A Native Is Restless
Thom Lancy joined the Air Force straight out of Denver's George Washington High School because he wanted to see the world. "I like adventure," he says. "I'd rather be launching F-14s off of aircraft carriers than working at McDonald's."
As it turns out, he didn't launch any Tomcats. He guarded warplanes instead. He worked in communications. He worked in administration. He never saw any combat. The closest he came was during the fall of Saigon in 1975. Lancy was in Thailand then, close enough to feel "a sense of history."
He also traveled the globe. He drank wine on top of the Eiffel Tower. He hitchhiked from Germany into Italy. He traveled throughout Europe and was assigned to a military base in Turkey that was 200 miles from the Russian border. He met Syrian monks.
Now, at age 47, Lancy programs computers for a living, working from 9 to 5 in a windowless office at the Denver Tech Center. "By two o'clock," he says, "my eyes go in the back of my head." And he has a crazy dream. It's not even his dream. It's a dream borrowed from another man, from another time when the world was a little more uncharted, before there were jumbo passenger jets and the Internet and you could see the whole globe from your living room.
There's a good chance it will never happen. But don't tell that to Lancy. He is already busy plotting an escape from the kind of world where, he says, people "panic if their ATM card doesn't work."
The dream started when Lancy was in junior high. He read a book by adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who in 1947 sailed more than 4,000 miles on a raft named Kon-Tiki from the coast of South America to the Marquesas Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The trip took Heyerdahl 101 days and made him a national hero in his native Norway. He wrote a best-selling book and helped spark the Polynesian craze that swept across the U.S., leading to the establishment of "Kon Tiki" hotels and restaurants coast to coast and briefly turning the mai-tai into America's cocktail of choice.
Now Lancy wants to replicate Heyerdahl's journey. Not for the anthropological reasons Heyerdahl had, not for science, not even for profit. Just for the hell of it. He has had the trip in mind for decades, but he's getting serious about it as he sails into midlife. His marriage has run aground, and his job--as he readily admits--doesn't exactly move him. He stares at computers all day. He'd much rather he staring at the ocean.
"Thom looks at the average yuppie and says, 'You're not doing anything with your life,'" says friend Dane Romberger, a buddy from the age of twelve. "Tom wants to pursue dreams. After he does this, he'll have another dream."
Recently separated from his wife of 26 years, Lancy comes home each night to a small apartment in Englewood that is jammed with globes, maps, charts and books about history and war. A dozen green footlockers hold the remnants of his twenty-year career in the Air Force. There's no couch--he says it would tie him down to the television, and he'd rather be leafing through his numerous hardbound historical tomes about World War II. He'd rather be looking through his apartment's open door, where the mid-evening breeze brings to mind another world.
"I've thought about it all my life," Lancy says calmly. "I finally decided to try to put this thing together. To satisfy the adventure lust in me."
This "thing" is nothing less than to find a crew of five people and one parrot, journey to Ecuador, cut down a few dozen balsa and bamboo trees, make a raft out of them with rope (no nails, bolts or screws) and shove off for the high seas. Then arrive in the islands, kiss the sand, perhaps, take a plane home and tell everyone about it.
"My interest is just the adventure," Lancy says earnestly, finding in the oft-repeated word an encouraging mantra. "To say, 'I did it. Here's my story.'"
Lancy got serious about following in Heyerdahl's wake five years ago. He got "really serious" last year.
"The first step is to see what interest there is out there," Lancy explains. "Getting people to go will be no problem. It's getting the money together and doing the marketing, because it does cost a lot of money."
So he's preparing a proposal to present to potential sponsors such as oceanographic institutes and environmental and political organizations. He's been on the Internet, throwing out feelers for a possible crew. He's bought detailed charts on South Pacific weather patterns and ocean currents. He hopes by early next year to have financial backers and to head to South America no later than the year 2000.
Lancy has also contacted the still-very-much-alive Heyerdahl, who went on to launch several more oceanic expeditions and now splits his time between Norway and a home in the Canary Islands. The elderly explorer, Lancy says, was "a little skeptical. He wasn't sure why I wanted to do this. He thought it was interesting, he thought it would take a lot of money, he thought it was dangerous. He said the BBC and French news had expressed interest in stories about [the fiftieth anniversary of Heyerdahl's trek]."
Actually, the fax Heyerdahl sent Lancy in late 1995 has a stark, uninterested tone. It notes, for instance, that Lancy is hardly the first person to think of re-creating the famous Kon-Tiki voyage. "It may be very difficult for you to obtain the quite considerable funds which would be needed today to duplicate what we managed fifty years ago," writes Heyerdahl. "I also hope for your sake that you do not want to repeat our landing through the surf of the Raroia Reef." Adds Heyderdahl, "I suspect there will be limited interest in future voyages from Peru of this kind, since already thirteen raft expeditions have by now duplicated our 1947 journey."
