I received a letter from a high school friend of mine the other day. It was in response to one I’d recently sent myself, an apology actually. See, it’d happened that I’d been going through an old email account, reading various correspondences with an objective mix of amusement and interest. And I stumbled upon one that rather made my stomach turn.
The two of us had a dispute, evidently. There’s no greater testimony to the maturity of the matter than the fact that we’d attempted to resolve it with internet usernames like “gr8futballplyr11” as our carrier pigeons. What’s worse was the fact- and please excuse my French in playing judge and jury for a moment- that I had been somewhat of an ass.
But as I scrolled through pages of what could easily have been the sadistic musings of a Nicholas Spark character, I had to admit that I had no memory of the altercation. If you’d asked me beforehand, I would have told you that my greatest flaws as an adolescent would have been an awkward, diminished confidence that any male with braces, pimples and a breaking voice is bound to acquire. I evolved, of course. Necessity demanded that I learn to chat, joke, flirt and interact in a variety of fashions. For the alternative was exile to the land of lonely lunches where the only possibility for a prom date was our elderly librarian, Miss Potts (lovely lady, really, but I had no aspirations).
But I want to believe that I’d survived among the fittest because of Dickensian protagonism. Not because I took out others at the knees.
So, ten years later, I wrote an apology.
In October of 1820, the men from the whaling ship Essex stopped on Charles Island, an eastern outlier of the Galapagos. They gathered fresh water, unloaded waste, and stockpiled provisions, mostly in the form of the giant tortoises for which the island was known.
As they were preparing to depart for the vast whaling grounds of the western Pacific, a certain Englishman named Thomas Chappel decided to prank his shipmates. It was early morning. And they were out searching the undergrowth for a final tortoise when Chappel (described in the diary of a fellow sailor as “fond of fun at whatever cost”) lit a small fire in the underbrush. It was the height of dry season, and the fire quickly spread out of control. Eventually it covered most of the tiny island. And, though none of his fellow sailors were harmed in the fire, it decimated the ecosystem, killing thousands of lizards, birds and, tortoises. The damage was permanent; Charles was the first of the Galapagos tortoise species to go extinct.
Which makes this one of those historical anecdotes that prompt English folks today to mutter: “Why couldn’t the bastard’ve been Scottish?”
Sometimes I think my life is littered with Charles Islands. Perhaps this is why we’re told: “don’t look back.” For if we do, we are apt to see are smoldering land masts amidst our ocean of existence.
I don’t mean to say that I’m an awful person, or ever was. On the whole, I believe I am a generally amicable chap. But it’s startling to realize what you’re capable of. Humility beckons us to recall that many Nazi executioners were recruited from the ordinary, working-class of society: salesman, business owners, waiters and at least one pharmacist.
Thus, I am often shocked by the telling of my own history. “Life is not our life,” Julian Barnes wrote, “It is merely the story we have told about our life. To others. And to ourselves.”
So life- lived truly– ought to be an apology: for what else can we really say? The sins of childhood are enough to buoy a lifetime of blubbering confession. I recall Flannery O’Connor’s teaching that anyone who survived childhood had plenty about which to write. It makes sense. I mean Jesus wasn’t that old when he was crucified. Limitless as it may be, God’s grace still incarnated human capacities.
And O’Connor, being a good Catholic, believed in the sacrament of ordinary.
Which means I’m never really far from grace. I’ve lit fires I cannot put out. But perhaps there are rain clouds where smoke should be. Perhaps the cross really does transcend everything. And perhaps the wood is strong and it’s nails firm enough to hold the weight of Christ as perpetrator and victim.
That’s the only hope we’ve got.
My friend wrote back and was charitable, or at least trying to be. They said could hardly recall the incident themselves. And they hoped I was well.
So, I guess, that’s that.
Except I wish the bastard had been Scottish.