P&O's Canberra

by Warren "Chuck" Meeker

"Life at Sea is Like Nothing on Earth" was the slogan of the P&O Steamship Line of London, to which I paid a very reasonable sum of money for a three-month voyage around the world. It was January 24th, 1967. Four other Americans aboard also thought we had gotten a great bargain until we learned that the other 1495 passengers hadnít paid a cent, as they were migrating to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji or some other far-flung British commonwealth on which the sun was beginning to set. It must have slipped the travel agentís mind to mention that RMS Arcadia was a migrant ship on which people could "change countries."

Be that as it may, within ten minutes of boarding at San Francisco's dreadful Pier 35, I became a victim of "The Spell" that these gleaming white liners cast upon the unsuspecting. By early morn of the 25th, when I ventured out onto C Deck aft, Tourist Class, I knew that my life had changed forever.

At the Captainís Cocktail Party that night (actually, you get a sort of semi-captain in Tourist Class), I was given "the word," the vital fact that Iíd have to accept to hope to be accepted on this or any of the other ten majestic liners of this Empire-girdling fleet.

"Let me tell you about you Yanks, Yank," slurred the officer, who must have started his own party before the rest of us. He backed me into a corner and, while piercing my liver with his forefinger, continued.

"I have spent many a fortnight in "The Colonies" and have concluded that whilst individually, you Yanks can be some of the nicest chaps in the world, collectively, you are the biggest bunch of morons I have ever encountered!" What he didnít know was that I didnít even know up to that moment that I was a Yank; but I know now.

Ships That Pass...

Anyway, letís get on with "The Spell." About 17 days into that 70-day line voyage to Londonís Tilbury docks, as Arcadia was plying the Tasman Sea from Auckland to Sydney, an announcement was made late one evening that in approximately 10 minutes time, we would be meeting and passing "our proud new flagship Canberra. We shall pass port to port at a distance of one-half mile."

He might just as well have yelled "Abandon Ship!" so rapidly did everyone, including the shipís orchestra (it was, in fact, the Collin Hindmarsh Trio) evacuate the ballroom, that I got carried out by the suction. During the next 7 or 8 minutes, pinned to the promenade deck railing, and straining my eyes forward like several hundred others, all I saw was a little light on the horizon that was getting big quickly.

Then all the floodlights were turned on and then the music started, on both ships simultaneously. And then the voices started singing, on us and on "them" at the same time, the same song: "Land of Ho-ope and Glory, Mother uh-of the Free..." And then, for a few moments, RMS Arcadia and Canberra were abeam of each other before they passed in the night.

And I learned what Iíd been running from...and what I was searching for. I had just met my mistress of the seas, the siren who would call out to me, relentlessly, comfortingly and seductively, for the next 30 years! Could I have known then that the climax of this love relationship would find Canberra and myself locked in an embrace from which we would both probably perish, it would not have changed a thing. For 30 years she had been there for me but as February 1997 turned over to March, overnight, I began slipping from her grasp. You talk of irony, Iíll tell you about irony. If I could have held on to me for two more weeks, we would have "completed" our time together. A true happy ending to a long love affair. Just two more weeks, "a fortnight" as she would say. But God said: "I have other plans in this matter." And did He ever!

"Warren Meeker."

They called my name in the waiting room to be seen by the shipís doctor, Haydn Deane, aboard Canberra. I had boarded in Singapore four weeks earlier, Dr. Deane in Sydney, just three days ago, although I had no way of knowing that at the time. And though Iíd had a throaty, kind of virussy thing almost from the start, I wasnít concerned because I was having a very good and, I felt, healthy time, exercising several hours a day as well as avoiding the kind of meals I usually eat: fat ones. Early each morning, I swam figure eights in the Alice Springs Pool, usually before anyone else was out there. Afternoons, I would sit on the Promenade Deckís shady side and wait for the guy to come striding along who was half my age and did 20 very brisk laps between 3 and 4 every day. I would fall in behind him and zoom! I donít know if he ever knew I was there but it worked for both of us, until that day when, just after he passed, I got up , started to follow but, instead, stumbled, wobbled and barely made it to the railing before collapsing. My legs didnít work.

