Recently my anxieties have come to take a toll not just on my mind but on my organs, and no part of my body has felt this quite as intensely as my lower intestine. If my lower intestine is listening now, I’d like to apologize: in two short years of graduate school I have turned you into a bruised, distended, farty version of your former self, and there may well be four to six more years of the same ahead. By the time I have a PhD I may just be walking around with a colostomy bag, a giant box of Raisin Bran cradled in both my arms—but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s talk about the night before the night before the night before last, when, because of a combination of the stress of ending a term, finishing final papers, and moving, compounded by my (as usual) terrible diet, I found myself on the couch at three in the morning, drinking olive oil by the spoonful and binge-reading Wikipedia.
My Wikipedia habit might just be as destructive as my eating habits. Inevitably, during the hours when I am awake as the rest of the house slumbers resolutely, and as the schizophrenic homeless ladies pace shoutily up and down the sidewalk, carts accompanying shrieks that jump from anger to exultation to fear with a deftness that would not seem out of place in the Met, I open my computer and look up the most horrifying things I can find. Unusual deaths, mass murders, serial killers, inventors killed by their own inventions, and, the eternal favorite, urban legends. So it was a stroke of luck that on this particular night I started to read about people in the category of “Castaways,” a classification that has the power to be as uplifting as it is horrifying (or, as like to call in a term I coined at this very moment, “hurpifying”).
There, I read about Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, a 16th Century French noblewoman marooned on the (aptly named) Île des Démons off the coast of Québec as punishment for taking a lover, and about Leendert Hasenbosch, the 18th Century Dutch East India Company employee left behind on Ascension Island as punishment for sodomy. (Marguerite, who was marooned along with her lover and her maidservant, Damienne, gave birth on the island, saw the death of her baby and her fellow castaways, survived by hunting wild animals, and was eventually found by Basque fishermen and returned to France, where she lived out the rest of her life as a schoolmistress. Hasenbosch was not so lucky.)
And then—far less saddening and far more horrifying—there are the stories of people who were not fortunate enough to be abandoned and possibly die on a desert island, but who had to live—in the immortal words of Charlie Kelly—off the fat of the sea. I read about Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, the British couple who survived on a rubber raft for 117 days after their yacht, the Auralyn, sank en route to the Galapagos Islands. After they ran out of food they caught turtles, seabirds and fish with safety pins fashioned into hooks, or with their bare hands, and collected rainwater to drink. They had drifted 1,500 miles and lost forty pounds each when they were rescued by a Korean fishing boat, which took them to Honolulu, where they were welcomed as heroes. The next year they embarked on another trip in their new yacht, the Auralyn II. I read about Steven Callahan, whose sloop, the Napoleon Solo, sank en route to Antigua, laving Callahan in an inflatable life raft, where he collected a pint of rainwater a day, ate mahi-mahi, triggerfish, birds, and barnacles, and, in his own words, “learned to live like an aquatic caveman.” He survived seventy-six days and was picked up by fishermen near Gaudeloupe, and described his ordeal as “a view of heaven from a seat in hell.”
Yet none of these people can hold a candle—in my eyes, at least—to Poon Lim, who has held the record for the longest survival on a life raft (133) since he was rescued in April of 1943, and most likely always will. Since I first read about him, I’ve been continually trying to figure out what 133 days really means—how long it is, how long it feels, and how long it would feel if you were to live is alone on a raft in the South Atlantic. 133 days is roughly four and a half months. It is one and a half seasons. It is more than a third of a calendar year. At four months old, babies begin to see things more clearly, to distinguish subtle color changes, to grasp objects with their hands and to sleep through the night. At four months old, foals wean, pullets lay, and sparrows migrate. 133 days is longer than the gestation period of a black bear, a lion, and a tiger, and exactly half as long as an average human pregnancy. In 133 days the Falklands War could have been fought three times, and Mozart could have written six symphonies.
And, if I look at 133 days through the lens of my own experience and capabilities—which are dwarfed by the achievements of both Mozart and the sparrow—I see one and a half academic quarters, one term paper written and another half-gestated, one freshman composition class haphazardly planned, taught, and graded, about a thousand pages read and hastily digested on the bus and, if I’m lucky, about a hundred pages hastily written. 133 days is about a quarter of one graduate degree—or, more accurately, 133 days can contain the work (and seemingly inevitable stress, including occasional nights of reading Wikipedia at three o’clock in the morning) that can be assembled into a graduate degree. 133 days contain 266 cups of coffee, 1,330 emails, six or seven tantrums, and sixty-seven Buffy reruns. And even if I were to do all I ever wished I could do in 133 days—could teach class in which every student learned something; could write as much as I wanted to every day, and read as much as I needed; and, more precisely, could sear away the fat of self-pity and fear and petty irritation that all but constantly weighs down my mind—how would even that compare to the 133 days of Poon Lim?
