Showing posts with label coincidences. Show all posts
Showing posts with label coincidences. Show all posts

14 January 2014

What are the Odds?

by Terence Faherty

In The Dark Knight Rises, the third film in the latest Batman cycle, Commissioner Gordon, played by Gary Ohlman, tells a young policeman played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "You're a detective now, son.  You're not allowed to believe in coincidence."

The same admonition might be made to every writer who undertakes a mystery story or book.  In fact, I've heard it paraphrased on Boucheron panels (the highest possible authority) and read it in how-to books.  Eliminate coincidence. 

The goal is understandable.  It's unsatisfying for the reader to plow through a mystery novel in the wake of the fearless detective only to have that detective solve the mystery because he happens to see a billboard that makes him think of something or bumps into a character who holds the vital clue.  A related and equally irritating device was a favorite of B-movie writers in old Hollywood and still pops up in the B movies direct descendant, television.  When all seems foggiest, the hero's sidekick will make an extraneous remark that gives the hero a much needed kick in the old mental pants.  You know this has happened when the hero says, "Say that again!"  The sidekick will then repeat the wrong part of what he or she just said to further prolong the "suspense."

But while the goal of eliminating coincidence is understandable, overemphasizing that goal  weakens the mystery's chances of being mistaken for serious literature.  Coincidences occur in real life, so eliminating them makes a mystery story less like real life and more like a puzzle. 

I collect real-life coincidences, which I find fascinating.  One of my favorites was passed on to me a few years ago by my wife, Jan.  She was attending a football game at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, with old friends from her sorority pledge class none of whom had seen the others in twenty years.  During the first half, the woman on Jan's left (I'll call her
Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium
Lois) remarked that she was hoping to visit someone while she was in town, the pharmacist who had given her a part-time job when she was an undergraduate.  Later, the woman on Jan's right (I'll call her Mary) said that her son, a Purdue student, was attending the game and would stop by at halftime to be introduced.  Sure enough, at halftime Mary's son showed up.  He mentioned in passing that he had scored a great seat for the game, right next to an interesting old guy who had run a pharmacy in West Lafayette years before.  Right.   He was none other than Lois's old employer.  In a stadium that holds well over 60,000 souls, Mary's son just happened to be seated next to him.



History is, of course, full of coincidences.  Just last week, I ran into a beauty.  Or rather, a whole string of beauties.  The U.S.S. Ward, a destroyer, is generally credited with being the
The U.S.S. Ward
first American ship to engage the enemy in World War II.  Under the command of Lieutenant Commander William Outerbridge, the Ward attacked and sank a Japanese submarine attempting to enter Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, shortly before the Japanese carrier planes arrived.  Destroyers are named after naval heroes.  So who was the original Ward?  He was James Warren Ward, the first naval officer killed in the Civil War.  That's right.  The first ship to engage the enemy in one long, bloody war was named after the first naval officer to die in another long, bloody war.  Not coincidental enough?  How's this? After serving under different commanders in different Pacific actions, the Ward met her fate off the Philippines when she was struck by a Japanese kamikaze.  That occurred on December 7, 1944, three years to the day after the Ward fired the starting gun for the whole Pacific campaign.  But wait, as the hucksters say
The last fight of the Ward
on television, there's more.  The kamikaze started uncontrollable fires on the ship, and the crew abandoned her.  Another destroyer, the U.S.S. O'Brien was called up to finish off the wreck.  The O'Brien was named for Jeremiah O'Brien, an American commander at the Battle of Machias, the first naval action of the American Revolution.  So the first ship to fire on the enemy in World War II, which was named for the first officer to die in the Civil War, was sunk by a ship named for the man who won the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War.  Holy synchronicity, Batman!  (The fact that I just paraphrased Burt Ward in a paragraph about the U.S.S. Ward is purely coincidental.)  Can I top that?  As a matter of fact, I can.  On December 7, 1944, the O'Brien was commanded by William Outerbridge, the same man who had commanded the Ward at Pearl Harbor three years earlier.  What are the odds?


Let's get back to mystery writing.  If coincidences are a part of life and eliminating them slavishly makes a book less real to life but using them to resolve a mystery plot is unsatisfying, what's the answer?  It is to use coincidence, if you've a mind to, at the beginning of the story, as the thing that sets the plot in motion.  It could be a chance remark that answers a long-unanswered question and so leads to murder.  Agatha Christie used that one.  It could be a scrap of old, foreign newspaper that happens to contain a story of vital interest to the person who happens to find it.  Dorothy Sayers used that one.  It could be the accidental coming together of old friends or enemies or comrades in arms in an unlikely place.  Los Angeles, say.  Raymond Chandler used that one.  All three of those writers had long and happy careers.  Not coincidentally.  

