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Chilling Out With Alvah Simon

Alvah and Diana Simon and their cat ‘Halifax of the Arctic’ aboard their boat, Roger Henry, in Micronesia.
Alvah and Diana Simon and their cat ‘Halifax of the Arctic’ aboard their boat, Roger Henry, in Micronesia.

Okay, so I’m a weather-wimp. I whine and complain if the temperature falls below, say, 78 degrees. I’m not ashamed to admit this. My wife Carolyn is a weather-wimp too. We’ve even received scientific reinforcement: a doctor in the Virgins told us the specific gravity of our blood samples were the same as Cruzan rum!

Coincidence?

I doubt it.

Actually, the above doesn’t go quite far enough. I’m worse. I loudly complain even in 80 degree temperatures if there’s a strong wind-chill factor—or I’m in northern climes like, say, Jost Van Dyke.

I’m kinda latitude sensitive.

If I’m at a party in the tropics and some snowbird stares into the fridge too long … I’m gone!

Nor am I immune to reading about cold weather. Once, while perusing Jack London’s White Fang on a beach on St. John, I had to snuggle up in a fur-lined parka to reach the last chapter.

And when it is really, really cold my wife and I don’t say, “Gee, it is really, really cold!” Instead, we say, “It’s ALVAH cold!”

Our friend Alvah Simon is a bit of a macho man. He loves the cold, ice, and the Arctic. Loves it so much he once sailed northward (on the hottest summer day of June in the year 1994) until he couldn’t sail his modest, French-built 36ft steel sloop further towards the North Pole … then turned into Bylot island in upper Canada … and then headed up Tay Bay as far as possible to 73 degrees and 29 minutes until the bow of his Roger Henry could progress no further against the ice.

Then he allowed his vessel to be frozen in for the winter.

Why?

Well, for one thing …

(The writer pauses, scratches his beard, and grimaces …)

WAIT! I need to start this thought again: Alvah and I were both born in Chicago. We’re urban mid-western Americans. This scares you and scars you forever. You can take the street punk out of Chicago, educate him, teach him table manners, demonstrate to him how to wipe his butt, tell him not to shoot/knife/stab his neighbor, instruct him on how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’… but you never quite succeed.

There’s always a raw edge, a sliver of street punk left in a Chicago boy, just a slight tendency to get in one’s face, draw a line (in blood) on the sidewalk, take a noble-if-foolish stand … no matter how stupid that stand might be.

Some people never quite get over this youthful Dance With Death—gunslingers, for example. But it can take odd forms and morph into weird, modern day situations, like going mano-a-mano with a polar bear.

Alvah has some issues. His father made the Great Santini look like a soft-hearted, liberal-minded, push-over. Example: there was a sister. When a crowd of older teen-agers came over to hang outside the family home, the father told the 12-year- old Alvah to ‘go outside and defend your sister’s honor’.

He did—and the ensuing beating was just the first of many.

Who can say how we become the sum of our parts? Did the ‘other brother’s’ death at sea aboard a small boat affect Alvah? Or was it the close friend of the family who met Alvah at the door of their prim Midwestern house and whispered matter-of-factly, “… we don’t want you to be a role model for our children.”

I don’t know the exact mechanism which put the jagged stainless steel in Alvah’s soul—only that it is there.

There’s granite inside.

Now—most men who have suffered so—suffer in silence. That is common. And, yeah, Alvah is a man of few spoken words. But perhaps the pressure built too high and he realized he’d have to vent or explode.

Who knows?

All I know is Alvah is a damn fine writer—and I like to breathe the air of damn fine writers. He’s the real-deal.

Yes, Alvah knows what every great writer knows—that bedrock honesty is at the core of all good writing.

So we hang out together whenever I’m in New Zealand. Occasionally we bump into each other while out cruising as well. Let’s see, the last time I met him and his wife Diana in ‘kick-back mode’ was in Kosrae, Micronesia.

But Alvah’s definition, both external and internal, will always be frozen in ice aboard Roger Henry in Tay Bay.

Ice is Alvah’s defining characteristic. He is driven to seek out the least hospitable place of this watery planet to test his mettle. He shadow boxes in the dark. Which will break first? Mind? Body? Spirit?

“Sometimes at sea, you can feel like your mind is sort of … trying to slip away,” he told me one night at dinner aboard Ganesh.

Alvah likes to speak of the Big Issues. He’s not a small-talk-kind-of-guy. Life’s important, damn it! There’s always a mysterious, flickering movie playing on the back of Alvah’s eyelids.

He’s all alone. Frozen in ice. In the dark. With wild creatures sitting in the cockpit waiting to eat him and, well, that ‘slipping away’ feeling is coming back again.

Isn’t the worst thing any man can wrestle with, his own demons?

Alvah began forgetting where he was during that long arctic night, what he was doing, where his calendar was located. When he’d talk to people on his SSB he’d begin arguing about the date. “I spoke with you yesterday,” he’d say into the frosty radio mic.

