No More Worlds to Conquer
It was in the town of Dora, Oregon, in a room lined with bookshelves with a combined length equal to that of the Bismarck – and not by coincidence - that the question first arose.
I had been interviewing Don Walsh, who at the time was the only man alive to have been to the deepest point in the world’s oceans, a feat he had accomplished fully 50 years earlier when he piloted a wonky steel-and-glue contraption called a bathyscaphe to Challenger Deep, on the floor of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. For an hour he had been patiently narrating the story of the voyage to the bottom – the very, very bottom, a place less frequently visited by man than the moon. Though polite, he had told his story many times before, and his tone was automatic.
It was time to change the subject. What happened next, I asked? What was the next step in life after the voyage?
His face brightened and lightened. It lost five years in an instant.
“Well,” he said, “a lot of people think I died.”
What Walsh did do next was anything but die. He commanded a submarine. He served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. He gained three graduate degrees, worked in the Pentagon, founded a new university institute with the rank of dean, and built a successful marine consultancy. He visited the Arctic and Antarctic so often – over 50 times – and did so much there that there is an Antarctic ridge, the Walsh Spur, named after him. He dived in Russian Mir submersibles on the Titanic and Bismarck (hence the precise length of his bookshelves).
He told me about these things with bracing enthusiasm, an hour and a half of detail. And he did so with such radiance because, by and large, nobody ever asks him about any of those things. For the rest of his life, all anyone will ever want to know about is the time that he went to the bottom of the sea in that funny little submersible.
We do odd things with biography. We might occasionally immerse ourselves in the detail of a famous person’s life, but ultimately, we reduce them to a line, a statement, based on the most pivotal thing they ever did. The former prime minister. The Olympic medalist. The first man to the bottom of the sea.
But what happens when that biographical kernel, that top line of the Wikipedia entry, is set so young in life? Walsh was 27 in January 1960 when he climbed into the Trieste and sank through more than seven miles of the Pacific Ocean into the Mariana Trench. There was a lot of life left to fill after that, and so he filled it, to an exemplary degree, and still does. But all that living will never change the single-line distillation of his life: the man who went to the bottom.
That was the genesis of this book. What do you do next when the defining moment of your life has already happened?
I started with that generation of Americans of whom Walsh is a typical example: mostly military men in the post-war era turning to endeavor and exploration. I interviewed five Apollo veterans – three who walked on the moon, and two who served on Apollo 8, arguably the most visionary mission of them all, the first to leave Earth’s orbit and travel to another world, the first to see our planet in its entirety, as a ball hanging there in the nothing. I found and interviewed the fantastically irascible Chuck Yeager at Edwards Air Force base, where he had broken the sound barrier more than 60 years earlier. I went to Florida to find Joe Kittinger, who jumped out of a hot air balloon from the edge of space in 1960 and set a sky-diving record that stood for 52 years, and was only broken when he helped somebody else to do so.
Next, I turned to sport. I wanted to have an Olympiad in the book, and settled upon Nadia Comaneci, who fitted the book’s theme perfectly. She scored the first ever perfect 10 in Olympic competition – then the second, and the third, and a total of seven over the next few days – and did so at the age of just 14, before reaching puberty, from which point onward, from a sporting point of view, it was all downhill. She spent years trapped in an increasingly desperate Romania before risking her life to defect. I found her in the unlikely surroundings of Norman, Oklahoma.In Europe I looked for Reinhold Messner, the first man to summit all 14 of the 8,000-metre mountains in the world, and owner of a host of other records and achievements; I found and interviewed him in a castle in the Italian Alps. I wanted a footballer, and thought long and hard about whom to approach, then decided on the most obscure member of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning side: Ray Wilson, who left football shortly afterwards to become an undertaker in Yorkshire, a change of direction as absolute as it was possible to take. I sought a musician: not a one-hit wonder, but a successful performer who, like it or not, will always be known for one song above all others. So I asked Gloria Gaynor what it’s like to have your life defined by I Will Survive.
Then I thought: not everybody wants their iconic, pivotal moment. What of those who have it forced upon them? What of those who have to overcome the thing they are most famed for?
I sought out the captain and chief flight attendant of United 232, a famed air crash that was at once tragedy and miracle, through which almost two thirds of a plane full of people who should all have died survived, but more than 100 perished. How does one move on from such a thing? By talking about it over and over again, was the answer, and trying to bring some good from it. I found John McCarthy, who spent five and a half years chained to a wall in Beirut and then built a career in Middle Eastern journalism when one might have expected him to run in the other direction; and one of the last survivors of the Sandakan Prisoner of War camp in Borneo, perhaps the most brutal camp of them all.
The experience of meeting them all was extraordinary, and a fabulous privilege, to hear these people speak while they are still around to listen to. It was an adventure to track them down and a relief to find that none of them wanted to dwell on the past as if life was completed in a single day in their thirties or twenties or teens.
If I had to draw a single conclusion from all their wisdom, it would be this: that there is a fundamental richness to life that stops it ever truly being defined by a moment or ordeal, and that the best of us don’t dwell on those moments any more than is healthy, but instead look to move forward, and to find new things to be inspired and affected by. From having had the pleasure of spending time with so many of them, it’s comforting to report that they didn’t spend those long suffixed years just looking backwards.