In the letter, Heyerdahl sounds like a father gently discouraging the fanciful notions of a child. But Lancy is unswayed. He has asked Heyerdahl for technical advice and permission to use the Kon-Tiki name--Heyerdahl's blessing, if you will. Heyerdahl didn't give it. But then again, Lancy figures, Heyerdahl didn't explicitly tell him not to go, either.
Thom Lancy may be deluded or desperate, but he is sincere. He isn't a sailor, he admits, but then neither was Heyerdahl when he first set out. He doesn't seem to mind that so many other men have made the journey that the novelty has worn off. He admits roadblocks could come up. The government of Ecuador, for instance, might not want someone cutting up its trees for a joyride. But until then, he says, he will push on. Maybe as a way of dealing with some midlife crisis. Maybe as a way of matching the legacy of his father, Arthur Lancy, a career Army man who served as a stable boy to George S. Patton during his days in the Cavalry.
Lancy is an unlikely dreamer. There is a vestige of military precision and discipline about him. He seems level-headed and imminently rational. "There's a sense of duty that he got from his father," Romberger adds. "He's not a frivolous person."
Thor Heyerdahl had his own reasons when he set off on his journey fifty years ago this past April. The Norwegian anthropologist had already spent more than a year in the Marquesas group with his wife, in an attempt to abandon the world and forsake "the good things of civilization along with its evils."
While he was there, he noticed, among other things, a similarity between stone statues of the Polynesian chief-god, Tiki, and other "gigantic monoliths which are relics of extinct civilizations in South America."
Though his "native" experience proved short-lived, when Heyerdahl returned to the South Pacific in 1947 he sought to prove that the people who settled the Polynesian islands migrated from South America thousands of years earlier, on wood rafts. The prevailing theory of the time was that a land bridge had once existed between the mainland and the islands. If he could construct a raft solely from wood and successfully navigate it to one of the islands, surely others before him might have accomplished the same feat.
Colleagues thought he was crazy and didn't expect him to survive. But Heyerdahl assembled a crew and pressed the United States--fat off its triumphs in World War II--for help. He received technical support from the U.S. military, which asked him to field-test new equipment and rations. A Norwegian military attache, Colonel Otto Munthe-Kaas, agreed to give Heyerdahl a loan. A friend from the United Nations smoothed out diplomatic wrinkles with delegates from Peru and Ecuador. Soon Heyerdahl was in the jungles of Ecuador, chopping down balsa trees on a large plantation.
The crew lashed nine huge balsa logs together--the core of the raft--loaded it up with wood they'd need later and set sail down the Palenque River, back to the coast. From there they floated down the coast to the port of Callao, Peru, where they set about building their raft. The nine large logs--ranging from 30 to 45 feet--provided the base. On top of those, smaller logs were placed transversely. Some 300 different lengths of rope were used to secure it all.
On April 28, 1947, a tugboat hauled the Kon-Tiki out of the bay as journalists and dignitaries from the U.S., France, Great Britain, China and other countries looked on. Over the next three months, the group sailed the Pacific alone. They weathered storms (one of which killed their parrot mascot), and they outlasted sharks that hung dangerously close to the raft. There were other close calls, like the time Heyerdahl and a mate went off exploring on the raft's dinghy and nearly couldn't make it back to the Kon-Tiki. Another crew member fell off of the raft and barely managed to grab a rope trailing the back of it.
But nothing was more dangerous than the ship's landing. The huge Takume and Raroia reefs, forty miles long, stood in the way of the Kon-Tiki's safe arrival on the island of Raroia. As they neared the reef, waves crashed over them to the extent that Heyerdahl later wrote, "I felt the suction through my whole body, with such great strength that I had to strain every single muscle in my frame and think of one thing only--hold on, hold on!"
Then the boat crashed into the reef, snapping the mast apart and tearing the ship to pieces. "The general impression," Heyerdahl wrote, "was of complete chaos." But once beyond the reef, he and his crew were into shallow water and able to unload what supplies they had left, including their radio.
The crew was greeted by Polynesian villagers, and before a Norwegian boat arrived a few weeks later to pick up the travelers, Heyerdahl took time to describe the island: "Green coconuts hung under the palm-tufts, and some luxuriant bushes were thickly covered with snow-white blossoms, which smelled so sweet and seductive that I felt quite faint.
"This was heaven."
Thom Lancy comes from a military family, a family still in the benign but powerful shadow of Arthur Lancy.
After running away from his Connecticut home at the age of fourteen in 1928, Arthur Lancy enlisted in the Cavalry. He returned after his first tour of duty in the middle of the Depression--and decided the Army was a better option. Back in uniform, he traveled widely, from Burma to China to the Hawaiian islands.
After Arthur married in 1942, his family traveled, too. Wife Marie and the six kids--John, Paul, Thom, Jim, Michael and Suzanne--lived on or near military bases all over the American West. It was a family, says Paul Lancy, who followed his father into the Army and is now in the home-inspection business near Tampa, in which "you had to be aggressive at the dinner table or you went to bed hungry."
