Looking West

I first arrived in New York under the spell of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’d read The Great Gatsby at least twice that year – once while still in northern Michigan and then again after my move. 

His city has vanished, but when I look out my window today, I am looking west.  The George Washington Bridge is just in sight.  The Palisades are beyond the Hudson, and beyond them lie New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Ohio and on and on, the fields of the republic rolling up to the Rocky Mountains – “the wheat and the prairies and the lost Swede towns” of the American Middle West.  Gatsby is set in New York but its heart seems to be on the frontier, in so-called flyover country. 

Every time I read the book I think of home.

 Little Girl's Point, above the beach & overlooking the Lake.

Little Girl's Point, above the beach & overlooking the Lake.

Before Jay Gatsby was Jay Gatsby, he was simply James Gatz, and he “had been beating his way along the south shore of Lake Superior as a clam digger or a salmon fisher.”  He suddenly meets Dan Cody, a millionaire with a yacht, and James saves Dan from a Superior squall, and gets taken on as mate.  The fateful moment is mentioned only in passing, but apparently occurs at a place called Little Girl Bay. 

The more I consider it, the more it seems obvious: though there’s no real proof, Little Girl Bay is, I think, the same Little Girl’s Point that’s just fifteen miles north of my parents’ house.  With its aquamarine water and red clay cliffs backing a wide sand beach that stretches out over a mile, the Point is famously a favorite spot for swimmers and sailors.  The book also mentions Duluth, Minnesota – a sizable port only two hours by land from the Point, and perhaps five hours from Minneapolis/St. Paul, where Fitzgerald himself was born and raised. 

 Lake Superior near Madeline Island, the Apostles

Lake Superior near Madeline Island, the Apostles

Could it stand to reason that Fitzgerald and I have gone swimming in the same spot? Sunburned on the same sand?  Clambered up the same cliffs and looked at the same vista?  If the Little Girl Bay on page 106 of Gatsby is the same as my Little Girl’s Point, then I think we have.  

And when I go home to Michigan and reread The Great Gatsby for the umpteenth time, I will think inevitably eastward to New York and a moment when, for the first time, I visited Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan.  There was a banner unfurled across City Pier A.  On it was magic, from the last chapter of Fitzgerald's novel, which I knew by then by heart, and have ever since equated with new horizons.  

For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

Diving the Wreck, Pt. 2

The Lake and I are not off to a good start. 

My wetsuit is more buoyant than expected and hitting the water is like flopping onto a rug.  Then my heavy tank settles and flips me over to face the sky – grey clouds are rolling in over the blue – and I must be making a racket with my thrashing – really, I’m flapping with my arms and legs at the water, trying to right myself – but can’t hear a damn thing since my hood has suctioned itself over my ears and cuts out everything but the rasp of my regulator and the thumping of my pulse.  My right fin is slipping off.  I can’t reach it.  Most dive accidents happen at the surface.

Wait, I think.  Remember the fundamental rule.  Relax and breathe.

I lie still and float on my back.  I breathe evenly.  Slowly me and my suit and all the other alien accouterments on my body adjust to one another, and rather than an ungainly turtle on dry land I become something more like a graceful turtle in the sea, because when my pulse and air intake even out so does my brain and suddenly it’s easy as pie to coordinate my limbs.  I flip onto my stomach, work a finger in at the back of my fin, pull the heel up snug, loosen my limbs, and adjust my mask and regulator.

A descent into dark water is like entering a room wearing a blindfold.  You can sense the space and know your general direction, but know nothing of the terrain.  In some cases, if diving from an anchored boat as here, you can follow the anchor line down; you can draw yourself down hand over hand. 

At forty feet is a thermocline and instantly the temperature drops ten degrees, and my seven-millimeter wetsuit is about as effective as tissue paper.  Five minutes without any suit at all in this water could kill a horse.  Superior is all drama.

But there, tucked another fifty feet down under the invisible plane of the thermocline, throwing off its own faint aura of rusty light, is the hull of a boat upright on the bottom.  I descend directly over the wheelhouse, and beyond are cargo hatches and railings and what might be a little crane for loading and unloading, all perfectly preserved.  The aft tower is but a dark shadow.

This is a little ship, not a great freighter like the Edmund Fitzgerald.  The story of its sinking is non-violent: no one died, the ship having been anchored and its crew mostly ashore when a northeaster’ came rolling down from Canada.  It foundered quickly and has been sitting here, perfectly preserved in 120 feet of water, for almost fifteen years. The boat will likely sit there for another hundred or more.  The cold slows time to a crawl – world without end.

My cousin Ben is with me on this trip and he is trying for his Advanced Open Water dive certification, for which he must perform a simple math problem at depth. 

The deeper a diver goes, the more rapidly nitrogen builds in the body and what results is a state of nitrogen narcosis, that famous rapture of the deep.  Slowed reaction times, disregard for personal safety, etc. – it is like being drunk.  Nitrogen narcosis can be deadly when you’re ninety feet down, so it’s important to be able to recognize the onset and stay mindful.

When I completed this same task for my AOW certification, I ended up solving a long division problem as if it were an addition problem.  Math is not my strong suit.  

Now we touch down and kneel on the deck.  Ben is handed a white plastic slate with his problem on it.  He stares for a second, scribbles with a waterproof pencil, and hands the slate back to the divemaster, who looks and shakes his head and writes: solve.  We all peer at the slate, our heads bumping and hair mingling.  We laugh in bursts of bubbles.  Ben only recopied the problem.  It takes a few more minutes of scribbling before he gets a gold star. 

Our little group swims the length of the ship, peering through the railings out at the void and down at the cargo hatches and up at three silvery Lake trout sheltering in the crane.  Some ships are scuttled, especially in warmer latitudes, to form an artificial reef where fish and other sea life can thrive and we divers can watch.  But here Earth is a strange and brutal planet, and the natives are few.

Pretty soon Ben and I are shivering uncontrollably.  We work back to the wheelhouse and the anchor line.

Before the thermocline, before the return of sunlight and of warmth, I pause and look at the disappearing wreck.  Forever on the edge between life and afterlife; a ghost in the water.  

It seems to hold down an answer, but I do not know the question.