Sebastian Junger, best-selling author of “The Perfect Storm,” received the warmest of welcomes at his recent talk, when he shared his journey about the tale that led him to success as a writer, as well as his recent near-death experience.
“It’s such a pleasure to be back in Gloucester and the reception is so incredibly warm. I feel like I’ve come home,” said Junger, who resides in New York City with his wife and two young children.
For more than 90 minutes, he captivated the audience of close to 250 with his poise, humility and stories that speak to the fragile nature of life. But it ended with a note about how each one of us can make a difference by recognizing and supporting the human dignity of every individual.
In his introduction, Bruce Tobey, one of the co-chairs of the Gloucester 400+ committee, said this gathering is like a “pre-season” event to what will come next year when the city commemorates and celebrates its 400th anniversary.
The last time Junger came to Gloucester was in 2016 during the promotion of his book, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” about, in part, the trauma faced by many veterans returning from war, and their struggle to feel like they belong when they return home. That book brought Retired Lt. Col. U.S. Army Jaime Martinez from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Cruiseport Gloucester to hear Junger’s presentation. He shared with the author the impact of “Tribe” on him and other veterans.
“I’m incredibly touched to be invited back to this town,” Junger told the crowd during a standing ovation.
His talk was filled with both sobering anecdotes about war, life and death, but also often punctuated with humor.
In classic Junger style, he takes a broad and pragmatic approach to his topics, infusing anthropology, psychology, and science among many other areas.
But he recognizes the role of chance in every individual life, especially his own.
“I can’t think of a single significant thing in my life that didn’t happen by sheer random chance,” he said in an interview earlier in the day. “The thing that’s terrifying or miraculous about life is that we feel like we shape who we are. But most of it is determined by chance, and what you do with that shapes who you are. But ‘chance’ determines an awful lot.”
That happenstance is what put Junger in a position to write “The Perfect Storm” — beginning with meeting the woman who became his girlfriend at the time, having dinner with friends in Gloucester where he fell in love with the rugged city, and then a leg injury due to an accident with a chainsaw more than 30-feet in the air during a job cutting down trees.
“You can never win with those odds in Vegas,” he adds with a chuckle.
But his trajectory was about to make a tectonic shift, as he explained at the event.
“Back in 1989, I was a failing writer, not even a struggling writer, and not even close to making an income. Luckily one afternoon, I was sitting in a bar and a man said, ‘Are you looking for work?’ Classic afternoon bar talk, in a bar at 3 p.m. He had a tree company and he needed a climber,” related Junger.
He agreed to train for the work, even though he is terrified of heights and spiders.
But his recuperation from that chainsaw injury just happened to coincide with the unprecedented storm of 1991. That storm claimed the lives of all on board the Gloucester fishing vessel, Andrea Gail, which was lost at sea, as well as other tragedies along the eastern seaboard. Junger’s incessant thirst for stories about the human experience led to his research that later became the book, “The Perfect Storm,” which later became a Hollywood film.
He continued to explore dangerous jobs, including those in war zones.
Junger, who had many close calls with bullets and death while reporting in Afghanistan, beat the odds again but this time in a most personal way.
An undiagnosed aneurism in a pancreatic artery, a result of a congenital abnormality, ruptured while he was residing on Cape Cod during the pandemic.
“All of a sudden, a pain hit me in the stomach and I’d started to bleed out. It would have been way better getting shot,” he recalled.
“I’ve been in many dangerous situations but I was not prepared for what happened,” he said. “I was going blind and actively dying. In those moments, two things happened. A black pit opened up and was driving me toward it and I knew I didn’t want to go in, and my father appeared. He was an impossibly rational man. A physicist and I wanted nothing to do with him and the pit. I barely made it through.”
The next day recovering in the hospital, the nurse asked how he was feeling, to which he replied that he felt terrible.
“The nurse said no one could believe I was alive because I almost died,” he related. But the nurse made a remark that stayed with Junger when she said: “Try not thinking about it as something scary but as something sacred.”
For Junger, an atheist and his father’s son in terms of being a rational pragmatic, he starting going down the proverbial rabbit hole with curiosity about the profundity of life and death, all which are woven into his current work, a book with a working title of “Pulse.”
“It awakened me to the idea of mortality. If this had happened when I was 30, I may have put it past me easier. But it happened at 60. That experience made me question so much,” he said.
Prior to this work, in May 2021, Junger released the book “Freedom,” exploring the notion of humans and freedom.
“It’s not political but anthropological,” he said. “Most animals are part of hierarchies and we are not necessarily bound by that, which makes humans unique.”
With no plans to retire, Junger said work is a pleasure.
“I’m incredibly lucky to feel that way,” he said. “I love being an author and discovering the world, and I don’t see that changing.”
Junger, who years ago stopped reporting from war zones, has no plans to go to Ukraine. In fact, he said he doesn’t even cross the street against the light.
As for his weekend in Gloucester, he leaves with an invigorated walk down memory lane.
“It feels like a homecoming in such a beautiful way,” he added.