My Ticket Out

Papaya

Photo: H. Zell

When the plane hit the water, I must have been unconscious. And how I got to shore is anyone’s guess. But, I got there alive. The sand was collecting in my underwear in the surf, pushed up there through my pant legs. Then, I guess I must have pulled myself further onto the bone-white beach. I don’t remember how I did that either. Maybe the tide went out, and I stayed where I was. I don’t know. All I could hear was the surf. And then, I fell asleep again, for I don’t know how long.

When I woke up again, it was just before dawn. And then suddenly, the hot sun was up sending down a cascade of morning light that under any other circumstances would have made it another glorious day in Paradise. I rolled over, and without much pain, except for a headache, which wasn’t unusual for me first thing in the morning. It was a miracle. There was no broken bones, no open wounds, no lost limbs. It was incredible. I was alive.

But, I didn’t know where I was.

I knew where I had been going. I was flying back from Honolulu to LA with my boss, and our client after a press junket. It was a week in the islands with no time to enjoy the beaches, the sun, the surf. Now I had all the time in the world to enjoy them. I was marooned, and everyone else was gone.

I remembered riding the train into Manhatten from Jersey one time when I was a kid and thinking about what I’d do if I were trapped on a desert island. What would I do for food? What about water? How would I survive while at the same time find a way off the island? I had no idea, even then. Forward in time by twelve years and I was a douchebag yuppie with no practical skills. I couldn’t even put up a shelf. And there I was, stuck in a situation I couldn’t even think myself out of, even hypothetically when I was riding the train into the city that time.

I sat up with some discomfort because of the headache, which was worse than I thought. I was still wearing my suit, soaked through and stiff from salt water. It was an Armani, and ruined. “Shit. Who cares if it’s ruined? I’ve been in L.A too long,” I thought to myself.  I opened my eyes and squinted into the sun.

What now?

I’ve got a communications degree, from NYU, with a minor in English Lit. That only meant practical skills that apply to being stranded on an island if you count having read Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. Then I moved to LA, I fell into PR, and got a job offer from a firm that handles a lot of high-profile accounts. Somehow, I got the job, my first in the field. Twenty-seven and working as a junior flack for an asshole; Gerry Garland. Yeah, the actor.

Despite all the bullshit I’d spun about the guy that suggested the opposite at the time, the stories were true. Sure, he’s a talented actor, and whatever. That’s true, too. But, he really is an asshole. Just a total fucking prick. And he really is one of those “bad boys in real life” types, too. One of those power guys, an alpha dogs; ordering off the menu at fancy restaurants, punching photographers, trash-talking his co-stars, and philosophizing about “going for it” to anyone who’ll listen. Just before the jet started crashing, he was holding court in the middle of the plane with those sycophants he called his entourage all around him. It was one of those “some guys were made for greatness, without the guts to chase it and do what needs to be done” kind of lectures that a certain kind of guy likes to deliver when he’s got everyone’s attention. But, in this case you’d have to add about a bucket and a half of neat bourbon, and with the word “fucking” sprinkled liberally through out. I remember looking at him while sitting a couple of rows back, and thinking that he’s a good looking guy, he’s got talent, and I hope I look as good as he does when I get to his age. But, it struck me then that there’s not one authentic thing about him. It’s like he’s played so many roles, the real him doesn’t exist. If he wasn’t such a prick I might have almost felt sorry for him.

But, then everything went haywire. The jet trembled. Then it pitched. There was a lot of screaming. The lights in the cabin went off completely. And then for an instant, “up” and “down” were completely meaningless concepts. There was a big blue blur. Then, the sand was gathering in my underwear, up my pant legs. There was the sound of the surf all around.

So there I sat on the morning of a perfect day on a South Pacific island somewhere, wearing an Armani suit soaked through with sea water, and without a clue what to do next. How could it have got any worse?

The beach curved around out of sight like a white skirt all around the island. Behind me, there was a tangle of trees. I figured at that point that I’d better get up and see how big the island was and whether there was any food and water. But before I could move, he came around the bend of the beach, dragging what looked like a section of the plane fuselage by a rope. There was a pile of debris loaded on top of it. He wore a white doo-rag that looked like it was made from a torn shirt. He was in his underwear, and wearing the cotton shirt he’d been wearing before the crash – but with the arms torn off, ’80s style, showing off his toned muscles. The guy still looked great, in that plastic Hollywood sort of way.

