A 75th birthday is a time to reflect on one's accomplishments.
Unless that one is Jacques Cousteau.
A man of many accomplishments, Cousteau showed humanity the world under the sea and invented the Aqua-lung, underwater living quarters and a wealth of other things. But the most famous explorer of modern times doesn't want to talk about all that. It is important, he said, "not to lose time looking backward."
Monday morning, the day after his huge 75th birthday bash at Mount Vernon where Hollywood and Washington celebrities jammed in to see him, Cousteau sat on board the Calypso, his famous exploration ship, and talked instead about his new projects. About the future.
No Retirement Plans
Retirement is not on the list.
"No, no, no, no. Shhhhhhh," replied Cousteau, his skin weathered and brown against his white turtleneck, his warmth washing over anyone near. His hair is pure white. There are large puffs under his eyes. But his spirit, his energy, are clearly apparent.
"As long as I can stand on my feet, I'll carry on," said Cousteau, who turned 75 on Tuesday. "I pray God to be switched off in action."
Cousteau has plenty of action scheduled in the near future: a five-year sail around the world with two ships--including his new "wind ship," powered by vertical "turbo-sails"; finishing his 66th book and taking a crack at writing a musical score. (He plays the accordion. In his spare time, no doubt.)
But his newest, biggest idea is something quite revolutionary, even for him.
After "many, many brainstorming sessions" with his family and friends on board the Calypso and around the world, Cousteau decided that nuclear destruction of his beloved planet can be averted in only one way: "the compulsory exchange of children at a relatively low age, 7 to 8 or 8 to 9," to live for one year with a family in an enemy country.
Compulsory. That means everybody.
"Millions, millions," said Cousteau, his French accent framing his words. "I mean all the children from 7 to 8.
"I don't see how a nation could press the button of those horrible things when they know that 3 million of their children are over there. I mean, the mothers would not tolerate that.
"We still need to work this project out much better with specialists, with psychologists, with specialists of children. But I have decided to spend the rest of my life on that project. It is my No. 1 priority."
He is serious.
Does Cousteau honestly expect to see this happen in his lifetime?
"I don't care," he said, smiling.
You don't care?
"No," he said. "The important thing is to act according to your conscience--and whether it's going to be successful or not, I do not care. I believe in this."
Cousteau has gone to the White House to have lunch with President Reagan, but he did not tell the President about his children-exchange idea.
"But we have talked about a lot of environmental projects," said Cousteau. "I knew him from when he was in California. The coastal development regulations originated under his governorship, and he is very proud of that. He claims that he is an environmentalist."
Cousteau laughs at that.
"Well, it is a strange way to be an environmentalist, I must say," he continued. "But it's true that in California he has done that. So I insisted on the fact that a number of his assistants in the environmental field were inadequate and thank God, two of them have gone since then."
Cousteau's life of environmental advocacy and underwater exploration seems to be almost a fantasy come true, roaming the world's oceans for adventure, touching land just long enough to lunch with Presidents and pick up Emmy awards. But his explorer's life has not been without sacrifice and tragedy.
At his birthday party at Mount Vernon, Cousteau made brief remarks in which he made a rare reference to the death of his son, Philippe, who died in a 1979 crash of Calypso's seaplane after a test flight over Lisbon. Cousteau wept as he noted to the 2,000 guests "the great absence tonight--Philippe."
Only days after Philippe was killed, his brother, Jean-Michel, left his home and his job in South Carolina and took over Philippe's duties as Cousteau's right hand man and vice president of the Cousteau Society. Jean-Michel surmises that Philippe's death did cause Cousteau to question his adventurous life style.
"I would say yes, of course. I saw him on the verge of giving up," said Jean-Michel. "He has such a hard time coping with it, because it is not a normal course of life to lose your children."
Jean-Michel said he doesn't really know what made Cousteau decide to continue with his life as an explorer. Cousteau rarely talks about Philippe's death to anyone.
"It's private," the elder Cousteau said.
