We like to scare ourselves with autumn stories. Whether the celebration is Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day, or Dia de Los Muertos, this is the season when we remember that life is chancy and death is real. Because these truths are frightening, most of us arrange our lives to minimize danger and invent spooky stories for fun. It took Sebastian Junger to remind us that some folks still earn a living doing hazardous work and watch the skies of October with fear. Those who live by and on the sea never forget that hurricanes arrive with the fall. The Perfect Storm is an account of a Halloween storm that landlubbers will never forget.
Two dozen years have passed since a low-pressure system hit the remnants of Hurricane Grace and turned it into a sea-going cyclone. Three people outside watching the storm were swept away by the winds and two more died when their boat sank off Staten Island. A Coast-Guard helicopter crashed in the storm and one of the paratroopers was lost at sea but if you ask readers about that storm, they’ll tell you about the fishing ship, Andrea Gail. They may even remember the names of her crew, because of this book.
In recounting the last voyage of the Andrea Gail, Junger gives readers an up-close, respectful view of the fishermen who work hard in hazardous places and the needs that drive them. These are the people, in a service economy, who still work with their hands. Their jobs are demanding, the workplace is hazardous, the pay uncertain and there are no 401Ks but sometimes the money is good, incredibly good. So, to give their children and themselves the same options as other Americans, these men bet their lives on a boat, hoping they’ll pull in a line full of fish.
While this is the center of the tale, Junger answers the other questions that occur while reading this story. How do they build boats to stay aloft on the waves? Was the A. G. a sea-worthy vessel? How did fishing grow beyond a coastal industry? Were any other vessels involved in the storm and (sadly) what happens as somebody drowns. The Perfect Storm researches and answers these and dozens of other related questions so the book seems sometime like either a very long well-researched article suitable for the “National Geographic” or (to its detractors) a master’s thesis with a riveting narrative line.
The book eventually made more news than the storm that created it and the results have been put to good use. Mr. Junger created a foundation to help the children of industrial fishermen get the education they need. The popularity of the book and film adaptation gave birth to a spate of reality shows about people who do hazardous work, especially in the commercial fishing industry. Technology improves some aspects of fishing. The crew of the Andrea Gail are not forgotten.
Still, the ocean and the wind can seem bewitched in October and the list of lost mariners at the Fisherman’s Memorial in Gloucester continues to grow. As long as someone pays for work that can only be done on the water, someone else will take the job while their family waits and prays for a safe return. The Perfect Storm shows inland dwellers who “love” the sea we are lucky we don’t really know it. Instead, we should respect those who do and keep our Halloween stories to ourselves. Fishing families already have enough ghosts.