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'Moby-Duck': When 28,800 Bath Toys Are Lost At Sea

In 1992, a cargo ship container tumbled into the North Pacific, dumping 28,000 toys into the ocean. What happened to those toys led writer Donovan Hohn on a worldwide journey filled with beachcombers, oceanographers, ship captains and environmentalists.

36:51

Other segments from the episode on March 29, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 29, 2011: Interview with Donovan Hohn; Review of The Vagrants' album "I Can't Make a Friend: 1965-1968"; Review of Stewart O'Nan's novel "Emily, Alone."

Transcript

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'Moby-Duck': When 28,800 Bath Toys Are Lost At Sea

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

What happens when 28,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys are accidentally
dumped in the ocean? Where do the ocean currents take them, and what
environmental impact do the ducks and other ocean junk have on the seas?

That's what our guest Donovan Hohn in his new book "Moby-Duck." The ducks ended
up in the ocean instead of the bath in 1992, when a ship container headed from
China to the U.S. tumbled into the North Pacific. The ducks were swept away by
currents, and news reports said some may have actually reached Maine and other
shores on the Atlantic.

Hohn tracked their movements, and his book is an odyssey. It takes him from
Seattle to Alaska to Hawaii to China and the Arctic. Along the way, he
researches and ruminates on subjects of science and industry, wilderness and
civilization. He confronts the plague of accumulating plastics in the ocean and
the difficulty of addressing the problem.

Donovan Hohn is a journalist whose work has appeared in Harper's, the New York
Times magazine and Outside. He's now a features editor at GQ. He spoke with
FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

Here's Hohn reading from the beginning of his book, explaining how consuming it
was to follow the story of the rubber ducks.

Mr. DONOVAN HOHN (Author, Journalist): (Reading) Well, at the outside, I
figured I'd interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, read up
on ocean currents and arctic geography, and then write an account of the
incredible journey of the bath toys lost at sea, an account more detailed and
whimsical than the tantalizingly brief summaries that had previously appeared
in news stories.

And all this I would do, I hoped, without leaving my desk, so that I could be
sure to be present at the birth of my first child.

But questions, I've learned since, can be like ocean currents: wade in a little
too far, and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry, and it will
lead you to another and another. Spot a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at
the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know,
you're way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four
miles deep.

You're wondering when and why yellow ducks became icons of childhood. You want
to know what it's like inside the toy factories of Guangdong. You're marveling
at the scale of humanity's impact on this terraqueous globe and at the oceanic
magnitude of your own ignorance. You're giving the plight of the Laysan
albatross many moments of thought.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Donovan Hohn, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Let's just begin at the beginning, here. These 28,000 toys, they're ducks,
beavers, turtles and frogs, right? They go into the drink in a storm in the
North Pacific in January, 1992, when a container falls off the vessel. And then
where and when do people begin finding them?

Mr. HOHN: It's the following year, in late summer, autumn of 1993, in Sitka,
Alaska, which is down in the Alaskan panhandle near the inside passage. And for
a couple-hundred-mile stretch of shoreline, people who went out to the beach
were finding hundreds of them, these toys.

DAVIES: Now, the loss of containers at sea is not so uncommon. But you tell us
in the book that shipping companies don't particularly like to talk about them.
There are liability issues and all. But you met a beachcomber, this guy Curtis
Ebbesmeyer. Do I have the name right?

Mr. HOHN: Yeah, yeah. Curtis Ebbesmeyer. Yeah.

DAVIES: And he actually manages to figure out exactly where the mishap actually
occurred. And how did he do it?

Mr. HOHN: Well, he's a trained oceanographer, professional oceanographer who,
in his semi-retirement and retirement, became kind of a professional
beachcomber, as you say, and partly just out of - as a hobby, out of curiosity,
began studying flotsam, but then took it seriously and started using container
spills as accidental drift experiments. And the key piece of information he
needed for the flotsam to become actual data was the point at which they
started.

So he managed to persuade - in some cases, not all - shipping lines or
companies that had lost cargo, such as Nike, to reveal that the spill had
occurred and divulge information of the points on latitude and longitude where
the spill occurred. And then you have a point A. And if you make contact with
the beachcombers who find them - which Curt Ebbesmeyer has gotten good at doing
- or with lighthouse keepers, who are out there looking all the time, then
you've got point B. And you can follow where the flotsam has traveled, which
show you where the currents flow.

DAVIES: But he also manages to nail down the exact latitude and longitude of
when the storm cast this massive ship container overboard. How did he do that?