So now Cousteau wants the world to trade children--an idea that may not cause any stampedes to the airline counters. But when Cousteau believes in something, he backs it up, whether it is popular or not. He believes, for instance, in cable broadcast mogul Ted Turner, who gave Cousteau a $15 million, five-year contract to make 20 one-hour films for him in a series called "Rediscovery of the World," to be gleaned from his five-year circumnavigation of the globe. Turner hosted the birthday party in Washington and will also air a June 23 special, "Jacques Cousteau, the First 75 Years," which will include highlights of old films as well as footage of his birthday celebration. When Turner first made it known that he would like to head a takeover of the CBS network, Cousteau bought $50,000 of CBS stock "to show my solidarity for this man who works for quality programming."
Cousteau said he is not a wealthy man, that all the money he raises goes into the various exploration and educational projects. The $50,000 "was a big sacrifice for me," he said. A great deal of his savings.
Raged Against Programming
"I know he (Turner) has many enemies. I don't care about that," said Cousteau, who has raged against the quality of network programming, particularly when his Emmy-award winning show, "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," was canceled by ABC in 1976 when ratings began to sag after eight years.
"This man places his money and his actions where his heart is," said Cousteau. "So even if he is a little rough outside, he is the most sincere man I've ever met. I believe in what he says."
One thing Cousteau does not believe in is doctors. He has not had a checkup or medical attention of any kind since he had a hernia operation "six or seven years ago." Before that, the last time he had seen a doctor was 42 years before, when he was in an auto accident that left him paralyzed for eight months.
"Each time you go to a doctor, you are sure to go to a hospital," said Cousteau, who said that he "wears out" his young crew on the Calypso.
Cousteau said he does not worry that he might be developing some serious, as yet unfelt problem.
Made Friends With Death
"If I have cancer, so what?" said Cousteau. "That's a way to finish your life. It's one more sickness. It's nothing terrible. I mean, yes, it's terrible, but death is terrible in itself. But I have made friends with death.
"I mean that I have accepted it not only as inevitable but also as constructive. If we didn't die, we would not appreciate life as we do. So it's a constructive force."
At 75, Cousteau still engages in all the physical activities he has always done, "more than ever," he said. He takes vitamins and eliminates all fat, butter, milk and cheese from his diet. He does not eat or sleep on any kind of schedule, often working through the night.
"I have a very irregular life. I think a regular life is a step to the tomb," he said.
"I like to live like an animal. When an animal is hungry, he will hunt several weeks without sleep, and when he has eaten he will sleep for three days, and that's the way I go."
Perhaps 99% of the world is living all wrong, then.
"Oh, absolutely. I'm sure of that," Cousteau replied. "When I look at those people who claim that they have insomnia--it doesn't exist! If two or three times a year I have difficulty going to sleep, well, you know what I do? I go running a little bit, even at night, for 15 or 20 minutes. When I come back panting I take a shower and go to bed and sleep like a stone. So people don't sleep because they are too idle."
Another Adventure Upcoming
Idleness is certainly not a problem for Cousteau. His five-year trip with two ships will take him around the Caribbean, then to New Zealand, Australia, New Guinea, the coast of China, islands in the Indian Ocean, the Congo River and back to France--an undertaking he calls the most adventurous of his life.
While in the Caribbean, Cousteau said he might dive with Castro, but denied published reports that he had definitely accepted the invitation.
"I don't know where that comes from. Maybe. But I have no definite project," said Cousteau.
Although he has decidedly political ideas, like passing laws to mandate the exchange of children, Cousteau eschews the normal channels of politics, preferring instead to "lobby the people," as he put it. That doesn't mean that he doesn't have entree to world leaders, such as Castro, and such as President Reagan, who last month gave Cousteau the Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony.
At the Medal of Freedom luncheon at the White House, Cousteau said he talked with Nancy Reagan about drug abuse. One of Cousteau's films, "Snowstorm in the Jungle," depicted illegal drug trafficking along the Amazon River and was shown to a session of Mrs. Reagan's First Ladies' Drug Conference in April.
Cousteau has weathered some criticism in his career but says he doesn't do anything about it.
"People say for example, 'Ah, he plays a scientist. He's not a scientist.' I never played the scientist," said Cousteau. "I use scientists. I bring scientists with me. I never said I was a scientist. Those scientists with stiff collars and arrogance, they are doing their job with the money of the people. They should report to those who are paying and they never do that. So I am trying to bridge the gap. I translate it to the language of the people in the street."