Double Crossings, Eastbound.

I laugh looking at the picture now.  In 1961 my grandfather and I were heading for Europe on the SS United States, the “Big U”.  Our luggage was checked and would meet us in our stateroom. Grandpa was carrying his raincoat, passport and tickets.  I had an attaché case that my mother had given me.  Lord knows what was inside, probably my passport and a sandwich.  Over one shoulder was my camera bag, camel colored plastic, with a Brownie Kodak box camera and five rolls of color film, each with 12 shots, 60 shots to last me the summer. Over the other shoulder I had my Emerson AM/Shortwave radio (no FM).  On our way to the pier Herb Oscar Anderson on the 50,000 watt blowtorch, WABC called out my grandfather and me and wished us bon voyage. (A station account exec who lived across the street set up that surprise. I wondered why Pop had WABC on the car radio rather than his station, WNEW.)  At the pier my parents headed to our stateroom to be there to greet the bon voyage party that was coming aboard. Grandpa and I needed our passports checked. (In 1961 it was easier for visitors to get on the ship than it was for passengers. Stowing away was easier in those pre-TSA days.)

Grandpa and me boarding the “Big U”

We were supposed to have a room on B deck with toilets down the hall.  When we checked in, we found we had been upgraded to Sun Deck courtesy of Bob Martin, who lived around the corner and was Passage Manager for United States Line. (I was beginning to realize how influential some of my neighbors were.)

Sun Deck was near the top of the ship, the room had its own bathroom and shower.  It was a “swing” room that, depending on passenger load, was sometimes first class and sometimes tourist.  There were doors and gates in the halls to keep us in our proper places.  When we got to the room there was complementary (American) champagne, a big basket of fruit, and snacks, along with our luggage, my parents, and most of our neighborhood.  Uncle Jim, who like Grandpa was from Donegal, pulled me aside and slipped me a $100 dollar bill. In 1961 that was a fortune with the purchasing power of $917 today. Grandpa was Uncle Jim’s co-conspirator.  He suggested I spend a good part of the money buying my mother some Irish Belleek pottery.  I decided to buy Pop, Grandpa and me each a Black Watch sports coat with matching tie and tam o’ shanter hat, as well as three rolls of black and white film.  Then I could take 96 pictures.

While the adults bon voyaged, I grabbed some food (in my diary I was very precise, 9 slices of salami and 4 of roast beef) and explored the ship.  Since the ship would remain “open” only until we sailed, I explored the first and cabin class areas that would be closed to me once we got underway, very un-American to my way of thinking. Grandpa told me the best class of people traveled tourist, less stuffy, more fun.  He had been a First Class steward on the White Star Line earlier in the century.  While he held that the tourist passengers were more fun, first class tipped better. We set sail at noon. My diary says “I had no lunch to speak of.”

It’s time to mention my diary.  My mother bought me a diary bound in faux leather with my name in gold leaf and instructed me to keep a record of my trip. “You will thank me when you’re older.”  I’m thanking her now.  At the time I was not happy with the discipline of writing daily and I was terrible at the mechanics of a diarist, being both left-handed and dyslexic.  The diary is hard to read and sometimes harder to comprehend. Pen and paper were frustrating because I had stories to tell but the mechanics of pen and paper limited me.  The typewriter (another thing my mother forced on me for which I am thankful) and later the word processer were both liberating. Today the diary is a memory trigger, along with the pictures my mother saved.  They bring back vivid memories that may or may not be accurate but, 60 years later, memories are in better focus than the pictures.

In the diary my mother had written 59 addresses of people I needed to send post cards to (Including Uncle Jim and Mr. Martin) and instructions on how to send gift packages home of value under $25 duty free. The diary had pages where I could put stamps, and most importantly an Atlas section with colored maps on which I could trace my travels. The Atlas is an artifact.  Africa is mostly colored French green and British Cartographers’ Red. (French West Africa and French equatorial Africa have split into many different nations today).  Europe had fewer and bigger countries.  Geography was an easier subject to master then.

Dinner on Gala Night.

In the diary I kept track of the movies I watched on the ship (mostly comedies, “Absent Minded Professor”, “Dentist in the Chair”), how much I spent on BINGO ($1.50) and, most importantly, which radio stations I picked up.  (I matured during the summer, on the way home my diary listed girls I picked up, along with the radio stations.)  I was excited to receive daytime ground waves from stations in the Canadian Maritimes.  I was particularly excited to pick up stations with a “V” call sign from Newfoundland.  Newfoundland had joined Canada only 12 years earlier and stations before confederation had call letters like VOAR or VOCM rather than the Canadian “C” callsigns. I found this so exciting that for two days I skipped lunch to listen to marine weather forecasts and fish prices.

My diary noted that, being on Sun Deck, we were pretty close to the foghorn that blasted as we crawled overnight through Newfoundland’s fogbound Grand Banks.   Even though I got little sleep I stayed up until 3 AM the next morning listening to the “Meyer Davis Orchestra” in the lounge.  Meyer Davis was a society bandleader who franchised bands for different functions, hotels (the Astor and Willard among others) and ships.  Meyer and Lester Lanin had a lock on music on American flagged vessels. Meyer Davis was in particular favor in 1961 having played at the Kennedy Inaugural Ball 5 months earlier and having written two special songs, New Frontier and Jacqueline, for the event.  The tourist class “orchestra” was a three piece combo.  The band got bigger with each class.  Each class had its own grand piano, much to the chagrin of her naval architect William Francis Gibbs, who did not like anything combustible on his ship, he reportedly asked Steinway if they could build an aluminum piano. They said no.  He also had to concede to wooden chopping blocks in the kitchen. Grandpa let me stay up BUT the next morning I had to be wide awake and present of mind for Divine Services. (Hymns accompanied by a Meyer Davis Orchestra.)

The “Big U” (Taken in 1969 in Bermuda by Vance McClear.)

As we approached Europe we saw more ships, I picked up different radio stations and spied Bishop Rock lighthouse, the westernmost part of Cornwall.  I noted all of this in the diary.  At 3:30 AM we docked at Le Havre France.  Most of the passengers were going to the continent and they got off after breakfast. I was intrigued to see stevedores (I originally wrote “longshoremen,” but Microsoft tells me that is not inclusive and suggests I change it) passing around a bottle of wine at 7 in the morning.

During the transit of the English Channel, we had an open ship, largely because we needed to present ourselves to British Immigration in the First Class lounge during the crossing. (Do you think they would meet us anywhere else?) As we approached Southampton, we passed another United States Line ship leaving port. There was a lot of whistle blowing as the other ship saluted their flagship and fleet Commodore, Captain Anderson.  The Commodore returned the favor.

The Commodore signed my diary.

To read about the return voyage home on the SS America please click here.

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