(Albi, for short) - In his collection Yarns, Tristan Jones retells the true story of an 18-year old Portuguese lad he had taken on board in Gibraltar. At the time, Jones was engaged in delivering a beautiful state-of-the-art yacht, the marconi ketch St. Louis, from the Biscay coast of France to Senegal West Africa.
As the story unfolds, Albi turns out to be worse than useless as an exta hand.
He was in Jones's slang, “clack-handed.” On his first job Albi
put 50 gallons of fresh water into the diesel tank. And once at sea,
his offenses multiplied—Albi was a lubber, or as Jones described him,
the reverse of Midas. “Everything he touched turned to quivering crap.”
But, then the story gets interesting. Due to circumstances (Jones’s
original story is worth reading) it became necessary to shelter for a few days in
the fishing port of Safi (Morocco). To keep Albi from causing yet
greater harm, Jones assigned him a mindless task for the onshore
mornings, then released him from duty at noon to wander about and do as he wished.
Each day at noon Albi collected his lunch and cigarettes, then made off
across the wharf into town. And each evening he
returned with such a pleased look on his face that the crew came to
believe something untoward must be happening—there could be no good or
safe explanation for Albi’s apparent demeanor. Possibly he was trading
his lunch and cigarettes for, well...
Thus on their third day in Safi, Tristan decided to follow as Albi made his way toward town. In Jones’s words, “I
followed him at a discrete distance and saw him walk under the long
tunneled archway that was the gate into the town under the old
fortress. I saw him stop and start to put his food and cigarettes
into little bags hanging on strings dangling down the mildewed walls of
the fortress. I saw the strings pulled up by unseen hands and the
bags disappear one by one as Albi filled them.” Afterward, Albi sat
down, closed his eyes, and slept away the afternoon.
Deep breath! Tragically we learn at the story’s end that Albi—the klutz with a heart of gold—was killed on his twentyfirst birthday in a “stupid” firefight in the Angolan jungle.
After drying away tears and finishing the rest of the book I
recommended the story to my wife. —Now Becky has a good memory. On her
reading the story of Albi she right away recalled another of Jones’s
stories in which, after returning from Angola Albi, then 22, joined Tristan “for a couple of cool beers [at] a sidewalk table.”
The news that a year after his untimely death in Angola Albi had
enjoyed a beer with Tristan was something of an emotional blow. I had
grieved over Albi’s demise! Among possible explanations of the discrepancy,
we considered the following: 1) Tristan was confused about Albi’s age
even though he remembered Albi’s exact birthday; 2) Albi fought in
Angola twice, returning the first time but not the second; 3) There
were two Albi’s, one who did good deeds and died at age 21, the other
who enjoyed beer; 4) A year after his death Albi’s spirit joined
Tristan for a beer; and 5) A yarn is a yarn!
As it turns out there was little truth to be found in
Tristan Jones. About a year after reading Yarns I came across a biography of Jones by Anthony Dalton called, Wayward Sailor. Even his name Tristan
was made up! According to Jones, he was born at sea near the remote
South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha. In fact however, according
to Dalton’s research, he was born in Lancashire England and was named
Arthur. His published stories, which he claimed to be true, were
most often either colorful exaggerations of ordinary sailing
experiences, or outright fabrications.
Indeed, the realization that the Albi story was most likely made up
struck a double-whammy. Not only had I needlessly grieved for
Albi, but my ego suffered a blow as well, because I considered myself a
skeptic—one whose credulity was not so easily commandeered. For
example, another purportedly true story, Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk,
seemed incredible to me—literally. I did not believe it.
Later, I came across published research proving the story untrue
in almost all particulars.
The art of
skepticism is difficult to practice consistently. Autobiographical
stories tend to be particularly subversive. Whenever I have read an
autobiography or memoir, and retell a particularly impressive anecdote
to my friend Chris, he replies, “yes, according to ---- (the author),
he himself was a great man.”
Truth itself is a slippery subject. There is mathematical truth—the
truth of consistency. Then there is scientific truth, the truth of the
reproducible or observable. Undoubtedly, other kinds of truth exist, for example, the truth upon which the trust of friendship is based, or truth as in, “I solemnly swear to tell the truth...”
Mark Twain wrote, “The difference between a Miracle and a Fact is
exactly the difference between a mermaid and a seal.”
I confess to having borrowed this appealing analogy at times. For
example, when asked to explain some computer anomaly, if certain
particulars seem in doubt, I may ask, “was it a fact or a miracle?” A look of puzzlement is the usual answer.
Tristan Jones. Yarns
(New York: Sheridan House, 1990). Rewards and Remembrances
September 23, 1970. The Angolan “War of National Liberation” occurred during 1961-1974. A Hard Schooling
Anthony Dalton. Wayward Sailor
(McGraw Hill, 2003).
Slavomir Rawicz. The Long Walk
(The Lyons Press, 1988)
Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth
(Harper and Row, 1974).