And the voice would say in concerned response, “… no, Alvah, that was last week!”

He’d badly miscalculated his heating fuel. His gallons-per-day were calculated with his boat floating (and, thus, surrounded by 32 degree warm water). But now he was encased in solid ice—and, so, his heating fuel ran out.

Now he was frozen in what might become a steel tomb. Did he hear something outside? Voices? Someone calling? Why was the light from the ports so grey and thin and mean? Was there enough fuel left to make tea? Should he? Or should he not? Why was he having trouble deciding? Why was he here? Who was he?

A trickle of water ran down the bulkhead. It froze. Another drop dropped. It, too, froze. Slowly, a glacier of hard blue ice started growing in the main cabin of his boat.

He had to, begrudgingly, move over.

There was frost in the air. He shivered, shook, and waved his arms. Sounds came out of his mouth—and nobody heard them.

He didn’t even hear them.

Were they screams?

… who was he really?

Strangely, his boat started to sink into the ice. It had no problem floating in water—but it started settling stern-first into the ice. Weird! If the boat’s rate of descend continued, he’d never make it until spring. He’d have to go outside and chop it, axe it, shovel it away.

… only one problem.

There were polar bears out there. Hungry polar bears. And they’d been smelling/sniffing/sensing him inside for months. And he smelled, well, tasty!

He was ripe.

Alvah forced himself to shove that thought aside. This was his moment—why he’d come so far. He tossed open the hatch. He scanned the horizon. Then he quickly scampered down onto the ice and began to swing his pick-ax, again and again.

It made a sound.

thunk!

Polar bears have ears.

And so, it came to pass that on a crystal clear winter’s day, far, far from civilization and the mean streets of Chicago, that an adult Alvah stood on a lonely slab of ice with a gigantic polar bear towering above him.

He could have attempted to frantically leap back into the safety of his vessel but he did not.

Time slowed. There was no rush. It was silent. They looked at each other.

They sniffed each other.

Time ticked.

And tocked.

And then—because Alvah is Alvah, or because he’d watched too many Westerns, or because he finally wanted to show his father that he was a man, or because he could not admit his fear or was scared of his own cowardice or … whatever!

… Alvah slowly took a resolute step forward while looking the bear directly in the eye.

And so, in a frozen wasteland far beyond the ken of human understanding and common sense, Alvah stood his ground as the hungry loping bear cautiously approached; two savage beasts coming together in an ancient game of threat, assessment, and survival.

Few men have ever been in such a situation. Fewer still have lived to tell the tale. Almost none of those could write.

Alvah can write. The immediate result was his lyrical, thrilling North to the Night.

The more observable result is that Alvah squints. While he is talking to you, he is also keeping his eye on that bear over your shoulder, watching the water depth in that windy harbor near Cape Horn, and checking out that huge ‘berg in the moonlight of the windy, cold Southern Ocean.

There’s caution in his weary eyes—and respect, too.

… no fear, but a hint of ancient sadness.

Yes, it is lucky for us readers that Alvah has demons. They chase him through both hellfire and ice. Occasionally he puts down his rifle but he never puts down his pen.

And I am proud to break bread with such a fine, fine writer.

 

 

Editor’s note: Fatty is currently celebrating his 62nd birthday with his granddaughter Soku Orion in Singapore. 

 

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and is currently on his third circumnavigation. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

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8 comments

  1. Great article. Allah and I were best friends as kids in Oak Park. I spent most of my time at his house growing uo. If you have Alvah’s email would you please forward my contact info? I’d love to get back in touch . Thank you

    • I too am looking for Alvah and his wife Diana who were mentioned in a book, Blue Horisons, by Beth A Leonard. We met him when we were sailing in Chagos Archipelego and again in Mauritius in 1987. Have you had success in finding his e-mail address? I have sent a message on his facebook page but it does not look active.. I live in South Africa and you may contact me if I find him and please if you have contact, let me know.

  2. Christopher Eklund

    Just finished Alva’s book, North to the Night. It’s a very impressive work. You’re description of Chicago’s punks is correct with a capital “C”. You must have grown up in Bridgeport – 35th & Halsted.

  3. I met Alvah in 1968 when he briefly stole my heart while working at a summer camp-he was a student at Hastings College in Nebraska, and the letters he wrote to me from school stayed in my head. Even then his gift with the written word was impressive. I’m so pleased that he continues to write.

  4. Has Alva ever explored the idea of making a film of “north to the night?”

  5. Ever consider a film of “North to the Night”?

  6. Alvah,

    Do you remember a girl, Becky, that you traveled with from Nebraska to California the summer of 1969? Denver, Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Grand Canyon, just a few highlights. Well she is happy to see you doing so well and are so happy. She went on to marry that guy she was meeting up with and moving to Hawaii. Life has been good for her, too.

    It says I have sent this message before and yes I know, but I have never heard back so I did not know if you have received my previous note.

    Aloha,
    Becky

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