapore.

In November 1992, they moored in a lagoon at Wotho Island, a part of an atoll in the northwest Marshall Islands. A friendly paradise, it had a population of 56. A tropical depression, improbable for the season and location, was turning into Typhoon Gay, still far away and not headed directly for them. They decided to ride out the storm, rather than risk losing the boat.

The storm turned into a horror story. Weather forecasts underrated its rage, miscalculated its course. The boat was literally wrenched apart by the wind and sea. They were thrown into the water, roped together, clinging fast, only insecurely supported by inflatable life jackets, which both then lost.

They were torn apart by the wind and water. They lost hold of each other.

He heard his own voice. "You blew it, the voice said, and I felt myself crying, but it didn't seem to matter very much. She's gone. I would soon be gone myself. Maybe I already was gone. Is this what drowning feels like?"

Ultimately, not sure if he were dead or alive, he felt sand beneath his feet and crawled to land. He searched exhaustively for Susan over the small deserted bit of the atoll he was cast onto. No trace.

Swimming and walking along the atoll's islands and gaps, Chaplin managed, two days later, to get to Wotho and its radio. He flew to Boston, where Susan's family lived. Two dozen relatives had to be faced. The most daunting, Susan's mother, sat him down alone in her apartment, poured three cups of tea, and talked, uncritically, lovingly. The third cup went untouched.

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