We arrived in Cobh (The Cove of Cork) four days before the SS America sailed. Most Irish immigrants immigrating in the 19th century sailed from this port when it was called Queenstown. Grandpa was tired after a summer traveling around the UK and Ireland with an active teenager and decided we would relax a few days before getting on the ship and, perhaps, do a little sightseeing in the South of Ireland as he regained some energy.
When we arrived in Cobh, we followed Mr. Martin’s (our neighbor in New Jersey and Passage Manager for United States Lines) instructions and checked in with Mr. O’Brian, the US Lines manager in Cobh. Mr. O’Brian insisted on taking us to lunch, which resulted in my first Rotary Meeting. The speaker did not show up and my grandfather, who was a good storyteller, was asked to speak to the club impromptu. After that speech a Mr. Vance (I remember the name because Vance is my middle name) came forward and offered his driver to take us for a sightseeing on our last day in Ireland and Mr. O’Brian got us upgraded to a room with private facilities. A couple of months earlier the SS America enlarged tourist class. It took over Cabin Class. This enabled the upgrade.
After Rotary I set out to collect postcards while grandpa took a nap. I want from shipping office to shipping office. Holland America and Cunard had the most postcards with all HAL passenger ships ending in “dam” and cargo ships in “dyk.” Cunard had the most traffic when we were in Cobh and lots of postcards of ships that never call at Cobh. The RMS Sylvania was there when we arrived. She served the Liverpool, Cobh, Halifax, Quebec and Montreal run. The Sylvania had a long career, starting in 1957 and ending as a Princess Cruise ship in 2004. The day we left on the SS America the RMS Mauritania was also boarding, also headed for New York. Mauritania was a smaller version of the Queen Elizabeth built at the same time. She served as a relief vessel when either Queen was in drydock, and as an overflow vessel during the heavy summer traffic seasons. In the winter she was a cruise ship out of New York on the “dollar run,” a scheme to get the post-war UK badly needed US dollars. As jets started spanning the Atlantic there was not so much need for an overflow vessel, so Mauritania was permanently assigned to cruising out of New York in 1962. In the mid-60s she was sent to the breakers, she just wasn’t cut out to be a cruise ship. But on our crossing, she was a constant presence on our port side, and during the rough seas was kind of a comfort.
Both Mauritania and America were anchored in the harbor. We tendered out. The two classes on America were mixed on the tender. We rode with fellow passengers ranging from women wrapped in furs to women in peasant head scarves. My diary notes, 16 nuns, 4 Christian Brothers and 4 priests. All tourist class.
I fell in love with America immediately. Although our stateroom was not as nice as the one on Big U’s Sun Deck, the public rooms were much nicer, perhaps because they had been cabin class up until a month or so before, but their real attraction was their warm feeling. Unlike on the SS United States, America’s interiors had natural wood. So did the decks. The layout of the ship was strange in a way. The original tourist class was in the bow while the former cabin class was in the stern. First class occupied midships. Tourist and Cabin both had public rooms on upper decks, but to get from bow to stern you had to down to B deck, where a hallway tunneled under First Class uniting the tourists.
As soon as we left Cobh things got rough. We sailed into a North Atlantic Oscillation, between an Icelandic low and an Azores high. Years later we sailed into a similar weather pattern on Prinsendam. The Captain advised us, in his Norwegian accent. “Take a pill and go to bed.” It was good advice. On America everyone was seasick. At mealtimes the next day only 2 of 10 people at our table showed up, that would be Grandpa and me, and I wasn’t so sure about me. Grandpa made sure I had saltines, green apples and broth. It was too wet to sit out on deck and watch the horizon that first 42 hours but by noon the second day a steward, Nick, with whom grandpa had been swapping sea stories, set me up on a deck chair, wrapped in a steamer blanket, overlooking the ship’s wake. By the end of day two I was doing ok.
A neighborhood friend of mine, who was a grade ahead of me, was also on this crossing. While exploring the ship he found a gate between tourist class and first that was latched but not locked. On the last two evenings we got, as Randy put it, duded up, I in my new Black Watch sports coat and tie, and crashed the gate to spend time in the First Class ballroom, with its domed ceiling, fine wood dance floor and bigger Meyer Davis orchestra. Randy and I met several pretty girls traveling first cabin. On this crossing there were not so many first class teenaged boys. That nailed it. It was first class for us after dinner. Back home I was awkward with girls, but on the ship, with no past reputation as a nerd to live down, and a lot of stories about travel in Ireland, I found I could hold my own and that, by mixing a little imagination with fact, I was a pretty good storyteller. That, and I had kissed the Blarney Stone less than a week earlier. I was good enough to hold the attention first cabin girls while dancing. (Or as Randy bragged when we got back to High School, “some pretty first class girls.”) Thanks mom, for making me take ballroom dancing.
I had the advantage of having been in Ireland with my grandfather, a darn good storyteller. We had spent time in pubs, where I had my first Guinness, and in living rooms with a turf fire in Greencastle, county Donegal, the old home place. And with Grandpa, there was always the good craic going. I listened, and bided my time in Ireland, knowing I had little to bring to the table. But on the ship, I blossomed. The Scottish jacket and tie were good props. (My father, styling himself as Mac McClear, used his tartan jacket, tam and tie as personal trademarks when he went on sales calls, successfully enough that he kept getting new ones for the next 25 years.)
I learned later from my grandfather that Nick (the steward) had “forgotten” to lock the gate to First Class. Apparently on sailings when there was a surplus of young women in First Class the stewards found ways to encourage well dressed young men to crash the gate. Sometimes it went the other way and first class girls crashed the gate to go slumming in tourist because, as grandpa said “the people in tourist are more fun.” And he was right. After coming back from dancing under the ballroom dome in first and retreating to the enclosed promenade in tourist I found an accordion player, a fiddler and someone playing the bones, more fun than a Meyer Davis Orchestra, keeping the craic going from Ireland all the way to America.