Mr. HOHN: Yeah, I mean, for the beginning, the very, the first - when I first
set out researching the book, in some ways, I was following in his footsteps
for the first chapter or so. And he, through appeals to and phone calls to the
shipping company - whose name he didn't want to tell me. It was a secret, but I
eventually figured it out, which was the Evergreen Shipping Line.

DAVIES: And how did he figure out what shipping company?

Mr. HOHN: How did I, or he?

DAVIES: How did he? Yeah.

Mr. HOHN: You know, that's a - you know, that's a - that's was - that's a good
question. He managed to get it, I think, through the toy company, the -
identify which ship it would've been on. And he also kept contacts down at the
Port of Tacoma, near Seattle.

So once he'd identified the shipping line, and it took him a while to persuade
them, but they - they were afraid of bad publicity or lawsuits. Once he
convinced them that he was purely interested in it for scientific reasons, they
let him onboard the ship, and he met the ship's captain who had been at the
helm the night of this toy spill.

And the captain opened up the log book and discretely pointed to the
appropriate entry, and there were the coordinates where the spill occurred:
44.7 degrees north, 178.1 degrees east, which is right near the International
Date Line. It's just south of the Aleutians.

DAVIES: And you note that you spent a fair amount of time with this beachcomber
community. They're not just looking for shiny coins and shells. I mean, they're
kind of detectives, aren't they?

Mr. HOHN: Yeah, well, they're - you know, there are people who do beachcombing
for different reasons. But there is a community, a bit like avid bird-watchers,
for whom it's more than just a pleasurable recreational thing to do when you go
to the seashore, for whom it's a hobby and a hunt.

And one of the things Ebbesmeyer has done is he puts this newsletter today, and
it's a way of - it's called Beachcombers Alert for a reason. And he puts the
beachcombers who have subscribed on alert to watch for Nikes, because there was
a spill that's been reported, or whatever. And then people go out and hunt and
find them.

So you not only have the thrill of discovering a surprise, a treasure, a
mystery. You also have the chance of - almost like on a scavenger hunt, finding
something that you're looking for that actually might serve some scientific
purpose.

DAVIES: And does it contribute to anything of importance scientifically?

Mr. HOHN: You know, it's - there - yes and no. So the - he's done a couple of
different studies published in Eos - a very respected scientific journal -
about the spills. And they do show us something.

They do show - the currents - people - they've been called at various points,
compared to rivers in the sea. But ocean currents don't flow like rivers
between two banks. They meander. They change seasonally, and, in a way, are
more mysterious than one might think.

They almost - they're almost comparable to the wind the way that they move and
the way that they vary. So by following flotsam spills, you do have useful data
to show us the movement of the currents and how they change.

The reason why I qualify that a little is many of the oceanographers I spoke to
pointed out that there's a big missing part. You've got point A, where the
spill occurred, points B where the beachcombers find them, but you don't really
know what's happened in between.

So most oceanographers now use more state-of-the-art flotsam - basically, the
kind of robot drones, floats that can surface and transmit data via satellite.
And they have a lot more information from that kind of device.

The problem is those are expensive, and there are places in the ocean - for
instance, the icebound parts of the Arctic - where those instruments are very
difficult to deploy.

So there is - one of the oceanographers I traveled with who does focus on the
Arctic is using the old, 19th-century oceanographic method of putting messages
in bottles. So flotsam still has some scientific value.

DAVIES: Right. And when you were on this research vessel, you were actually,
what - were they literally beer bottles you were tossing into the ocean with a
note?

Mr. HOHN: Yeah. Yeah. He recruited - there was a - he managed to get a Nova
Scotian teenager, who was an oceanographic enthusiast and spent three weeks of
her summer putting messages, scrolling up messages, and putting them in beer
bottles from a local Canadian brewery and corking them up and sealing them with
wax. And we threw hundreds of these into the Northwest Passage.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Donovan Hohn. His new book is "Moby-Duck." We'll
talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Donovan Hohn. His
book is called "Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and
the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the
Author, Who Went in Search of Them."

All right. Let's talk about kind of the beginning of the story, and that is the
loss of this container over the side of this vessel in the North Pacific. You
kind of reenacted every part of the ducks' journey. And at some point you took
a ride on a container ship from Korea to, what, Seattle, right?

Mr. HOHN: Yeah.

DAVIES: Just give us a sense of the scale of these vessels and the containers
they carry.

Mr. HOHN: Yeah. Well, they're hundreds of feet long. They can - the most modern
ones are post-Panamax, meaning they're too big to go through the Panama Canal.
The one that I rode on was more than 900 feet long. So they're colossal. They
can fit inside them - their hulls, the largest ones - Chartres Cathedral and
Grand Central Station combined.

