The Old Sailor
by Thong Ba Le
The old sailor wakes up very early to prepare for his fishing trip at sea. The sun has just risen above the palm trees behind the backyard, and the morning fog is still floating at tree level like white smoke. In the distance is the beach and to the right of his house is the pier, at the corner of the inlet. His boat is moored there among the other boats that belong to the retirees and the few people who still work nearby.
Most of these people own vacation homes here and come from time to time to go boating and fishing and to stroll along the beach on beautiful mornings like today. They normally come for a week or two and then leave and hire local people to care for their boats and to maintain their houses during their absences. The old sailor has met these middle-aged and younger couples on many occasions while preparing his boat at the pier, readying his equipment for his trip to the sea. They all are very pleasant and he has gained their camaraderie after many conversations with them.
He has been retired for more than a year. Because of his high blood pressure and stressful job, his health was suffering and he heeded his doctor's advice and took an early retirement. Since all the children have grown up and moved out, he is enjoying this golden time with his wife. About six months ago, they bought a house in this small seaside resort and moved their boat here, as they like to be near both their children and the beach.
The old couple has picked this place in which to spend the rest of their lives because the seascape resembles the old coastal area at home and it is beautiful and very quiet. This place reminds him of old times in the Navy. This inlet is somewhat smaller but the scenery is similar, with palm trees and rocky edges all around and seagulls gliding through the azure sky searching for food that is plentiful in the clear blue water.
He prefers to wake up very early in the morning so he can watch the sun rising from the horizon, a magnificent scene he joyfully observes as often as possible. Many old friends, when they hear of his retirement, urge him to move to the West Coast to be close to them. They say that the weather in California is warmer, the climate is more comfortable and that living in California makes them feel closer to their homeland. The old sailor writes to his friends and thanks them, but he jokingly tells them that he would not be able to watch the sun rise in the morning and only to see it set if he lived there. He smiles and thinks of their disappointed faces as they read his letter. But they might agree with him that "the sunrise is the symbol of the energetic source of nature, the sunset is the end of living spirits."
After many years in the war and struggling for a living, he has often asked himself what is the origin of life; destiny and war had maneuvered him to many challenges and had affected his married life. Until now, the question that he has asked himself and has carried with him for almost sixty years has still not been answered satisfactorily to his questioning and uncertain mind.
From time to time, looking at himself in the mirror, he sees that his hair is becoming grayer. Time has gone by so quickly, as quickly as water flows from the river to the sea. He remembers when he would will time to pass, counting the hours one by one. Now the days rush by in a blur. Everything has changed and nothing is the same as the last forty struggling years. He feels sad in old age. He has tried to find the answer to his question about the beginning and the creation of the universe and living creatures and of his own existence. Sometimes he is affected by old beliefs and they follow him still: the theory of evolution of the universe and the reincarnation theory of Buddhism. These theories have affected him since he graduated from high school and joined the Navy. Later, on some occasions, he alters his beliefs about destiny to comfort himself and to explain events in his life or to find a solution for important tasks relegated to him. And now, after deciding on this new environment for the rest of his life, he once again wants to find the answer to his question. However, he is not so sure about the conclusion that he has drawn regarding "what" had created him since the beginning. Even so, he feels more relaxed and seems to be ready, awaiting his vision.
He waves to the dog that is waiting at the fence, her tail wagging eagerly. The old dog knows that she will be going on the boat. The sailor unchains her and goes into the warehouse to get his fishing gear, two fishing rods and an ice chest.
His wife usually accompanies him on fishing trips because she also likes to fish. Today, however, she has decided to stay home to sew window curtains and prepare meals for their daughter and her family's visit that weekend. He has promised to bring her a few good fish so she can steam them for the upcoming weekend. Before he left, she reminded him to take his pills for high blood pressure and to be careful and not overtax himself. He smiles and thinks that she worries too much about him; he is still younger than she thinks.
On his way to the pier, he meets his neighbors who are also on their way to their boats. He ties his dog up outside the bait and fishing gear store and goes inside to buy a can of bait and a bag of ice, exchanging pleasantries with the owner before going to the small-boat landing area.
The morning fogs seem to disappear as he unties the lines and begins heading out to sea. A red buoy with a light on top is undulating in the waves as he steers his boat past. Beyond the float is a black wooden column standing high above the water--this used to be the tie up location for the large boats. On top of the wooden column is an old nest with some branches and leaves moving back and forth in the breeze. A seagull has just landed to rest on the column and the gray-white bird looks at the passing boat, unconcerned. It is accustomed to boats going in and out of the inlet.
The old sailor's boat passes below the town's main bridge. It was built very high above the sea level so that boats could pass under it easily. In the distance there is a railroad bridge that is as high as the main bridge. The two bridges connect the two sides of the inlet. From time to time, a train with many cars passes by. The whistles and the sound of the engines remind him of his hometown, of the many times everyone in his family was awakened in the early morning by the sound of the train's whistle as it passed by his parent's home.
