Whether it’s significant events, important people, or exotic places, when you reflect on your life, and I hope you do, you begin to realize that it’s been stitched together by common threads that gave it purpose and meaning.
While I could recount dozens of perhaps more interesting threads, including love affairs, the sacrifices of brave men, unkept promises, and close encounters of the deadly kind, the one I want to unravel today is the story of a few random places I’ve wandered through over the years. So, let the wheel of chance spin and stop on: islands - I’ll admit, not much to show for a long life. On the other hand, while I have visited dozens of islands in my time, I can point to a few where I learned some significant object lessons about life, including the importance of history, the call of the sea, the romance of other cultures, the dedication that some men possess, the role of diplomacy, and the exercise of raw power. Let the tour begin.
Perhaps it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. In his “Devotions on Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII” (1624), the medieval metaphysical poet, John Donne, coined the phrase, “No man is an island,” that we have all probably used:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thineown were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
In this poem, Donne is basically saying that no one is self-sufficient; everyone relies on others. Some politicians have also used it as an argument against isolationism. Donne is just as famous for some doggerel he wrote about his marriage to his wife, Anne, with whom he had 12 children: “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.”
“Islands” also enjoy a unique place in our consciousness, whether we realize it or not: Hawaii, your isle of golden dreams; Ellis Island, the destination of millions of immigrants; Malta, the Mediterranean island that Winston Churchill praised as a “stationary battleship” for its resistance to Nazi and Italian bombing during World War II; Alcatraz, for generations the island prison in San Francisco Bay that was the last stop for countless iterations of Public Enemy Number One; Bedloe Island, the site of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, etc.
My journey through the archipelago of Benny and interest in history began in 1951 when I was ten years old. My daddy, who was an independent, “shirttail” trucker, hauled tung nuts to the mill at Picayune every year for the daughter-in-law of Theodore G. Bilbo, the diehard segregationist governor and senator from Mississippi. She lived at Juniper Grove, south of Poplarville, just across the road from his “Dream House No. 1” which had burned down in 1947, the same year as his death. I was more interested in the island in a nearby lake where she told me Bilbo’s “Dream House No. 2” had been located. For a long time, I thought this house had the columns he “liberated” for $40 from the Mississippi State Old Capitol building when it was renovated in 1935, but I later learned they burned with the first Dream House. I once read about the 1935 grand opening of House No. 1 in a New York Times article. Bilbo opened the doors to the public and provided the following items for its consumption: 100 pounds of cheese, 10 cases of crackers, 600 tins of sardines, 5 gallons of dill pickles, 50 gallons of ice cream, 10 layer cakes, 5 boxes of oranges, 5 boxes of apples, 5 crates of grapes, 25 pounds of candy, 200 pounds of sugar, 800 5-cent cigars, and “coffee for everybody.” I assume a good time was had by all. He’s lucky they didn’t tear the place up like the public did when Andrew Jackson opened the White House after his inauguration in 1829.
The year 1951 stands out in my mind, too, because that’s the year the bank repossessed my daddy’s truck after he couldn’t make the monthly payments. I can still see the look on his face as they drove it away. I felt like the Joads must have felt in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” (1939) when they lost the family farm. Actually, I felt more like feeble-minded Benjy, my nickname, in Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” (1929) because I felt helpless to stop it. Really, I was a child prodigy. When I was in the 4th grade, they told me I was already cheating on the 8h grade level. That’s not true; I was just seeing if you were paying attention. My son did have a drill instructor once, though, whose mantra was: “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” That struck me as a shaky example of leadership.
The richest man in Lumberton traditionally paid for the high school graduating class to visit Ship Island, and that one-day excursion with my classmates was my introduction to the sea. The one-hour boat ride fascinated me, and directly led to my Navy career, 20 years at sea and visits to over 100 foreign countries.
One of the most interesting islands I’ve ever visited was the “Ile de la Cite” in the heart of Paris, which, perhaps more than anywhere else, is where I gained an appreciation for other cultures. Although it was first settled by the Romans, who referred to Paris as “Lutetia,” one of the first things you see is a plaque commemorating the date in 866 when 14 Franks died defending a footbridge on the island against invading Vikings who had sailed up the Seine. Next door is the Parvis de Notre-Dame, the square in front of the cathedral. In the square is the “kilometre zero,” the spot from which the distance to Paris from places all over France is measured. Of course, the cathedral is now closed after the fire, but its repairs are progressing, and it is projected to reopen in 2024.