And when you're standing beside them on the dock, their hulls really feel like
it's a palisade of steel, a great cliff rising up from the ocean. So they're -
they're the mightiest, you know, cargo vessels out there.

And I think one of the things that got me interested in this story was I hadn't
heard that containers spill from ships, and it seemed to me incredible,
frankly. I thought those things were indestructible and mysterious, and I
wanted to learn: What could it possibly take to make 12 containers fall
overboard from one of those giants?

DAVIES: Right, and part of the answer is that while many are stowed below deck,
they're stacked, what, how high on the main deck?

Mr. HOHN: Typically, they're in stacks of six. The - it varies because it turns
out that stowing containers is a science and an art, that they have to balance
everything just right. Otherwise, it can affect the way the ship rolls and
moves in waters.

But typically, they'll be in stacks of six, and each container is typically 20
feet long. The long ones are 40-footers. They have refrigerated ones. So it's
all about maximizing the capacity of these vessels to carry absolutely as much
as they possibly can safely.

DAVIES: And I think you write they are so large, that they are more likely to
sail through bad weathers than ships in the past, right?

Mr. HOHN: Yeah, this is true. This is - the ship that I traveled on, from Pusan
to Seattle, followed very much in the same route, which is why I chose it, as
the one that spilled the toys. And it was traveling from Hong Kong to Tacoma,
taking what's called the Great Circle Route, just like airplanes follow the jet
stream when you fly to Europe.

And because it's more efficient, you're using the shape of the globe to shorten
the trip. But that region in the age of sail was known as the Graveyard of the
Pacific. It was renowned for its winter storms. And these ships - companies
that own them are confident enough now that they can survive all hazards of the
weather, to paraphrase Conrad. And most of the time, they do.

The one I was on, it was actually a fairly tranquil journey, even though we
went through some rough seas and some snowstorms south of the Aleutian. It
rolled some, but on occasion, they can encounter dramatic, tempestuous seas,
the waves reaching heights of 50, 60, 70 feet, sometimes freakishly larger than
that. So the seas are still as wild as ever.

DAVIES: So describe what are the conditions that would cause these ships to
lose containers, and, if we know, what caused this one to go overboard.

Mr. HOHN: Yeah. That was one of the challenges. Evergreen does not particularly
- I asked if I could ride on one of their ships, and they were reluctant, as
are most companies now. And since most - it turns out the 12 containers
overboard is a fairly small spill. So there's not going to be a lot of
information in the public record.

I tried to get things through the Coast Guard, under the Freedom of Information
Act. And there was a small inspection, but it just said that the ship was
cleared to proceed from Tacoma after having survived this spill.

So 12 containers isn't enough to generate lots of information, and I, trying to
answer that question, went to another accident that happened in 1998. And in
monetary terms, this was the worst shipping disaster in history. It involved a
ship called the APL China, once again traveling from the Far East to the
Pacific Northwest.

And it lost 407 containers overboard in a single night, and the footage, the
photographs that were taken when it arrived in port are pretty dramatic, these
stacks that are...

DAVIES: Just describe what the ship looked like when it came to port. Yeah.

Mr. HOHN: Yeah. Well, it came into, you know, these - when you see a ship - I
grew up near the San Francisco Bay Area, and used to watch the container ships
arriving under the Golden Gate Bridge, going to and from Alameda. And they're
majestic and beautiful and picturesque and colorful.

And this ship came in, and it looked ravaged, where the - at the - most of the
rows of containers had toppled like dominoes. And some of them had been
pancaked flat by the ones on top of them. In one case, an entire row was
missing, just swept overboard. So it was a ruin when it staggered into port in
1998.

And because of that, normally, when there's a loss of cargo at sea, everything
is just settled out of court between cargo owners and shipping companies and
underwriters. They anticipate - it's part of their insurance - that they can
sustain a loss of something like 12 containers.

But in this case, with 407 gone, it managed to - it came to court in Manhattan.
And so I went down to a Manhattan courthouse and pulled out all the files and
got to see all the letters from all the different companies that had lost
things overboard.

And it was - it was almost entertaining, because here was all the things that
we regularly find in our stores, in our shopping malls, that is made in the Far
East. There were clothes from most of the clothing retailers, The Gap and J.
Crew. There were wireless phones from Toshiba. They sustained a pretty heavy
loss. There was seafood and furniture, Schwinn bicycles. And much of this was
still among the ruins on the deck of the APL China. A bunch of it had gone
overboard and was gone.

