by Clark Miller, 05/11/2020, Traverse City, MI
They sat cheek by jowl at a Traverse City burger joint – outside, maskless and hungry. I pulled over and took a photo. More than 2,000 Americans died in the pandemic that early May weekend, but the people sitting there seem to have willed away the danger, or maybe they just didn’t care. Near their tables was a sign thanking healthcare workers for their sacrifices.
When I told an acquaintance what I’d seen and the name I’d given the place – the Darwin Diner – she shook her head and said through her mask, “The problem is Darwin works too slowly.”
This reminded me of a story about Ralph Tannenbaum, a sailor who, like the burger eaters of last week, prematurely declared victory.
Tannenbaum shipped out of Bremerhaven, Germany, on a poorly-maintained freighter bound for Cuba. On the return leg, a storm came up north of the Bahamas. The Aachen, its four holds hastily overloaded with 85-pound sacks of sugar, broke apart. Divers hired by the insurer later said both halves of the ship probably sunk within a minute or less.
As that occurred, Ralph Tannenbaum floundered in pitch black, roiling, waters. He held onto a life preserver and must have swum hard to get away from the ship before it went under. Otherwise, he would have shared the fate of his shipmates – all of whom were sucked under by the Aachen as she buckled then headed for the bottom 250 feet below. But Ralph was in the water, alive. He heard no screams, no cries for help. There was no one to save him. He was alone. He must have thought of home. And sharks.
That night, at our island cabin some 15 miles away, we listened to radio reports of massive seas and 70 mph straight winds, a combination that would have catapulted any survivor toward the sky, then in merciless non-stop rhythm, slung him twenty feet below.
By midnight, the storm had spent its energy.
We didn’t know it, but Ralph was drifting directly toward us. All of that became clear later.
Just before sunlight, nearly pickled from the salt water, his arms and legs nearly useless to him, shivering even in those relatively warm waters, Ralph felt something underfoot. It was soft and grainy. Could it be sand? The water became shallower and warmer until with the last of his energy, he pulled himself up on a beach – leaving his head just barely above the water line. He let go of the life preserver that had saved him. It wasn’t needed anymore. He had won. Found land. Survived. He must have been completely exhausted.
Mid-morning, at low tide, we surveyed our beach for a mile in both directions. We saw no survivors. We found only one thing – Ralph’s life preserver stenciled with faded letters, Aachen. It lay just above still-damp high tide line in the grey sand.
Two days later, we found Frank. We learned his name, nationality, birth date and home address from the waterlogged billfold we found on his swollen body. There was sand in shoes. That, together with the other clues already mentioned, told the story. At low tide, Frank landed on our beach and fell asleep or passed out. High tide had come in and washed him back out to sea.
If he had held onto the life preserver and crawled just a few feet higher on the shore, he might have been saved.