Just down the street is a plaque identifying where once stood “l’ancienne habitation d’Heloise et d’Abelard,” celebrating one of the most famous love affairs in history, that of Heloise and Abelard. He was a 12th century tutor who fell in love with his student, enraging her father to the point that he had Abelard attacked and castrated and sent his daughter to a nunnery. They exchanged passionate letters for the rest of their lives and are buried together in a nearby cemetery.
Here is where also I learned to enjoy my favorite French street sandwich: a fresh baguette, smeared with lots of butter, topped with a sliced, hard-boiled egg, with lots of salt and pepper, accompanied by a cold Orangina soda. It’s worth two Michelin stars for my money.
On the island of Guam, I learned about dedication to duty. I was there in 1972, on R&R out of Vietnam, when Shoichi Yokoi, a sergeant in the Japanese Imperial Army, was discovered hiding in the jungle by farmers. He was one of the last hold outs to be found after hostilities ended in 1945. He hid in a cave for almost 28 years after U. S. forces gained control of the island in 1944. He originally had two companions, but they both died. His diet had included wild nuts, mangos, papaya, shrimp, snails, frogs, and rats. He had known since 1952 that the war had ended, but feared coming out of hiding, explaining that “We Japanese soldiers were told to prefer death to the disgrace of getting captured alive.” He returned to a hero’s welcome in Japan.
I learned a good lesson about diplomacy in the city of Sasebo, a city of around 250,000 on the Japanese island of Kyushu. I was in town doing a supervisory visit on the U. S. Naval installation there, and I was invited to a formal dinner at the home of the city’s mayor. He was a very nice man; spoke English better than I did; lived in a big house overlooking the harbor; and was very proud of the plate glass window in his living room, which he said was “the largest in Japan.” One of the interesting sights out this window was the gigantic radio tower, dating from World War II, where the command “Tora, Tora, Tora” (“Tora” is Japanese for “tiger”) was broadcast, launching the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
When we sat down to dinner, on the floor, around a low table, I knew I was in trouble because the menu consisted entirely of sashimi and sake. As you probably know, sashimi refers to a delicacy of thinly sliced raw fish or other types of meat. In Japan, on formal occasions, you are generally talking high end tuna and octopus. I had two serious problems: I couldn’t handle liquor and didn’t do raw fish. What’s worse, each of the eight or so guests had their own personal attendant, a young lady in traditional Japanese dress standing immediately behind us. So, what to do? I didn’t want to cause a diplomatic crisis by getting drunk or throwing up on the table, so here’s what I did: every time there was a toast to whatever, I would raise my glass to my lips but not drink. The young lady would attempt to refill my glass, give it a quizzical look, but never said anything. The sashimi was more problematic: when I felt like she wasn’t looking, I would grab several pieces and put them in the pocket of my suit. Of course, she would replace them as soon as I did. When I left that night, I probably had at least $100 worth of quality seafood stashed in my pocket, but everyone was happy.
Finally, as for as observing the display of sheer power, I was once flying from Hawaii to Japan with my admiral in his private, converted P2V Orion Navy long range patrol airplane. It was an old plane, about 1952 vintage, four engines, but in pretty good shape. Or so we thought. We got about 900 miles out of Hickam, in Pearl, and, one by one, the engines started shutting down. Not wanting to set her down in the water, the pilot decided to divert to Midway Island. I don’t know if you are familiar with distances in the Pacific Ocean, but it’s huge. For example, it’s 4,104 miles from Hawaii to Japan, and Midway is only 1,380 miles out of Honolulu. There’s nothing there (about 1985) but a few Air Force guys running a radio relay station, the ruins of the old Pan American Clipper rest and refueling stop, and thousands of “Gooney” birds (Read about the albatross birds in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1834) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge) sitting on the runway.
We landed on Midway about dark and spent the night on the plane. In the meantime, the admiral had radioed back to Pearl that he was in a hurry and that he wanted his airplane fixed, ASAP. In response, by noon the next day, the Navy had flown in two new engines, enough to get us to Japan, removed the old engines, installed the new ones, and we were in the air. I’m watching all this in open-mouthed amazement. That was an exercise of sheer power. Try that in the civilian world and see what happens. We would all still be sitting on the tarmac, running out of peanuts. The archipelago of Benny.
I don’t know what “connects” your life. Hopefully, there’s enough significant people in it that you are not a metaphorical “castaway,” adrift in a sea of meaningless places and empty faces.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, www.bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.