In all historical accounts, my ancestor, Willem Traphagen, lived life on his own terms. Born into wealth in the 1600s in Germany, he fled his home during the 30 Years War to start over in Amsterdam as a simple baker. He eventually made his way to the New World, settling in what is today part of Brooklyn, then merely an outpost in the wilderness with an area population of only a few thousand people. From there he found and lost fortunes, sued and was sued, was tied to a stake and banished from the town he helped to found. He married, raised children (all of whom went on to live successful lives), grew old and died.
In many respects, he had a hard life and it seems he was surprised to live as long as he did. Yet somehow, he found contentment and security, or, perhaps, they found him. In his last will and testament, dated August 26, 1671, there is no indication that he had any regrets. Quite the contrary in fact, he seemed to have enjoyed his ride on this planet and lived for another 28 years. He left his children his assets and his descendents a legacy. One of which was a Traphagen family scholarship that endured for centuries in Germany, until the Nazis brought the nation to its knees in the 1940s.
Willem Traphagen’s story is of riches to rags to riches. He made his own way in life, making mistakes, finding success and then making more mistakes. He didn’t seem to care about his retirement years or something going on his “permanent record.” He lived his life; he steered his own course.
Actor Sterling Hayden’s story is of rags to riches to rags. He grew up poor, ran away to sea, becoming a ship’s master by the age of 19. He then ran away from the sea to California where Paramount Studios advertised him as the most beautiful man in Hollywood. And then he ran away to sea from Hollywood, eventually becoming a fugitive when, against a judge’s order, he sailed off over the horizon to Tahiti with his four children, most from a wife he had married and divorced three times. He made fortunes and lost them like some people lose pocket change. When he sailed off in 1958, he was deeply in debt and, by his account, Hayden, one of the most famous actors in Hollywood, had roughly $1,000 to his name.
To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. “I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine — and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need — really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in — and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all — in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, the dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?
Hayden wrote those words nearly 50 years ago in his autobiography entitled Wanderer, which was also the name of his beloved schooner. He lived for another 26 years. For some, those words may well have been written today, although the sentiment has been around far longer than that. In the 17th century, Willem Traphagen didn’t have the luxury of considering a choice between purse and life — yet he clearly chose life hoping the purse would follow.
I foresee that if my wants should be much increased the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, neglecting my peculiar calling, there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage.
Henry David Thoreau wrote those words in his journal on January 10, 1851. He would be dead just over a decade later. As he lay dying, his aunt asked if he had made his peace with God. Thoreau’s response was, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His last words were, “Now comes good sailing.”
These three men saw past what they believed to be a fallacy in life. They believed they saw the wizard behind the curtain and were left unimpressed. In a less politically correct era, each would be called “a man’s man.” It might be said that society could not survive if everyone held such beliefs — roads, hospitals, schools and the myriad of things that make life better could simply not happen should everyone decide to sail off on their own course. Looking at it another way, however, each of the three men followed their hearts and their passions, just as a teacher or a doctor or an engineer follow their passions, or, as Thoreau called it, their particular calling. I believe we need both types — people to build the bridges to the next towns and people to build the bridges to our spirits. It seems the key is to live life with honesty to your own heart and soul.
I have sold my forenoons, afternoons and nights building my own tomb of time payments, preposterous gadgetry and playthings to divert my attention. I have sold the one thing upon which I can lay claim, my own life, for a mess of pottage. I have spent years doing what I thought I should do while forsaking what I actually needed to do. But as long as breath is still being drawn, as long as the heart is still beating, it is not too late to start. I’m starting right now. I know it won’t be easy and maybe I’ll end up tied to a stake but there is one thing of which I am certain: now comes good sailing.