When I was a kid, one of my favorite stories was Treasure Island. (Still is, actually.) Those of you familiar with that book will remember the character of Ben Gunn, who was marooned (left on the island by treacherous shipmates) three years before Jim Hawkins and company showed up. I think Ben Gunn may have been conceived as the story’s main comic relief, as a wild man dressed in goatskins who dreams of cheese every night was a welcome break from the throat-cutting and betrayal that marked much of the book up until Gunn’s appearance.
But over several reads of Treasure Island (and at least as many viewings of the 1990 film made of the book, starring Charlton Heston and a very young Christian Bale, which remains a favorite of mine to this day), Ben Gunn became one of my favorite characters. Despite having forgotten a lot of social courtesies after spending three years alone on the island, it is Ben Gunn who helps Jim and his friends, Ben Gunn who knows the island best, and Ben Gunn who (spoiler alert) has already found the treasure and moved it to safety. His uncouth demeanor hides a sharp mind and a strong sense of moral loyalty, and in the end it is his support that allows the forces of good to prevail and the story to have a happy ending.
I’ve been thinking about Ben Gunn a fair bit these past few days. Not because I’ve been digging up treasure or dreaming of cheese, but because for the last week and a half I’ve essentially been stranded. I arrived at my friend Val’s house near Gainesville, FL, on August 21, intending to stay for about 5 days, maybe 6 at the outside. Instead, I’m leaving today, just over two weeks after I got here. Val and her mom already left (the house is their summer home), and her dad has been in and out but is getting ready to leave as well. Thankfully they’ve been gracious enough to let me stay as long as I needed.
And believe me, I needed. Every single one of the options I had lined up for where to stay after here fell through. It literally took me until yesterday to figure out new ones, a process which involved finding and juggling several different puzzle pieces of who was available where when. Hence my feeling stranded. I had a place to be for the moment, but nowhere to go if I left. And while central Florida might be a bit more hospitable for me to traverse than the middle of the ocean would have been for Ben Gunn, I still was loath to strike out into the unknown with no immediate destination. Maybe later on in the trip I’ll be ready to do that, but not yet.
As if that weren’t enough, I’m also feeling financially stranded. Several editing clients that seemed really promising two weeks ago have either disappeared or dragged their feet long enough that I haven’t seen any actual work from them. Which means that several hundred dollars in up-front retainer fees that I expected over a week ago has not arrived yet. I’ve got other potential clients coming up, as well as various freelance writing gigs, but most of them will not start to pay off for another couple of weeks, so the immediate short term is looking pretty damn skint.
Which leads me to this revelation about Ben Gunn. By the time Jim Hawkins met him, he’d been on the island for three years. He’d had plenty of time to learn his way around, find the best places to sleep, learn to hunt wild goats and find edible plants, follow the clues to the treasure, and transport it to his cave against the return of Captain Flint’s piratical crew. But for the first few months on the island, I’m sure Ben Gunn was pretty miserable. He was completely alone, with limited resources (a musket and a shovel were all Flint left with him), nowhere else to go, uncomfortable surroundings, and no guarantee of survival. He could have easily given up, crawled into his cave and waited to die.
And if he had, Jim Hawkins, Dr. Livesey, Squire Trelawney, Captain Smollett and the rest would all have died horribly at the hands of Long John Silver and the remnants of Flint’s men. The story of Treasure Island would have been a tragedy. And all of that was prevented by one man deciding, three years earlier, to look the most adverse situation of his life in the face and refuse to crumble before it.
Here’s where I’m going with this. This quest I’m on isn’t just about the treasure I’m seeking. For all I know, there’s something I have to do three years down the road that lives may depend on, either literally or figuratively. I won’t know what thing will be until it happens. But if I give up now, whatever that thing is will never happen because I won’t be there to do it, and those lives will be lost. And as scary and difficult as it is to be where I am right now, the prospect of letting those unknown people down is unacceptable.
I’m poor Ben Gunn, I am. I’m tired, I’m scared, I’m alone, and I’m just getting started. But I refuse to give up.