The gods did not grant Steven Callahan a hero's death (he is in tiptop shape, thank you) but I consider him an American hero of the first rank simply for his awesome spat with Fate to stay alive.
You may remember that in 1982 his 20-foot sailing boat foundered -- if so mighty a word may apply to a vessel so small -- off the Canary Islands, done in by a surfacing whale, most likely. He barely had time to unhitch his rubber life raft and get in it, and for 76 days he drifted across the Atlantic until his rescue by fishermen off a small West Indies island.
He had a sack of raisins which promptly fermented and I think a jar of beans but for all practical purposes he had no food aboard the raft, though he did have a device (which malfunctioned, of course, like everything else) to provide him a few ounces of water every day.
Almost immediately he broke out in boils here and there over his body, including the groin, and four-foot fish (who for some reason were enchanted with his raft and followed it across the ocean, starting with two and winding up with 50 swimming about in circles) developed the bad habit of nudging the bottom of the raft. The boils were bad enough, but unlike Job who simply had to endure them, Callahan had to endure them with fish pounding against them through the thin floor.
This was in 1982, when by the time he was picked up he weighed only 100 pounds, but when I saw him at breakfast here a few days ago, a glorious sunny morning in one of those glass-box hotels with orange juice actually squeezed from oranges instead of coal tar, he was in fine shape at 155 pounds, much resembling the fellows you see leaping about in squash courts.
"People ask me what made me go on, and I wonder about it. I think a lot of people think, oh I could never have done that. But I find people all the time that are incredibly resilient and have the amazing ability to adapt.
"A lot more people would have survived than give themselves credit for. I shouldn't use the word credit, I don't think survival in itself is a noble thing. Surviving is something I chose for myself, but it would have been quite rational to have chosen another option."
That is, death. For some reason, he was never tempted by it, even when the 25-foot-high rogue waves hit, and the sun fried him and the nights were cold, and he didn't have any idea how to catch a fish, and was thirsty all the time.
"I didn't eat for 13 days, then I finally caught a fish. It starts out being a task, eating to keep the body alive, but as the voyage lengthens the body has such a strong influence on the mind. Eventually I looked forward to the raw organ meats, the flesh itself was almost tasteless to me. What really tasted good was things like the eyes."
Even with such exquisite morsels, and the glory of the sea and double rainbows about him, it was (he said) like viewing heaven from a seat in hell.
"And it was hell to be there. There was not a second when food and water were not on my mind. You're always hurting. There was not one second of that experience that I wouldn't have given my right arm to be out of.
"By the end of the voyage I'd gone to a law. It was hard to stay conscious in the afternoon. Every afternoon you start losing consciousness and say I'm not going to make it, I'm not going to make it to tonight. But somehow the night rolls round.
"I knew of cases like mine where the guy just took off and swam away. Really it would have been justifiable for some, but not for me.
"Psychologically you get to the point of thinking I made it this far, maybe I can make it another 43 days, or however long it takes.
"Just one step on. . Except the day when there was a hole in the tubes that keep the raft floating. I repaired it and kept repairing it for a whole week -- that was the worst time. I was so weak.
"I was just waiting for the ending.
"One thing was funny. There was a little repair kit and the patch I needed said, 'The rubber must be absolutely dry.' I read that with the waves dousing everything.
"On the 40th day I had a little celebration. I'd lasted a lot longer than I thought I could. At first you don't think you're going to live very long at all. It doesn't appear you can do anything. For quite a long time I failed again and again at catching fish. I had trouble making the water thing work. People either give up very quickly or, if they survive the first three days, hang on for quite a long time.
"So here I was alive after 40 days, and it was something to celebrate. On the other hand the warranty was up -- the life raft was not warranted for more than 40 days."
Callahan had another glass of orange juice and one cup of coffee. A buddy of mine who saw him said his eyes were different from those of other men -- far-seeing, maybe haunted, as eyes that had looked on unspeakable mysteries, zub, zub, zub, but I thought it was just because Callahan had visited an old friend in town the night before, and probably stayed up late. Hell, he was only 29 when he rode the raft, and is still in his early thirties.
"I felt very close to the fish, the big dorados. The raft was a point of rendezvous for them. They quickly learned the range of my improvised spear, and when I broke it, they came closer. They made themselves vulnerable. Maybe nobody felt the same way about the fish as I did.
"They were my enemies, slamming into the raft, and my anxiety, when day after day I couldn't catch them, and then at the last my salvation.
"I feel when I go to sea a spiritual experience; I feel connected, or at least very close, to what is Essential. I believe all things are God, so to speak -- that there is no separate entity.
"I think maybe that connection was the thing that helped me go on. Not even being sure about it. Wanting to work it out.
"I live in the sticks of Maine, and in Washington you see people with totally different sets of values. I fill a tub with water and take a bath, and it still amazes me, all that clean water. And you look around and see all the waste, and you could be impatient at American values .
"But on the raft I saw that was a fault in myself. Judging them by my own standards. And on the raft I saw my standards were pretty subjective.
"When you get back, everything is so fresh, but it does fade, a lot of things fade. But I still am aware everyday how fortunate I am to have a glass of water. And I still value the tremendous connection with the fish. Now. Not then; it was such hell to be there."
His new book, "Adrift," chronicles the 76 days. At tremendous effort he kept a log or diary on how things were going, how he felt, and he reread this to write his book:
"But just once. Just looking at the paper, just looking at the handwriting, brings it back too much. You can't write a book saying line after line it was horror, horror and pain. Nobody would read a book that just said that, but that's the way it was."
The interesting thing about horror is that it does not fill up the whole screen. Like vermilion on a canvas, it's there and never goes away, but other things may be there, too, not just the vermilion gash, but the little blob of blue that men call courage. That flat won't call it quits.