By John McNamara
Nineteen-thirty was scarcely a good year for the average wage-earner to even think of a vacation cruise. The infamous Wall Street crash had occurred the previous October, ushering in the Great Depression.
Fresh out of high school, I had jumped eagerly at the chance for an apprenticeship at Tiffany's, New York's leading jewelers, at $15 a week. When I arrived for my first day's work, I was told that everyone's salary had been downscaled, so I accepted the $14 pay as it meant "learning a trade." This was expected in my blue-collar Bronx home.
From the studio window on 5th Avenue, I could hear the deep whistles of departing ocean liners and often wondered what life was like on board one of those incredible ships. One fall day, I was summoned to the front office where the Chief Designer told me, for my good work, he had wangled me a week's paid vacation. In October, it meant that my friends were all back at school and swimming and boating were over; so what would I do with myself?
"How about a trip to Bermuda?" the older, travel-wise diamond-cutter suggested. He showed me a Furness steamship ad where, for $85, I could spend three days on that tropical island.
To a lad who'd never been beyond the 30-mile bicycle trip to Connecticut, it seemed an impossible dream. The fare equaled 6 weeks salary, but I took my courage in hand and broached the idea to my parents.
My mother was aghast for she would get seasick just sitting on a pier, and wondered what the neighbors would think. My father's reaction was: "But you don't know anybody there! And besides, it's an English island."
The words tumbled out of me: The summer money I had earned just before the crash and it being Prohibition in the U.S., I would try to smuggle in some whiskey for him. That last idea apparently did the trick for he said yes.
Never having so much as walked the decks of a ship even in port, I was so naive I went down to the Hudson River Furness Bermuda piers to buy a ticket! I narrowly escaped being run down by a provisions truck, and an irate stevedore told me to go to a travel bureau. When I did, I discovered I needed a passport and fingerprint clearance from the New York City Police Department.
Three weeks later, I stood on the deck of the Monarch of Bermuda, evidently the only teenager in sight. I was awed at the luxury of the public rooms and the obviously wealthy, elderly passengers who seemed so much at home in this floating palace.
My tablemates were two little old ladies who pecked at their meals and left, so I was embarrassed by eating alone. Too intimidated to ask the waiter for second helpings (which at my age I would have enjoyed), I made up my mind to dine with men on the return voyage. Apparently there were no other adolescents in tourist class so I nosed about and tried to fit in to the manor born. Not knowing how to dance, I went to the theater to see a film. The 600-mile voyage passed pleasantly and I suffered no seasickness.
At that time, the ship was not your hotel in Bermuda and the line either owned a place or had a long-standing arrangement. Ashore in Hamilton, I was probably given the worst hotel room for it was at ground level in the rear, next to the loading platforms and garbage collection where noisy and smelly activities began at dawn.
I never thought to complain but just went out, rented a bicycle and learned the left-hand traffic rules. Horse-drawn carriages and bicycles thronged the excellent coral roads, and I learned that only two motor cars were allowed on the entire island: one was for the Governor-General and the other for the Chief of Constabulary.
I loved the tropical scenery and often stopped at deserted beaches for a solo swim. I leaned the pound/shilling/pence currency and once rested in a pub where I downed my first and only ale without being challenged by the barkeep. I really felt grown up when at curfew, he emptied the room by tolling a bell and announcing "Time, Gentlemen!"
That shore stay on this beautiful isle was enough to influence me for the rest of my life. Later on, I bought two hip flasks, curved to fit neatly in my back pockets, not knowing that fellow passengers favored multi-pocketed vests that were hidden by their topcoats. These "smugglers' aids"
were sold openly in the Bermuda shops.
At the pub, I had met two German journalists from Ullstein Publication, a prominent media firm, and they good-naturedly arranged for me to join then on the return trip. They were both six-footers and prodigious trenchermen who kept the stewards busy with seconds--and thirds!--which endeared them to me. They enjoyed listening to my German, learned in a heavily Teutonic Bronx neighborhood, so each meal was a pleasant feast.
Ashore on the New York piers, the two hip flasks didn't fool the Customs Inspector who, bypassing regulations, slapped my hip and asked: "What are these bottles, son?"
I told him it was medicine for my ailing father. He turned his head away, told me to drop the flasks into my open suitcase and then snapped the lock shut and sealed it. I saw he didn't touch the other passengers, but went through their luggage nevertheless.
So ended my introduction into the heady world of steamship travel and a lifelong love affair that has never palled. From that time onward, I have crossed oceans, lakes, seas and rivers around the world--sometimes sharing a cabin and often with a wife who loved ocean liners too.
(The charming memoir printed above came to your Editor courtesy of Jack Sauter. The author entitled it That First Gangplank. He writes with great discernment and style. His depression-era voyage on the Monarch of Bermuda is full of amusing insight. How perfectly natural that a young neophyte passenger would cross town to the Furness Line pier to buy his steamer ticket, just as he might have gone down to Grand Central to buy a rail ticket to Buffalo. Mr McNamara still lives in the Bronx and your Editor hopes he has other travel tales to tell.)