I spent a day in Los Angeles catching up with old friends and wandering the streets of El Pueblo. It’s a nostalgic stroll, as my grandmother used to take me to Olvera Street back when the abuelas would make fresh tortillas on hot stones. Now, the street looks much different and they sell luchador masks instead of tortillas.
The Coast Starlight leaves LA just after 10 in the morning on Saturday. This is one of the most beautiful train rides in America and I’m looking forward to some gorgeous views of the ocean. I think many people don’t realize how large California really is. According the Congressional Research Office, the coastline is about 840 miles long. We will still be in California when the sun rises tomorrow.
I have a 12:30 reservation in the dining car and I sit down beside an older guy in red plaid and across from an Asian man in bright orange. They are both named Bill. One Bill was born in Toronto, moved to Kansas City when he was small, and has lived in Missouri ever since.
The other Bill was born in Taiwan, in the southern end of Taipei. His Chinese name is Wai Lung (if you speak Mandarin, I invite you to correct my spelling). It means “keep cemetery,” he tells me. He was given that name because he is the oldest child and it’s his responsibility to take care of the ancestors who have died. “It’s a big responsibility,” he says.
Kansas City Bill is making a similar trip to mine. He started at home, went west to LA and is now on his way to Vancouver. He’ll hop a Canadian train there headed to visit family in Toronto. Then, he’ll take the easterly route to return to Missouri. He’s ridden this train, the Coast Starlight, at least a half dozen times and he “likes it just fine.”
KC Bill is a big NPR fan. He wants to talk about his favorite radio shows, and how much he misses listening to Garrison Keillor on “Prairie Home Companion.” He’s also a big fan of Paula Poundstone on “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.” Our discussion about radio personalities leaves Taiwan Bill behind. He has no idea what we’re talking about, so I change the subject.
Taiwan Bill is on his way to meet with a client in Portland. The rest of his colleagues decided to take a plane but Bill thought that, rather than sit in a hotel room for a day waiting for the meeting, he’d see some of the United States from the railroad tracks. He says the high speed rail in Taiwan goes almost 220 miles an hour, but many people choose to ride the slower train so they can enjoy the views.
The family next to us is wrestling with their two wired toddlers. “They’ll be asleep in a couple hours,” Taiwan Bill tells me. “Yes,” I answer, “But the two hours until then are going to be tough on the parents.”
At this point, there’s a break in the trees and the window is suddenly filled with the blue water of the Pacific. The diners rush to get out their phones and snap pictures.
The other story I heard today is mine. I thought carefully about whether to share this, but it seems unfair to spend two weeks asking others to tell me their stories and then refuse to share mine.
For 40 years, I’ve told a story about my father’s death that, as it turns out, wasn’t true and I heard the truth today.
My dad was a marine geologist and the first man to pilot a mini submarine. He died when I was nine months old. My mother almost never spoke of him, but here’s what I thought happened: Dad was in a mini sub with another man, trying to hoist a boat off the ocean floor near Catalina Island. Something went wrong, the sub started to sink, the other guy accidentally kicked my dad in the head as he was struggling to get out of the sub, and my father drowned.
This afternoon, I spoke for the first time with the man who was in that submarine with my father. As it turns out, he wasn’t just some other guy, he and my dad were close friends. They went to graduate school together, spent months working in Alaska as a team, and Rich stayed out our house for a period of some weeks when he was looking for a house in Southern California.
I spoke with Rich on the phone for the first time. He seemed surprised that no one in my family had ever reached out to him before now, to ask about what happened to Dad.
Rich says that after working for various companies around the world, he and my father ended up together at Scripps, a firm that consulted for oil companies. They would dive often, or take the mini sub if they needed to go deeper than scuba gear allows.
They got a call one weekend saying they were needed to recover a wreak near Catalina. Neither of them wanted to go. They’d been out of town and wanted to spend the weekend at home, but work is work, so off they went. They were told that a speed boat at flipped and sunk and it needed to be hauled to the surface. Rumer had it that the boat belonged to the actor Steve McQueen.
Rich and my father climbed into the little craft, with Dad piloting up top and Rich manning the mechanical arm from below. They found the wreck, brought down a line from the ship above, and hooked the boat. At one point, Dad said he was bored sitting in the pilot seat and wanted to work the arm, so the men switched places.
As they were coming up, though, someone on the ship decided to re-secure the wreck and it came loose. It fell, sliced sideways through the water, and smashed into the sub where Rich and my father were hoping to finish up the job and head home. Their craft began to fill with water and they could feel it sinking.
They waited until the sub had filled completely, then opened the hatch and pushed out. “I could feel Headlee and he could feel me,” Rich tells me. Rich began to swim, but passed out and was discovered floating unconscious a couple minutes later. The minutes passed and they couldn’t find my father.
Eventually, they found him on the sea floor. It had been seven or eight minutes since the impact with the wrecked boat. They couldn’t revive him.
“I still don’t know why he didn’t make it,” Rich says. “He was a much better swimmer than I was. It could have been his boots, though. Larry always wore these knee-high rubber boots and I think they might have filled with water and dragged him down. He kicked them off at some point. We found them on the sea floor, not far from where he was.”
Rich went to visit my mother and grandparents so he could answer their questions, but his eardrums had been damaged during the accident and he struggled to hear them. He had to testify in the lawsuit that followed when my mother sued the company. “After that,” he says, “An iron curtain descended. I never heard from anyone again.”
“Your dad was a great guy,” Rich tells me, “I think about the accident all the time. It changed my life.”
Rich wrote a book about his experiences exploring the sea floor as a geologist and one of the chapters describes the accident. He’s going to send me the book.
It’s hard to describe how it feels to know something all your life and find that it wasn’t true. My father’s death changed so much about my life and the lives of my siblings. He was 32 years old when he died and he left behind four children, including one infant who would mourn him all the more for never having known him. It’s difficult to accept that all that may have been caused by a stupid pair of rubber boots.
Suffice it to say that, should we ever meet on a train, this is not one of the stories I would share. Some tales don’t require discussion. They’re simply meant to be remembered. At least now my memory is true.