by Theodore W. Scull
(Your Editor purchased at-where else?-the Ocean Liner Bazaar a copy of Ted Scull's latest book, Ocean Liner Odyssey, 1958-1969.
It is an admirable memoir, rich with detail and redolent of a shipboard and way of life that has almost vanished. Herewith, a sample chapter to whet readers' appetites).
1958 seems ages ago, and while the French Line and nearly all the big liners have long gone, that summer proved to be the beginning of a long and happy relationship with England, Europe and traveling by sea. Subsequent travels have only added to a world that was opened on 25th July 1958.
My mother chose the line with the help of her great friend who I had nicknamed "Lady Jane" some years before. She was not actually titled but she had all the good manners to have earned it, and most everyone began to refer to her in this way. She loved the French Line and had very good connections which she used on our behalf. No better choice could have been made.
Pop drove mother, my brother Sandy and me over to New York in the 1956 Ford station wagon, and this time, instead of passing by the piers en route to Nantucket, we left the elevated West Side Highway and continued a few blocks north to Pier 88, West 48th Street. As we got out of the car, the bow of the Liberte loomed overhead, and a tangle of lines, sagging nets and gangways zigzagged across the gap between the ship and the pier.
We handed over to a longshoreman our cabin luggage, duly festooned with red, white and blue stickers that read "LIBERTE" in white capitals, "French Line" in black script, and in a careful hand on the lines below, our names, cabin number, sailing date and final destination. Colorful French Line tags were securely tied to the suitcase grips. An Oil Market Garage attendant took the station wagon to a nearby lot for pop to retrieve later.
Embarkation was a bustling affair, but in spite of all the commotion, everything seemed to happen according to a plan. Boarding via the first-class gangway, we confronted a line of cabin boys standing at attention in the main entrance foyer. One escorted my mother to the chief purser who introduced himself and told her that there had been a switch in cabins. Instead of sharing with us, she would be sailing in a separate two-bedded outside cabin on the same deck, not far from her two sons.
Two cabin boys then took us separately to our respective accommodations. Our inside cabin No. 85 on Main Deck was quite hot and the punkah louvre ventilation was not having much luck in fighting the July heat wave. It took about 24 hours for the cabin to cool down. Two beds were off to the left with a desk, table and chair in between and closets and chests of drawers along the far wall. But it was the old-fashioned bathroom that drew my attention. The huge tub had five porcelain taps, two marked for hot and cold fresh water, two marked salt and a single one for the fresh water shower.
We left our hand luggage on the beds and went along the linoleum covered corridors to mother's cabin, far more cheerful than ours, and with two portholes. Several bouquets of flowers, with little white envelopes attached, were arranged around the cabin. A stack of yellow Western Union Bon Voyage envelopes sat on the desk, and a bottle of Champagne draped with a white linen cloth sat in a silver ice bucket that rested invitingly on the coffee table. Mother had already opened an invitation from the captain to dine at his table, with a note saying that we would be sitting at an adjacent table, presumably so she could keep an eye on us.
Sandy and I were anxious to explore, and we were granted a half hour. The passages were busy with other arriving passengers, cabin boys delivering bon voyage baskets and flowers, and stewards maneuvering baggage trolleys. An expansive glass-enclosed promenade deck ran the length of both sides of the ship. Lines of wooden deck chairs were set up except where the baggage was coming aboard and being stacked for delivery to the cabins. The Grand Salon was the most spectacular place with huge columns soaring up two decks and palm trees flanking an orchestra playing dance music to a few souls seated in almost splendid isolation. Aft along a gallery was a two-deck high library and forward a handsome smoking room, a tiny private bar and a winter garden arcing behind forward facing windows.
Knowing that pop would be nervous and anxious to get on his way, we returned to mother's cabin, then went on all the way forward on the Boat Deck to bid him farewell. The blast of the whistle took my breath away. It was designed to be heard for over 20 miles at sea, and we were within a hundred feet or so. Backing into the river started very slowly with a tiny cluster of Moran tugs giving a push. Sagging coloured steamers handed out by the stewards tightened then broke their tenuous connections to the green pier shed. At the far end of the pier, the observation deck was packed, and above the crowd was affixed a large French Line sign. We knew that pop would not be there, instead already well on his way to beat the crowd.
