In Search of the Holy Grail
By J.D. Messinger
A free excerpt from JD’s upcoming book

A Lost Watch, November 1976
United States Naval Academy

The experience of having the last bit of oxygen depleted from my lungs is actually quite beautiful. Minutes before, I am above the surface, sailing, pointing my ten-foot single-person Laser dinghy hard into the wind for the final leg of a practice race. Despite two layers of clothes and a good set of foul-weather gear, I am still freezing. As the bow of the Laser smashes through the choppy water, a fifteen-knot wind slaps the waves right back into my face, soaking my hands and driving water down the inside of my coat and pants. My hands are cramping so badly that I alternate holding the mainsheet between my teeth and hands as I hike out over the rail, trying to flatten out the boat and increase my speed. One hundred and forty five pounds on a five-foot, six-inch frame is not quite sufficient to do the trick. Just seven minutes, and the race will be over. My cramping hands and frozen feet convince me right then that if I get into Annapolis I am going to do something inside, where it is warm. Five minutes to go. I glance around the horizon. I’m in the lead. Damn, this is exciting! Too bad it’s so cold. I glance at my wrist, checking the time on my new Seiko watch, a gift from my father on my eighteenth birthday. It is the only gift I remember receiving directly from him.

“Here Jon, this is for you,” said Dad from the sunken position of his old yellow leather recliner. There was no kiss, no hug, no wrapping. But it didn’t matter. Receiving a present directly from Dad meant more to me than all the other presents combined. “Thanks Dad, this is the nicest watch I’ve ever seen,” I said. I put the watch on my wrist and walked through the foyer. I stopped just in front of the gold-framed mirror hanging on badly worn blue wallpaper. In the reflection I could see on my wrist the most expensive gift I had ever received, and, just behind me, Dad, looking languid in the chair he’d had forever, with its cracked covering and broken footrest. I turned back and glanced at Dad. He was sixty-three, and his health was failing. His face was pale and he had lost thirty pounds in a few months. He was dying, but I had no way of knowing. No one did. “What’s the matter, Dad?”

He was silent for what seemed like an eternity but in Reality was less than a minute. Finally he spoke. His voice was deep and his words were garbled. “I’m sorry that ah, that it has taken me so long, taken me awhile to give you something new. I hope you …like it.” With five children and a difficult economy, there was not much to go around. I understood. That’s why it was so special, because it was not easily paid for and it was given to me first. It wasn’t passed down. It was also the last thing my father gave to me before he died of malignant melanoma three months later.

Four minutes to the finish. The closest boat is at least a hundred yards behind me. My teeth are starting to ache from holding the sheet. I take my left hand and grab the end of the sheet dangling from my mouth. I make two quick twists and wrap the sheet around my wrist. I open my mouth and let go. My arms are weaker than I thought and the force of the sheet tugs at my hand, yanking it into the pulley. The Seiko saves my wrist but the impact breaks the band. The watch flies off and bounces on the white fiberglass hull. The rest happens in slow motion. I watch in horror as my special gift slowly slides across the Laser. Above the storm and the whipping wind, I hear that gentle “bloop” sound that signifies something small yet valued beyond its weight going in the drink. My reaction is instantaneous. I let go of everything and leap into the water. I can see it, seesawing back and forth like a leaf falling from a tree, slowly sinking into the depths of the Severn. I reach left, but it zigzags right; then I reach right, and it zigzags left. I swim deeper and deeper, five feet, eight feet, ten feet beneath the hull of my Laser, now drifting aimlessly above me. I keep swimming down and down, chasing the elusive timepiece. By now I am perhaps fifteen feet beneath the surface, still going down. Time has stopped. Life is frozen and meaningless. Boats pass overhead, their skippers perhaps wondering where I am, continuing on their own courses.

