Natalie Wood and MeIssue: Section:
I was born backstage, so it shouldn’t have surprised me that my one attempt at escaping the world of show biz ran right through one of Hollywood’s enduring scandals, though my involvement in it was fairly peripheral. As it happened, I was backstage then, too.
I joined the Coast Guard in 1980 after spending a couple of days emptying an office building of its xerox machines, then destroying them with a sledge hammer. The xerox machines were being destroyed because they were depreciated for tax returns. They still worked perfectly until I hit them with the sledge hammer; I got paid $2.65 an hour for that and it irked me.
I first thought of joining the Coast Guard earlier, though, while I was working one of a string of easy-to-master, low paying jobs, launching power boats from trailers on the dock at Crescent City, California, a fishing and logging town near the Oregon border. I had returned to Crescent City after living there for a year when I was in high school. I went there after blowing out from a nice East Coast liberal arts college, drawn by the memory of the community I lived in, by the amazing redwoods and by the rugged coastline.
The guy I worked with on the dock was retired from the Navy, an ex-SEAL, a former Marines Special Forces guy, and an ex-LAPD SWAT guy. We watched a 95’ patrol boat return to base a few hundred feet from us one day, the wind blowing hard enough to keep most of the boats I’d normally launch safe on their trailers. The cutter came in, gleaming white in the afternoon sun, and spun around in place, then backed into its dock. The guy I worked with said that if I wanted to learn boat handling, the Coast Guard was the place to do it. And suddenly I did want to do it.
I bounced around after that, working different jobs, and ended up 300 miles south, in San Francisco, busting up the xerox machines for Manpower, a temporary labor agency, flirted with the Army and the Moonies, then finally joined the Coast Guard.
Boot camp was fun. After months of eating one meal a day in San Francisco, a bowl of watery gruel with barley, it was a pleasure to eat the way I did. I was already in fantastic shape, apparently, and the head games I expected never materialized. The rumor was that the Admiral who took over the training center in Alameda, where boot camp was held, brought his favorite cook with him from Alaska. The rumor may have been false, but I ate lobster and steak for breakfast. It’s weird, barely creditable, but memorable.
I went from boot camp to an 82’ cutter, a big, beamy boat that would sometimes roll thirty degrees while still at the dock. I was seasick for a year and a half, then went to school for navigation, only to return to another 82’ cutter. Both of the boats were home ported in Los Angeles, one in Marina del Rey, next to LAX, and the other in Seal Beach, the first town in Orange County after you leave LA County. Seal Beach’s marina empties into Los Angeles Harbor.
Working on boats, at sea, didn’t come naturally to me, but, of course, I kept at it. After I began to master it, as with every job I’ve done, I wondered what the purpose of the work was, whether or not I was putting my time to its best use..
In the Coast Guard I began to wonder if the people we rescued were better off. Is it even possible to “save” a life? No, of course it isn’t. Everyone dies.
But you make the effort. You have to. The effort makes living worthwhile.
The first boat I was on, the Point Bridge, was called the Hollywood Boat because several TV shows used it when the plot involved things like airplanes falling in the water or Scandal in the Port. They’d shoot us taking off and docking, walking survivors up the pier. I was an extra in an episode of Lou Grant, the show spun off of Mary Tyler Moore, and one of Quincy, M.E. , which was based on the life of Thomas Noguchi, who was the L.A. County coroner at the time, the coroner to the stars.
When the episode of Quincy aired, the crew on my boat was angry with me, saying I hogged the camera because I ad libbed some “there, theres”. I never saw the episode, though, so I couldn’t tell. Years later I saw the episode advertised on cable and watched it, eager to see myself at age 20. My scene was cut for commercials.
At the Point Evans, in Seal Beach, I was made Officer of the Deck, OOD, in charge of the boat during my watch. I had trained in firefighting, boat handling, emergency repairs, navigation and weaponry, but, in fact, the phone was the most important tool at my disposal. In case of emergency, I’d call someone else.
I was only an OOD in port at first. We didn’t stay at a base; we stayed in a slip at a marina and the crew lived at home in apartments at night while a smaller crew kept watch. If something happened, if we got a case or had to get underway all of a sudden, I’d start calling the crew, the Captain first, and then everyone else.
There were no pagers then, and no cell phones. When you went off duty, you had to leave a number where you could be reached--and there were varying levels of readiness, so you might need to be able to be at the boat within fifteen minutes or within two hours.
We copied radio messages by hand. It was very formal--we’d get a phone call, if we were hooked up to the landline, and then copy out each word in pen into a log. The messages were usually routine: instructions for maintenance and so on. I remember when we got our first fax machine how thrilled we were that we could get a page-long message in three minutes. Before that we might spend two or three hours each night copying the messages. Later, we got a machine that received messages in radio microbursts, so they might take only ten or twenty seconds to download, thirty or forty more to print out on thermal paper that looked more or less like a sales receipt.
Often enough, of course, we weren’t connected to land. Then we’d use the marine radio, saying “over” and “roger”, spelling things out “alpha, bravo, charlie.” I enjoyed that.
Radio waves are odd, and that is something I learned by taking these messages every day for three years, writing them out longhand and presenting them to the Captain in the morning. VHF radio waves are only supposed to work when the transmitter and receiver are within line of sight of one another, but often they don’t work even then; occasionally they work much further than that. Sometimes the radio waves skip over land; storms present obstacles to them or the waves bounce off high clouds.