“Hey!” he yelled.

I moved my hand slowly into a limp wave.

“Micro-Flack? Jesus Christ, I can’t believe you made it. What are the fucking chances?”

Micro-Flack. It was his endearing name for me during the whole junket, when he acknowledged my presence at all which had been rare. What a prick.

“Mr. Garland,” I croaked out. What do you say to a guy who, twelve hours ago, barely acknowledges your presence, and now is the one guy you’re trapped on an island with?

“Are you hurt?,” he asked.

“I don’t think so. What happened to us?”

He dropped the rope he was using to drag the load he’d been pulling along as soon as it was on dry sand, away from the surf. Then, he sauntered closer. His skin was the color of an orange peel, peppered with a patina of white sand grains. He trained his blue eyes on me like two sapphire laser beams. His mouth curled into a sneer.

“We fucking crashed, you idiot. Now everyone’s dead; your boss, my assistants, the pilots, that hot flight attendant, um, Elsie, or Eleanor, or whatever the fuck her name was. They’re dead, and we’re alive. Ain’t that fucking grand? Now get out of that Armani, Micro-Flack, and help me with all this shit I found. C’mon; chop fucking chop,”  he said, clicking his fingers impatiently.

In the 1980s, you may remember that Gerry Garland had been a pin-up star. Every high-school girl on the planet, and probably not a small number of high-school boys, would have fantasized about this situation then; stuck on a desert island with dreamy Gerry Garland. The irony wasn’t lost on me. But, in 1987, I was a year old. He’d lost some of his play as a heartthrob since then due to drug busts, divorces, questionable associations with women who may or may not have been hookers, and of course age. He had gained some points as a serious actor with a singular talent, but along with it he also gained a reputation for being temperamental, so the big directors had begun to shy away from him. The movie he was talking up when we were in the Islands, and that I was on the junket for, was about an ex-black ops assassin forced to babysit his sister’s precocious kids in Hawaii. He learns about life and love, his feminine side, and most of all – the importance of family –  even if he’s still a tough guy; Black-Ops Babysitter. That’s where his career was at; how the mighty are laid low, and I was along for the descent. Now, it seemed, I was going to be his bitch for the rest of my life, which would be very short if we weren’t found soon, and if there was no place to find food and water. I felt the despair descend on me, and it kind of felt like lethargy. I felt like giving up and letting myself die.

The load he was carrying partially consisted of a cooler that contained six small bottles Evian water and several packages of salted nuts. It was from the plane and had been pushed ashore along with Garland and me. Plus, there was a first-aid kit in a floatable case, a coil of rope, a collection of flotation devices from under the seats of the plane, and a pile of wet airplane blankets, those thin ones that are next to useless when you’re on a long-haul flight. It was all piled on top of what looked like the emergency exit door of the jet we’d been on. I stood with my mouth agape for a minute, looking down at the paltry little pile of provisions. I felt the darkness at the back of my mind begin to spread outward, making its way to the front to blot out my vision. Then, Gerry Garland barked at me.

“Are you going to take a fucking Instagram, or are you going to help me with this stuff?”

“Sorry, I’m not thinking straight right now. I’ve got a headache. ”

“Then, drink some water. Jesus, Micro-Flack.”

“It’s Richard. My name’s Richard.” My voice sounded like it was coming from the other side of the world. My temples ached.

“Just fucking drink something, Micro-Flack. You’re dehydrated, and you look like shit. And seriously, get out of that suit. Down to your skivies, and cover your head. And if you’re wearing a designer thong, so help me I’m going to kill you and then eat you.”

In a daze, I did what he asked. Luckily, I was wearing boxers. I tore the sleeves off my $200 shirt, and made a doo-rag out of the material to keep the sun off my head.

“Now, the water.”

“Alright, alright …” I grabbed a bottle of water, unscrewed the top, and drank. The prick was right. I was dehydrated.

“Look, slow the fuck down. Don’t drink the whole thing, for fuck’s sake. We’ve got to spare the water. Now, eat something.”