The Liberte was swept sideways by the current, and it was not until opposite Pier 86 that her bow began to turn downriver. High pitched whistles shrieked from the tugs, and we boomed a reply. Progress was slow, but with the ship's deep draught, any speed might send the four screws chopping through the roof of the Holland Tunnel. Once through the Narrows, there was an amazing change of atmosphere on board. All the chaos and hoopla died away, and a calm settled over the decks. And the ship began to roll.
The Liberte, launched in 1928 as the Europa for North German Lloyd, did not have stabilizers. She was delayed in her delivery by almost a year because of a fire at Blohm & Voss, but when she did enter service in March 1930, she took the Blue Riband on her maiden voyage, averaging 27.9 knots between Cherbourg and Ambrose. While her running mate the Bremen became a war loss, the Europa survived and was handed over to the French government which allocated her to the French Line. During a winter storm at Le Havre in December 1946, she broke loose, struck the wreck of the French liner Paris and sank. Finally after spending $16 million refitting her, and experiencing another fire, she reentered service in August 1950 as the Liberte. At the time of my crossing, she was running with the 1927-built Ile de France and the 1952-built Flandre. The Liberte was no longer so fast as built but she could still manage a respectable 24 knots.
Before dinner, the cabin steward came by to ask what evening clothes we would like to wear. Then after dinner, Sandy and I would return to find our dressing gowns laid out on the turned down beds and the pajamas arranged on the pillow. Then, as on the QE2's crossings today, you did not dress on the first or last night out. And something peculiar to Philadelphians, most likely a Quaker thing, we did not dress on Sundays, so Philadelphians could readily recognize one another.
Mother had already found her Philadelphian, a doctor from Paoli, the last suburban station on the Pennsylvania Railroad's Main Line. Dr. Wade, who had been seen off by his family, and mother became a couple, and together we went for drinks in the main lounge.
Being a teenager, and with all that went along with that age, I was well aware of having to make an entrance into the main dining room. The French Line was famous for its first-class grande descente that put arriving diners in full view of every one already seated. It was a little easier escorting mother than arriving on my own.
Our table was under the high-ceiling centre section, and the food was more complicated than anything I had experienced, although we ate pretty well at home. The steward was always helpful with something like, "Perhaps the young gentlemen would like to try le canard a l'orange tonight," then translate the entree with an explanation. Luckily we had been taught a little table French by our grandmother and to like almost everything, so we really enjoyed ourselves. We had caviar every night as a first course and adored watching the flames from the cherries jubilee or crepes suzette blaze up from the trolley.
After dinner, we adjourned to the main lounge where a very large orchestra played dance music while we glided around a floor of lighted colored-glass squares. On the first evening, the girls were seated with their parents around the perimeter, and I met Libby Fowlkes from St. Louis traveling with a girl friend and her parents. She knew everyone we knew from St. Louis who summered on Nantucket including, of course, "Lady Jane."
When the ballroom dancing began to wind down and the older people went off to bed, the evening continued in the Café de L'Atlantique high up on the Sun Deck until the wee hours.
As I got to know a circle of friends, we began to explore the lower classes on our own. Generally, cabin class was not much fun, but tourist class was always lively. We remained in our evening clothes and danced and drank the night away until their lounge and bar shut down. It was usually the floor waxers who shooed us out on deck where we greeted the dawn. The night out came officially to an end, and the next day began about noon.
When I wanted to be alone, I went up to the highest deck in the area around the funnels and dog kennels. At night at sea the illuminated Liberte sign was turned off early because there was no one to see it. The few lights around the deck were not so bright and did not take away from the majesty of the clear night sky. Above the huge funnels spewed what appeared to be white smoke at night though it was actually quite dark during the day. The roar of the engines came up through the ventilators, and the wind whipped through the guide wires and mast. There was a feeling of tremendous power under foot that ceaselessly propelled us forward day after day.
