Saturday, June 23, 2007

Travel 1

I have mentioned in blogs past my phob of flying. Despite a stint in the U. S. Air Force, despite a virtual pilot's license, despite having spent literally months in the air, I HATE FLYING. And so. . . .

Since there are no highways or railroad tracks stretching from the New World to the Old, and since I prefer not to fly, that leaves only ships. I haven't seen any statistics on ocean travel versus air travel and I suppose if I did I would discover that a person is a million times more likely to perish from the former than the latter, but again, it is the quality of dying that I care about. I will happily take my chances with ice bergs, storms, old torpedoes, and even giant squids, as opposed to spending the last five minutes of my life screaming in terror as I fall from the sky.

I've crossed the Atlantic four times on ships. I've crossed the Baltic, Adriatic, Ionian, Irish, and North Seas dozens of times on ships. I've crossed the Straights of Gibraltar on ships. I've sailed for weeks on the Rhine and Danube. I'm never stressed when I step on board a ship, I sleep like a log at night, and when I disembark I never feel like I've just been dragged through an emotional knothole. While some of my worst travel experiences have come in the air, some of my best have been while sailing on ships. Like the first day of long trips, my first voyage is still my most memorable.

In 1976, my former wife, Maurine, and I attended the Montreal Olympics. After the games, we headed toward Maine but pulled up for a few days at Quebec City. One afternoon, while sitting high above the St. Lawrence, we saw a long, white Russian ocean liner passing below. The sleek and beautiful thing was gracefully following the river's current as it moved off toward the sea. We could see people standing on the rails looking up at us. We never forgot that sight and four years later we were the ones standing on the rails looking up at couples in Quebec City.

The S. S. Stefan Batory (above) was a little Polish passenger liner that had once been in the service of the Dutch merchant marine. As I discovered later when traveling on newer and more lavish ships, such as the Queen Elizabeth II, the little Batory was pure proletariat with few frills. But as we backed away from Montreal one overcast summer day and slid silently down the surprisingly clear St. Lawrence, Maurine and I would not have traded places with anyone on the planet. All our lives we had read about travel on rivers, of steamboats and Mark Twain, and our thrill at finally doing so was indescribable. Like ourselves, most of the other 600 excited passengers were also lining the rails as we glided down the river. As mile after mile passed, however, the passengers by twos and threes disappeared until eventually Maurine and I were almost the only ones still watching. Except for the low rumble of the ship's propeller shaft, it was so calm and peaceful that we could hear the "ha-lo's" from those fishing on the opposite shores. On the banks behind these people, almost every town, no matter how small, was seemingly crowned by an imposing cathedral. In the middle of this great, wide river were a number of small green islands. Strangely, on many of these spits of land were large herds of black and white dairy cows. Maurine knew something of animal husbandry and said they were young females quarantined from amorous bulls. Late in the day we watched as a flock of ducks followed our trailing black smoke back up the river toward the sunset and that evening, we stood by the rails as our ship passed under the cliffs of Quebec City (below). That first day on board the Batory may have been the most romantic hours of our lives.

The next morning when we went out, both Maurine and I were stunned to see nothing but fog and gray, angry water on every side. We were plunging into open sea. From a distance, the crest of the waves looked like snow capped mountains. Sea gulls, who seemingly never flapped a wing, were gliding among the valleys and tops of the waves like mountain eagles. Although the scene was not so extreme as those old films of "Victory at Sea" in which the ships disappear behind waves, still our little vessel was up and down like a roller coaster. In fact, the sensation was something akin to a ferris wheel and that lighter-than-air feeling coming down and double-gravity going up. As a consequence, the former fresh scent of flowers among the ships passageways was soon replaced by the revolting stench of vomit. At times, it seemed as if our little tub would capsize. I must admit that as I surveyed the scene all about us and saw nothing but ocean, I understood for the first time in my life what the pioneers on the Great Plains must have felt when they scanned the prairie
on every side of their Conestogas and realized: "Hey, this is it! We're on our own."

(continued tomorrow)