Monday, April 19, 2010

the voyage

It wasn't like an escape from Tibet through the high Himalayas without a yak but travel from England to North America in the early fifties wasn't without hardship of its own. In March of 1953 we traveled by train to Southhampton where we would board a ship to take us across the Atlantic. As we walked along a huge pier we saw a dozen tugboats towing a giant ship into dock. I don't remember the remarks between my parents as we watched its stately progress but it's a conversation that was recounted many times as I grew up. My mother said, 'How wonderful you found us such a beautiful ship to sail on. I know I won't be afraid in that'. To which my father replied, 'No, that's the Queen Mary and we won't be sailing on her. That's our ship just over to the left of us', and he pointed down at a little Greek liner docked nearby.

I didn't know why she was crying. I was six, a young six even for those times, and I remember standing in the doorway of our living room watching my mother cry as she finished laying out the china that had been sold along with the dining room set and all the other furniture. We were going to Canada because I was too weak to remain in England's damp climate in the post war years what with rationed food and overburdened hospitals - the ones that hadn't been bombed or burned. There were strict limits on how much immigrants could take on the ship so almost everything had to go. Even my dolls. I was allowed one but not my favorite because a neighbor had borrowed one of the others and had sewn and knitted little outfits for him. That was the one who came with us, packed away in a trunk somewhere.

We must have boarded but I have no memory of doing so. Do you remember I mentioned it was March? That's a very nasty time of year to sail the North Atlantic with its high waves, squalls and even storms blowing. The ship was small and not having the stabilizers used on modern cruise liners resulted in me not seeing my mother again until we reached the far shore. Seasickness is a very unpleasant experience. I had my own little cabin but was too ill to get out of my bunk. I have a vague memory of a stewardess bringing me a little bowl of mashed potatoes saying they would help settle my stomach. It must have worked.

Next morning my dad came to get me. He'd been in the navy for more than six years during the war and he loved ships. There was no way he was going to leave me throwing up and moaning with the mighty ocean waiting just along the companionway and up the stairs. He said the sea air would soon set me to rights. Warmly dressed and a little wobbly kneed at first I held his hand as we walked around the outer deck. I was fascinated enough by the gulls, the deck chairs, the life boats hanging near the rails, the ropes, the giant ventilators curving up from the deck and every big and little thing but my father had a destination in mind and urged me along.

He'd been making friends with the captain and the sailors too and had permission (at least I think he did) to take me on a visit to the engine room. We went through a door and down dimly lit long narrow staircases - far, far down. The throbbing noise of the engines grew louder as we went deeper into the ship. Finally we were at the last staircase and below us were dozens of men feeding boilers, turning dials, rushing back and forth as whistles blew, steam vented and bells clanged. It was pretty crazy. Meanwhile, my dad, who'd spent his navy career in just such a place, tried to tell me what everything was and how it all worked in harmony. I knew it was important to him that I understood but I was so completely boggled by the dirt, the dark, the heat and the overwhelming noise that I all I remember now is an impression of what I saw.

The trip lasted nearly eight days and was by far the longest time I'd ever spent alone with my father. Every day he'd take me by their cabin where my mother would give me a weak little wave before collapsing back into her blankets. Most of the other passengers rarely left their cabins to come on deck so my dad and I had the ship to ourselves. We visited the captain and officers on the bridge who were kind enough to let me hold the wheel until I got bored. They let me blow the foghorn too - which was okay because it was foggy that day. The dining room tables were like big trays with shallow wooden borders so your plate wouldn't slide off during heavy weather.

Everyone was supposed to participate in the lifeboat drill but dad and I were the only ones there the afternoon the sailors demonstrated their finesse at launching the things. He reminisced about riding zip lines between ships in waves much higher than these and told me about the naval battles and ships being bombed from the air. He learned how to swim from a ship in the Mediterranean when that sea was so clear you could see a mile down to the bottom. He told me most sailors don't swim because if your ship goes down there's no place to swim to. I had a feeling my mother wouldn't approve of all he told me.

There was one place we loved to go every day and that was to stand at the bow while the ship cut through the waves. Water poured through the scuppers and dad held my hand as we watched the sun set. He told me a little saying familiar to all sailors everywhere, ' They went to sea to see the world but all they saw was the sea'.