The crossing was smooth and the weather as fine as the North Atlantic could ever be. I enjoyed sitting in a deck chair under lap robes, being served bouillon in the morning and tea and pastries from a trolley the afternoon. There were deck games to play, and I was pretty good at table tennis.
The French Line did everything in a stylish way, and organizing a table tennis tournament was no exception. According to the ship's programme, L'Atlantique, interested players were to gather on the Sun Deck at 10:30 a.m. With our names and cabin numbers on the game plan, we played our matches, and after playing two out of three games, reported the final scores, and were then given the scheduled time for the next round. On it went until I was matched in the finals against a boy named Clark, two years my junior, from Binghamton, New York.
Trying not to make too many excuses, he was a very good athlete, from an athletic family who were also entered in the women's singles and mixed doubles finals. The purser instructed us to wear shorts, sneakers and socks, and the finals were duly announced in L'Atlantique.
We arrived to find over a hundred chairs set up, and as we began our practice, four elevator attendants appeared to serve as ball boys, two at either end. The purser stood by the net as score keeper, and play began. It was all over very quickly, and Clark beat me in straight games and received a silver cocktail shaker embossed with the Liberte's eastbound voyage number New York to Le Havre and the crossing dates, and he didn't even drink. I have forgotten what my present might have been, but it couldn't have been too swift, otherwise I would still have it, as I throw out almost nothing. Clark's mother won the ladies' singles and mother and son won the mixed doubles.
After dinner on the gala night, the French Line issued each table a couple of clear plastic bags containing white paper balls about twice the size of a very large marble. The object was toss them all over the room, preferably at friends or someone you wanted to attract. The boys, of course, would dip them in the Champagne glasses, so they would travel farther. The idea was not to wing them as hard as you could, that was frowned upon, but to arc them across the lounge hoping to strike a particular distant target. The whole evening was wonderfully festive, but what a mess for the stewards to clean up.
We still had one night before Southampton, and I got hold of a half dozen of the little bags, then bribed Dr. Wade's cabin steward with one dollar to unlock the door of his single cabin. The steward stood watching as Sandy and I put paper balls into every cavity we could find, in the pockets of his sport jackets, shirt pockets, socks, and shoes.
I think that he must have loved the attention, because everybody seemed to know about it, although mother thought maybe we had taken it too far.
That Christmas, he sent us a card saying that he had found another nest of those damn balls in a sports jacket that he had not put on since the summer.
Little fishing boats appeared off the coast of Ireland, and ships came into view as the sea lanes merged off Land's End. Because of the relatively small number of passengers leaving at Southampton, we disembarked into a tender in the Solent. As we pulled away, the Liberte's immense size was once again apparent, as it had been in at first sight in New York. Before we had gone very far, the ship's propellers began turning, and the great liner slowly headed away towards the coast of France.
The ride up the Solent and Southampton Water was cramped and most people sat or stood in silence. As we approached the port I could see a magnificent line of ocean liners in unfamiliar colours, with hulls that were not black but white, green and lavender.
Arriving off the Ocean Terminal, we clambered up onto the pier and walked through the huge baggage hall to one of the two boat trains. The passenger carriages were green and the black engine steam, but it was the sight of the tiny freight wagons made me laugh. We had booked a Pullman compartment, one with four upholstered high-back chairs and a table in between. It was very grand, and we ordered drinks and sandwiches.
Outside the window, steam engines hissed close by and sped past as we made our way up to London Waterloo. At Waterloo, the buffers were lined with steam engines, and we waited for the porters to unload the luggage vans and place the bags under specific letters arranged the length of the curved station forecourt. The taxi queue seemed endless but the dispatching was so well organized that we were soon in the roomiest cab I had ever seen, even larger than the old limousines we had in New York. The luggage got piled up next to the driver, and soon we were winding through the streets of London en route to Claridge's.
We stayed in London for four wonderful days, then took the Night Ferry via Dover/Dunkerque for a few days in Paris, followed by an overnight Wagon Lit to Interlaken, and a day train to Baden Baden where we took delivery of a snappy black Mercedes 220S coupe. Mother and I, sharing the driving, followed the Rhine into Holland and skirted the north end of the Zuider Zee onto Amsterdam. Taking a trolley from The Hague to Madurodam, I remember the featured ocean liner being Rotterdam Lloyd's Willem Ruys. The S.S. Rotterdam was still a year away, then it became the most important ship model.