Also because that case was proceeding through the legal system - it was
eventually settled - the lawyers defending APL, American President Lines, ended
up doing scientific research, trying to figure - determine the cause of the
spill. Was it the captain who was to blame? Was it human error? Was it somebody
at the port stowing these containers? Or was it, as they say, an act of God,
meaning beyond the control of the officers and crew of the ship?

And initially, they thought typhoon or perhaps a rogue wave, which scientists
now know are very much for real and rear up out of nowhere. In this case, it
turned out to be a less charismatic phenomenon than a rogue wave.

It turns out to be there's a kind of rolling that can occur under certain
conditions, partly because of the shape of these enormous post-Panamax hulls,
where...

DAVIES: That's synchronous roll, right, where something about the length of the
ship corresponds to the gap of the waves?

Mr. HOHN: Yeah. Synchronous rolling is when the roll period - think of it
almost - for me, it was useful to think of it almost like a metronome, ticking
and tocking back and forth. And when the rolling of the ship is just in synch
with the waves, it can steepen with every roll.

But in this case, it was - and officers, sailors, mariners are trained how to
get out of that pattern, that cycle. You're supposed to heave to. You're
supposed to turn your bow into the waves and break this cycle. And that's what,
in fact, the captain of this ship, the APL China, did.

And yet his ship, the rolls continued to worsen. So it was actually a new kind
of rolling called parametric rolling, and it had been documented under certain
seas, but in order to prove that it was the cause, they went through elaborate
experiments in a wave tank in the Netherlands the size of a swimming pool and
managed to recreate the exact conditions.

They used historical weather data, all sorts of things. So it was actually - it
became a kind of fascinating science story, as well, that particular mystery to
solve.

DAVIES: Now, in the case of the container that drives your quest, it was this
ship, the Ever Laurel.

Mr. HOHN: That's right.

DAVIES: And just - you - tell us what would have happened that day. I mean,
what was in this container, and what would've happened as it tumbled into the
sea?

Mr. HOHN: We know that it was - where it was. We know where it happened. We
don't know whether it was day or night. We know that a ship in its vicinity
faxed a weather report to the National Weather Service, describing 36-foot-tall
waves, which are pretty big.

And we know that it lost 12 containers. How did it lose them? Was it the
lashing system was not - improperly lashed? Was it this - a phenomenon of
rolling, like the one I described? Was it a freak wave? This is still unknown.

But in any event, they tumbled overboard. And if you look at these pictures
from these other incidents, you can kind of imagine they crash into each other
and they hit the rails as they go. And so this one that was carrying toys would
have burst or buckled open in its fall, and then set adrift, initially, a bunch
of cardboard boxes.

And the cardboard would have dissolved, and from the boxes would have come
packages of bath toys.

DAVIES: And off they go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOHN: And off they go.

GROSS: FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davis will continue his interview with
Donovan Hohn in the second half of the show. Hohn's new book is called "Moby-
Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers,
Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in
Search of Them."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview
FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Donovan Hohn, author of the new
book “Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the
Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the
Author, Who Went in Search of Them.”

The bath toys were dumped in the ocean in 1992 when a ship container on a
vessel headed for China to the U.S. tumbled into the North Pacific. Hohn
investigated the many places ocean currents carried these toys and how the toys
became part of a huge collection of ocean junk.

DAVIES: A lot of the book deals with the plague of garbage in the ocean,
particularly plastics. And there's a point where you went to Hawaii to see
what's called the Pacific Garbage Patch for yourself. Do you want to describe
what you saw?

Mr. HOHN: Yeah. I mean I didn't, when I set out following the toys, I didn't
expect it to turn into an environmental story. But I very quickly learned that
one of the - something I'd never heard of before, one of the differences about
the ocean in the 21st century is that unlike the flotsam of ages past, the
flotsam of today - much of it plastic – persists at sea. It lasts, visibly, for
decades and, chemically, for centuries, because it doesn't biodegrade.

And there are certain parts of the ocean where currents converge, they spiral
inward and collect what's floating on the surface. They're called convergence
zones, which isn't as catchy a name, I suppose, for what this phenomenon has
become know as, which is the garbage patch. And there are places all around the
oceans of the world, wherever you have convergent currents that collect
floating trash, plastic, toys – whatever.

So initially, when I learned of this garbage patch, when I first heard that
phrase I imagined something dense. You sometimes see it described as plastic
island or a continent of plastic or I initially imagined it as a floating
junkyard, and you'd have to poke your way through it with your paddle if you
were in a kayak. And it's not like that. And you can't take a picture of it
because that doesn't exist. What does exist, though, is a whole lot of plastic
out there. It's just spread out over miles of ocean. And some of it floats on
the surface where you can find it. And some of it floats just below the surface
where it's hard to see. And then eventually, all of it will photodegrade -
meaning it breaks down in sunlight. So much of it is so small you're not going
to be able to see it easily with the naked eye. And really to find it on the
ocean, you have to go trawling for it with nets because it eventually blows
like dust through the air. It blows through the water column.