A shower, I thought; Iíll wash it away. So I tried it. Horrors! I canít feel my feet.

I stumbled into the waiting room a full hour before the posted time. Still hopeful (or into denial) I studied my nautical chart of the South Pacific, as I leave nothing to chance and do my own navigating. 167 degrees East Latitude. Yoicks! Didnít I say Iíd tell you about irony? Listen to this. At the time I stumbled to the railing up on Promenade Deck, Canberra was at virtually the same position and on the same course as she was the first time I ever saw Her Grace on February 12th, 1967, 30 years and 2 weeks ago, when I got swept by a tide of humanity out to Arcadiaís rail.

"Iím Warren Meeker, Iím here."

"The doctor will see you now," said the nursing sister, leading me. Very shakily, I rose, turned and stared down the short hall to where I could see the doctor and his nurse standing side by side. It was only about 10 steps for me to be in there but I had just 7 or 8 steps left in my physical being. My knees buckled and I crumpled right at their feet.

"We saw how you got down there; now letís see how you get back up." Medicine as practiced in Britain is somewhat different than elsewhere.) I struggled, trying to climb up the side of the desk between them but got nowhere. For me, the fog was starting to set in. But I did hear someone say "If this chap is a fake, heís very good at it." Descent into the Abyss

Then I was in a room by myself. There was a bed but I was in a wheelchair. Iíd never been in one before but figured to do my checkride by motoring back to my cabin where it was safe. I made it out the door and started along the alleyway. Next thing I remember, I was in the bed and having tubes installed in places on my body I didnít even know had inlets. Everything was blurry but I felt I was fighting for my life. As quickly as the nursing sister plugged me, I pulled the plugs. She went to get help; I made a move to help myself.

I rolled off the bed (splat!) and crawled under it, out of harmís way. This really didnít fool anyone; in fact, it seemed to trigger a phone call from Dr. Deane to my wife at home in California, where it was the middle of the night before.

"Hello, is this Carolyn Meeker?"
"Are you wife of Warren Charles Meeker?"
"Are you aware that he is on a British ship in the South Pacific?"
"Does your husband have a history of mental illness?"
"Does he sometimes sleep on the floor under the bed?"
(Much later, I was told that her answers were: yes, yes, yes, no, occasionally.)

"Well, Mrs. Meeker, he is critically ill, cannot move, can barely breathe and we donít have the equipment on board to deal with this, even if we knew what he has, which we donít. Tomorrow morning, weíre going to dock at Suva, in the Fiji Islands. Weíve contacted a hospital in that port and have learned that the head doctor there is a head doctor, a psychiatrist as well as a neurologist. He should be able to diagnose Mr. Meekerís condition but, whatever it is, we wonít be able to keep your husband on Canberra beyond Honolulu. Youíd best get there, quickly."

Along about this time the fog really began to engulf me. I remember being lifted into a car and taken somewhere out in the country. Which country didnít make any difference because wherever, it was Never-Never Land to me. Some dark-skinned man was poking me and asking a lot of questions to which I had no answers. Some light-skinned woman seemed to know my answers as she did most of my talking. She was holding my right arm just above the elbow and when I heard the man say something that sounded like "Gilliganís Buffet," her grip on my arm really tightened. One or both of us must have passed out then because at that time, my grip on reality went south.

I take it we didnít stop at Gilliganís because when I came to, I saw a chart on the wall that I remembered from the shipís hospital and the people surrounding my bed all had stripes on their shoulders. They were talking but sounded like a television set with the volume turned low. The actors were discussing some poor sapís deteriorating condition in which a virus called Guillain-Barre syndrome was choking him to death.