We toured the World's Fair in Brussels and then drove across Flanders, arriving at Le Havre's Gare Maritime on the day before sailing to have the Mercedes' undercarriage cleaned of possible potato worms that might otherwise migrate to the US. There was no attempt to actually wash the car, so it looked as grubby as ever while we saw it being hoisted on board.
Mother took one look at the Flandre and began to worry out loud about the small size, in spite of its hugely impressive flared bow. Built in 1952 and intended for West Indies service, the Flandre was just over 20,000grt while the Liberte had been almost 52,000 tons. The Flandre had a sister, the Antilles, which sported a white hull and carried the originally designed three classes, while the Flandre had a traditional black hull and offered just two classes with 200 in first and 500 in tourist.
Le Havre had been badly bombed during the war and it was a dreary place but we had only a night to stay before embarking, arriving at the pier before the boat train arrived from Paris.
Again, we had been upgraded, this time to the Dunkerque Suite, one of two named suites on the Boat Deck. The bedroom had two parallel beds, a writing table and a large window looking out to starboard. The sitting room, where mother would sleep, had a sofa bed, several chairs and three curved windows looking to starboard and aft over the swimming pool one deck below.
We sailed across the Channel to Southampton to pick up more passengers then headed out directly into the teeth of an Atlantic gale. It was the kind of storm where the seas were far higher than a Force 6 would warrant. The really strong winds were elsewhere but we took plenty of waves over the bow. My brother took to his bed and remained there for the twelve-hour duration of the storm.
When the storm abated, the social life turned out to be just as gay as coming over, and there were a number of people we knew from Philadelphia. Mother was again seated at the captain's table, and two people that I recall seated there were Regina Resnick, one of the reigning divas of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Noel Monod, a Frenchman and Treasurer of the United. Nations. Mother said that Miss Resnick badly frightened Mr. Monod, and he was almost afraid to speak.
On the second to last night before New York, there were rumors of a hurricane coming up the East Coast. I hoped that there would be one as the gale had been a wonderful taste of what it could be like in a real storm. When more information was not forthcoming, I decided to do some inquiring myself. I found my way forward and out onto the large open deck ahead of the superstructure. Looking back up to the bridge I fully expected to hear a voice instructing me to return immediately to the passenger accommodation. When that did not happen, I kept going, picking my way around the ropes, cables, winches and cargo hold to the very bow. By now my face was covered in a damp sweat. The temperature, previously in the sixties, had climbed at least ten degrees, and while we were probably in the Gulf Stream, the air was far muggier than coming over. The sea was absolutely calm and the closeness of the air took my breath away. Off to starboard, I could see the Cunard White Star liner Britannic with her unmistakable squat funnels, and she appeared to be angling southwest across our bow.
A sailor stood at the bow looking ahead, and he nodded to me when I approached. Using my school boy French, I said something about it being quite hot and wondered if that indicated there might be a lot of wind soon. He replied that a cyclone was coming and would reach us this evening. Suddenly I was quite excited and rushed back to tell mother and Sandy, who took the news rather badly as he was just beginning to have a good time and had found a girlfriend.
That evening was the gala and everyone was dressed to the nines. Sandy and I went to the dining room early to watch all the people descend the grand staircase. Soon mother arrived with the captain and his party. At dessert, a messenger arrived and handed the captain a note on a tray. While he read it, everyone at the table stopped talking, and soon he excused himself and left the dining room. I think that everybody had their eyes on him, and conversation dropped noticeably for a few seconds then resumed with even greater intensity.
I now noticed that the ship was moving. Mother came over to our table, and we all left together. Out on the promenade deck, the air was sultry, and through one of the open windows, I could see white caps where the ship's lights illuminated the sea. Little bits of spray blew off the wave tops.
