Thursday, April 12, 2012

From the bookshelf: Racing Through Paradise -- Wm. F. Buckley, Jr.

As we noted at the time of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s passing some years back, Buckley is an MH hero. One of the great things for someone of a later generation who loved Buckley is that there is virtually no end to reading him, so prolific was his output during his lifetime. Every winter, during the months of February and March, Buckley repaired with much of his well-heeled clan to a former monastery in Switzerland, where Buckley used the peace and quiet that was possible in that unwired age to write or compile a book while National Review was left to fend for itself sans editor.

Some lucky underling at National Review would be tapped to join him as his literary factotum for the season (Buckley seemingly never stopped working, even on vacation, putting in 8-10 hour workdays writing and editing before allowing himself an hour's skiing prior to evening relaxation with family and guests,) and his publishers would be presented with a manuscript upon his return to New York -- a spy novel, a collection of his writings that had accumulated over the previous few years, an autobiographical book (i.e. those wonderful exercises in recounting a week in his life -- Cruising Speed and Overdrive,) or one of his sailing travelogues.

Having grown up in a part of the Wild West where a stock dugout is thought to be large body of water, MH’s eyes weren’t drawn to the sailing books until finding himself, due to circumstances beyond his control, in the middle of the Atlantic on islands that Buckley featured in Airborne, the first of the series (all now sadly out of print.)
Airborne was on prominent display in the local library, and it was quickly devoured. That was some time ago, but in the spirit of the modern age, where no used book that flits across one's fancy is more than a click away, we settled down recently with Racing Through Paradise, the third in the series, which had until now gone unread. Indulging in a book like this is like going down to one’s wine cellar and selecting a bottle that one has been saving for a special occasion -- the mood is right, and it is time to spend time with an old friend and reminisce.

Of Buckley’s four trans-oceanic passages, this was the only one to take place in the Pacific. His intrepid companions (most prominently featuring his son, the novelist Christopher Buckley) had by this point gone on one or both of Buckley’s previous trans-Atlantic sailings, and the Pacific was to give a change of pace, fresh scenery, and new challenges.

The first third of the book is a delightful recounting of more minor sailing excursions that Buckley and family had taken since the writing of the last sailing book, Atlantic High. A Christmas cruise in the Caribbean, flying to the Azores to sail amongst those beautiful islands (featured in the first books) with family members who weren’t up to the full challenge (or insanity) of crossing most of the Atlantic to reach them, excursions along the coasts of New England and the Maritime Provinces...

The rest of the book is devoted to the Pacific crossing itself -- going from Hawaii to New Guinea in a month.  There was a timetable to be kept, since one of the crew was President Reagan’s ambassador to France and needed to be back for diplomatic functions. This suited the restless Buckley just fine, who always seemed to be happier when on the move (perhaps a sea-captain's trait as well -- cf. Jack Aubrey.)

As is well-known, the Atlantic has far rougher and colder seas than the Pacific (hence the latter's name,) so much of the copious pain of this particular journey came from different things than encountered on the previous voyages, mostly the extreme heat and humidity of the tropics. The perils came in part from the vast Pacific’s far emptier reaches and the lack of electronic navigational aids in much of that expanse at the time.

In an era of GPS so precise that it is used to help orthopedic surgeons determine proper placement of metal hardware into bones in an operating room, and where one’s children give you that blank "haven't you heard of MapQuest" look when you offer to write down directions, it is easy to forget just how much depended, not that long ago, on an ability to navigate by old-fashioned methods.

Buckley being Buckley, with his fascination with technology (although rarely with a mastery of it,) one of this book’s interesting historical features is that he did have with him an early GPS prototype. Unfortunately, the web of GPS satellites that currently encases the earth in interlocking orbits did not yet exist, and access to the satellites that did exist over the Pacific was available only a couple of times a day.  Finding them, furthermore, required a precise identification of stars that itself presented a challenge. Here too, Buckley strikes again, with a computer program (home-brewed by friend and critic Hugh Kenner) for identifying said stars. In an exercise that is familiar with anyone who is using an early iteration of any technology that promises to make life oh, so convenient, Buckley finds that it takes him far more effort to learn where he is using high technology than if he were to depend on the celestial navigation techniques that he so ably described in an oft-reprinted chapter of Airborne. (A sort of “Navigation for Dummies” before that black-and-yellow series of how-to books existed.)

As with his other sailing books, though, the real story is one of relationships. One of the requirements that Buckley made of his sailing companions (other than the 3 professional crew members that were along for safety and comfort) was that each keep a journal during the passage, and Buckley draws extensively from these in the course of the book. Nice way to fill pages for an author and for the most part a boon for the reader as well, who would otherwise be restricted to Buckley’s accounts and his surmises of what the others were thinking. The device works best when there is an event (usually either humorous or dangerous) that can be usefully viewed from a variety of vantages simultaneously -- nautical versions of As I Lay Dying, so to speak.

It has weak points, though, especially where son Christopher’s journal is so manifestly more interesting than anything his “Pup” has to say that the narrative is turned over to him for too long, causing a loss of the continuity of seeing the journey through WFB’s eyes, which is what the reader primarily came for in the first place.

There are moments where one’s romantic bone is tickled -- cocktail hour at sunset every night begun by listening to a segment of David Niven’s recording of excerpts from his autobiography, followed by dinner prepared by a skilled on-board chef, capped with drinks and cigars, all leavened with endless conversation. On the other hand, one could more comfortably do the same in the comfort of a villa on dry land, free of pitching seas, emetic squalls, and stultifying heat and humidity -- and with comfortable rooms, private baths, fresh-water showers, and washing machines.

What in the end captivates both the participants and the reader, though, is the quest, the journey. Early in the volume we see, in the form of the Caribbean jaunts, that life on-board a yacht can (surprise!) be languorous, comfortable, and sedate. Buckley and companions could have done that for a month, in bucolic (can one use that in describing time spent on water?) comfort. But, what would be the challenge in that?  No, as Buckley pointed out early in the narrative, when the trip was being planned, what he wanted was an oceanic passage, not a pleasure cruise in the southern islands.  Indeed, by the end, participants and reader alike are excited at the conquest and yet loathe to see it end.  As an aside, one remembers old-timers talking of steamship crossings of the Atlantic in that manner, one has experienced it on long train journeys, but does one ever hear it about long airline flights?

Most are unlikely ever to cross an ocean in a yacht, but reading books like this reminds one of the quests that await friends wherever they are. Living in Montana, we are closer to such things than most. One remembers a golden day last summer, hiking with friends in the Beartooths. We had a quest -- to reach certain alpine lakes where cutthroats awaited us, aching to hit our flies and end up on our grill.

One thinks of long drives across Montana (do the destinations ever really matter as much as getting there?) with family, the only sounds in the vehicular monstrosity (not quite a land yacht -- that would be a motor-home) being effervescent conversation that skips and leaps across time and space...  as the endless vistas of rivers and mountains glide by outside our windows.

And those passages, like Buckley’s crossings, also sadly come to an end, with each dispersing upon disembarkation to lives led increasingly a little further apart from the others. We know, but try not to think about it, that someday there will be a last journey together, and tears.  But then the joy of remembering, of which books like this remind us that there need never really be an end.

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