31 January 2012

Stranger than Fiction – Sailing Stories

by Dale C. Andrews

Sometimes life coughs up coincidences no writer of fiction would dare copy.

                                                                                            Stephen King
                                                                                            11/22/63
   
    Stephen King’s observation about the strange quirks that real life can dish up was on my mind while my wife Pat and I were on vacation, under sail in the Caribbean. When contemplating the grand scheme of things I generally tend toward agnosticism.  But one thing seems clear to me:  while I can't discern much about the order or design of our sometimes crazy universe, there does seem to be a sense of humor underlying it.  Things seem to happen that really shouldn't -- when the play-by-play announcer says that a particular ball player has never homered twice in a game, that is the time when exactly that seems most likely to occur.

  Sometimes the world's humor is simply unbelievably coincidental.  But in any event there are odd little rhymes that repeatedly seem to be tossed our way.  And as Stephen King acknowledges, some of those coincidental happenings can be so strange that were they to be used in a fictional narrative editors would likely roll their eyes while muttering “forced.”

    Since I was sailing when I was thinking these thoughts – indeed, I am in the saloon of the Royal Clipper in Martinique as I begin drafting this piece – it is probably only natural that two of the real-life stories that occurred to me, and that are probably too unbelievably coincidental to ever be offered up as fiction, involve sailing. 


    Sailing has been part of our lives for years.  Over the past two decades we have owned a series of sailboats that have provided our weekend escapes from Washington, D.C. to the near-by Chesapeake Bay.  These sailboats have included a 28 foot 1967 Pearson Triton, a 32 foot Hunter Vision, and finally a 38 foot Morgan center cockpit.  Since retiring two years ago we have moved over to “the dark side” and now own a 1982 35 foot Carver diesel motor yacht, Incommunicado.

a typical Pearson Triton
    The first sailing story reaches back to 1990, when we still had the Pearson Triton.  I was an attorney in private practice at the time and one of the cases I was handling involved a failed production of West Side Story that had played briefly at the Kennedy Center before folding.  The case initially involved a simple issue -- an attempt by a party to collect a relatively small amount after a check written during the course of the show's production  bounced.  The case should have been a three day wonder at most.  But instead the lawyers and the various parties watched in growing horror as the litigation developed a life of its own – counter claims and cross claims piled into the docket.  The case eventually dragged on for over five years and became the type of litigation that every attorney encounters a couple times during his or her career – a case that simply refused to go away.  Borrowing from Mr. Dickens, it  was a Jarndyce and Jarndyce. 

    I represented the company that had provided stage management for the production.  There were many other lawyers in the case, but I became particular friendly with the attorney for the Kennedy Center, Jim Hibey, another private practitioner.  Jim and I got to know each other pretty well as the case ground along at the pace of a glacier trying to move up hill.   One Friday afternoon, after a particularly excruciating day in Superior Court during which absolutely nothing was accomplished and tempers flared, Jim and I found ourselves standing together on the stairs of the courthouse, our collective shoulder slumped and our collective wits at end.  “Boy, do I need to get away from this,” I muttered.  “Me too,” replied Jim.  “At least it’s Friday.”  We waved and parted.


    An aside here:  When I need to get away from a bad week I am fairly well located.  There are lots of great things to do in Washington, D.C. on a summer weekend.  To the west are the mountains.  Traveling east you can easily reach the beaches of Delaware and Maryland. Closer to home there are theaters and all of the museums and restaurants you could hope for.  In other words, choices abound.

    As I drove away from Superior Court, however, I was thinking about the Chesapeake Bay.  So when I got home I said to Pat “let’s take the boat over to St. Michaels this weekend.”  She gathered the kids, and threw some necessities into our boat bag while I phoned the St. Michaels Inn and Marina and secured reservations for a slip.

St. Michaels Inn and Marina -- slips and poolside
    There are many great sailing opportunities in the Chesapeake, and St. Michaels is one of our favorites.  It is a beautiful colonial town, lying about 29 miles away from the slip we then occupied in an Annapolis marina.  So we drove to the boat that Friday night, and Saturday morning we set sail, cruising south east down the Chesapeake, then north east up Eastern Bay and finally south east down the Miles River.