He checks his position on the map and then steers his boat toward a green buoy. Once he passes it, the boat begins to roll a bit. The sea is calm, the wind is blowing softly and the familiar smell of the sea makes him forget everything that he has left behind. He relaxes, takes a deep breath and exhales. He feels a wonderful stream of fresh air mixed with the vapor of the sea penetrate his very soul. He closes his eyes to delight in the smell and a feeling as sentimental as the love between two high school sweethearts. The feeling has brought back memories of his past journeys at sea. He takes a look around him; the sea is so immense, a vast stretch of color, the blue of the sea merging with the azure of the sky. He thinks that if there were no rosy clouds drifting on the far horizon, no one could recognize the boundary between the sea and the sky. Before him, nature appears as a blue carpet spreading endlessly into the horizon. The white lines decorating the carpet are white-capped waves that seem to have been drawn by an angel who has used a magic pen to magnify the beauty of the universe. He recalls a verse from a poem written in 1848 by Cecil Francis H. Alexander that he has memorized:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all.
He whispers these words and maneuvers his boat to the right side of the beach, toward the sea to an area located about 5 nautical miles from shore. He has read the local newspaper to find out in which area black bass are gathering at this time of year. Every season has a different current and each brings different schools of fish searching for food. During this season, there are large schools of black bass that come very close to shore to find the small fish and shrimp that live under the seaweed. These bass like to travel in very large schools, so if the old sailor finds the right spot, he might be able to catch as many bass as permitted by the local authorities. The reason for limiting the number of bass caught by fishermen is to help preserve this endangered species.
The sailor thinks about the laws back home and is saddened. There are countless laws, too many laws that only serve the regime and their government, increasing their powers over citizens who have suffered far too much in the last 24 years under the dictatorship of the Communist party. Here the laws serve to protect the freedom and the rights of the people, including the pursuit of happiness. The word "freedom" does not mean that all citizens can do anything they wish, but that they can do anything that does not violate the freedom of others or that might endanger the national security of the country. It is a little difficult and complicated for him to understand, but the democratic system has worked and been willingly implemented by the people.
He has reached the area that he prefers. He stops and shuts down the engine and lets the boat flow with the ebb tide and roll slowly in the waves. He marks his position on the navigation map and prepares to catch the line. He ruffles the old dog's fur while she prances around him joyfully. She is excited but is used to this kind of activity, so she does not disturb his fishing preparations. This intelligent golden retriever has been with him for seventeen years, since he got her from a Mexican family who could not have a pet in their new apartment and had to give her away. She is a faithful companion who will accompany him in his retirement and for the rest of his life, so she is always allowed to tag along whenever he is outdoors.
He opens the bait can, puts a worm on the hook and casts the line. He pulls the line back in so he can check the direction of current. After adjusting the balancing weight that hangs above the hook, he casts the line to the left of his boat.
The sound of waves against the vessel's hull is clear because it is so quiet all around. From time to time the wind blows, causing a piece of canvas hanging on the wheel to vibrate soundly. The sun has reached eleven o'clock high. The sunbeams pierce the gray clouds and create a spotlight of color, illuminating the area beautifully, as though it is a shining crown above the head of Buddha in a shrine.
The old sailor feels peace in his soul and is very happy that he has made the decision to live in this area for his retirement and the rest of his life. He remembers the day when they first moved to the new house, among strangers, away from their children and no Vietnamese people nearby. His wife often complained because she missed her children and grandchildren very much. But after a short time, she got use to the new and quiet life with her beloved husband, with whom she is very in love and to whom she has been married for over 39 years. It helped that the children visited fairly often, bringing their children to visit their grandparents on weekends. She began to like living in this place and enjoyed the outdoor activities with her husband, the old sailor.
He grows vegetables in a small garden, including Vietnamese water cress, or "rau muống", basil and herbs, and some lemongrass to flavor Hue beef noodle soup,"b˙n b˛ Huế," his wife's famous and delicious dish. He has also recently built a landscaped pond with golden fish swimming in the water that runs down through marble rocks and small "bonsai" trees. Their next-door neighbors seemed unfriendly when they first moved in, but after a couple months, they are friendlier and see each other on a regular basis. The neighbor's wife often makes cakes for them and the husband visits the old sailor in the evening; they sit by the pond to drink beer or watch football together while their wives talk about the latest episode in their favorite soap opera.
The fishing rod suddenly is bent and the old sailor pulls it up strongly. He feels a weight vigorously pulling and shaking the line and then he sees air bubbles spraying over the surface. Under the blue surface there is a black shape of a medium-sized fish struggling back and forth in the deep water, about seven meters from his boat.
" Wow!!! ... This is a big fish ... it must be at least 7 or 8 pounds," he says to himself while retracting the fishing line and moving the fishing rod toward the stern in an effort to pull the fish in his direction. The fish struggles and moves up and down, trying to get off the hook, but more she fights the more deeply imbedded the hook becomes. Hopefully she will tire quickly. The old sailor is carefully reeling in the line and handling the rod skillfully to keep the fish from getting loose.
