SI Vault
Ray Kennedy
May 14, 1984
Sailor-author Tristan Jones has lost one leg but not his enthusiasm for high adventure on the high seas
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May 14, 1984

A New Voyage For An Old Salt

Sailor-author Tristan Jones has lost one leg but not his enthusiasm for high adventure on the high seas

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In truth, Jones is an original, the sum of his considerable parts being far beyond the ken of any fabulist. For one thing, the best of his dozen books—Ice!, The Incredible Voyage and Saga of a Wayward Sailor—are laced with the kind of pithy historical and anthropological insights that bespeak serious scholarship, and they rank among the very finest writing about the sea and real-life adventure. For another, how many other old salts, fictional and otherwise, are accustomed to socializing with such notables as Walter Cronkite and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia one night and half the bums on the Bowery the next?

Still, late of a foggy night last fall in San Diego, as he swayed along a stone jetty with his peg leg tap-tapping, tap-tapping, seabag slung over his shoulder and jacket collar turned up against the wind, Jones seemed for all the world to have come clomping straight out of the pages of Treasure Island. All that was missing was a squawky parrot riding on his shoulder.

Charlie the foul-mouthed parrot has, in fact, been missing for some time now. And on this hangs a yarn, one of the dozens Jones delights in spinning and his listeners delight in hearing, regardless of how improbable they may be.

To wit: Seems that while Jones was visiting in Asunción, Paraguay a few years ago, one of the children of some friends who were seeing him off at the airport gave him an egg, which he absent-mindedly tucked in his shirt pocket. Upon arriving in New York, where he kept a writer's garret in Greenwich Village, he went straightaway to the nearby Lion's Head pub to have a drink with his friend John Cheever, the late novelist.

As Cheever launched into a vivid description of his recent heart attack, Jones suddenly felt a strange throbbing and clutching in his chest, nervously reached inside his jacket and, he says, "pulled out this dripping bird—a bloody parrot that had hatched in my shirt pocket! And right away the bar cat made a lunge for the bird. I swatted it away, shoved the bird back in my pocket and then was thrown out of the bar for assaulting the cat, while Cheever was about to have another heart attack he was laughing so hard."

Jones raised Charlie the parrot and painstakingly taught him to swear in three languages, but one day, while left in the care of friends, the parrot disappeared through an open window. "Charlie is a tough, crafty bird," Jones says. "I suspect he's still in New York, most probably living in Grand Central Station and giving hell to the pigeons."

Though a tough old bird himself, two years ago Jones couldn't navigate across the emergency room in St. Vincent's Hospital in New York. He collapsed there, suffering from a circulation problem that developed when bits of magnesium shrapnel that were lodged in his left heel bone somehow shifted into his bloodstream and caused clotting. "Gangrene had spread all the way up my left leg," he says. "I was unconscious, and I was dying."

When he awoke, Jones recalls, "I was confronted by this Irish-American nurse who had it in for me because she assumed I was English. She said, 'I've got some bad news for you. The Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands last night.' And I said, 'The bastards! They waited until I was in here!' Then she said, 'I've got some other bad news. We had to take your leg off.' And I said, 'Well, I hope to Christ you send it to Bangladesh!' She gave up the contest then. She realized I was a Welshman."

Jones certainly felt like an alien when he was transferred to the convalescent ward. "I was surrounded by maybe 100 other amputees," he says, "many of them young people who had lost limbs in various accidents, various operations, and the atmosphere was absolutely doom-laden. What really upset me more than my own pain and suffering was seeing all these young people—an 18-year-old who had lost both legs in a car accident, for example—with absolutely no hope, their lives finished. Some of them died while I was there because they had no reason to live. And that I refuse to accept. So right then I vowed to do everything I could to restore some hope, to demonstrate that being handicapped isn't the end of the world, and that instead of being mollycoddled and isolated from society, we disabled people should help ourselves, get off our tails and start moving again as soon as possible."

After being reprimanded for organizing a wheelchair race, Jones snuck out of the hospital two weeks before his release date, wobbly but unbowed. "I fell down a few times," he says. "But they're used to people falling down on the street in New York, so I was just part of the scenery."

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