DAVIES: You describe the qualities of plastic polymers and the way other
materials adhere to them. Explain what that process - and why it is important
and harmful.

Mr. HOHN: It’s potentially harmful. There’s - we know, and this isn't something
that’s been known by chemists for a long time, that they even use plastic in
the lab - to dip it into water to figure out how toxic it is, because there's
certain substances – like they have polysyllabic names, they're hydrophobic and
lipophilic, meaning they don’t like water and they like certain greasy
substances, and they will adhere to plastics, plastics can soak them up like a
sponge. And in the lab, that's a useful way to figure out what's in the water.

At sea, a lot of those pollutants, some of them are famous ones, industrial
pollutants like PCBs and DDT, are adhering to what's floating around out there.
The big question that remains is what happens next? We know that in the marine
food web there is an elevated - and alarmingly elevated, contaminant burden,
they call it, in species at the top of the food web. So whales and sea birds,
things that are feeding on everything below them, they accumulate in their fat,
these toxins.

How plastic, what role plastic plays in that is an ongoing area of study. Or is
it concentrating the stuff and meaning that they are even more of these toxins
reaching the food web? So it’s an ongoing source of concern.

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we're speaking with writer Donovan Hohn.
He’s written a story about a container load of bath toys that spilled in the
North Pacific and then his quest to figure out what became of them. It’s called
“The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers,
Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in
Search of Them.”

Now, you actually got one of the ducks, and this was in Alaska, right, with
this group that you visited, the Gulf of Alaska Keeper. Is this right?

Mr. HOHN: Yeah. That is right.

DAVIES: An interesting bunch of people. Tell us what they do and how you ended
up getting one of the floating ducks.

Mr. HOHN: Well, it was in the summer of 2007. I just quit a job and it was
frantic to get out and hunt. And I heard - received word, after the making
phone calls that people were finding the toys. And the first time I'd heard
that new ones were being found in a couple of years. Out on the remote isthmus,
due south of Anchorage, at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula on the outer coast of
the Kenai Wilderness. Really remote place, you can only get there by float
plane or helicopter or boat. Uninhabited, no people and yet out of focus
geography and the fluid dynamics of ocean currents this one half mile beach
scoops out of the passing currents a great deal of flotsam. It had been known
as a kind of a happy hunting ground for beachcombers. And this group of
conservationists called Gulf of Alaska Keeper had made it their mission to
clean up all the debris from the outer coast of that stretch of the Gulf of
Alaska.

And they set out on a pretty impressive almost heroic undertaking, because to
get this stuff out of the wilderness it required two or three months of people
camping and packing the stuff up into bags and eventually an airlift. But while
I was out there with them toys were found. I, myself, found a plastic beaver in
the lea of the spruce. But another beachcomber found a duck and had mercy and
gave it to me.

DAVIES: And were you able to confirm that these came from the container that
you were looking for?

Mr. HOHN: It’s pretty easy to confirm for couple of reasons. One, they're no
longer made – they're discontinued. Two, they are unlike bath toys of any other
make that I've ever seen. People, I have to confess that there's a duck on the
cover of my book, and I hope people won't feel cheated to learn that it was
made using Photoshop. This is, the duck on my cover is the one that we would
like to imagine. It’s the classic iconic bath toy, right? And so when I first
heard the story, that's the duck I pictured, like Ernie’s, out there on the
deep.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOHN: The actual toys are, they're kind of funny looking. They're hollow
plastic. They're strange so they’re really singular. Secondly, the ducks have a
maker's mark on the wing, which helps. And thirdly, we know from previous
finds, like those that happened in Sitka, approximately what they would look
like after crossing the ocean. The ducks fade almost too white. The beavers
turn a weird and milky beige. They get thin. So all of these things together
are pretty easy to say, and frankly, they were among the only toys we found out
there and they were found by the dozens exactly where the currents would have
taken them.

DAVIES: And the truth is, that the plastics that are causing harm in the ocean
aren't coming from – in the main - from containers that fall off of freighters,
right?

Mr. HOHN: Right.

DAVIES: They're coming from what, garbage dumps?

