Dividing Line

At age fifty-six, in an era when most men worked the same job their entire careers, my father was asked to leave Family Life Insurance Company. His boss Tad Fessenden liked and admired him, but Dad was finding it harder and harder to put in the necessary time in the field when he was so worried and distracted at home, and numbers were numbers.

I don’t know how much went on between my parents at this juncture, how much negotiating and soul searching—if any, on Mom’s part—but Dad took early retirement in August of 1971. In October, his work buddy Bill Knorr invited him on a fishing trip to Mexico—Bill had just retired from Family Life, too, at age sixty-five. Mom and I saw the men off in San Felipe and headed home to L.A., prepared to be out of contact for the next two weeks.

The expedition consisted of a flotilla of ten boats that would anchorage-hop down the Gulf side of the Baja Peninsula and back again. All the other boats were much bigger than Bill’s 16-foot Lazy, and he and Dad had ongoing problems with the outboard. After the first few days, they decided to drop out at the small settlement of Puertecitos, figuring they could make day trips from there and rejoin the flotilla on its way back north.

Puertecitos had no phone, and was several hours by bus even to the nearest telegraph line. Lazy had no radio; Dad and Bill were now out of contact not only with California but with the other members of the flotilla.

Another American was camped in the campground, a young guy, a drifter and a drinker. As Dad zipped up the tent before he and Bill headed out for a day of fishing, he told their neighbor jokingly, “If we’re not back by sunset, send out the troops.”

They weren’t back by sunset. The food, water, and camping equipment were all ashore. The Sea of Cortez, notorious for sudden, violent storms, lived up to its reputation sometime after midnight. The wind came from nowhere; the seas built to six feet and steep. The storm raged for days.

It took nearly a week before the young American put two and two together—the empty tent, the missing boat, the joking call to action. But he rode the bus to the telegraph station and set the search in motion.

By the time the news reached me and Mom, Dad and Bill had been missing longer than anyone had previously survived in an open boat in those waters in those conditions. The U.S. Coast Guard liaison who explained this to us cautioned against optimism.

For the next three days, the Coast Guard searched the Sea of Cortez from dawn until dusk, along with a number of search-and-rescue volunteers, including Dad and Bill’s former boss Tad in his own twin-engine Aero Commander. Late on the third day, the Coast Guard announced that survival beyond ten days was unlikely. The operation would not resume the following morning.

Mom stayed stone sober through all of this. Her strength and capacity for decision-making were astonishing, her belief in Dad’s survival unwavering. The crisis management, the media coverage, the fielding of panicked phone calls from friends. I, at just-turned-seventeen, was in no way convinced that Dad was alive, and numbly envisioned a world without him. I was frightened by the quiet fierceness of Mom’s conviction, dreading the letdown that would follow her denial, though it wasn’t the kind of denial that permeated the rest of her life. It was a positive force, not a negative. She knew he was alive.

He was alive. The Coast Guard on their final pass of the final day of the search spotted the tiny boat among the masses of whitecaps. For Dad and Bill—clinging each with his thoughts to Lazy’s gunnels—the plane came streaking into their world like a hallucination. It circled until the rescue helicopter arrived, and landed at Hermosillo flying on fumes.

I have a photo of the clean-cut Coast Guard crews with Dad and Bill on the airstrip. Dad and Bill look like vagabonds. Ten-day beards. Every square inch of their bodies and clothing blackened by soot from the saltwater still that Dad had constructed out of boating gear. But they were in surprisingly good health, and insisted on going to a hotel, not a hospital.

Mom and I talked to Dad that night, his deep familiar voice. He told us how the outboard had failed for good on their way in from fishing. How the anchor had caught as the last as the line payed out, then pulled up in the storm. How, on the sixth day, their daily water ration down to a swallow apiece, their tongues swelling in their mouths, he built the still, two empty oil cans as burners, a third as boiler, a plastic water jug as condenser, a hose from the bait tank connecting them. The hours of meticulous work on a surging platform, my papa’s resourcefulness the dividing line between death and life. Mixing gas and oil as fuel. Sparking wires from the battery when the matches ran out. Running the still as much as they could, though they more than once set fire to the boat.

Through the entire ordeal, they failed to catch any fish. “We could even see them,” Dad said. “And they thumbed their noses at us.”

Bill stayed in Mexico to reclaim his car and trailer. The Coast Guard flew Dad up to San Diego the day after the rescue, and Tad insisted on flying Mom and me down in the Aero Commander to bring him home. Mom, who’d showed such strength, who’d had such faith, who hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol in days, started drinking in the morning before we went to meet Tad and was incoherently drunk by the time we landed in San Diego.

I told myself her behavior was pretty predictable, that her strength in the crisis was the important thing. But I’ll never forget Dad’s face as he emerged from the debriefing room at the Coast Guard base in San Diego. He looked so handsome and strong, wearing new jeans and a Coast Guard t-shirt, someone I knew intimately and didn’t know at all. He’d left on the beard, which was streaked with gray, and he was thin, but his looks went deeper than the physical, this man who’d outsmarted death. He searched for us as he came through the door with an expression of expectation and love, then saw us: his former boss, whom he hugely respected; his seventeen-year-old daughter; and his wife, so drunk she could barely stand. I watched as the joy on his face transformed to defeat.

It wasn’t until years later that I examined the nature of Mom’s conviction of Dad’s survival. By nature I’m a realist, but I don’t believe it was simply blind faith, or the inability to face a shattered future. I believe it was more than that, some inexplicable conduit to the man who loved her, a psychic capability she accepted with the same lack of self-examination that typified the rest of her life. Hundreds of miles apart, the bond intact between them, then all that intuitive energy dissolving again to human frailty as she drank herself into a stupor before flying down to meet him. Heroism and frailty—both existed, in both of them.