In the ballroom, the captain's place had been taken by another officer and mother rejoined her table. Dancing with my friend Becky Reath was becoming difficult, and the lighted dance floor was quite slippery and the movement of the ship uneven. Every once in a while, the ship would lurch and send everyone sliding downhill, coming to an abrupt stop where the glass met the carpet. Soon dancing was no longer safe, and we stopped altogether.
In the passageways, the ropes were up and they were especially helpful crossing large foyers. The chairs in the public rooms had already been screwed down, and the shop windows and display cases had been boarded up. Under foot, one moment would be quiet and then came a heavy grinding sound as the stern and props rose and fell.
I returned to the cabin to find mother in bed and looking not very happy. The ship's movement could be felt even more here being high up and well aft. Sandy was quite sick, and there was nothing for me to do but climb between the sheets, and with the help of extra pillows from the closet, prop myself against the wall. The beds ran with the ship, and the pitching sent unpleasant pressures through my head.
I slept fitfully until Robert, the steward, came in to see how we were getting on and bearing juice and tea. Sandy was too sick to move, and mother was white as a sheet. She was frightened enough to ask Robert if we were going to make it. Robert responded that she need not worry because this is a big ship. Mother shot back that the Flandre had broken down on her maiden voyage, and Robert said that he had been through many storms on this ship and others. He continued that there would be no breakfast served in the dining room, and that he would bring in some sandwiches later as there might not be any lunch served either. He suggested that we stay in our cabin, or if we wished, he would take us to the more centrally located library.
By now the props were coming right out of the water giving off unpleasant whirring sounds, followed by severe shifting as the ship lost its way and hit the next wall of water. Mother said that it felt like being in an earthquake which she had experienced twice in mild forms.
Mother wanted to stay put and when Robert left, I went exploring, picking my way along the corridors, making only a few feet at a time. When there was a flat bit, I made a few yards. I felt very much alone in the hallways and found the promenade deck doors locked. The waves were cresting about the height of the deck and the tops came right up against the windows. A steward came along to say that two windows had been broken on the starboard side.
I continued forward to a door that opened onto a sheltered deck which had a set of stairs leading up two decks to the Boat Deck. There just beneath the overhanging bridge, I had a window which allowed me to see both forward and aft along the Boat Deck and up into the rigging and funnel.
Holding onto the railing, I watched the bow drop into a trough, take on a huge wave which would become a wide wall of water crashing directly against the superstructure. The spray that cleared the bridge went back over the ship at times obscuring my view aft. The ship would shift about for a few seconds then the bow would rise to a point where I was looking up at the sky and could no longer see the horizon.
As I looked closely, I saw that the plates extending up past the level of the deck on the starboard side had been bent back. A huge section had given way. I remained for about two hours, still jumping back each time a particularly strong wall of water thundered against the superstructure. Getting hungry, I returned to the cabin and mother found seated there gritting her teeth. Sandy lay motionless in the bed, and mother said he had hardly moved all morning. During my absence, a sailor had been thrown into the empty pool during one of the ship's nasty plunges and had been badly hurt.
Robert had seen me pass and he brought some sandwiches. He said that the hospital was full of people who had been hurt, and that hundreds of pieces of crockery had been broken. We were doing only six to eight knots so we would be many hours late arriving in New York.
By early afternoon, the seas abated and at five it was announced that the dining room would reopen. With Robert in charge of Sandy, who still looked awful, mother and I went down to a virtually empty room. The tables all had special steel contraptions to keep the glasses, dishes and tableware in place. Everything, even the salt and pepper shakers and the wine bottle had their secure place on the table. We happily ate the first hot meal in 24 hours, though sparingly.
By nine o'clock, the sea was quiet again, the air fresh and the stars blazing from the heavens. I stayed above to get as much fresh air as I could. Because we had sailed a couple of hundred miles off course to try to avoid the worst of the storm, which I do not think that we succeeded in doing, our arrival was set for late in the afternoon, about 10 hours behind schedule.
Lots of people were on hand on the pier. After disembarking, pop asked first if the car was damaged, but we had no idea, and it was not until it came off in a sling three hours later that we could see that there was not a nick, just the same dirty car.
On the way home, I realized that I would have no problem finding a subject for the first composition of the school year.