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The (Less Than) Eternal Sea

Posted on Jun 4, 2013
left-hand (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch

This essay will appear in “The Sea,” the Summer 2013 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

In heavy fog on the night of October 7, 1936, the SS Ohioan ran aground three miles south and west of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and by noon on October 8th, I was among a crowd of spectators come to pay its respects to the no small terror of the sea. I was two years old, hoisted on the shoulders of my father, for whom the view to windward was neither openly nor latently sublime. The stranded vessel,  an 8,046-ton freighter laden with a cargo valued at $450,000, was owned by the family steamship company of which my father one day was to become the president, and he would have been counting costs instead of looking to the consolations of philosophy. No lives had been lost—Coast Guard boats had rescued the captain and the crew—but the first assessments of the damaged hull pegged the hopes of salvage in the vicinity of few and none.

Happily aloft in the vicinity of my father’s hat, and the weather having cleared since the Ohioan missed its compass heading, I was free to form my earliest impression of the sea at a safe and sunny distance, lulled by the sound of waves breaking on the beach, delighting in the drift of gulls in a bright blue sky.

The injured ship never regained consciousness. All attempts at righting it were to no avail, and in the summer of 1937, the removable planking and machinery having been sold for scrap, the Ohioan was declared a total loss, the hull abandoned to the drumming of the surf and the shifting of the sand. The prolonged and unhappy ending of the story my father regarded as a useful lesson, and over the course of the next three years as I was moving up in age from two to five, he often walked me by the hand along the cliff above the wreck to behold the work of its destruction.

To foster my acquaintance with the family’s history and changing fortunes, he spoke of distant ancestors sailing from the port of Boston and the Gulf of Maine in the early-nineteenth-century China trade, of my great-grandfather’s organizing the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company in 1899 not because of the money in the business but because of the romance. My father’s turn of mind was literary, and he was fond of strengthening his narratives with lengthy quotations from William Shakespeare’s plays and extensive recitations from Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.


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Setting Sail

Floor-to-ceiling windows in my parents’ house on Fillmore Street faced the broad expanse of San Francisco Bay, as instructive a sight in sun or fog as any that exists in nature, but it was in the room without a view, in my father’s library among the stories told in books, that I learned to look upon the enchantment of the sea. By the time the Ohioan had been reduced to a fragment of the bow in the summer of 1938, it had become a fading memory, and I was on the lookout for pirates on the Spanish Main, for typhoons in the Sunda Strait.

Almost as soon as I could read I began with Ishmael’s setting foot aboard the Pequod and with the searching in an atlas for the track of the great white whale. My father patiently untied the knots of metaphor in Melville’s prose, discussed the virtues of Queequeg and Tashtego, appended footnotes about ill-fated ancestors lost in their attempts to round Cape Horn, steered my further reading toward Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to the voyages of Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. Meanwhile, at grammar school in grades five, six, and seven, I was moving up from the Greek gods and heroes, among them Odysseus and his wide-wandering on the wine-dark sea, to the various discoveries of America by Viking seafarers, Christopher Columbus, and the Mayflower, in eighth grade to the battles of Actium and Trafalgar.

Conrad says the love of the sea is in fact the love of ships, the thought coming to him in 1905 as an affectionate memory of the New South Dock as it was to be seen in the 1880s, “fifty hulls, at least, molded on lines of beauty and speed,” square-rigged and metal-plated, “moored all in a row, stem to quay, as if assembled there for an exhibition not of a great industry but of a great art,” such a sight as “no man’s eye shall behold again.” So, too, the sight of the United States Navy in San Francisco Bay between 1942 and 1945, its fleets assembled for war in the sublime and treacherous Pacific.

Seventy years have come and gone, but I still can see ships of every then-known tonnage, armament, and design—aircraft carriers, destroyers, oil tankers, submarines, light and heavy cruisers, trawlers, minesweepers, PT boats—lying at anchor or getting underway on the turn of a morning’s tide. I didn’t know how to step a mast, or tell the difference between a sandbar and a reef, but I knew that the Battle of Midway was fought somewhere in the same degree of longitude that had seen the end of Captain Ahab, and I contrived to picture myself as somehow engaged in mankind’s age-old struggle with the mystery and power of the sea.

The conceit was not that far-fetched. At the beginning of the war in 1939, the U.S. government requisitioned the American-Hawaiian’s fleet of 38 cargo vessels, most of them eventually pressed into service with the North Atlantic convoys bringing food and munitions to Britain and to Russia; 11 of them were torpedoed by German U-boats, another three scuttled to make the Mulberry harbors supplying the invasion of France; my father (an executive of a shipping line no longer possessed of ships) had been put in charge of the military port of embarkation forwarding the freight of men and weapons to every theater of operations south and west of the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1944, my grandfather was elected mayor of San Francisco, and when he was called upon to convey the city’s compliments to a victorious admiral returning from the Coral or the Philippine sea, he sometimes took me with him in the captain’s barge to be piped aboard the deck of a flagship dressed with men in uniform.

My teenage hopes of joining the Navy fell afoul of the physical examination administered by the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps program to applicants in the freshman class at Yale College in the autumn of 1952. I proved to be blind to the distinction between the colors red and green, willing to steer for the Guerrière and glory but unable to read the signal flags. To correct the course of my disappointment my father called in a favor from the National Maritime Union in New York that allowed my temporary rating as an ordinary seaman aboard one of the family’s last surviving freighters during the summer between my sophomore and junior years at college.

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