Since I was a child I’ve always had this thing about the South Pacific, and, no, I’m not talking about the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, whose music still grabs me. No, I’m talking genuine volcanic rock strung out, pearl like, across the equatorial Pacific.
I’ve never gotten there, unless you count a military stopover in Honolulu on my way to Korea or our trip (Karen and I) to New Zealand in 2006. No, I’m thinking of other island hops: places like Tahiti, the Marquesas, Somoa and the Cook Islands. OK, let’s throw in Pitcairn Island, too. Hey, I’m thinking the likes of Captain Bligh, Gauguin, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
How did this hankering ever get started? Hard to say, but I think I drew from the deep well of books I insatiently imbibed as a street child lured daily into the quiet coolness of the Montgomery Street Library, the next best thing to a ten cent matinee ticket to the Jumbo theater on Girard Avenue or an open hydrant in providing relief from Phiilly’s baked asphalt on hot summer afternoons.
In particular, there was Bligh’s account, popularized hither and yon, in the Nordhoff and Hall’s riveting novel version of a mutinous crew and the aftermath of 17 souls set adrift for 41 days across 3600 miles, before finding safety. Just thinking about this book makes me salivate at reading it again.
The novel account had its movie version, one of several beginning in 1935, starring the swashbuckling Clark Gable as mutineer leader Fletcher Christian in bold rebellion against the tyrannical Bligh, portrayed by Charles Laughton. A box office biggie that shreds historical truth, I didn’t get to the Jumbo replay until many years later. I liked sequels, so I tried Pitcairn Island. By God, I was hooked!
I’d be in my bedroom, several hours nightly, supposedly working on my high school algebra, when the truth was I’d be looking at maps, charting mind-journeys. Their very names spiced my excitement: Manihiki, Pukapuka, Yasawa, etc. In another era, I’d have been a runaway, perhaps sailing with Columbus or Magellan.
Fast forward into adulthoood, I’d venture into travel agencies and ransack their slick, glossy pamphlets of South Pacific cruises, always in the end smacking into the reality that such things cost money, lots of it.
In my late twenties, however, dream nearly took on verisimilitude when I was granted the next best thing: permanent resident status in New Zealand, with a teaching post waiting for me in Hawera in Taranawki on the North Island. As it turned out, this gave way to a greater priority–finishing my graduate studies. My wife and I, nonetheless, did visit Hawera on our memorable New Zealand venture in 2006. Still, no South Pacific paradisic lagoons!
After graduate studies, I went through a French phase, learning French and pursuing its art, especially the Impressionists and traveling to their haunts like Aix-en-Province and nearby Mont St. Victoire with their Cezanne echoes. But then I also discovered Gauguin and, naturally, quite understood his flight from the Paris bourse to, yes, the South Pacific.
In later years, I would catch-up again with Robert Louis Stevenson. (What child in that video-game free era of my early youth wouldn’t have enjoyed the likes of Treasure Island?) In graduate school, Stevenson’s sentient lyricism captivated me. Even more, I admired his uncommon fortitude in the face of debilitating illness. Then, of course, there was his leave-taking for Somoa, where his final home, Villa Vailima ( now a museum), gazes down into a verdant velvet of swaying palm, edged by Pacific waters.
I’m older now, and pragmatism has undoubtedly pinned my romantic palette like a butterfly to a wall. I also know that it’s the imagining and not the obtaining that often yields the most, or something like Keats meant when he wrote, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter” (Ode on a Grecian Urn). As a Jungian devotee, I know the universality of the Edenic quest and the lotus eater lure of its garden. I suspect, too, much of that once pristine garden world has now been sullied by commercial interests and tourist hordes.
Still, in those langorous moments that sometimes sweep ashore into daily life, my thoughts drift to paradisiacal islands like Raratonga, Bora Bora, Tauata, Moorea, Raiatea, and Aiutaki; soft murmurings of attending, giggling maidens; falling coconuts; gentle breezes; slumbrous waves; sheltering lagoons with coral necklace; and of life as approximating what in our musings we mortals sometimes dub “heaven” with its reprieve from time and event.
I think again of Keats (Ode to a Nightingale). Am I awake, or do I sleep?
Do well. Be well.