I was a fan of Christopher Hitchens's literary side, not his political or theological pursuits. I love that one his last articles was a reflection on Rudyard Kipling for Slate. I enjoyed many of his literary essays for The Atlantic through the years, and am so happy that they are online to read again.
But it was his hilarious, outrageous, insane 2007 article for Vanity Fair, "Why Women Aren't Funny" that I remember most, for its great writing, real-life observations, and strange vulnerability. The day I first read it in 2007 it completely related to something I had been thinking about, and so this post about my schooner days. What I didn't remember is that Hitchens works Kipling into that piece too, quoting his poem "The Female of the Species."
The world has lost a distinct voice, and one that genuinely spoke for the great British literary tradition. I admire how Hitchens wrote his way through his dying, verily proving Kipling's quip about the power of words.
My Post from 2007: Schooner GirlI was rearranging my library to accommodate new titles that had stacked up, when a large leather-bound old compendium toppled from the high shelf and whacked me on the head. That got my attention, and I sat on the sofa, poured a scotch, and flipped through its stories by Maugham, Wallace, Huxley, and decided to stop at Joseph Conrad’s Youth.
The unnamed narrator introduces us to Marlow (who will later lead us into the heart of darkness), but here he tells the tale of his first command of a ship at age twenty in “Eastern waters,” a ship that sinks after an explosion, and puts him and his crew into lifeboats for 12 days.
I was enjoying the tension in Conrad’s world between the exuberance of the young, “There was a touch of romance in it, something that made me love the old thing-- something that appealed to my youth!” and the burdens of the seasoned, “youth, strength, genius, thoughts, achievements, simple hearts--all die . . . . No matter.” when I was startled by this sentence: “The deck being blown up, it had fall down into the lazarette of course.”
Lazarette. Oh my gosh. My own considerable sailing adventures came flooding back with that unique word in a way the tale hadn’t conjured. It’s often left out of my bio, but I crewed on a schooner for summers during college out of Sag Harbor, New York. The Appledore was the last schooner custom built by the Harvey Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol, Maine. After Herbert Smith sailed it around the world, he sold it to Cornelius Donovan and Ed Orr, two dreamers who were making a business of day sails in Gardiner’s Bay, and overnights from Montauk to Block Island. That’s when I entered their story.
The lazarette is a storage area in the bowels of the stern. In a schooner it is large enough to crawl into. It is an exotic spot—you see the hull, you are in the skeleton of the ship. You can’t get closer to the mythos of sailing than this.
There are many schooner stories to tell—there were some rough days and some funny ones--but one thought is in the fore. I had two main mates—George and Bobby. Schoonermen: a type of alpha male. They need to be highly skilled and brutishly strong. I was the first woman brought into the franchise, to help the passengers feel more comfortable. George and Bobby were skeptical at first, but I pulled my own weight, never complained, and soon my presence on the ship was welcomed. We fell into a rhythm of drinking Mount Gay & OJ together in port at the end of a sail, sitting and watching the sun set and laughing at the day’s events, before they went off and did their real drinking.
George had popped into my head earlier today (before Conrad landed on it) when I read Hitchens’s provocation fancy in Vanity Fair. “For men, it is a tragedy that the two things they prize the most—women and humor—should be so antithetical.” He’s all over the place with this, which I’m sure will result in much blogbabble. “Filth. That's what the customers want, as we occasional stand-up performers all know. Filth, and plenty of it. Filth in lavish, heaping quantities.” But George taught me that, sometimes, men want the civilizing influence of women, apart from as the price they pay for desire. No one swears like a sailor, and a schooner sailor is top dog. I didn’t impinge on George and Bobby’s natural order, but I offered an alternate to some of its excesses. At the end of the summer I was walking away from the Appledore when George caught up with me to say I was the truest lady he had ever met, and he was glad to sail with me.
Men, they will surprise you.