Sunday, February 8, 2009

Meeting Someone Famous - Part 1

I have been blessed in my life to have met some famous people. Let me share a few of them in this and some future posts. The first is Alistair MacLean. You may not be familiar with Mr. Maclean. Let me introduce him to you.

He was an author. He wrote the following:

HMS Ulysses, The Guns of Navarone, South by Java Head, The Secret Ways, Night Without End, Fear is the Key, The Black Shrike (as Ian Stuart), The Golden Rendezvous, The Satan Bug (as Ian Stuart), Ice Station Zebra, When Eight Bells Toll, Where Eagles Dare, Force 10 From Navarone, Puppet on a Chain, Caravan to Vaccarès, Bear Island, The Way to Dusty Death, Breakheart Pass, Circus, The Golden Gate, Seawitch, Goodbye California, Athabasca, River of Death, Partisans, Floodgate, San Andreas and Santorini.

Compared to other thriller writers of the time, such as Ian Fleming, MacLean's books are exceptional in one way at least: they have an absence of sex and most are short on romance because MacLean thought that such diversions merely serve to slow down the action. Nor do the MacLean books resemble the more recent techno-thriller approach. Instead, he lets little hinder the flow of events in his books, making his heroes fight against seemingly unbeatable odds and often pushing them to the limits of their physical and mental endurance. MacLean's heroes are usually calm, cynical men entirely devoted to their work and often carrying some kind of secret knowledge. A characteristic twist is that one of the hero's closest companions turns out a traitor.

Nature, especially the sea and the Arctic north, plays an important part in MacLean's stories, and he used a variety of exotic parts of the world as settings to his books. Only one of them, When Eight Bells Toll, is set in his native Scotland. MacLean's best books are often those in which he was able to make use of his own direct knowledge of warfare and seafare, such as HMS Ulysses which is now considered a classic of naval fiction.

You may remember some of these as movies. The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Force Ten From Navarone, Fear Is The Key, Breakheart Pass and Ice Station Zebra are the most popular. I have to tell you though that the Hollywood ending of Ice Station Zebra is a joke compared to the ending Mr. MacLean wrote. His ending was a classic of wit and humor.

I came to know his writing through my mother, a librarian. She would bring home each of his thrillers and we would engage in a contest. Read the book, figure out the ending, mark the page where you figured it out and then wait for the other to read and try to beat you. We continued this contest during the years I was in the Air Force and even after my discharge. We broke about even but to this day I treasure When Eight Bells Toll because that was my first win!

But that is not the book by Alistair MacLean that I treasure most. That honor is reserved for HMS Ulysses.

I first read this book back in 1961. I was 15 and thought of war as something exciting and something to look forward to experiencing. Something to be exalted. I wanted to read Catch-22 but the head librarian, a wonderful friend by the name of Mrs. Jeanne Shons, would not let me check it out. She said it was “too explicit” for someone my age. So I checked out HMS Ulysses instead. It is about the brutal North Atlantic convoys from Britain to Russia in World War Two. Since that first read I have read this book roughly once a year since. It still moves me.

This is NOT a book for those who cherish the fairy tales of Hollywood war movies. It is strong drink for those raised to think that war is always beautiful and the good guy always triumphs. It will stretch the sensibilities of those who have never served. It will bring tears and anguish to those who are willing to see what men can go through, do go through and, at times, must go through. It evokes strong emotions as it brings you face to face with the cruelty of war, and the devotion to duty that drives men on in spite of hardship and terror. But there is so much more--the realistic descriptions of life on a warship in the North Atlantic, men who reflect on the nature of war, individual acts of heroism and tragedy. All these things raise it above the common lot of the war novel. You will be inspired by some of it, fascinated by some of it, and you may even have to stop---as I did---to put the book down for a moment to recover when the terrible savagery of war becomes too gut-wrenchingly alive. You cannot help but shed some tears at times. Some books write of cold, but if you read this book, you will be cold. Some write of fatigue. If you read this book, your eyes will burn and your face will feel as if it's sliding off your head. Some write of despair. If you read this book, you will understand going on and on despite there being no hope simply because that's what you've been doing.

