The best Herman Wouk story (almost) no one has read

There were countless well-deserved tributes yesterday to Herman Wouk on his 100th birthday.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning American Jewish author will be celebrated for his classic works, such as “Marjorie Morningstar,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” In 1959, when I was 6 years old, his first work of nonfiction, “This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life,” assumed a prominent place on my parents’ bookshelves, and I have it in my home today. Remarkably, he is still writing, and his new book, “Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author,” will be released later this year.  In a statement issued by his publisher, Simon & Schuster, Wouk said “I’ve lived to a great age, and for that I thank Providence. To the readers who’ve stayed with me for the long pull, my warm affection, and I hope you’ll enjoy the light-hearted memoir about my writings.”

Amid all the praise for the memorable literature Wouk has created, I would like to pay tribute to him for a short story — an extremely short story — that he wrote 46 years ago. It was never published, and it’s likely that only one person other than myself ever read it. And, I shouldn’t have.

It was a hot July day in 1969, and everyone at Camp Ramah in Palmer, Massachusetts had stayed up late the night before to watch history being made. We had seen Neil Armstrong take that one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind, on a tiny black-and-white TV with rabbit ears antenna, perched on a wooden chair on the porch of our dining hall.

But now we were back to our normal routine, and I was assigned to pick up the day’s mail for the three bunks of boys in my division. During my walk back from the camp post office across the field, I started sifting through the various items, looking to see if I’d received anything that day, and one postcard caught my eye. Dated July 16, it was from Herman Wouk to his son Joey, who was in the next bunk over from me.

Wouk and his wife had been invited to the Kennedy Space Center for the blastoff of Apollo 11, and he described the event in vivid detail to his son. I don’t remember his exact words, but I recall being captivated by the evocative language he used to convey the intensity and excitement of that profoundly moving moment at 9:32 a.m., when the spacecraft cleared the tower and roared towards the heavens. He spoke of the flames and smoke, the immense sound, and how the earth shook below his feet.

Knowing of Wouk’s towering reputation, I was quite exhilarated to be privy to this meant-to-be-private paragraph. And being a good Jewish boy, I also felt deeply guilty that I’d read someone else’s mail.

So, very belatedly, I’d like to say to Joey: I’m sorry. And to Herman on his 100th birthday, I’d like to say: Until 120, Mr. Wouk, and thank you for writing the best postcard I have ever read.

Around-the-clock cleanup effort under way on oil-fouled California beach

Santa Barbara– Cleanup teams labored on Thursday for a third day to remove patches of crude petroleum that stained a California beach and fouled offshore waters from a pipeline rupture that may rank as the biggest oil spill to hit the Santa Barbara coastline in more than four decades.

Working around the clock, about 300 people on the beach were scooping up globs of oil from the sand and raking tar balls. Crews will also scrub soiled rocks and hose down contaminated areas, Coast Guard Captain Jennifer Williams said.

Nine cleanup vessels plied the ocean, six to corral the slick with booms and three others skimming oil from the surface.

Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach, both popular seaside camping destinations, were to remain closed to the public through the Memorial Day holiday weekend. The area was also closed to fishing and shellfish harvesting.

Tuesday's rupture released as much as 2,500 barrels (105,000 gallons) of crude oil, five times more than the initial estimate, according to a “worst-case scenario” presented by pipeline owner Plains All American Pipeline. It said up to a fifth of the spill had reached the ocean.

The 24-inch-wide (61-cm-wide) pipeline, which runs underground parallel to a coastal highway west of Santa Barbara, inexplicably burst on Tuesday morning, belching crude oil down a canyon, under a culvert and onto Refugio State Beach before it flowed into the Pacific, U.S. Coast Guard officials said.

Plains Chief Executive Officer Greg Armstrong said control-room operators detected pipeline pressure irregularities on Tuesday morning, and the line was shut off in about 30 minutes.

The company said residual oil continued to drain after the shutdown. The spill was discovered about an hour later, when people in the area noticed a petrochemical odor and alerted authorities, officials said.

By Wednesday, a 4-mile (6-km) stretch of beach was blackened, and an oil slick spanned more than 9 miles (14 km) of ocean, the Coast Guard said.

Tuesday's accident pales in comparison with a 1969 offshore well blowout into the Santa Barbara Channel that released an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil and stands as the largest spill ever in California waters.

Officials said Tuesday's oil spill, if Plains' estimates hold up, likely ranks as the biggest along the Southern California coast since the 1969 blowout, which killed thousands of sea birds and other wildlife and helped spark the modern U.S. environmental movement.


Governor Jerry Brown issued an emergency proclamation on Wednesday to speed cleanup resources to the scene.

The spill zone lies at the edge of a national marine sanctuary and state-designated underwater preserve that is home to 25 marine mammal species and 60 species of sea birds. But the Santa Barbara Channel and surrounding waters are also dotted with nearly two dozen oil platforms and hundreds of wells.

Wildlife teams were dispatched to rescue any animals injured by the spill. Authorities said they did not know the extent of wildlife harm, but photos showed oil-covered pelicans and other sea life washed ashore.

Crews focused on three especially sensitive nesting areas for shore birds, including snowy plovers and least terns, said a state Fish and Wildlife Department spokeswoman.

The pipeline that burst on Tuesday typically carries about 1,200 barrels of oil an hour from an Exxon Mobil Corp processing facility to a distribution hub in Bakersfield hundreds of miles away, company and county officials said.

The company said it had inspected the pipeline a few weeks ago, but results had not yet come back.