I stop swimming. It is hopeless, I think, as I watch my precious gift slowly sink out of sight into the dark abyss. I am almost out of air so I turn to go back up and … anchors are holding me down. My boots are full and the sweat gear beneath my foul weather gear is taking a bath in twenty pounds of icy water. With time and cold water quickly slipping through my cramping fingers, I start removing my clothes. My extremities are depleted of strength and my lungs are desperate for air. I tug on my boots and finally they come off, but my foul weather gear is fatally stubborn. I frantically pull off the jacket as it floats around my shoulders like a cape; it comes off easily. Then I rip vehemently at the devilish suspender snaps but they refuse to release their grip. With the jacket and boots off I am able to start back up to the surface, but I am out of time and oxygen. My lungs are exploding, desperately exerting pressure to expel the depleted air that is fighting as hard to get out, as I am to get up. Finally the pressure is so great it feels as if my chest will explode. A plume of air escapes from my mouth and nose. I watch the bubbles rising up as I unwillingly suck in a gulp of cold salt water and instantly begin to choke. My frozen and now cramping legs eventually begin to slow and whatever air remains after the first ballast blow is expending as my body struggles to survive.

By now I am five feet beneath the surface and blacking out. The pain and life is fading and there are stars and lights. I am going into a twisted tunnel replete with scintillating white and blue streaks of light. It is wonderful.

With my last coherent thought I say a prayer, “Dear God, please save me, I’m drowning.”

(C) copyright 2009 by JD Messinger.

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Author's Bio: 

J.D. Messinger is the former Chief Executive Officer of Ernst & Young Consulting (Singapore) and Cap Gemini E&Y (South East Asia). A global expert on the energy industry and a global thought leader on change, and adaptation, JD was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy by the U.S. Secretary of the Navy and was one of 37 Distinguished Graduates. He was a fireman, nuclear engineer and qualified submarine officer in the United States Navy submarine fleet and served on three submarines during the Cold War.

In 1986 he joined Exxon and served in various executive management positions including supply, distribution, transportation, bulk terminal and truck fleet operation and fuel products pricing, analyzing macro and micro supply and demand factors. As a crisis leader JD successfully supervised an 850-person team and a fleet of 125 ships and aircraft, cleaning over 1,000 miles of Alaskan shoreline after the Valdez oil spill.

In 1995, JD joined Ernst & Young LLP (U.S) and became a partner managing global supply chain, outsourcing and systems implementations projects for clients such as Royal Dutch Shell, Phillips Petroleum, Exxon Mobil, Engen Oil, the Singapore Ministry of Defence, the Singapore Prime Minister, Maybank and Wal-Mart. In 1998 he moved to Singapore and as the director of the energy, chemical and utilities industry sector, gew the business twenty fold in two years. He then became the CEO for Ernst & Young Consulting Singapore and in 2000, after the Cap Gemini acquisition, JD was appointed CEO of Cap Gemini Ernst & Young (South-East Asia) where he was responsible for all IT and management consulting services. In this capacity, he served as a key advisor for innovation and economic development for the Singapore Prime Ministers Office as well as numerous national statutory boards and government ministries in Singapore, Malaysia and China. After September 11, 2001 JD became a senior advisor to the Singapore Ministry of Defence on innovation and helped design and develop adaptive response capabilities.

In January 2003, JD founded the Essence group of companies which provide informational, educational and entertaining offerings to accelerate personal, corporate and global evolution. A renowned speaker, JD has presented and spoken to tens of thousands of people on preparing for the unexpected and how to develop creative, flexible and innovative teams to solve complex national and global challenges.

He has been featured in such major publications as the Business Times, New Straits Times, and Far East Economic Journal. He has presented live on CNBC Asia "Power Chiefs" special, global Discovery Channel and numerous times on Channel News Asia, including a special show where he was featured as the IT Person of the Week.

JD is a talented and gifted creator, inventor, and writer and has created, produced and hosted his own television show, radio shows and invented a series of internationally successful leadership games. JD is a lover of science, math, evolutionary theories and philosophy. His favorite pastimes include research, travel, scuba diving, fencing and yoga.