Mr. HOHN: Right. Exactly. And then the other question that came up about these
cleanups is - and I saw this because I went to witness this airlift, is the
very day that they managed to get 50 plus tons of flotsam out of the forest and
onto an amphibious barge and that it was a sense of triumph. I walked to the
beach and I found 16 polyethylene water bottles, most of them from East Asia
washing in. So it just - it keeps coming back. And that's because it is
originating from not from container ships mainly, though that does contribute
some. It's originating from the fishing fleets but also from the coastlines and
watersheds of the world. You know, thousands and thousands of different places,
this stuff is entering into the ocean.

DAVIES: You actually tracked down the factory that made the toys and went and
visited. But I wanted to go to how the ducks got from the Pacific to the
Atlantic. And first of all, how do we know they got that far?

Mr. HOHN: Well, the - I'm going to be a little cagey here because that was the
mystery that took a book to solve. It was the one that I - the first real
question. When you heard that one of the news stories I stumbled on, it was
reported as a matter of fact, these toys fell overboard, some of them crossed
the Arctic.

There was a Reuters item in 2003 that said a small breakaway group was headed
to Britain. And so, that seemed exciting to me, the idea of these cheerful
little things going where explorers had gone boldly and disastrously before
through the ice. And so I spoke with the oceanographer in Seattle, Curtis
Ebbesmeyer, how they in fact made it as he had predicted. And he used some
sophisticated ways to predict. He used a computer model to show where they
would likely be going and he used historical drift studies that showed indeed
things that entered the Bering Strait would ride the Transpolar Drift and exit
through Fram Strait off the coast of Greenland and enter the North Atlantic,
some coming down towards New England, some crossing over to Europe. And he
calculated when it should arrive - it would have been the summer of 2003 - and
put out the word.

And beachcombers looked. And most of the toys that were found were not the
right kind. And in fact, nobody that I managed to find has produced a specimen
that is without a doubt one of the 28,800 toys that fell overboard.

There were a couple of tantalizing sightings, one in Scotland and then one on
the coast of Maine. So I went up and interviewed the people who thought they'd
seen it and they described it well, but their descriptions didn't entirely
agree with each other. So it's still a little bit of a mystery of whether or
not they made it. I have my own theories.

DAVIES: Okay. Well, all right. So if in fact they would have floated through
the Bering Straits...

Mr. HOHN: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...through the Arctic, down past Greenland and onto New England and
gotten there in 2003, that would have been an 11-year journey.

Mr. HOHN: Right. Right.

DAVIES: Wow.

Mr. HOHN: Right.

DAVIES: And so what is your thinking? I mean this couple that found the stuff
in Maine, it sounded like one of them described something that could be it, the
other not so sure.

Mr. HOHN: Yeah. Well, they didn't keep it. They didn't keep it. So, they
described it after the fact, but of course, it was gone. They assumed it had
been some kid who dropped it and then when they heard, not long thereafter,
about the story of the toys adrift, they reported their discovery. One said it
was - they had seen a toy that was bleached white, which is exactly what it
should have been. The other one insists no, it was still pretty yellow. That
dye held up pretty well.

And then the other reason why have my own doubts, is that duck that I found in
Alaska was in sunlight, which degrades the plastic, it had gotten pretty thin
and cracked and it was taking on water. And when I got home to New York I put
it in my freezer - closest I could come to simulating the Arctic - and pretty
soon it became pretty brittle to the touch. It’s now lost its head. So, my
suspicion is that by the time they reach the North Atlantic they may be
unrecognizable.

DAVIES: That’s so disappointing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOHN: Yeah. And it’s funny because there was - in 2007 the British tabloids
got news that they were arriving and they lit up. They reported some woman
found a rubber ducky near Devon and the tabloids blared, the invasion begins.
The Armada has arrived. And that, too, was the wrong one.

DAVIES: Well, Donovan Hohn, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HOHN: Thank you, Dave.

GROSS: FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Donovan Hohn, author of the
new book “Moby-Duck.”

You can read a excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, the band The Vagrants was very popular in New York City in the mid-
60s, but they only recorded 30 minutes worth of music. Those tracks are
collected on a new CD.

Our rock historian Ed Ward will have a review after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

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The Vagrants: A Hot '60s Band, For Exactly Four Years

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

It’s always been a fact, in popular music, that bands come and go, but they
usually leave something behind in the way of a few albums. The Vagrants were
one of the most popular bands in New York City during the 60s. But when Light
in the Attic Records compiled their complete recorded work for the album “I
Can't Make a Friend,” it came to a mere 30 minutes worth of music.

Here’s rock historian Ed Ward to tell us about the band.

(Soundbite of song, “I Can’t Make A Friend”)

Mr. PETER SABATINO (Singer, The Vagrants): (Singing) Every day's the same,
alone and feeling shame. I'm a man with no one close. I’m tired of the same.