    Late in the afternoon, after a great sail, we were an invigorating distance away from Washington.  When we reached St. Michaels we pulled in the sails and motored to our designated overnight slip at the marina.  After tying up, I left Pat and the kids in the boat while I walked toward the pool and the marina office to check in.  Boy, was it ever good to be away.

    As I walked along the edge of the pool a voice from behind a book said “afternoon, Dale.”  I looked down, startled.  Stretched out on a lounge, also forgetting the week he had just been through, was Jim Hibey.

Herrington Harbour South
     Story number two is, I think, stranger still.  It took place in 2003, after Pat and I had moved up two sailboats to the Morgan 38.  By then we had also retreated from the hustle and bustle of Annapolis and moved south to Herrington Harbour Marina in Rosehaven Maryland.  Herrington Harbour is still the marina of our dreams.  Not so much so that Morgan 38.  As noted above, it is a thing of the past.  But that is another story. 

the Morgan 38
    When we bought her, the Morgan was a huge step up for us.  Configured with two cabins and two baths, the boat could easily accommodate a live-aboard lifestyle.  We, by contrast, were day sailors, sometimes weekend sailors, and even more often we did not take our boat out at all, preferring to use it instead as a stationary condo, albeit with masts.   When we first purchased the Morgan I was in love with the boat and enthusiastic.   I channeled this enthusiasm to a degree, particularly in the land-locked months of winter, by surfing the internet looking for other owners from whom I could learn more about our new toy.

    I soon found a link to Chris Mooney, who owned the same model Morgan that we did and who then lived on the Texas Gulf shore.  Chris and I struck up an email correspondence and about a year later he and his companion Barbara quit their respective jobs and took off to the Caribbean, living aboard their boat Moonsail and exploring the many islands of the West Indies.  Before they left Chris set up a website to chronicle their journeys, and emailed weekly updates of their itinerary to a long list of friends, including yours truly.

     As I have previously noted, Pat and I sail the Chesapeake Bay,  which is a most forgiving body of water.  The bottom is generally sand or mud, so running aground is, at worst, embarrassing, and the shore is always within sight.  Our marina, Herrington Harbour, (where we still have a slip) has a fine swimming pool, a sand beach and good restaurant -- all  a short stroll away from our boat.  Its Caribbean ambiance may be a bit ersatz, but it is not bad for 38 miles from home. 

   Chris, by contrast, was doing the real sailing in the real Caribbean.  He and Barb were (and are) out there navigating coral reefs, clearing in and out of foreign ports, and sailing long reaches between sparsely populated islands while all the time either avoiding or weathering tropical storms.  As I followed Chris' website and read his postings from various Caribbean islands that we had visited only under the supervision of captains more capable than me, I would marvel to Pat about Moonsail's log.  Here was a couple sailing the same boat that we owned who were off doing things that we would never have the courage or skill to do ourselves.  

    One summer Chris and Barb headed north in Moonsail, no doubt looking to escape the Caribbean summer.  I think they eventually got as far north as Connecticut before beginning their journey back.  On their way south to the islands in early fall they sailed down the Chesapeake, having crossed into the bay through the C and D canal in Delaware Bay.

    After a long day of sailing down the Chesapeake Chris and Barb were looking for a comfortable slip for the night.  I had never told them that we kept our boat at Herrington Harbour South, but by the time they were sailing south of Annapolis our marina was a natural stopping point for them.  They radioed ahead and were assigned a slip on A dock – the same dock where our Morgan, Double Jeopardy, was tied up and where our Carver, Incommunicado, now lives.  When they reached the marina Chris entered the rock lined channel protecting the harbor and steered Moonsail toward A dock  Then, during the course of executing a turn that I make every time I have taken any boat I have ever owned into the bay – Moonsail hit the rock wall at the end of the channel.  The collision  took out her rudder. 

Incommunicado in her slip at Herrington Harbour South
   I don’t think I could write this story as fiction with a straight face.  O. Henry perhaps could, but I cannot.  The coincidence underlying the story is so symmetrical that it doesn't ring true even though it in fact happened.  The idea that I long feared what Chris accomplished on a daily basis, but that what I accomplished every time I steered our boat out of my slip ultimately proved his undoing sounds simply too contrived to be believable had it not actually happened.  It reads like a cobbled together story constructed solely to support a moral at the end.

As Stephen King observed, funny what life coughs up sometimes.