Dan Remembers Writing ‘In the Hamptons’ While on Safari in Africa
My memoir In the Hamptons was published by Random House on May 6, 2008. It got a wonderful review in The New York Times and that Sunday was excerpted in Newsday. They reprinted an entire chapter of the book, which at first I thought would be “Billy Joel” but which turned out to be “Frank Mundus.”
Billy Joel, you know. Frank Mundus was the famous Montauk shark fisherman who landed one-and-a-half-ton killer sharks and, way back when, was selected as the model for the role of the fishing boat captain Quint in Jaws.
Each chapter in the book was about a particular individual. The subtitle of the book was “My Fifty Years with Farmers, Fishermen, Artists, Billionaires and Celebrities,” and I found myself going around the East End every Saturday morning reading these chapters in the locations they took place. Billy Joel’s chapter, for example, was read at Coecles Harbor Boat Works on Shelter Island.
Besides Newsday, I was interviewed on NPR three times, and on ABC-TV and Channel 11, I had a feature on the front page of The New York Times Long Island section and in National Geographic Traveler (pick of the month). I had appearances on CNBC and NBC.
What I really want to talk about here, however, is why I think this work was among the best writing I have ever done. The majority of it got written at night by lantern light during the month of April 2006 on safari in Africa.
Chris Wasserstein, the woman I love and owe everything I have done through to today, spent that entire month there. We were in South Africa at Kruger, Zambia at the Victoria Falls, and for three of the four weeks in Botswana, the African country with the greatest number of large animals on the continent. Indeed, it can be said that Botswana has the greatest number of wild animals in one place, anywhere. About 10 years earlier, the president of that country decreed that all fences in the entire country had to come down. Now the animals would run free. And that means personal encounters—accompanied by armed guides, of course—with wild elephants, lions, cheetahs, hippos, rhinos and leopards.
What in the world does Botswana have to do with the Hamptons and a book I wrote? Well, just about everything.
Anybody who tells you that they have gone on safari in Africa and was not, especially in the dark, scared, is a liar. During the month we were there, we learned, because it was in the newspapers, that a doctor from Cincinnati had poked a crocodile in the eye with an oar while in the Zambia River, and he would be alive today if he had not done that. There was the case of an elephant that charged a man, his wife and their child as they walked down the dusty street in Kinshasa the day after we were there, and now they were hunting this elephant down to kill him. He must have been berserk to do what he did. Only the man survived.
At every tent camp we stayed at—they have names like Kwara, Labala, Zambia, Chuma, Sussi, because you can’t refer to them by the name of a town since they are not in any town—we were told not to go out after dark without a camp guide. And so, of course, we did not.
Except, of course, for me.
Even on this vacation, I still wrote articles for the newspaper. (In 60 years, I believe I have written more than 15,000 articles.) And so, I was determined to do it in a place where there is no phone service, no electricity after dark (they turn off the generator), no cellphone service, no internet, and if in your tent there is an emergency, you have a knife and a very large bell to clang. The only connection to the outside world was a big tower with an antenna on the top from which the camp’s satellite phone worked, at $2 a minute, and then only to the base camp.
What I brought with me was my laptop computer, a long cable and a second device that looked like another clamshell laptop but which was actually a satellite dish that I had rented from an Arizona firm for $45 a month. I’d set that outside the tent at night, aim the dish toward a point 20 degrees almost due north and home in on a satellite there, which was sitting stationary a few miles up over Egypt.
I actually succeeded with this. I’d charge my regular laptop during the day while we were out photographing giraffes, cheetahs, kudus and white rhinoceroses. We watched three lions stalk a herd of wildebeest. We watched a migration of zebras pass before our eyes for four hours. Then at night, by lantern light, I’d hook the laptop up by a computer cable to the dish on the tent deck. The dish needed a direct, unobstructed view of the satellite. I could not do it all indoors.
So, on many nights of the week, I’d be inside looking at the range finder on the laptop, then I’d unzip the tent flap, go outside, zip up the tent flap, re-adjust the dish toward the satellite and then go back inside the way I had come, to see if I was on the mark or would have to go out again. Usually I’d get it after five or six tries.
There were things hooting and roaring and snuffling out there. Occasionally you’d hear a scream from a monkey. And it was pitch dark.
After a few nights of this, I thought it was kind of fun. Except that the only days I needed to be in contact with the office in Bridgehampton were Monday, Tuesday and Friday. What about the other four days of the week?
Well, that’s when I wrote most of the chapters for In the Hamptons. I wrote a chapter about George Plimpton and the Flight to Portugal there. I wrote a chapter about house mover Bob Kennelly and when a house he was moving fell on him. (He lived and was back at work a month later.) I wrote about Jackson Pollock and about Willem de Kooning and how, for years, de Kooning kept on painting even after he fell into a severe dementia at the end of his life.
One afternoon, in the Labala camp, the manager of the place, an Aussie, asked me to show him and the assistant manager how this worked. We were in the dining tent and I set it up on the table there with the wire to the dish on a railing outside. After I was reading my email and showing him how I would upload attachments, the two of them stared at it for the longest time.
“We need one of these here,” the Aussie mumbled.
The scariest of my writing sessions came at Kwara Camp. Our tent faced out onto a swampy pond where nine hippos wallowed to keep cool. They spent all day there, and occasionally you’d hear them snort or bellow. At night, according to our manager, they’d rumble slowly out to the shore and, in the dryness of the cool night, find some place in the camp to all lie down and go to sleep together in a big pile, so just stay away from them and you’ll be fine.
That evening, our first night in Kwara, I determined by looking at a small compass on the dish that north was directly over some low bushes that stood between us and the pond. There was a part of the tent deck on the side that had a clear shot at Egypt. So I’d put it there.
I think you know where this is going. After several false starts, I was typing away when I heard what, at first, I thought was a very large person sloshing through the swamp just beyond the bushes. I could hear one foot, then another foot, then another. Of course, this had to be the hippos. After a while, all eight of the hippos followed, and soon they were settling not 10 feet from our tent. As soon as the last of them arrived, they began honking and grunting at one another in a soft, reassuring way. It was some kind of bedtime story. And it went on and on, and spaced further and further apart until the breathing got more regular and, finally, they all fell asleep and it all stopped.
I left the satellite dish out there all night. They were gone in the morning.
My firm belief is that I came to write In the Hamptons in Africa because I had free time and was experiencing a cleansing, breathtaking, slightly fearful, highly focused emotional period and had discovered a satellite over Egypt that enabled me to keep a lifeline open to the world I knew. I grasped it, and out came a book written by a man at the top of his game.