American boys who were 10 years old in the late 1930s came along too late for The Swiss Family Robinson and too early for the space age. Their daydreams of adventure were conditioned by the feats of Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post and Admiral Richard Byrd.
Norman Leonard Baker, who was born in 1928 and who wrote the odyssey of Thor Heyerdahl's Ra that begins on page 66, was no exception to this rule. He was as good a dreamer as any, but his dreams were of flying—across great oceans and Polar wastes—and in his eighth-grade year at Brooklyn's John Marshall Junior High he entered a model-airplane contest that actually won him several hours of flight instruction from the Piper Aircraft Corporation. Anyone who asked Norman Baker in those days to waste daydreams on a voyage across the Atlantic in a boat that looked like an ill-made basket would have gotten the kind of a look that only an adolescent boy can give to an addlepated adult. Yet that is exactly what Norman Baker ended up doing some 30 years later, and it provided some extraordinary adventuring.
Baker's path to that ultimate daydream was as circuitous as that of the basket boat itself. As an engineering student at Cornell, he was still hooked on flying, but in college he encountered another demanding taskmaster in the form of rowing. It was partly because his rowing coach commanded the unit that Baker joined the local naval reserve and began to master the mysteries of celestial navigation. But it was still his aim in the Navy to be a flyer rather than a sailor. His mother changed that.
Two years after graduation Baker was called up for naval service in the Korean war. "Norman," his mother said to him as he prepared to go, "I have never asked you not to do anything, have I? So, if I ask one thing of you now, will you listen to me?"
April 20, 1970
"Sure, Mom," the son dutifully replied.
"Please, then," his mother said, "don't fly."
So Baker put aside his dream of flight and went into the Korean war as a navigator on a destroyer. After his war tour on the tin can he retrograded to sailing ships. For the better part of a year after his service he crewed on sporty ocean racers and wandered over the Pacific with the famous vagabonding biologist, Jack Randall, aboard a wretched ketch that in Baker's opinion should never have been let outside of Chesapeake Bay. Later he sailed as mate on a steel-hulled schooner that plied between the coral-line pinpoints of the South Pacific.
Despite such voyaging, Baker still claims he was prejudiced in favor of flight over sail—at least until he sailed aboard the Ra. In that adventure, as you will see, Baker developed a love-hate relationship with paper boats that may be permanent.
None of those concerned will reveal their plans right now, but there is considerable talk in Rabat, Morocco these days that a new papyrus vessel is being readied for another try at the Ra's route—possibly much sooner than one might expect. I can't help but wonder if Norman Baker would now be content to hover overhead somewhere and watch it sail without him.