I grabbed a fistful of nuts from the cooler, too. It seems that in the short term at least, we wouldn’t starve before help came, if it was coming at all. But even if the Coast Guard wasn’t on it’s way, that meant that I’d be lucid, conscious, and stuck on an island with Gerry Garland for a long time. Starvation and death wouldn’t save me from that anytime soon.

“Where did you get all this stuff?” I asked him, still in a daze.

He looked at me like I was an insect. “I ordered it on eBay. Are you sure you didn’t hit your head, or have you always been this fucking obtuse? I gathered it, you mental midget.”

The daze I was in receded a bit, only to be replaced by outrage. “Hey, c’mon!”

“Just eat some peanuts for Chrissakes. You’re gonna need salt, and protein.”

I ate the contents of two packages of peanuts.

“OK. Don’t have any more of those. That’s it for food today until we find something that actually grows here. OK, grab one the ropes and help me drag this fucker up the beach. And don’t throw those empty wrappers away. We’ll need them.”

“For what?” I asked.

“You know, I’d sell you for one cigarette and a match if I could.” was his only answer to that.

***

“So that’s the game plan, Micro-Flack …”

“It’s Richard …”

” … so, hop the fuck to it.”

The game plan was that I forage the island for any other items that might have washed up on the beach, especially anything that could be used as a container. It took about twenty minutes to walk all the way around it, and I found some of those plastic wine glasses they have on refreshment carts on airplanes. Then, I was to take as many of the little plastic cups as I could carry, and bury them almost to the rim in the sand. Then, I was to lay leaves around them to mark where they are. Apparently, this is the best way of collecting rainwater. Who knew? Well, Gerry Garland knew.

Another thing was to find fallen limbs of trees and foliage to create a shelter near the edge of the jungle by the beach, plus fuel for a fire. We found one of the broader trees and set up a lean-to, with a carpet of fronds and the airplane blankets for carpeting. Gerry collected all of the peanuts from the cooler, opening all of the bags. He poured them loose into a crude bowl he made out of wide leaves. Then, he collected bamboo stalks from the foliage at the edge of the beach that he cut using a rock he’d found. He stuck the bamboo stalks in the sand between the surf and the jungle with the wrappers stuck through them and facing up, and surrounded the stalks with more stones he’d found along the beach.

I came out of the trees, carrying a plastic champagne bucket I’d found on the other side of the island; another treasure from the plane wreckage that I was going to use as one of the rainfall-catcher things.

“What’s that you’re doing?” I asked.

“I’m celebrating Christmas.” he barked sarcastically.

“Wh…”

“I’m making it easier for planes to spot us from the air on the widest, openest possible point on this piece-of-shit island, which is this beach you washed up on. The sun reflects off of the wrappers, and the stones make a pattern on the beach that doesn’t occur naturally. That way it’s easy for most people to figure out that we made them, the ones they’re looking for. And I can only hope that whoever’s looking for us isn’t as dumb as a bag of fucking hammers, like some people I could name.”

“Look, man. I’ve had just about enough of your shit …”

“Taking shit is your job, Micro-Flack. You should be used to it.”

“No, it’s not. Not anymore. I fucking quit, you fucking asshole.” It felt better than sex to say that to him.

“You quit what? You mean, you quit finding ways to make sure we’ve got enough water? What are you going to do, open up a consulting firm instead? Get your ass moving, Micro-Flack!”

“Fuck you.” and I walked away.

“Your dick isn’t big enough or hard enough, junior. So, keep working!”

What could I do? He was right again. Not about my dick, but about the water. So, I kept working. I did it because had to. But, I also did it to show Gerry Garland that I could, even with him riding me.

***

By the first few days, I was fuming. I hated the bastard. He was an arrogant, thick-necked, know-it-all, bullet-headed perma-tanned dick. But, he sure knew what he was doing when it came to keeping us alive. It was like he had prepared for this his whole life. After he’d finished with the bamboo-and-peanut-wrapper garden, he tore up more bamboo from the jungle at the edge of the beach. He stuck the stalks in the sand, and then tied all of the bright orange-red flotation devices together using the coil of rope, which he then tied to the bamboo stalks. He laid them out on the edge of the beach in the surf. I guess if the Coast Guard planes didn’t see the peanut wrappers, they’d sure as hell see those bright red-orange floaters.