‘Cause I can't make a friend. I can't make a friend. Is it love beating down,
in my room and making sounds? Say it last. There's no one around.

ED WARD: The Vagrants between 1964 and 1968, rose from a bunch of high-
schoolers rehearsing in a basement in the Forest Hills section of Queens in New
York, to playing for thousands of kids in clubs. But the chances are that if
you weren't in the audience, you've never heard the band.

The Vagrants started when Peter Sabatino and his buddy Larry Weinstein saw the
Beatles at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in August 1964 - literally next door to
Peter's apartment building - and he and Larry decided that this was what they
wanted to do. Larry's older brother Leslie was a good guitarist, so he joined
up. Jerry Storch, whom they knew as a champion bowler at the local lanes,
revealed one day that he played piano and had some songs, so they invited him
to join.

Good thing, too: The Weinsteins were thrown out of their basement for making
too much noise, and Storch got the manager of the bowling alley to let them set
up in its lounge. The last element was a drummer. Roger Mansour met the others
one day when the principal called them in to lay down the law about their long
hair. Roger had already been drumming for another band, but The Vagrants
sounded more interesting, and anyway, the principal had suspended them all.

A girl at the bowling alley got them a gig playing a Sweet 16 party, and they
got paid $100 for it. More gigs followed, and by early 1965 they were playing
one of New York City's coolest clubs, Steve Paul's Scene. Peter, Larry and
Roger enrolled at Quintano's School for Young Professionals, a high school for
performers, and by the summer of 1965 they were approached by two guys with a
label, Southern Sound, who asked them if they wanted to make a single. Of
course, they did.

(Soundbite of song, “Oh Those Eyes”)

Mr. SABATINO: (Singing) That girl keeps staring. My mind is tearing.

Oh those eyes. Oh those eyes.

That girl annoys me. She's gonna to destroy me.

Oh those eyes. Oh those eyes. You don’t know what...

WARD: "Oh Those Eyes," is a bratty, paranoid garage rocker, with snappy guitar
work by Leslie, but it went nowhere. They got a summer-long gig in Hamptons
Bay, on Long Island, and became friendly with a band working one of the other
clubs, The Young Rascals. One thing The Rascals had that The Vagrants didn't
was a Hammond B-3 organ, an expensive instrument Jerry coveted. Returning to
Manhattan at the end of the summer, the band wound up at another hot spot, The
Rolling Stone - a club run by popular disc jockey Scott Muni - where they
played for 18 weeks. A wealthy fan learned that Jerry wanted the B-3 and took
him to a music store, whipped out $2,500 cash and asked that it be delivered to
The Rolling Stone.

The Vagrants were hot. They got residencies in all of Manhattan's best clubs
and visiting rock stars sat in with them. One of their gimmicks was to take a
hit, like The Beatles' "No Reply," and slow it way, way down and turn it into a
white soul showcase - a trick Vanilla Fudge later built a career on. A tall,
skinny, troubled songwriter, Bert Sommer, began writing material for them, and
they made some singles for Vanguard Records, but again, nothing.

(Soundbite of music)

THE VAGRANTS: (Singing) This is the final hour. Love faded like a flower. I'm
hurting. Do you see the way that you hurt me? Yeah. This is the final moment.
Can't stand the pain and torment. You’re seeing other guys. I will not even
cry. Yeah. What you going to do?

WARD: They became the house band at The Action House in Long Beach, a place
with reputed mob connections, getting $1,500 a show and working 28 days a
month. They added pyrotechnics to the show: Bombs would go off at the climax of
one of their songs. One night, one of the bomb-boxes under Jerry's organ wasn't
completely out at the end of the night, and the entire stage - with the B3 -
burned, taking The Vagrants' equipment with it. Their booking agency didn't
flinch: They re-outfitted the band the next day, so The Vagrants could keep
making them money.

They still didn't have a hit, so Atco Records, with whom they had a deal,
thanks to The Rascals, called in Felix Pappalardi, fresh from producing Cream.
He, his girlfriend Gail Collins, and Bert Sommer collaborated on a single for
The Vagrants to record.

(Soundbite of song, "Beside the Sea")

Mr. SABATINO: (Singing) Beside the sea, you and me, breaking waves on silver
sand. Deep in love, star above, we walk together hand-in-hand.

Please take a walk beside the sea, dreaming dreams for you and me.

WARD: Again, nothing. By this time, the band had gotten out of control. Larry
and Leslie fought all the time, most of them were taking drugs, and the lack of
success was getting to them. In the summer of 1968, Jerry Storch quit, and
although the band staggered on for a while longer, it was over.

