Harold Stephens

By Mort Rosenblum, Associated Press, Paris

As a foreign correspondent, my job involves the usual upheavals, small wars and workaday mayhem. Every so often, however, the mail includes a pleasant surprise which takes me away from that boring routine; a letter from Harold Stephens, filled with some real excitement. You can spot Steve’s letters from across the room: The address is written in urgent printed characters, with the no-nonsense, slightly askew strokes of a man who has struck gold and is racing to catch the last burro to Eureka. The envelope seems to twitch and quiver from all the energy within.

I remember one which reached me in Singapore, full of the usual chatty news: “chased by crocodiles . . .,” “capsized off Tioman Island . . .,” “pirates nearly got us near the Celebes. . . .” At the end, when he added, “Wish you were here,” and I thought: me, too. If it was merely a matter of voracious reptiles, shipwrecks or killers afloat, I’d bet on Steve, hands down.
What always struck me was the tone of the letters. Always humble, courtly, full of derring-do but absent of bravado. But this is only to be expected. Adventure is Harold Stephens’ natural state. To boast of his exploits would be like bragging about breathing

A product of long nights with Conrad on a Western Pennsylvania farm, he grew up with a code of honor and a sense of ingenuous wonder. He is burly and broad-shouldered-in “Mutiny on the Bounty” he doubled for Brando when action got intense-but his buckles don’t swash. Handsome, with eyes that, in fact, twinkle, he is no ladykiller. His code, in that regard, is more Sir Walter than Flynn.

Steve can give you Lord Jim by heart: “He saw himself saving people from sinking ships . . . cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line, or as a lonely castaway, barefoot and half-naked, walking on uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation.” He can tell you about everyone of Maugham’s rubber planters and district officers.

He is always after something that eludes normal men. If someone tells him a prehistoric, enigmatic Big Kneecap is running loose in the Burmese backcountry, he’ll be off before the informant finishes his sentence. If he hears of an ancient Greek olive oil convoy lost in the Mariana Trench, he’ll head out with snorkel and swim fins. Unlike quixotic amateurs, Steve most likely will bring back the kneecap and olive pits.

One day Steve announced to friends that he would build a vessel to take him on his odysseys to forgotten archipelagos and against currents that others avoided as a bad idea. It would be made of cement. Of course, we thought. Months later, we were spending our weekends slapping concrete across a transom.

Steve’s Third Sea must have done a million miles, its low-slung pirate-brown schooner hull crashing the reefs in every lost corner of the Southern Hemisphere. He racked up adventures even he hadn’t dreamed of, from the nastiest straits of the Philippines to Cook’s favorite waters across the Pacific.

One day, in another of these letters, the news was bad. The Third Sea was blown onto the rocks off Hawaii in a hurricane. Even Lord Jim couldn’t have saved her; it must have been a hell of a blow. If there was ever the time for a little self-pity, this was it. Not a trace of it. Steve had lost a love of his life, but he had others.

Once I tried to write a book about Steve. But who would believe it? Anyway, he writes his own books, and they’re good ones. But my notes spill out of a large crate. Steve lied about his age to join the Marines so he could fight in the Pacific. He exaggerated his language skills so he could be a translator in China. Imprisoned by the Chinese communists, he escaped and swam out to a passing junk. He rode a motorcycle across Australia, a jeep across Russia and-was it a pogostick across the Arctic?

Occasionally, word slipped out about his affairs of the heart. A gentleman, he does not talk much of these matters. Only later, for instance, his family back home discovered why he returned from Tahiti with a cast on his arm. A Tahitian woman, distraught at his leaving, drove him off a cliff.

Once Steve had a respectable job in naval intelligence and was married to a woman of Philadelphia high society. The marriage ended. That was when he went to Tahiti. One ranking government officer tried to talk sense into him. He invited Steve home to a family dinner and sat him down to watch a television series called, “Adventures in Paradise,” to explain the ridiculous Hollywood romanticizing of a dull reality. Soon afterward, Steve was in the cast of the series. And in paradise.

Part of the time, he now lives among the redwoods in Northern California, in what ought to be a tame environment. But this is Harold Stephens. When I telephoned him just before delivering these lines to his publishers, he and his wife, Michelle, an island girl herself, reported an earthquake that very morning, and the rains were causing havoc. The Eel River was overflowing its banks and flood waters raged all around, carrying off power lines and outing the roads. Normal people had evacuated.

But even more than he amasses adventures, he collects characters. He is drawn to people who distinguish themselves from the chairs they sit in. And anyone in that category is drawn to him. With a writer’s skills and a friend’s warmth, Steve describes the remarkable lives of those who populate his world.