The picture displayed on Poon Lim’s Wikipedia page shows a dapper young man in a suit, his shirt immaculate and his tie freshly knotted, his slicked hair showing the fresh teethmarks of a comb. His skin is pale and smooth, and his lips—lush enough to seem almost feminine—are slightly parted, showing the viewer a row of uneven teeth, the only evidence the viewer has that the man they see is not a petty, untroubled aristocrat. Even so, he could easily pass as a young father whose picture was snapped as he took his family for a walk in the park on a warm Sunday afternoon, or perhaps a businessman fresh out of the gate, ready to make a killing on wartime demand. Certainly he does not look like a soldier, and in fact he never was one: in 1940, at twenty-two years old, he left his home in Hainan, China and signed on as a Second Steward on the Benlomond, a British Merchant Navy ship. He was still on the Benlomond two years later, when, on November 23rd, 1942, it was torpedoed in the South Atlantic. Some sources—including Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s Sole Survivor, a biography written in the 1980’s—describe Poon Lim as the only man to escape the sinking of the Benlomond alive, while others claim that up to eleven sailors from the ship’s fifty-five-man crew were ultimately rescued. Either way, Poon Lim’s survival was the most miraculous.
Taking a life jacket with him, he jumped overboard before the ship’s boilers exploded, salvaged a length of hemp rope, and managed to reach one of the ship’s 8’ square wooden life rafts, which contained a ten gallon jug of water, some sugar and chocolate, a few tins of biscuits, some flares, two smoke grenades, and a flashlight. He calculated that he could survive for a month if he drank a few swallows of water a day, two biscuits in the morning, and one at night. Though he was a poor swimmer, he swam twice a day to keep himself in shape, using the rope to tie himself to the raft and keeping his head above water so he could watch for sharks.
He fashioned a tarp from his lifejacket, which he used to catch rainwater and shield himself from the sun. When he began to run out of food, he fashioned fishhooks from wires he pulled from the flashlight and nails he pried loose from the raft (pulling one free of the boards with his teeth), used bits of rope as fishing line, and pieces of biscuit as bait. When he caught a fish he cut it in two with a knife he had made out of a biscuit tin, ate half of it and used the other half as bait. When, after he had caught several more fish and lost his water supply in a storm, he saw some seagulls flying nearby, he made a nest out of seaweed and arranged dead fish in it, hoping the birds would be attracted by their smell. He lay still, so as not to frighten the birds away, and when one landed he grabbed it by the neck and eventually killed it, though not before it left him with several deep cuts. Overcome by thirst, he drank its blood. By this time, he had been on the raft for two months.
The article on Poon Lim also provides a showcase for that rarest of specimens: lean and wonderful Wikipedia prose. In this case, an anonymous author or authors tells us that “when he saw sharks, he did not swim. Instead he set out to catch one.” Using seagull meat as bait, he lured a small shark over to his raft and dragged it onboard. When the shark, predictably, began to attack him, he bludgeoned it to death with his water jug, sliced it open and sucked the blood from its liver. In addition, the authors of Wikipedia tell us that “he sliced the fins and let them dry in the sun, a Hainan delicacy”—giving us the story of a man who did not just survive but lived with a defiant verve that most people fail to muster on dry land.
On April 5th, 1943, Poon Lim was rescued by three Brazilians who had been fishing the waters at the mouth of the Amazon. He had lost twenty pounds, could not walk unaided, and spent six weeks in the hospital being treated for exposure. Describing his ordeal, a New York Times reporter described Lim’s “Chinaman’s chance,” and how Lim claimed “he was not worried, and not afraid to die if that was what fate had decreed for him” and “was none the worse from the hardships” upon reaching dry land.
What I wonder most, when I think about Poon Lim, is what the first of his 133 days were like. Four and a half months is long enough to get used to even the most difficult of circumstances, so long as they stay consistent—and though there must have been times two or three or four months in when Poon Lim’s water stores were fouled and his food was swept away, times when he must have experienced hunger and thirst too excruciating for us to imagine, two or three or four months in he must also have known that he would find a way out. He was adrift on a pitiless ocean full of hungry sharks, but he was hungrier for the sharks that circled his raft than they were for him, and after you’ve caught a shark and bashed it to death once the second time can’t be nearly as difficult.
But those first few days adrift in the ocean, the days during which he may have convinced himself that help was coming any minute now, the days before he had proven to himself that he could survive on seagull blood, shark liver, and stagnant water—these are the days I want to see. What did he think of? Did he recall the faces of his family, or of his mates on the ship? Was he ever gripped by an irrational urge to eat through all his stores, or to leap from the raft and swim until his body failed him? At the end of his first day on the raft, as the light dwindled to nothing and the chill of night settled around him, did he close his eyes and wish for sleep, wish for dreaming, wish to somehow be transported home to his family, or at least away from the open sea?
After I read about Poon Lim, I went on to other stories of survival in the face of impossible odds, but none of them seemed to measure up to his. I went to bed at three o’clock in the morning and woke up at seven, and for the rest of the day Poon Lim was all I could think about. That night as we walked home from the train, looking forward to an evening of Buffy reruns and the only complete meal I know how to make (brown rice, sautéed kale, and roasted broccoli and Brussels sprouts), I treated my boyfriend to a litany of all the Poon Lim questions I had accumulated during the day: What did the seagull taste like? Did he sever its carotid artery when he went to drink its blood? Did seagulls have carotid arteries? What did he think about during the first few days? Did he ever forget his name or who he was? Did he ever think of just ending it all? What was the first thing he did when he got to shore? The first thing he ate? The first thing he drank? And, in the many decades following his ordeal (Poon Lim emigrated to America soon after his rescue and died in Brooklyn in 1991, at the age of 72), did he ever wish himself back on his raft, back in a brutal but simple world he enjoyed mastery of, with the stars above him and the hungry sharks waiting beneath?