If you go to Amazon you can find this book available from third party sellers for very cheap prices. I would highly recommend that you pick up a copy and give it a read. I would be interested in your reaction.

There are two quotes from that book that have stuck with me ever since I first read them. The first is from Alfred Lord Tennyson. It would have an echo from another book that I would read many years later and that I will tell you about in a future post. Here is the quote –

“Come, my friends,
Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

And the second quote comes from the beginning of one of the late chapters in the book.

“To all things an end, to every night its dawn; even to the longest night when dawn never comes, there comes at last the dawn.”

Many years later, in 1969, I was serving in the US Air Force and was stationed in England for 5 years. What a blessing! It was an amazing time and I traveled all over the country as time would allow. Many a three-day pass and several 30 day leaves were spent seeing all I could of that wonderful land and interacting with the British people. Remind me to tell you of the pub I lived in for the last year of my time over there!

On one three-day pass I headed to Southampton. I had never been there before and that was a good enough reason to see what I would find. Now, back in those days I was partial to bars and pubs and I set out to find a small, local pub in Southampton. I was not “into” the big, loud clubs or chain restaurants and pubs. I preferred the small, quiet atmosphere of a good pub. I found a nice looking place called “The Bosuns Locker”, walked in and ordered a pint of Guinness.

As I took my first sip of my pint, I looked around. There was only one other customer and he was sitting in a corner of the room at a table. He looked up and nodded and I nodded back. He looked familiar and I wracked my brain to remember where I had seen him before. Of course! On a book jacket. He looked like Alistair MacLean! I thought the chances of him being in the same pub as I was had to be pretty slim but I wanted to run over there and introduce myself. I was also aware of the strong possibility of saying something incredibly stupid and being dismissed out of hand. I thought for a minute and several swallows of Guinness and then figured if I did say something incredibly stupid there would only be two people who would ever know and that nothing ventured was nothing gained. I walked over.

“To all things an end, to every night its dawn; even to the longest night when dawn never comes, there comes at last the dawn.”

He looked up and smiled. “Well then lad, pull up a chair. Yer pint looks close to the bottom. Another?”

“Thank you, yes.”

“So lad, you’ve read me book. Did ya like it then? Andy! Another pint of Guinness and me usual please.”

“Yes and it changed my thinking forever. I have read it many times since. It still brings tears, chills and shudders.”

“Aye laddie. That is worth more to me than any royalty check! It was hard to put words to what goes beyond words.”

We talked for almost an hour. We played a couple of games of darts and he whipped me soundly. His accuracy with a dart was at least as good as his accuracy with the written word. He said something I found amazing. He almost never put HMS Ulysses down on paper. I asked him why. He replied that if you had never sailed on those arctic convoys you would think what you were reading was just impossible and just the ramblings of a demented ex-sailor. If you had sailed on them then you already knew and no further words were needed. It was his brother, Master Mariner Ian MacLean who persuaded him to write it. His brother told him, “Aye lad, do it fer those who no longer can.” Both his brother and Mr. MacLean had sailed on those convoys – Ian on four and Alistair on two. I stand in awe on anyone who sailed on even one.

When he had to leave, Mr. MacLean bought me one more pint, shook my hand, said “Thank you mate” and left. I never did ask for an autograph. It seemed trivial and a bit tacky. I just smiled into my pint for a bit and left.

When I got back to Bentwaters (the base I was stationed on) I placed a call home. I just had to share this with Mom. She thought it was just amazing and told me she would share it with Mrs. Shons. About a week later I got a letter from Mrs. Shons that said, in part, “Now aren’t you glad I wouldn’t let you take out Catch-22?”

On February 2, 1987 I read that Mr. MacLean had passed away. Once again, a tear or two leaked from my eyes.

1 comment:

  1. Never met a famous person. But I did use the end of the Tennyson quote in my valedictory speech--"strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield".
    May see if library has HMS Ulysses.
    Thanks, Stan.