When Jack London was a teenager, a free-spirited but troubled boy of sixteen, he stumbled out of a Benicia saloon, staggered onto his fishing sloop moored to the wharf, and fell overboard. The water was ice-cold. The tides were running out. It was one in the morning, pitch black outside. He was dead drunk.
What happened next changed his life.
At the bottom of First Street, not far from where London took his fateful drunken plunge, there is a historical marker dedicated to the famous author. It is the second stop on a guided cell phone tour that takes walkers up First to learn about the landmarks and curiosities of the city’s colorful past. Understandably, his capsule bio does not refer to the moment when this tousle-haired, good-looking roustabout of a boy nearly took his life, but instead makes the claim that “it was during his stay in Benicia that he began to write.”
This, in fishing lingo, is a bit of a whopper. Though always with his nose stuck in a book—“I read in bed, I read at table, I read as I walked to and from school”—the writing and stories came later, blossoming in his early twenties after his experiences in the Alaskan gold rush. Nevertheless, the young Jack London did live and work and drink copiously here, writing fondly of the city’s waterfront in two minor stories based on his life, “John Barleycorn” and “Tales of the Fish Patrol,” which are barely readable today and worlds away from his epic achievement of Buck and the Yukon, “The Call of the Wild.”
Benicians are justifiably proud of their connection, however distant, to literary greatness. There is a charming park in the Southampton hills named after the author, and steps away from his historical marker is Sailor Jack’s, a seafood restaurant and bar that is also named in his honor. As you walk in the front door, to your right is a framed photo of the man himself, looking every inch the wealthy and successful author he became after the publication of Buck’s story, in 1903. Among its offerings, Sailor Jack’s specializes in oysters on the half shell, in itself a tribute to the restaurant’s namesake because when London was carousing around Benicia, he was an oyster man who at different times worked both sides of the law. First, raiding oyster beds in the dead of night and selling this precious contraband on the sly to fish markets and then, perhaps seeing the error of his ways, joining the boating patrol to stop fishermen from using illegal techniques to net oysters, shrimp and sturgeon on the river and bay.
A few blocks up from Sailor Jack’s, at First and West E streets, is the building that once housed Jurgenson’s Saloon, where the teenaged London frequently held down a stool. A century ago Jurgenson’s was lower down on First, closer to the water and wharves, and it may have been the place he staggered out of in his drunken stupor that night. Now this Old Town landmark has been lovingly restored and is the home of a hair and makeup salon and the Angel Heart 4 U shop.
While all these places are worth a visit, if you’re on the hunt for the rowdy vagabond spirit of Sailor Jack you must go back to the one place that has not changed since 1892: the water. This was where this dirt-poor boy—whose birth father abandoned him before he was born and whose mother, feeling abandoned herself, tried to kill herself and then suffered a nervous breakdown—went for escape. To the bars, yes; but even more, to the rivers, the bay, the seas. “I must get out and away on the water,” he wrote.
But it was his means of escape that almost sealed his doom. The Razzle Dazzle was tied up in the tules between First and East Fifth where the Portuguese, Italian and Greek fishermen kept their small wooden commercial fishing boats. When London fell off it, he realized “there was nobody on the wharf. Nobody on the sloop.” Nobody to help him as the tides at full ebb swept him out into the fast-moving currents of the river.
A strong swimmer who knew these waters as only a sailor can, he recovered quickly enough to steer away from the whirlpool-like currents that swirl around the islands close to today’s Benicia pier. But rather than count his blessings and swim back to shore, or yell to be rescued, he stayed in the water, letting the river push him downstream like a piece of debris caught in the flood.
“Some maundering fancy of going out with the tide suddenly obsessed me,” he wrote twenty years later in “John Barleycorn.” “I had never been morbid. Thoughts of suicide had never entered my head.” But now, lulled into a dizzy, semi-somnambulant state by the whisky spinning round his brain, the rushing water, the stars above him, they did. “I decided that this was all, that I had seen all, lived all, and that now was the time to cease…The water was delicious. It was a man’s way to die.”
In this melancholy state, his body floated for hours, down past the great Matthew Turner shipbuilding yard situated in the cove between West Ninth and Twelfth streets, down past Southampton Bay. As night turned to day and he approached the narrow neck of the Carquinez Strait, leading into the bigger, more turbulent expanses of San Pablo Bay, another and better thought occurred to him. This thought saved him, woke him up like a burst of light in a darkened room.
He no longer wished to die. He wished to live.
“I was sober now,” he explained, “and I didn’t want to die. I discovered scores of reasons for living.” A Greek fisherman pulled his soaked and freezing body out of the water and returned him home.
After this scare London continued to drink, and his love-hate affair with the bottle—“The brightest spots in my child life,” he recalled, “were the saloons”—continued until his death, in 1916, at age 40. But it was never the same. He confessed that when he was a boy he “often drank more than my share to show the strength of my manhood.” Some days he never drew a sober breath, going on drinking runs that lasted weeks. That all changed. From then on, he became “respectfully suspicious” of the grip that John Barleycorn held over him and furthermore, “resolved to resist all future suggestions of self destruction.”
One can only wonder what would have happened to London if his drinking habits had gone unchanged. Would he have grown into the husband, father and author he eventually became? Would there have been “Call of the Wild” or “White Fang” or “To Build a Fire?” Fortunately, we need not contemplate such potential losses. For a confused young man steered his way through a dark night of the soul, and the little port town on the Carquinez played a noteworthy role in his redemption.