To this my boyfriend, and everyone else I came to with these questions, had one answer: “I have no idea.” So I began to write this essay. Apart from the numerous questions above, I wonder: why am I so fascinated by Poon Lim? And why would anyone not be as fascinated by him as I am?
The easiest explanation—that I see in Poon Lim some analogy for my own struggle through life—is both too simple and too stupid to put any credence in. No matter how self-aggrandizingly anxious I get at times, I never think that the things I deal with—deadlines, financial worries, late student papers, figuring out which tights to wear so I can look as academic as possible while presenting a paper on vampires—compare to being set adrift on the ocean. And even if one summons up a Life of the Writer schema in which fish are essays and seagulls are short stories and sharks are novels (the most difficult subjects will threaten to do as much damage to you as you do to them!), no real connection can be made. Nor do I think that I am capable of even the minutest portion of what Poon Lim managed, except in one very slim respect: much like Mr. Pink of Reservoir Dogs and Tuco Ramirez of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I know that I will cling to life in every possible situation, forsaking comfort, honor, pride, and even compassion for my fellow man. If I am ever adrift in the South Atlantic, I will have no qualms about drinking a seagull, even if I will encounter a world of trouble in attempting to catch and kill one.
And this, I think, is the true secret of Poon Lim’s survival, and the key to my obsession with him. Apart from his formidable survival skills, his cast-iron will, and his indefatigable spirit, Poon Lim’s most precious gift was his receptiveness to possibility, and his willingness to scrape his salvation from the most unyielding of places. Put in his position, most of us would look around and see nothing. Poon Lim looked at a biscuit tin and saw a fishhook, bait, and a knife; he looked at a lifejacket and saw a sun shelter and water bucket; he looked at a water jug and saw a hammer and a weapon of self-defense; he looked at seagulls hovering in the distance and, rather than drifting into an envious reverie about the gift of flight, wondered how he could lure one over and drink its blood. He looked at his life jacket and saw water, looked at the seagulls and saw water, looked at the sharks that circled around him and saw water, and once you can see water in your surroundings you’re not far from seeing survival in them, too.
And this relates not to being a writer or a student or a teacher or a young, unqualified person searching for work in an inhospitable economic climate or any person searching for work in an inhospitable economic climate, but rather to the experience of personhood as a whole. I just relate my and my colleagues’ and friends’ experiences to it because they are in the end all I really know. Nearly every one of my peers regularly works and studies for fourteen hours a day and is in some sort of dire financial straits, and nearly every person I know—in my estimation at least—deserves the success they most ardently strive for, if not the success they idly wish for in their airiest dreams.
They deserve home ownership, medical insurance, and the ability to experiment with new and exciting multivitamins. They deserve modest weddings, dishwashers and occasional dishwasher repairmen, and occasional trips abroad. They deserve a new computer once every four years and a new kind of hand soap whenever they damn well fell like it. And, if they are writers—and everyone I know, it seems, is a writer—they deserve the time and space they need to get to the bottom of the story they want to tell and then to tell it as well and as honestly as they possibly can.
They do not necessarily deserve publishing deals or royalties or advances, because that is contingent on the work they do, and has no bearing on what they as people deserve: good work and great work is routinely written by crummy people; crummy people routinely write crummy work that receives a warm and financially significant reception; good people routinely write crummy work, and good people routinely write wonderful work that goes nowhere. All they deserve is time and space—or, that is all I think they deserve. But how do they deserve it? Do they each deserve an office, or a room on the house with a door that closes, or a few hours of the day to call their own? Do they deserve fellowships and residencies? Do they deserve money? I think some of them do, and you might disagree with me—but the fact is that, at present, there are few fellowships and little money and few houses and offices writers can afford that contain the mythical Room with a Door that Closes. (I have one for the next two months, but only because my boyfriend’s roommate is on a trip to Nepal, and I’m writing this sitting on a beshitten papasan chair on my parents’ back porch. My father just wandered over, sat down, and said “Publish or perish!” without any apparent prompting. He is now humming.)
What we need from life, then, is not what is presented to us, not even the seemingly hidden treasures that present themselves after the most cursory of hunts. If we want water, we must find it in seagull blood. If we want time, we must scrape it away from the bone of the day and use it as wisely and as expeditiously as we can. I won’t draw any complex metaphors between our relatively comfortable lives and Poon Lim’s, but I will say this: we are doing ourselves a disservice if we do not find some way to use his survival as a model for our own lives. We must be hopeful but more to the point inexhaustible, resourceful to the point of insanity, and eternally alert. If one possesses all these attributes, bravery is only second best.
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