Then, he had me collect more wood and any dried grass in the undergrowth to use as fuel for a bonfire. Then, Garland gathered it on the beach, and used his reading glasses to start the fire, just like a magnifying glass. Another part of the game plan was to keep the fire going through the night, so that we’d have to take turns, sleeping in shifts to make sure it didn’t go out.

“If you fall asleep and let this fire go out, I’m going to hollow you out, use you as a fucking raft, and row myself back to shore with my foot where your ass once was. Do you read me, Micro-Flack?”

By then, I was too tired to shout back at the guy. He still looked like he could have won the Superbowl by himself.

***

As it turned out, the island hosted a number of papaya trees. This kept us fed long after we ate the rest of the peanuts. We also made rope and sandals of the bark,. Gerry seemed to know all about how to do all this, just like everything else. He made a spear out of bamboo with one of the arms of his steel-framed reading glasses, which he filed to a point using the edge of a shell he’d found. Then, he proceeded to spearfish like he was born to it. I couldn’t believe it.

Then, he taught me how to do it. It took a lot of patience on both of our parts. I became pretty good at it. I also became pretty good at starting the fire. I got to making tools out of papaya bark twine, stone, and wood. I got to really enjoy making our shelter more sturdy and resistant to the elements, and of cooking up the fish, papaya, and bamboo shoots over the cookfire. I became a natural at diving for clams, foraging for grubs, and making more efficient rainwater collectors out of papaya leaves. Pretty soon, Garland stopped ordering me around. He didn’t have to. Once after I’d laid the last catch of the day on the flat rock we were using to dry out the fish, he fraternally slapped me on the back. Then, he went back to digging up bamboo stalks without a word.

It was about three and a half weeks after that (I counted the days) until the two of us really sat down to talk about how we’d made it this far.  It was around the cookfire, and after a fish and papaya stew. I think we were both thinking that it looked pretty bleak by that point when it came to getting rescued. Not even Gerry had the guts to say what we both were thinking about our chances by that point. Maybe that shared realization helped to break the ice between us.

“So, Gerry. I’ve been meaning to ask you. How did you know how to do all this? I mean, it’s like you knew exactly how to save our asses as if you were born to it.”

“Fuck, man. I did that movie about the guy in the war …”

“You mean the one about the one guy, and the other Japanese guy on that island trying to kill each other, and then …”

“Yeah, that one. I liked that one. Jason Scott Lee, man. That guy is a fucking prince to work with, man. Anyway, I did a shitload of research on how a guy would survive on an island for that picture. I talked to survivalists, and hardcore outdoorsmen, and read a bunch of books on worst case scenarios, and all that shit. That’s how I know all this stuff. I’ve done all kinds of movies, and every one of them have driven me to learn a whole lot of shit that most people don’t bother with. So, when I found myself here, I figured it was a good time to put it to use. Then, when I came around the island to see if I could find the widest point, there you were.”

“Well I just wanted to say thanks. You know I never thought a, y’know, an actor, would be of any use on a desert island …”

“Ha! I thought the same about a press guy …”

“But, you were right about that, and I was wrong. I would have died here by now, or be on my way to it.”

“I know. I could see that you were, y’know, kind of out of it. That’s why I rode your ass, man. To piss you off, and get you out of that haze, man.”

“Yeah, I figured that out a while ago. But, before I figured that out, I wanted to fucking kill you.”

“Take a number and get in line. So, why’d you become a press guy, man? I’ve known a lot of ’em, and I didn’t get the impression you were all that … there with being a flack.”

Micro-flack  you mean?”

Gerry laughed at that. “Yeah. I’m an asshole. But seriously, why man?”

“I just fell into it. And I guess you’re right – I don’t really like it that much. I mean, I know a lot of guys in my office who just eat it up, you know? But, not me. I just feel like a passenger trapped in a car in the backseat and going down the wrong side of the highway.”

“Why’d you stay in it then, man?”

“Well, I figured I’d make more money doing …”

“Fuck, I knew it. Forget that shit, man. What do you really want to do if it’s not being a press guy? Have you ever asked yourself that? Don’t pussy out and tell me about the money, man. Money is just the fuel to get where you’re going. It’s not the destination, man.”

“Easy for you to say, you’ve got tons of it.”

