The stranger on the shore
I hit the water with a smack. A moment of fear struck me as I realized the surge was sucking me towards the ship. I swam furiously away, certain that at any moment the gigantic propellers would slice me to ribbons.
The stranger on the shore
By Dennis Cutshaw
I didn’t learn a thing at Stanford. Not a damn thing. Even though I had all the advantages. My Dad, a small-town family physician went to Stanford. That made me a…”Legacy” was what they called it. I can barely write a complete sentence.
When I got to the Farm I joined a fraternity. And I went out for the football team. I never actually played in a game but I was out there, on the practice field, three and a half years, sacrificing my body. The fact I never played still sticks in my craw, some 40-odd years later. Did I mention that? That I never played? Well, I probably will again, for the next four thousand years.
It took me six years to get out of Stanford. But I did it. You can spend only so much time in the Cellar, drinking coffee, watching the girls, and listening to Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” on the jukebox. I was obsessed with the song—that haunting, lonely clarinet. I played it over and over.
When Stanford finally released me, sheepskin in hand, I signed on as a “wiper” on a Norwegian freighter, the “ELLEN BAKKE,” headed for the Far East. Those Western Civ courses weren’t much help when I was down on my hands and knees sopping up hot oil from the engine room steel decks. It was 90 degrees down there, and the noise was like a freight train roaring by. But after hours, when we’d eaten our hearty ship’s fare—fresh-baked bread by the Filipino cooks, thick beef stew and potatoes, a slab of apple pie and a mug of coffee—I’d wander up to the forward deck, feel the warm sweep of tropical air wash over me as we beat down into the southern latitudes, and gaze with wonder at the panorama of black thunderheads massed on the horizon, while overhead the stars began to twinkle on like Japanese lanterns.
“What are you running away from?” It was Ode Reese, a Norwegian seaman, who joined me at the rail.
“Running away from? What do you mean?” Why did I feel a twinge of fear in my heart?
Ode sucked on his pipe, his short-brim wool cap perched on his head. He studied me. Ode wanted to be a writer. Was a writer. He had showed me some of his stuff. It was good. When I first boarded the ship he had spotted my satchel of books—Steinbeck, O’Hara, Maugham, Graham Greene—books I never had time to read at Stanford, and asked to borrow a few.
“Lots of seamen sign on to escape problems at home. How about you?”
I remembered a 1903 poem by Oliver Makin I had seen on the back of a John Stewart album:
The earth is a depot / where wingless angels pass the time / waiting for the long ride home.
Seeing a small child sitting alone in a corner / I said, “You must be anxious to go home.”
“I am home,” he smiled. “I just come here to / play the games.”
I wanted to be that small boy again. But I wasn’t there yet—for one thing there was this re-occuring nightmare: I was late for a Stanford final. I couldn’t find the room. When I finally got there I suddenly remembered I had forgotten to read any of the books, or go to any of the classes. I would wake up in a nervous sweat…I never got a Big Game date, either. But why open that can of worms…?
None of this did I mention to Ode. Especially did I not mention my gridiron flameout; the dislocated finger in spring football practice my junior year when that fullback dragged me ten yards, my left hand locked in a death grip on his pants, twisting my fingers into pretzels, the straw that broke the camel’s back—the day I quit the Stanford football team. Did I mention that? It was only forty-three years ago. But I mentioned none of this to the perceptive Norwegian standing before me. With him I feigned bluster: “I’m not running away from, anything, I’m running to something—adventure!” He looked at me skeptically. Two days later I made a believer out of him.
It happened on a South Pacific night of shattering beauty. The sun was just disappearing. I stood at the rail and watched silvery flying fish dart out from the bowspray and skim lightly over the waves. Long, even swells rolled in from the south and the ship rose and fell in a peaceful rhythm. Clouds, silhouetted by the dying rays of the sun, burned with violent orange-red hues. I stood by the rail a long time. The world took on a dream-like quality. The darkening warm colors, the sea-mist smell of the air, the hypnotic roll of the deck—all these things triggered my imagination, blinded me with visions of star-washed tropical beaches, shimmering Edens of the mind.
What made me do it? Was it the ivory-bright moon scudding clear of a ragged cover of clouds? Was it just chance, the moonlight reflecting on a far-off sliver of white? I listened and heard a faint distant rumble of surf. An island! It could not have been more than a mile or two away. It was done in an instant: I had jumped from the “ELLEN.”
I hit the water with a smack. A moment of fear struck me as I realized the surge was sucking me towards the ship, I swam furiously away, certain that at any moment the gigantic propellers would slice me to ribbons. As quickly as the danger appeared it was over. The ship moved swiftly away and was gone. Strangely, I was not afraid as I lay back in the water and rested. Rather, I would have let out a whoop of joy if I’d had any breath left, such was my feeling of exhilaration. Rhythmic swells rocked me gently. The sea was calm and quiet with no wind. The stars strung out over me, very close. I was surprised to feel no great fear, there was a tenseness coursing through me, however, a kind of energy which made me keenly aware of sensations; the circling movements of my arms and legs in the water, the salt-brine taste of the sea water. The faint rumble of surf which I heard from the deck now sounded much louder.
