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Steve Emmons

The Best Kind of Long-Distance Call

June 13, 1985|STEVE EMMONS

This is really about the phone company, but it will take a while to get around to that. Please bear with me.

Some friends who had lived in Laguna Niguel made a deliberate decision years ago to get on their sailboat and leave civilization. They were experienced sailors, and they planned to cruise Mexican waters and scratch out a living free-lance writing. They made careful and elaborate preparations, then departed something more than a year ago. We'll call them Bill and Susan.

We gave them a big send-off, and during that final party, Susan and I reaffirmed our promise to correspond. It would take a long time for our letters to filter through the Mexican mails, but there was no other practical way to communicate. The boat seldom would be near a telephone.

Nearly a month after they left, a small envelope stuffed nearly to bursting was waiting in my mail slot when I got home. I hurriedly tore it open, withdrew the 33 handwritten tablet pages and devoured it.

It was in diary form--written by Susan over a period of nine days:

"May 6--We are sitting at anchor here at Isla Cedros 400 miles from Newport Beach. It's beautiful, warm, sunny, and three Mexican fishermen just came by and traded us seven huge abalone for three used T-shirts. This is what cruising is supposed to be like, and I guess it will be, but getting here was horrific. . . .

"I am not a brave person, but I have discovered a lot within myself I never knew was there. I don't know if you have ever been so scared that some reserve within you takes hold and you do what you have to do, but I found that reserve in me at 3 a.m. on a huge rolling sea swishing by in the darkness. I am afraid of night watches even in fair weather, but to be out there, God knows where, all alone in a small boat that is sliding down the waves at hull speed even with a double-reefed main and staysail, the tiniest sail combination on the boat, well, that was pretty scary. . . .

"People tend to gloss over these things and talk about the lovely anchorages, but getting there is what it is all about. . . . I didn't enjoy that storm at all. But I have never felt more alive and more thankful. . . . Actually living your life an hour at a time is not so bad. I decided I could endure anything for an hour. And that hour off, that hour of rest (between storm watches) was the sweetest, most important thing in my life at that time."

Then on Page 24, Susan's handwriting changed. It was shaky and unsteady:

"May 14--Well, we didn't make it to Cabo. Not yet, anyway. Instead, we are in the midst of the worst storm I have ever endured, and I am so terrified that I am beyond fear and into a strange kind of acceptance of waiting. . . . Winds on our (illegible word) at 30-35 knots. Steep seas . . . . We've been lying here hove to for six hours . . . . It's almost dark now, and I can't begin to tell you the assault we are taking . . . . The noise and the motion is almost unbearable, and yet I am beyond caring what happens. We've done all we humanly can do. Now we wait. The waiting is difficult. I opened a bottle of wine and we had a couple of glasses. Can't do more than that . . . . The storm is like a monster rattling our little, rather vulnerable cage trying to get in. I play the stereo to drown out the sounds."

On Page 32, the next day, the handwriting was steady again. They had made port: "May 15--God, what a joy to be here! Sunny. Beautiful. Quiet. Am I glad I came on this voyage? Yes. Would I rather still be behind my desk? No.

"I bought a bottle of champagne for our arrival in Cabo. So we sat at 6:30 a.m. at anchor sipping champagne and becoming intoxicated on the wonderful, wonderful feeling of being alive. Of getting here . . . . It is a personal victory worth more than anything I have achieved in all the years past."

For a year I received letters from Susan. Their initial drama subsided and were replaced by reports of daily living, yet their value increased. I began to put off opening them, reserving that pleasure for the ideal moment of the day when nothing would intrude upon the reading. It became a ritual.

Why were these letters so special? I think it was more than Bill and Susan's exotic locale and writing abilities. I think it was the feeling of distance. The two weeks it took for the letters to arrive only enhanced that feeling.

When Susan lived in Orange County, we encountered one another several times a week, so we talked. But when the distance precluded talking, we wrote, and writing makes your mind work differently. If you let them, your sentences go deeper inside you for their meanings. You can wind up observing and confiding. You seem to discover as much from the letter you write as the letter you read.

During that year, Susan telephoned me from La Paz, Mexico. It was nice to hear from her, but after I hung up it seemed the conversation had been trivial and flat, like so many how's-it-going-fine-thank-you conversations we'd had here. She and Bill are back home now, so we can talk anytime we like, yet we somehow feel deprived of a unique pleasure.

The phone company is right: You really should "reach out and touch someone" you like who lives far away. But do it in the most satisfying way--with a 22-cent stamp.

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