"How many more days to Honolulu, Captain?"
"Five...four if we cancel tomorrowís port call."
"His breathing is shutting down, sir. Very rapidly," said the doctor.
"How much time do we...does he have?"
"Less than an hour, unless we find some way to do his breathing for him."
"What would do that?"
"A ventilator, to attach to this respirator to go down his throat."
(What happened next is the stuff that captainsóBritish captains!óare made of.)

"Dr. Atkinson, Ďphone the Chief Engineer. Tell him that Captain Carr says he should get down here to Surgery faster than right now. Dr. Deane, draw me a picture of a ventilator, to scale: size, shape, width, circumference, length, everything. As accurately as you can. Quick!"

Moments later, the Chief arrived.
"Come on in, Chief. Can you make me one of these in a hurry?"
"Iím sure that I can, Captain, but how soon?"
Captain Mike Carr turned and pointed at me, lying there, gasping for my life.
"An hour...or less."
"Captain, if you chaps can keep him going for three-quarters of an hour, I can fix him up, I know I can."

Well, I guess that they did and that he did but you sure couldnít prove it by me because I didnít participate in anything for approximately the next six weeks.

I imagine that most of you have been to one of Walt Disneyís theme parks in either Orlando, Anaheim, Paris or Tokyo; so you think you know fantasy land. I have been there too and thought I knew about fantasy land. But all of Disneyís parks combined did not prepare me for the land I traveled to. Unutterable Hallucinations

The last thing I remember about life is hearing those people say I was dying. So I must be dead. Yet I can tell you that I am somewhere. It is dark and deathly quiet but there is movement and it canít be me if Iímóyou knowónot here any more. Though I have no feelings , I somehow sense that I am being touched, gently but firmly. Iím not frightened by it because if Iím dead, whatís the worst that can happen?

Oh yes, thereís that question of heaven or hell. Maybe even somewhere in between.

Someone is pulling me up into a sitting position and sort of hugging me. I want to see who or what it is but my eyes wonít work. Thereís just a haze but thereís also color. Orange. This is not a good omen.

Then, the first sound. A voice, very close to me. "Cough! You must cough, exactly as I showed you, or you will die!" Whatís that? Or I will die? That must mean I am still here, wherever here is. And whatever it is, I can smell it. Itís good, kind of sweet. But I must see, so I strain harder. Something is blowing or drifting. And the orange things seems to be blowing too, in my right ear while my back is being patted quite hard.

"Now, COUGH!"

I do the best I can and it must be pretty good because the orange thing moves forward, away from me. Itís got long hair. Female? But with an orange, an orange snout? Oh my God, itís...sheí ape! And even if Iím alive, Iím not in my own home, my own place any more. Iím on a different planet. Worse, my greeter is definitely not St. Peter. (For at least a fortnight that follows, Warren Meeker suffers the torment of the damned, adrift in an hallucigenic netherworld peopled largely by apes. One primate seemed faintly familiar:)

One of them looks strangely like my wife. Did I say that? Wife. I did have a wife back in real life. But that was before I ...passed on...or went up...or this planet of the...where the ape lady makes me cough. So this couldnít be my wife here. She must be back... home. Where is...where was that? I liked my wife. I loved her, even though she got angry when I said I have to go to my mistress for one last time. Maybe if I yell out to these salespeople, they can tell her Iím sorry and that Iím not with the lady Canberra any more. I really need my...Carolyn. That was her name, Carolyn...

She stopped, looked, picked up a small painting or maybe it was a palette and headed my way. What happened next was the most amazing thing in my whole...death. This strangely familiar female ape came really close to me, bent down...and kissed me. Then she really shakes my tree. "Oh my dear husband, we were afraid youíd never wake up. Itís almost two weeks since we got here. Tim will be back Friday. He went to Osaka." I was never so glad to see anyone. Ever! So I wasnít going to pry into other peoplesí businessó like some guy named Timówherever he went. Iím having enough of an identity crisis myself. Am I an ape too? There was so much I wanted to say to Carolyn that I was practically shouting. She couldnít seem to understand me but I think my wooden guards did. They were looking at me as usual...but then they looked at each other.