I turned and began swimming for that sound, falling into an easy crawl, and frequent resting. Within an hour or so I began approaching the outer reef of the island. I stopped to get my bearings. Before me the sea shook and thundered as soaring, dark combers pounded into the reef. The water was a bubbling, milky froth where it hit the coral shelf. I swam parallel to the reef, searching for an opening. A quarter of a mile away there was a break, a spot where the sea ran free across a submerged table of coral; there were no breakers, just a ragged stretch of eddies and boiling currents where the undersea shelf approached the surface. I moved cautiously onto it, feeling for the first time in perhaps two hours something solid beneath my feet. I made my way across the shelf, swam the still inner lagoon and crawled onto the beach where I slept, quite soundly, the remainder of the night.
Twenty-nine days later, considerably thinner and several shades tanner, I stepped from my palm-frond hut to survey the beach. I guess I did learn a thing or two at Stanford: My Air Force R.O.T.C. commander, besides instructing us in the correct procedures for saluting, happened to give a lecture one day on how Navy fliers, shot down on South Pacific islands in World War II were able to survive scavenging food and building shelters. I discovered a small spring bubbling up in the rocks behind the beach and around it a kind of white, pulpy root which proved edible. There was also an abundance of bird’s eggs and crabs in the shallow inner lagoon, and when I fashioned a spear from the fallen trunk of a palm tree using a razor-sharp chunk of brain coral, fish became a part of my menu.
Within a short time after my arrival I had explored practically every square foot of the island. It was quite small. The first day, I crossed it and climbed to the highest point. Leaving the beach I walked easily up a slanted thicket of bushes to higher ground. The island rose several hundred feet to a flat, grassy plain. The plain covered a good four-fifths of the island. It could be crossed in thirty minutes. I walked to the highest point on the island and stood there. A wind ran through the brown grass, flattening it. There was nothing on the sea; no islands, no ships. I stood there for a long time and listened to the wind….
I spent the mornings fishing in the lagoon and gathering food. Afternoons I would often lie on the grassy hill, watching the clouds drift by. At sunset I liked to sit by the lagoon, when the dying rays of the sun played over the water, and the spectrum of colors shifted into deepening blue-black tints.
The days became a blur, turning into weeks, months, and then years…I did not become lonely, at least the way I would get lonely back in “civilization.” Speech dropped away. I found that silence was good for me. And listening became very important. I learned to see in ways I had never experienced before. I looked at things with intense one-pointed concentration. The color red fascinated me. I spent hours watching it spread across the sky in crimson streaks. Fish, glittering like scarlet flecks of blood in the lagoon. I would become so engrossed in this that sometimes I felt myself becoming what I was observing. I could not tell whether I was the fish or the man observing the fish.
I forgot everything; hopes, dreams; I forgot to think about the past or future. I just lived, feeling younger every day. I knew when I was going to die. It was shown to me in a dream. It would be high on the grassy plain where I loved to sit and listen to the wind riffle through the long brown grass.
When the time came, I walked one last time to the high plain and lay down in the field. A final memory bubbled up. It was some words from a book I’d read a long, long time ago in a comparative religions course I’d taken at Stanford:
My soul is the image I have of myself as I most perfectly wish myself to be: an old man, very lean, very clear-eyed with an expression of bemused sadness that recognizes life as a tragedy yet finds it amusing and good. My soul is free, homeless, owns nothing and is owned by nobody. All he carries with him is a bedroll, a flute, a notebook and a pen. Though extremely kind, my soul is prepared to defend himself. He is a jack-of-all trades, a musician and a storyteller. When he has traveled many miles he will lie down alone in a high valley and go to sleep.
—Alan Dienstag from TALES OF A DALAI LAMA
I laid down in the soft grass and closed my eyes. At once I sense a shimmering presence next to me, a benevolent being, crafted from night winds and stardust and wisdom unimaginable, who has been with me since the beginning of time, and lifts me high into the sky on silent wings. Am I going home? We fly across the ocean at incredible speed. Land approaches. The shore. We cross over a range of wooded mountains and then descend down, down into a huge oval filled with thousands of people: Stanford Stadium! I am there once again!
It is late in the fourth quarter. Stanford trails USC by four points. Fourteen seconds remain on the clock. I am on the field, a wide receiver, split left. The ball is hiked. I sprint for the end zone. The quarterback unloads a high arcing pass deep into the corner of the end zone. I leap up, an SC corner back hanging all over me. The football smacks into my hands and the referee signals TOUCHDOWN. The crowd erupts. My teammates leap onto me, screaming, lifting me high into the air. As they lower me back down, and my feet touch the ground, suddenly everything disappears. The players, the crowd, even the stadium is gone. I am standing alone in a vast, echoing silence. There is a gentle breath of wind and my ethereal companion materializes at my side.
“Are you ready to go?” he says.
“Go where? To heaven?”
The angel smiles, “Heaven and Stanford are the same…if one has the eyes to see—but first I thought we might stop by the Cellar for a cup of coffee, and one last playing of “Stranger on the Shore.”
“Yes!” I say, “and tell you what—let’ s both get Big Game dates!”
Hail, Stanford, hail!
Editor’s note: This document was discovered on a small uninhabited island 487 miles southwest of Pitcairn Island and forwarded to Stanford. Scientific analyses performed by archaeologist and director of Antiquities, Dr. Warren G. Wonka, determined the “paper” to be made of crushed palm fronds, while the “ink” was octopus ink. The red-colored “STANFORD” at the end of the manuscript was written in human blood.§
Dennis Cutshaw is a freelance writer who lives in Morro Bay.