|FIRST CBS BROKE MY HEART. Then CBS pissed me off.
On October 9, I opened my morning paper to discover an intriguing headline: "Survive This." The story told how a producer named Mark Burnett was soliciting applicants for a "reality-based" entertainment about people cooperating, or not, in their quest to cope with the rigors of precivilized life on an uninhabited tropical island. The photo showed footprints on a gleaming beach, thatch-roofed huts on stilts, and palms leaning artfully toward a tranquil lagoon—most everyone's idea of Eden.
Although I hadn't thought about it for 30 years, the searing imagery in Lord of the Flies swarmed across my brain. When I had read and read again William Golding's novel as a freshman in high school, I didn't see it as a statement that man's institutions are evil because man is evil. All I knew was that the book had overwhelmed me with a sudden, aching need to be someone else, far away. My father was a furious redneck tyrant, my mother had died when I was seven, and we were living in a trailer court scraped from a sugar beet field in North Dakota. I began to identify with the characters. First I was Ralph, the reasonable social democrat who believed in the survival value of cooperation. Then I was Jack, the bloodthirsty hunter who bent others to his will just for the fun of it. Finally I decided I was most like Simon, the dreamy mystic who wandered fearlessly around the jungle communing with the spirit world. Although selfless and hardworking and brave, Simon nevertheless ended up tragically—killed by his peers—and romantically, I thought at the time, his battered body carried away by the tide. Before I finally put away the book, I saw that it was actually the splendid, primordial isolation of Golding's good island itself that appealed to me most, this lush, nurturing playground free from the shackles of school and work and all those dreary adult expectations.
I dropped the paper and loped to my computer to download a Survivor application. Here was a chance to verify whether my adolescent fantasy was something that could actually come true or was merely an illusion fabricated by desire. In the space where the application asked who my hero is, I wrote Muhammad Ali, of course. When it asked which of the Gilligan's Island castaways I identified with, I replied that these were cartoon people and that a better question would be which character in Lord of the Flies was most like me (again, Simon). And I answered the query about why I thought I could be the ultimate survivor by bragging that I was wise enough to understand that the thing that tears apart groups faster than anything is sex. More important, I told them, I know how to make alcohol from fruit.
Then I hired a team to film the three-minute videotape of myself CBS demanded. I put together a vignette in which I rode my mare around, showed off a footbridge I had built, and cut firewood with my chainsaw between bursts of monologue intended to portray me as an engaging dinner partner, even if dinner was, say, rat-on-a-stick. When I emerged from the post office after sending off my package to Beverly Hills, I was euphoric. I looked forward to the phone call arranging my first interview with the producers.
It was a call that never came.
When I read that the initial pool of 800 quarterfinalists had been culled from more than 6,000 applications, I was devastated. I fell into a deep and simmering funk. My wife, Kitty, avoided me. The dogs studied me from a distance. I sat outside and let snowstorms bury me. Finally I saw the light. There was another way to get to the island of my dreams.
First, I landed a magazine assignment to write about the show. Next, I talked my way into the press corps that CBS was organizing for a two-day, canned tour of Pulau Tiga during filming. I got my shots and took the first of six weekly anti-malarial mefloquine pills. (Nightmares are one of the drug's side effects, and I had a doozy straight out of Lord of the Flies. In it, I had indeed been accepted by the contestants as a player, but only because I kept my face hidden behind a deposed contestant's head, which was impaled on a stick sharpened at both ends. When I woke up I decided I'd rather suffer malaria than another dream like that.)
Then, in March, mere days before my trip, CBS threw me off the press bus. The publicity minion handling my arrangements, a Colleen Sullivan, said that I would have to be "bumped" because the media corps had grown too unwieldy and Mark Burnett was getting nervous about the distraction. I was floored again. Rejected both as a contestant and as a journalist covering the contestants—a double rejectee!—I issued a blood oath on the spot: I would storm the island on my own. But not as a fan—as a sworn enemy.