"I brought something so you can tell me what you need. A writing board."

This might be a problem. It took me a long time to get my mouth going and now Iíve got to write? But if it will help get me out of here, Iíll try it.

Well, I practiced writing and spewed out additional oratory but the bottom line is that the Guillain-Barre syndrome had truly wiped me out. Despite Carolynís presence and the constant attention from all the apes, those wonderful nurses in their bright orange surgical masks, I was one very sick guy with a long and difficult recovery ahead of me. My entire body was paralyzed, inside and out, my nerve endings all devoured by my traitorous immune system, rendering me, in reality, totally helpless...

But when oneís voice has been stilled for several weeks, then one regains some talkability. Youíve heard of diarrhea of the mouth; what I came up with was runaway dysentery.

"Why am I here?"
"Because you got sick."
"How did you get on Canberra?"
"Weíre not on Canberra."
"Who is that nasty guy?"
"Heís the doctor. Heís trying to help you."
"He is not. My doctor is Nordstrom. Where is he?"
"In Fresno."
"Canít he drive to Las Vegas?"
"Why would he do that?
"To get me out of here."
"Weíre not in Las Vegas."
"Of course we are. Call Dan. He knows about this stuff."
"Whereís Dan?"
"At Circus-Circus, where he always stays."
"But weíre in Honolulu."
"Maybe theyíve got one hereó Where did you say we were?"
"Honoóhow did we get here?"
"I flew. You came on the Canberra."
"I told you we were on Canberra. When do we sail?"
"Itís too late."
"Itís never too late for a cruise."
"When you get well, you can go."
"But I paid all the way to Fresno."
"Canberra wasnít going there."
"Okay. Call the airport. Weíll rent a plane."
"Wait Ďtil Tim comes."
"Who is Tim?"
"Your number two son, remember? The pilot."
"Ooooh, that one. Heís in Texas."
"He flew to Japan. Heíll be back."
"How about you? Youíre here now."
"I am, hun, but I must leave now."
"NO! Please donít leave me."
"I need some rest. Iíll see you tomorrow."
"Where are you going?"
"Not far. Just to my hotel."
"What do you need a hotel for?" Iíll move over."
"No, Iíve got too many things to do."
"Whatís that list in your hand"
"People I have to call, about money."
"We donít need money."
"We do if you want to rent an airplane."
"Carolyn...are those people on your"
"Business men."
"Donít do it, Carolyn. Iíd never ask that of you. We can stay here"

When she bent down to kiss me, her tears fell on mine. (Warren Meeker was still not out of the woods. Still convinced her was in Las Vegas, he made a desperate attempt to drive a hospital vehicle home to Fresno. Finally he reached home for real.)

Now, one of my favorite songs has always been "Look for the Silver Lining..." You see, I am a believer. And if the above adventure taught me anything, it is that first, I am not alone, ever; second, do whatever you must do to maintain your good health because it is the only thing you need to have a full and happy life. And finally, live your life to the fullest, because you never know what kind of test may be waiting for you just around the next bend in the road...or turn on the Promenade Deck...One message came on a postcard with a photo of a gleaming white ocean liner. "Youíll never know how hard we worked to save your life." I know that I wonít but Iíll be eternally grateful that he flew from England to Australia, returning from leave just when he did. It was signed:
Dr. J. H. Deane, MB, Bch., B.A.O.
Senior Doctor, P&O/Princess Cruises

(Canberra went to the Pakistan breakers in 1997. We will be reunited when my ashes are scattered there in about...2020.)

Tragically, Warren Meeker was struck and killed by a car while bicycling this past summer-Editor.


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