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Crossing the Atlantic (1953)

The S.S. United States

(Continued from Memories of Frankfurt)

The S.S. United States was the state of the art in ocean travel in 1953.  She had been built just a year earlier for the express purpose of beating the British giants, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, for the transatlantic speed record.  She more than broke the record, she smashed it.  She was the largest ocean liner ever built entirely in the U.S. and the fastest ocean liner ever to cross the Atlantic in either direction.

Government money paid two-thirds of her construction costs, with the thought that she could serve as a troop carrier if the need arose.  To reduce the risk of fire, the builders used no wood in her construction or ornamentation, but made an exception for the grand piano in the main ballroom, which was made of a rare hardwood that does not burn, and for the butcher block in the galley.  All her furniture was custom made of aluminum or other metals; her Art Deco decorations were of glass or metal; her fabrics of spun glass fiber.  She used more aluminum than any structure ever built at that time, either on sea or on land. She carried enough fuel and supplies to continue nonstop halfway around the earth at the equator, if she had to.   The most powerful steam turbine on any civilian vessel drove this behemoth, and she could exceed a delirious 38 knots, 44 land miles an hour.  She was a phenomenon!

None of that impressed the Atlantic Ocean in January 1953.  It was an angry sea.  A few days before our trip, a wave smacked the Italian superliner Andrea Doria on her maiden voyage off Nantucket and made her list 28 degrees. When the storm we went through made landfall in Europe a few days later, it devastated parts of England, Scotland, Holland, and Belgium, drowning thousand and leaving tens of thousands homeless.  It sank a ferry with all 133 lives lost.  It is still known in Britain as “The Greatest Storm” — there is a BBC documentary on it by that name — and in Holland as “The Beast”; see Wikipedia.  My mother and I, shoe-horned into a tiny cabin with two other passengers somewhere at the end of a labyrinthine set of stairs and passageways deep in her bowels, lay strapped in our bunks while the great waves tossed the ship like a toy – up, up, up, then a moment suspended in midair, then a vertiginous, weightless, stomach-raising free fall, down, down, down, then a thunderous, bone-shaking, world-ending crash, more terrifying than a direct hit from an aerial bomb.  Repeat, repeat, repeat, all night and all day, for three of the five days of the transit.  Our cabin had no porthole.  I rarely saw the water.  There was a boy about my age who had got out on deck; the gale had flung him hard against a railing.  He had a nasty-looking black eye to show for it, and his mother thanked the stars that he was still on board.

When we were able to eat, we got to see the impressive dining room with its snow-white tablecloths and its sparkling silver, and we dared our stomachs to sample the fare, which was excellent.  Everything was served a la carte, a novelty to me.  I saved  the glass dish of what I thought was vanilla ice cream for the last, only to find it was the mashed potatoes.  On the last day, there was sunshine, and a great shout went up when the people on deck saw land.

We were in line below deck waiting to have our papers processed by immigration and customs while the ship passed the Statute of Liberty, and so we missed it.  As the tugs were easing the ship toward her pier I got a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline.  I had seen pictures of a bright, sunbathed panorama of modern skyscrapers.  The Hudson River waterfront was a rampart of old brick covered in billboards and soot.  Apart from the lack of rubble heaps, it felt very much like where I had come from.

Ralph Neumann  met us at the dock.  There was a tearful reunion.  My mother had helped him survive the Nazi period in Berlin.  He had found us an apartment in Sea Gate, then an all-Jewish enclave at the tip of Coney Island in Brooklyn.  (It is now, I am told, mostly Russian.)  He drove us there in his Plymouth.  I remember seeing the chrome letters, “Plymouth,” on the glove compartment.  I tried out my English, the fruit of a few months of classes in boarding school before departure.  I said “Ply” as in plywood,  “mouth” as in mouthwash.  Ralph laughed and corrected me.  I realized then that America was going to be a challenge.

(Continued in Fresh Off the Boat)

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