Copyright 2005 Mark Cole
In a conversation recently, a friend remarked to me: “Every man dies, but not every man lives.” If you think about it, that is profoundly true and rather disturbing. I hope that shakes you up like it does me.
You might not be one of those men who are truly alive – not yet anyway. Maybe you need an example, a few words to inspire you, or a life to look at. If so, then you can do a lot worse than examining life of Richard Halliburton.
Richard Haliburton was a man who lived relatively briefly – about 40 years, much of it in period between First and Second World Wars. But into those years he packed a lifetime of adventure. He started as soon as he could. The moment he finished at Princeton, he headed to Europe to start a two-year, round-the-world trek. He climbed Matterhorn, took forbidden pictures at Gibraltar, gambled (profitably) in Monte Carlo, spent all night in Taj Mahal, survived thermometer-bursting heat in India and Afghanistan, climbed to top of great pyramids in Egypt, and so on. Later he would swim Hellespont and Panama Canal, march with French Foreign Legion and fly a biplane across Sahara. He was arrested on numerous occasions, and even landed in jail a few times, but his crimes were only those fueled by his curiosity, trying to see things which he wasn’t supposed to see and go places he wasn’t supposed to go.
Lots of people make round-the-world trips. But what is endlessly fascinating about Halliburton is transmission of his stories, observations and his motivations to us. Before he died in 1939 (attempting, unsuccessfully, to sail across Pacific in a Chinese junk), he wrote half a dozen books, hundreds of articles and, most importantly, more than a thousand letters to his parents. In his amazing writing – amazing in quantity and in beauty and insight and humor – he displays an appropriate awe of nature together with a deep appreciation of achievements of pinnacle of God’s creation, man.
Often Halliburton encounters conditions which were (to put it mildly) uncomfortable and people who were (from his vantage point) unusual. But at no point does he criticize, complain or moan. Rather, he exudes a quintessentially American optimism, a modest cheerfulness, a genuine belief in decency of many of his fellow man, a passion for seeing world and its variety of people. He recognizes that for all that separates him from Dyak tribespeople in Bornea, he sees that they, above all else, love children and cannot have enough of them. He expresses admiration for simplicity and gentleness of people of tiny mountain country Andorra and has tea with their President, by a fire in living room of Andorran White House.
Through all of his adventures, Halliburton remains cheerful, exuberant, charming and full of wonder. And he never takes himself too seriously. In fact, most uproariously funny passages in his writings are where his inexperience and a faraway place collide. Take, for example, his account of an (unsuccessful) panther hunt in India: “…I fired. One could have heard rifle’s roar in Calcutta. The recoil knocked me completely…out of tree. I thudded to ground on one side, bearer on another, and elephant gun on third. In three terrified leaps panther was back in jungle. I had not killed him, and my self-condemnation knew no bounds. To investigate possibility of a blood-trail bearer and I walked over to carcass [of a deer killed by panther], and found that instead of slaying panther in best accredited Daniel Boone style, I had shot a large hole straight through ample side of dead calf. My humiliation was so touching, Doctor Lap on his return arranged for a real hunt with idea of giving me a chance to redeem myself.”
Even his final transmission from Sea Dragon is hardly a distressed call for help, but a string of cheerful, common sense observations: “Southerly gales, squalls, lee rail under water, wet bunks, hard tack, bully beef, wish you were here—instead of me!”
For all of his decency, Halliburton is a bit harder on folks back home. The Royal Road to Romance begins with this:
“I looked behind me at my four [Princeton] roommates bent over their desks dutifully grubbing their lives away. John frowned into his public accounting book; he was soon to enter his father’s department store. Penfield yawned over an essay on corporate finance; he planned to sell bonds. Larry was absorbed in protoplasms; his was to be a medical career. Irving (he dreamed sometimes) was struggling unsuccessfully to keep his mind on constitutional government. What futility it all was—stuffing themselves with profitless facts and figures, when vital and beautiful things of life – moonlight, apple orchards, out-of-door sirens—were calling and pleading for recognition.”