Today, Roger Mansour is a missionary in Haiti, Larry’s got a restaurant, Jerry
Storch is a rabbi and Peter Sabatino has a catering business and fronts the The
New Vagrants. Leslie? He changed his name to Leslie West and joined Pappalardi
to form a band called Mountain. But that's another story.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. He reviewed The Vagrants “I Can’t
Make A Friend, 1965 to '68" on Light in the Attic Records.

Coming up, a novel by a writer our book critic says does justice to the
ordinary. Maureen Corrigan reviews Stewart O'Nan's new book “Emily, Alone”
after a break.

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The Joy Of The Mundane In 'Emily, Alone'

TERRY GROSS, host:

Stewart O'Nan has written a dozen novels, mostly about people who live
undramatic lives in undramatic places like Pittsburgh.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that O'Nan’s novels eloquently testify to how
much the every day matters. Here’s her review of his latest novel, “Emily,
Alone.”

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: It takes a deft hand to do justice to the ordinary. Most
novelists don't even bother to try, which is why most novels are about a rip in
the fabric of the routine. It's tough to find fiction ambitious enough to
tackle the story of a run-of-the-mill job, a hum-drum family; but if the
mundane matters to you, then Stewart O'Nan is your man.

His 2007 novella, “Last Night at the Lobster,” chronicled the final shift at a
chain restaurant that’s shutting down, and it's the best story I've ever read
about the meaning of even commonplace work in people's lives.

A few years earlier, O'Nan wrote a quietly best-selling novel called “Wish You
Were Here” about an extended squabbling family gathering for its yearly
vacation in the first summer after the death of its patriarch, except O'Nan
would never resort to a pompous word like patriarch. Now, O'Nan has written a
sequel to that earlier novel, called “Emily, Alone,” and it's a moody, lightly
comic and absolutely captivating rendering of that most un-sensational of
subjects: widowhood and old age.

You don't have to have read “Wish You Were Here” first before diving into
“Emily, Alone.” I know, because I read the novels in reverse order. Book
reviewer duty aside, I read the earlier novel because I craved more time in the
world that O'Nan has created here - the diligently achieved and now-fading
upper-middle-class world of Emily Maxwell from Pittsburgh. Decades ago, Emily
managed the class climb into the country club society of Pittsburgh by marrying
Henry Maxwell. When this novel opens, Emily, now 80, fervently wishes to hold
on to her dignity as loneliness and death close in.

But, because “Emily, Alone” is written by O'Nan and not, say, Tolstoy, Emily's
confrontations with the infinite occur as she's carrying on with everyday
chores: clearing out her messy basement; fighting off a cold and self-pity. In
the first beautifully detailed chapter of the novel, Emily and her prickly
sister-in-law, Arlene, drive off - oh so slowly, as they do every week - to the
Tuesday morning two-for-one breakfast buffet at the Eat 'n Park Restaurant.

When they finally get there, Arlene keels over at the steaming hot breakfast
bar, badly smacking her head on the sneeze guard. She’s had some sort of a
spell that requires her to remain in the hospital for a few days - and O'Nan
does a wonderful job of evoking the excitement that this change in their weekly
schedule brings to Emily's life. Her daily visits to the hospital afford
conversation and community, and because the laid-up Arlene was always the
driver, Emily now has to steel herself to pilot Arlene's bulky Taurus through
the decaying streets of a once familiar Pittsburgh. Eventually, Emily gets so
cocky that she even buys herself a new four-wheel-drive Subaru.

None of these events are rendered cute. O'Nan's glory as a writer is that he
conveys the full force of the quotidian without playing it for slapstick or
dressing it up as profound. Listen to his language. About Emily's weekly phone
conversations with her adult children and her college-age grandkids, O'Nan
says...

Her sole wish, now, was to be closer to them. It was hard to follow their lives
from a distance, to send out cards and letters and presents, to call week after
week and then receive in return only the barest of news, grudgingly given and
heavily censored.

And here's O'Nan describing Emily trying to fasten a necklace without her late
husband's help...

On formal occasions like tonight, Henry would stand behind her like a valet.
She'd find him admiring her in the mirror, and while she discounted his
adoration of her beauty - based, as it was, on a much younger woman - she also
relied on it, and as time passed she was grateful for the restorative powers of
his memory.

With economy, wit and grace, O'Nan ushers us into the shrinking world of a
pleasantly flawed, rather ordinary old woman and keeps us readers transfixed by
the meaning that’s to be uncovered in monotony.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed “Emily, Alone” by Stewart O'Nan.

You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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