THE YOUNG POET changed his name to Stephen Sutcliffe. He took the Stephen from James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and Sutcliffe from Stuart Sutcliffe, the Beatles’ original bassist who died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962 at the age of twenty-one.
“It seems weird calling you Stephen,” his father said as they drove down Highway 101 through Big Sur in a black-over-yellow Cadillac. When his son didn’t say anything his father said, “When you were born I wanted to call you Ringo, but your mother wouldn’t have it.”
“You should have anyway,” his son said. He stared out the passenger window as the California coast rushed by. And then he said, “The Beatles were great, by the way.”
“So I heard.”
“John Lennon,” the young man said.
“Yeah,” his father said.
“That fucking madman.”
The son turned toward his father. “Don’t even say the name. The name we must never mention, as Paul McCartney said.”
His son turned back to the road that lay ahead. After a while he said, “He should have killed himself instead.”
The young man now known as Stephen Sutcliffe who was heading down the California coast in an old Caddy with his father would have other names, like the Mad Prophet of Ward 3C and Horatio Windsock.
As the latter he planned to start his own nation with the wild horses on Sable Island, an uninhabited slip of sand dunes off the coast of Nova Scotia. He would be the poet laureate and appoint his father Minister of External Affairs, just in case they had to conduct negotiations with the Canary Islands.
He wrote to his father about his plans. His father was in L.A. researching a story for California Magazine and his son was in Toronto planning to hitch a ride on a Nova Scotia government boat that made the fourteen-hour trip to Sable Island four times a year to service the two lighthouses on the island, the West Light Main Station and the East Light.
“Where will you live?” his father wrote back. His son didn’t have a telephone. His son said in his next letter that he would doss on one of the bunks in the main lighthouse until he built his own shack out of driftwood. The island was known for its shipwrecks. And then he added: “I’m taking the next boat. I know you’re busy out there right now so I thought you could come on the boat after that. I’ll be settled in by then. I’ll send you a timetable.”
His father was writing a letter in reply when his ex-wife phoned from Toronto and said, “Brace yourself for a shock.”
Their son had taken enough barbiturates to kill himself three times over. He wanted to make sure this time. His previous attempt had failed and he had woken up in Intensive Care. From IC he went to Ward 3C and from the psycho ward to a halfway house, halfway between madness and death.
The doctors had their own name for his condition but the young man called it a babbling hell of confusing signals from space. They put him on chlorpromazine and a few other mind buckers but he was determined to have the final say.
At one o’clock in the afternoon, in his room on the second floor of the halfway house, he lay down on the bed and let the barbiturates do their stuff. He was twenty-three years old.
Spinning toward oblivion he thought about the wild horses on Sable Island, ponies really, running free on what is little more than a windswept sandbank, twenty-three miles long and barely a mile wide, with a powerful surf, seals and seabirds, no trees but lush grass and wildflowers in the gullies and wild strawberries…