When I was little grandma and grandpa took me on excursions. Our favorite was our annual trip on the “Liberty Bell.” It was an excursion boat that left Exchange Place in Jersey City, called at Manhattan and sailed past Coney Island to Rockaway Beach where we would have lunch, a swim and my grandfather was game enough to take me on the rollercoaster. “Liberty Bell” seemed like a big ship until grandpa took me to see Uncle Jim sail off to Ireland on the MV Britannic, the penultimate ship built for White Star Line and the last White Star still in service. While operated by Cunard after the Cunard-White Star merger, she continued to wear the White Star livery. (My grandfather had been a steward on White Star 40 years earlier.) I’m sure one of the reasons Uncle Jim chose her was she was built in Belfast. She was long and low, her funnels squat making her look longer than any ship I had ever seen. I had seen many ships longer than Britannic sail by the Statue of Liberty, watching from my grandparents’ fire escape. But at a distance they didn’t look that big. Close up Britannic looked Titanic. We wandered the ship until the cry “All Ashore that’s going Ashore” and grandpa asked “will this be the ship that carries us away.” A question he had asked himself while sitting on the shores of Lough Foyle when he was a lad.
The ship that actually carried us away was the SS Queen of Bermuda. She was built in the 1930’s as one of the 2 “Millionaire’s Ships” for service between New York and Bermuda. After service as an armed merchantman in World War II she returned to Bermuda service as “The Honeymoon ship” (her sister ship did not survive the war). She left New York on Saturday afternoon for a 40-hour, 700 mile run to Bermuda. She stayed in Bermuda three days and returned to New York, a perfect weeklong honeymoon.
In April 1956 Grandma had died and Grandpa wanted to be somewhere else on the first anniversary of her death. He ran away to sea as a teenager, and decided that the whole family, mom, pop, me and him, should run away to sea again. It would be my first time out of the United States.
In those days bon voyage parties were part of the package. Our whole neighborhood came to see us off, everyone got a chance to wander the lounges and then to stuff into our two staterooms down on E deck for canopies and drinks rung up on our bill. Everyone checked the printed passenger lists to see if anyone famous was on board. (Alas both the bon voyage parties and passenger lists are victims of modern-day security.) We did find one of my schoolmates and his family on the list.
Grandpa and I shared an “outside” cabin. It had a porthole, but it the porthole was bolted shut with a steel hatch cover. It let in no light, no air. The old Queen was not air conditioned. It had forced air that came in through funnels on Sun Deck and was routed through ducts to staterooms. The funnels collected air as the ship moved forward at 17 knots. At the quayside we were sitting still. There was no air. The smell of cigarette smoke, body sweat, perfume and cologne collected on the linens and the cabin’s pale peach-colored walls. The essence of the bon voyage party lingered.
The PA system called “All Ashore that’s going ashore.” And our neighbors, cousins and aunties made their way to the gangway. The four of us lined rails on promenade deck, the band played, we threw streamers to our friends on the dock, and they snapped our pics. As the ship pulled out the streamers stretched and broke, severing our ties to the land.
Bill Fillmore was the schoolmate on the same sailing. Even though it was spring break I don’t remember many college students on board. In a few years’ time the Queen’s April sailings would be full of college students from elite schools. Parents thought their daughters would meet a better class of boy in Bermuda than in Florida. So, they paid the fare, the boys followed. But this was 1957, three years before “Where the Boys Are” appeared in theaters. The college spring break pilgrimage was not yet a rite of passage.
By the time we reached the statue of liberty (and a teary-eyed salute by grandpa) things had started to go south. Bill saw the statue of liberty and it triggered something in his belly. About the time we were passing between Sandy Hook and Breezy point he ran for the rail. He didn’t quite make it. The power of suggestion is strong. As the lights of Jersey shore ran along the starboard and our bow headed toward the Gulf Stream, I found myself in front of a toilet. At least I made it that far. I missed dinner laying in my bunk, the waves slamming the side wall of the stateroom which was just at water level. The post bon voyage atmosphere of the stateroom didn’t help, nor did the cloyingly peach colored cabin walls. That color still turns my stomach. My parents and grandfather went to dinner, unaffected by the ocean motion. After dinner they enjoyed dancing. I was NOT dancing but did manage to make it to the cabin telephone. A message went out over the PA system in the ballroom lounge. “Mr. or Mrs. McClear, please go to stateroom E49, your son reports he is dying.” The whole lounge broke out laughing and I never lived it down. Grandpa told my folks he had this one and appeared in the stateroom with green apples, saltines and ginger ale. (Grandpa told me that with seasickness first you are afraid you will die, ten you are afraid you won’t die.)
I had a fitful sleep. Grandpa got me up at first light, brought me up to the sun deck, tucked me into a deck chair with a steamer blanket, kept feeding me green apples and saltines and told me “Keep watching the horizon, keep watching the horizon.”
By 11 AM I was feeling well enough to attend “divine services” conducted by Captain Musson. The boat was still rocking, bucking the Gulf Stream, as we filed into the lounge. The bellboys were lined up for the service wearing double breasted jackets with brightly shined brass buttons, spit shined shoes, white gloves tucked into their jacket shoulder epaulettes and pill box hats tucked under their left elbows. The boat was really rocking as the band struck up “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past, Our Hope for Years to Come.” As the we rocked the bellboy line, with seasoned sea legs, swayed back and forth with the frequency of the waves, which was not the frequency of the hymn. The difference in the swaying between the chorus line and the tempo of the hymn was disorienting. Members of the congregation began to drop out and head to the back, either toward the toilets or the rail. Some of them made it. (Every time that hymn came up in rotation at church pop and I started to giggle, mom had sharp elbows.)
I was not yet confirmed in the Episcopal Church but was wondering if Holy Communion might have a settling effect on my stomach. Then I wondered if it was a mortal sin to throw up the holy host if it didn’t. Fortunately for my decision-making Captain Musson was not a priest and there was no consecration. Amazingly, with all the “suggestion” going on around us my whole family made it through the service, I had found my sea legs and left the service more renewed than after any morning prayer before or after. But grandpa still insisted on a lunch of green apples and saltines.
By diner I was ravenous. I ate in the dining room with the family, we got our picture taken, and enjoyed the show in the lounge which employed some double entendre that I didn’t understand. My confusion amused my parents. We were getting off the ship the next morning in Bermuda and flying back to New York in a week. During the show the MC gave us the pitch. “Don’t fly home, take the ship. We have room!” Airlines were already cutting into the shipping business. “When you get on that plane your vacation is over. When you get on a ship the fun continues.” I started lobbying to return on the ship, my parents laughed. “So, you LIKE green apples and saltines?”
This post was prompted by pictures that I have not seen in more than 50 years. When Mom passed away, we were living in Belgrade, Serbia. After the funeral we had her pictures boxed up and shipped to Brian’s in Minnesota. They never got to Alaska. This summer we went through 12 banker’s boxes of pics and clippings and culled them down to one. Brian shipped them to Alaska and a week ago I started scanning them. The memories they brought on prompted me to start writing.