“Well, I had more ten years ago then I do now. But, yeah I got it. But, do you know what I wanted to do since I was eight? Be a fucking actor in movies, man. That’s what I wanted to do, and still want to do. I saw Steve McQueen up there one time, and I thought, shit, I can fucking do that. I want to fucking do that. You know that piece-of-shit movie you were helping talk up? It’s crap, man. I know it’s crap. And I know that even if we get out of this, I’ll never make a movie like Payback City or Minotaur, or any big-budget smash like those were ever again. I know that. But, I don’t fucking care. I just love being in fucking movies, man. It doesn’t matter what they are. I mean, it’d be better to make ones that make a lot more impact and kick a lot more ass, you know? Like The Great Escape, or Bullitt, or fucking Stagecoach, or something, you know? But between age eight up to when I was on that plane coming home to LA, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. I just love pretending to be someone else. And I love telling stories, and …ah, shit. You know what I’m talking about.”

“Yeah … you felt like you were where you were supposed to be.”

“Fuckin’ A. So, what’s your thing, man? Don’t fucking bitch out on me. Tell me.”

“Well, I always thought I wanted to teach school, you know? I always wanted to be one of those teachers that inspires kids, that takes a kid who feels worthless, and brings something out in them, you know? I guess that’s the dream. But, teachers, you know, they don’t make that much, you know …”

“Money. Shit. There’s too much money in the world. How fucking much is it worth to do for a kid what you just described? Is that about the money, man?”

It was then that I remembered what I’d thought about Gerry Garland on the plane, giving his lecture on greatness that I thought was so sanctimonious and inauthentic. Maybe it was. But up until then, I’d never considered how inauthentic I’d been myself, being in a job because I thought I had to be in it, not because I really wanted to be. And, I really had thought about being a teacher when I was growing up, and even when I spent my first year at NYU. But, I switched majors.

“Listen,” said Gerry Garland, looking at me seriously, and with an intensity that I thought was going to send us back to our first few days on the island. “The fact that we’re here is a fucking miracle. Neither of us should have made it out of that crash. So, if another miracle happens, and we get rescued, you fucking owe it to whatever or whoever it is that spared your life to follow your calling. If we get out of this, and we get a chance to go back to the world again, if you’re still a fucking flack in a month, I’m going to find you, and kick your fucking ass. That’s it. That’s a promise man. And I’ll enjoy it, too. I’ll consider it my holy fucking mission. You got that?”

“I got it.”

***

We were on the island for three more months, looking like a couple of sunburned hippies with bodies that looked like they were carved out of wood. Then, a cruise ship had a navigation hickup and went off course not too far from our island. The crew called the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard ‘copter flew over and saw the smoke from one of our fires. But, they never would have been there if the cruise ship’s navigation system hadn’t borked. It was another miracle. Then, about four hours or so later, they sent a boat. They examined us in the infirmary. And when they found out that they’d found the late, great Gerry Garland, things really blew up. We’d been gone a year, and presumed dead.

Before we knew it, we were both in LA, and then we found ourselves being interviewed by CNN, and about a thousand and one TV shows, papers, online magazines, and from nearly every country in the world wanting to get more and more details on how we survived, even after everyone was sure we were dead. Later on, Gerry was a guest judge on Survivor. Then, after he got new management, he started making blockbusters again. We kept in touch for a while. But, then it kind of tailed off. His reputation for being difficult didn’t change. But, his status as a real-life survivor, and all-around bona fide action hero hard-ass made him an undeniable box-office draw, so the studios sucked it up and sent him scripts. Every movie he was in, for a while anyway, was a smash success. I saw every one of them, even after I went back to Jersey, went to teacher’s college, and then started as an English teacher in a high school in Linwood. It’s a hard job, and it doesn’t pay that well. But, it feels like home to me. I love it.

A couple of years later, Gerry was on Jimmy Kimmel one night. He and a writer were talking up an autobiography about his time on the island, with some motivational passages in there to kind of pad it out. My name was mentioned. Who was the guy that Gerry Garland had shared an island with, anyway?

“Well, he was a press guy. But, now he’s a teacher. At least he better be a teacher after I saved his sorry ass …”

He eyeballed the camera and pointed a meaty finger at me as I was looking back at him on the screen. I smiled. “What a prick.”  I said back to him.

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