An even tougher task was living up to Arthur Lancy, who during World War II carried classified communiques over the Himalayan "Hump" in C-46 cargo planes. After the war, he was transitioned to the Army Air Corps' successor, the U.S. Air Force. His tales about his military exploits never failed to captivate his children--especially Thom. Today, says Michael Lancy, an Air Force veteran who lives in Fort Collins, "Thom misses him more than anybody."
Thom grew up in Denver, in the neighborhoods near Lowry Air Force Base, where his father had been stationed before retiring from the Air Force in 1955. Thom was a strange mix of hard and soft edges. As a boy, he used to attract bullies with his tall, gangly form, and then beat them up. One kid followed him home and demanded a fight. Arthur wanted the kids to settle it with boxing gloves. Thom simply charged out and, recalls Romberger, "knocked him on his ass."
Arthur Lancy wanted at least one of his boys to attend West Point. That never happened. But Thom and his four brothers followed their father's lead by joining the military. Only Thom's twenty-year stint in the Air Force approached the 27 years of service logged by his father. When Arthur died from emphysema in 1989 at the age of 77, it was Thom who researched and wrote the seven-page eulogy for the funeral.
"I saw what the service meant to him," Thom says of his father. "I used to come home on leave, sit on the back porch and talk with him for hours about the service." On his forearm, "Pop" Lancy had a tattoo of two crossed sabers, the insignia for the first Army unit he served in.
To the Lancys, the military was less about following orders than about traveling the world, meeting new people and seeing new things. Pop told stories about sailing in a submarine as the guest of a Navy friend, about witnessing Amelia Earhart's takeoff from Hawaii's Wheeler Field as she headed for Oakland in 1935, about flying in a bomber as the Air Corps bombed lava flows from the Kilauea volcano that were heading for the city of Hilo.
From his father, Thom inherited "an adventure streak up his back that's amazing," says Michael Lancy. Romberger remembers his friend as a young man driving "eighty miles an hour in the mountains without headlights." But the same boy who fought bullies was once "driven to tears" by the sight of a dead skunk on the highway. "Thom is a romantic at heart," says Michael. "He'd prefer to sit down and listen to classical music. Yet at the same time, he's a tiger."
None of his siblings are given to much speculation about what's driving Thom now. They only know their brother as an adventurous spirit, an avid history buff and a man who they say is eminently capable of sailing across the ocean on a raft. Jim, who served as a medic in the Army, thought the idea was nuts at first. But, like the other family members, he has faith that Thom will pull it off. "He's getting to the point where if he doesn't do it now, he never will," Jim adds.
Marie Lancy, who now lives in Brighton, also seems to take her son's fantasy in stride. Thom is a good boy, she says. His plan to cross the South Pacific on a balsa-wood postage stamp is fine with her.
Thom Lancy left the Air Force in 1989. It was time, he says, to rejoin the workforce while he still had skills to market--time to say goodbye to "saluting young second lieutenants right out of college."
"I figured I'd devote the first half of my life to Uncle Sam and the other half to myself," he says. He returned to the U.S. and settled in Oklahoma City, working in the oil business there through 1995. He was a mile away when the bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building went off. Six months later he was back in Denver.
He doesn't like what he sees. He says Colorado has "become a big disappointment. Too many 'no trespassing' signs, too much privately owned property. Too many businesspeople. It's not the wilderness I knew as a kid. Everyone has a utility vehicle."
Lancy has changed over the years, says Romberger. His wanderlust has been tempered by age. "He's gone through stuff in the meantime--marital stuff, stuff that comes to you in midlife," says Romberger. "I imagine there's some of that [behind the Kon-Tiki proposal]. I don't think it's unfair or mean to speculate about that."
Lancy doesn't want to talk about his marital troubles, but he is clearly eager to get away from here. He talks of one day working in a mission in Calcutta. And he talks, of course, about Kon-Tiki. His plan calls for trying to drum up interest wherever he can find it. He hopes to attract supporters, be they environmentalists (he plans to contact Greenpeace in Norway and France), scientists (would National Geographic be interested?) or simply entertainers (a big-screen IMAX movie, perhaps?).
It's possible that someone will bite. But according to Bob Knox, the associate director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, it's not likely.
"It's conceivable that someone would have some nifty idea the raft could do, but I would be surprised," says Knox. "It would be a very modest increase to discoveries that are already under way. [A raft voyage] is not quite as workable as sailing a research vessel. It's hard to mount some of the more interesting scientific sensors." Any research that might be conducted aboard the raft, Knox adds--say a study of changes in sea surface temperatures--"would be an interesting footnote, not a major news event."
Perhaps Lancy suspects as much himself. But the dream that's nourished him since boyhood won't relinquish its hold quite so easily. And for the moment, he has found peace in its grasp. Says Lancy, "I'm freer now than I've ever been.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.