After more than 10 minutes the battle between the old sailor and the fish is about to come to an end. His arms are tired and the fish is still fighting for her life. The old sailor thinks about his daughter and her two children who will visit him this weekend and he continues to use all his strength in the fight. Finally the fish gives up and stays stillÍthe victory now clearly belongs to the old sailor as he holds a net and pulls the line close to the boat. He holds the fishing rod with his left hand and scoops the bass out of water with the net.
He joyfully watches the fish that lies without moving, breathing slowly on the deck. This is the kind of black sea bass that he used to eat in Chinese restaurants, steamed with green onion and gingerroot. Its flesh is tender and delicious. He cautiously removes the curved metal from the fish's mouth then holds it up high. He is so pleased to have won a trophy from this competition. Suddenly, looking into the watery eyes of the fish, he feels sorry for the poor helpless creature. A strange sensation, a sad emotion courses through him and for a moment he thinks about the reincarnation theory. Then, without hesitating, he holds the sea bass with both hands and tenderly lowers her into the water, letting her swim away. He continues to observe the fish until her shadow gets smaller, disappearing into the dark blue of the ocean. The boat is still floating on the waves, moving toward the shore with the high tide. He puts the fishing rod into the steel pipe on the hull on the starboard side of the boat and gets the thermos that keeps his favorite green tea warm. He pours the tea into a white porcelain cup. The golden insignia of the United States Navy and the Officer's crest were printed on both sides of the cup. On top of the picture of the eagle holding two anchors was the word "CO-Commanding Officer," his tittle when he was in the Republic of Vietnam Navy. This cup was a gift from his son,
a Navy Officer in the United States Navy who graduated from the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, from the class of 1992 and served on board a US Cruiser (CG) in Mediterranean sea.
The green tea that he is drinking is a brand name, "Thiết Quan ┬m", imported from Vietnam for its good flavor. He takes a sip and the weak, bitter taste reminds him of a long ago morning, when his father, who always woke early, would prepare himself a pot of the most famous kind of tea, "Tra Tam Hỷ". The sweet memory of that wintry morning, the rainy season that lasted for months in his hometown suddenly comes back to him while he is alone in the middle of the vast ocean. He feels tears running down his cheeks. He becomes emotional when he remembers anything, including sounds, music, landscapesÍanything at all that might bring back memories from his childhood and his time in the Navy. Sometimes he wants to drop everything and just return to his homeland, but he is afraid that things have changed and that those changes might erase his precious memories from his mind. Therefore he decides to keep his beautiful past in the bottom of his heart and take these precious souvenirs with him when he dies.
He stands up and gets the bag of dog food and gives the dog two bone-shaped biscuits. He looks toward the shore shaping its dark shadow at the end of the boundary of water, where his wife is probably preparing dinner for both of them. His boat is following the wind and flowing with the tide to that direction. He smiles when he thinks that he has to explain to his wife that he released the fish due to his belief in the right to live and to be free. He knows that she will understand and agree with that. Besides, more than anyone else, his wife has always comprehended his actions and has gone along with his decisions before and especially now.
The wind blows in his face and a strange vision suddenly comes to him. What he sees in front of his eyes and around him is a vast blue screen of water, far away is the horizon at the starboard of his boat and a little further are the pink clouds shaping strange pictures of unknown animals. In the furthest distance is the immense and boundless universe, from which the beginning and the existence of the cosmos and the world had taken place after the "BIG BANG," the universe's biggest and most forceful explosion. And over there, also the finish of the journeys of mankind, living creatures and things that had been created by this "BIG BANG".
All of a sudden, it seems that the old sailor has just found the answer to his life; he is so happy, he wants to yell very loudly; he wishes to cheer noisily for himself and to tell his dog, his old friend, about his wonderful discovery. All his life, all of the struggling, fighting, surviving and heartbreakingÍ was to prepare for his journey to return to the beginning which had created him.
The universe that created all living creatures, the existence of the world, all beautiful things, mankind, was only a hypothesized calculated revolution. The commencement is the finish and the end is the beginning of the next period and so on without end because the conclusion of this period is the initiation of the following one.
He is so excited and wants to return home immediately so he can tell his beloved wife about the answer to his quest. He suspects that she will be delighted to hear about this discovery. A great emotion is rising up inside of him.
The sun is already rising to its zenith at twelve o'clock high. The boat is undulating and surging, bobbing with the tide in the direction of the far shore and the white clouds are flowing in the azure sky; the old sailor slowly closes his eyes. He hears somewhere, in the air, the famous words of General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers in South East Asia who defeated the valiant military forces of Japan in Pacific. MacArthur, who also stopped the aggression of the Red Communist Army in Korea and was a graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point once said:
" Old Soldiers never die, they just fade away".
(***) Suggestions for further reading:
Science and Buddhism: at the crossroads
Trinh Xuan Thuan
Astronomy Department, University of Virginia
Updated on Summer 2018