In those days, all our Search and Rescue cases came from the Rescue Coordination Center in Long Beach, which had an eighty foot tower on top of Point Fermin, a tall mountain that juts into the ocean between the Port of Los Angeles and Santa Monica Bay . It made sense to have a Rescue Coordination Center in a general way, but it made tons of sense in terms of communication because the line of sight of a tower located a thousand feet in the air is a lot bigger than the line of sight of a tower located on a boat.
Anyway, it was early in my career as the Officer of the Deck and a new guy, straight out of boot camp, was on the bridge while I was down below. We were in port in Seal Beach, most of the crew at their apartments or otherwise off the boat. It was the new guy’s first watch alone.
At some point in the night, he called down to me and told me he didn’t know what to do because someone was calling the Rescue Coordination Center , the RCC, and they weren’t responding. So I went on the bridge and listened for a minute. Then I heard someone calling Mayday and heard no response, so I picked up the radio and asked how we could help.
The guy on the radio said his wife was missing off his boat in Isthmus, Catalina, an island about twenty miles from Los Angeles, and he wanted help. I asked for him to wait for a minute and then I called a mayday relay to the RCC using the radio. It turned out that RCC in Long Beach couldn’t hear the call from Isthmus for some reason, though they heard us extremely well.
So I remained as the relay for the rest of the call. I would talk to the guy, who turned out to be Robert Wagner, and relay what he said to the Rescue Coordination Center in Long Beach, then they’d ask me a question about the victim, who turned out to be Natalie Wood. The RCC sent a different cutter out to investigate, maybe a helicopter as well, but didn’t turn up anything.
We never got underway ourselves and, eventually, the radio signal straightened itself out and Long Beach could talk to Isthmus. Maybe a half a dozen hours later a member of the Catalina Harbor Patrol found Natalie Wood’s body floating in a tidepool near shore. Thomas Noguchi, the real-life Quincy, M.E., said she’d drowned when she tried to get in the ship’s dinghy.
For the record, Mr. Wagner sounded distressed, and when I asked if the victim had been drinking or doing drugs, he answered that she had.
I think I was around twenty when this happened and I only thought of Wagner as the guy from the tv show Hart to Hart and of Wood as a sort of celebrity. But when I spoke with him on the radio, I didn’t make the connection at all. I just thought, well, there’s another unfortunate guy on the water, another amateur.
Now, having lived almost ten years longer than Natalie Wood did, having lived longer than a bunch of people I knew or who were in the public eye, I realize that she was an extraordinary beauty and a rare talent. And all kinds of unlucky things happen in all sorts of situations--being professional doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be lucky, just as being unprofessional, even being bad, doesn’t get you killed.
The young watchstander who didn’t know how to talk on the radio went on to a twenty year career in the Coast Guard and saved dozens of lives, got a slew of medals; he ran a base with several boats of his own and retired ten years ago, while I didn’t do too much more than those few years in Southern California before I started working backstage again.
Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken, all great stars, all had these odd careers, these odd lives, because of their talent and their fame. When those lives intersected mine, when I was twenty and didn’t think anything was more important than the boat I was sitting on, I hardly cared about them personally at all. I just wanted an excuse to do something real, to have an adventure, and to have a place in the real world.
Which is strange. I still love boats. I love being on the water. But if I spend more than a few days on a boat, if I get sunburnt or spend a day doing boat maintenance, I can’t wait to get into a movie theater and lose myself in the dark.
I’ll watch movies at home, and all three of those actors turned in performances that just make you gasp because they’re so good. And I think about it, about their ages, about their indiscretions, their talent. It was thirty years ago. Natalie Wood would be 73 now; she died when she was 43. Her star would have faded, had already faded. Which is where all our lives intersect, I guess, where the veneer and the substance are both revealed for what they are: temporary.
Jung wrote about synchronicity—not that I read Jung, as I should have. It's one of a hundred things I ought to have done that would have made my life easier. But the gist of it, as I understand his writings, is that things happen together in an almost mystical way. And that seems to be true.
When I began writing this story I had become, after thirty years, the central character in a drama that happened almost, but not quite, in a space separate from memory. Not that I had displaced any of the major players, just that, since I was telling the story, it was about me and the people around me.
It was a marginally interesting story because, partly because, it involved people who many of us vaguely recall were once famous. While I was writing the story, they became famous again.
I told the main part of the story to Loam, who publishes this magazine, while we were standing around, waiting to raise a banner at the Stock Exchange and wondering why we were on the particular side of the fence we were on as demonstrators banged their drums at Zucotti Park, a block away. Telling the story was a way to pass the time while the vague whiff of pepper spray drifted past our noses.
When I began to write down this very brief account of my minor involvement with the last of Natalie Wood's affairs, I realized it had been almost thirty years to the week since the event had occurred. When I finished the story, I emailed it to a friend in L.A. who called back to say the case reopened that day.
So, on top of life being a sort of random series of events that rewards and punishes no particular class of people, as far as I can tell, it's also just strange.
I’ve left the story the way it was before the case was reopened.
As a final note, I have known or been involved with perhaps nine other people who've died on the water. I knew a few of them after my time in the Coast Guard. The one part of any speculation on the death of Natalie Wood that is incontrovertibly true is that water is not where humans most naturally live.