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Sailing the Seas of Memory

Five days into our sea voyage and we are in a hazy, slightly coolish mid-day. It's another day and a half before we slow down and head for Southampton, England. Can't wait. After a few long days at sea with nothing but an abstract horizon to stare into, you get itchy. The on-board activity is threadbare. The lectures don't quite hold my attention. The evening variety acts are right out of the 1950s, with corny entertainers and chorus girls grinding through routines in step with peppy tunes. Food begins to lose its flavor after a few evenings of tepidly seasoned English-style beef dishes and dry filets of trout and haddock. We don't feel bad missing lunch, or skipping the dessert course at supper. A lot of tables are left empty, so I suppose others are feeling about the same.

            When we boarded ship and got our bags unpacked, it was time to explore. We were eager to prowl all the various decks from one to fourteen, the topmost observation deck above the bridge. That's where all the telecommunication equipment is arranged, painted white and gleaming in the bright sun. I have vertigo so it is a bit beyond me to creep to the railings and stare down into the crushed wavelets rushing away from the hull.

            I noticed that there were a lot of elderly men walking with some effort beside their stout wives. It was a stately sort of procession with creaking knee joints and the occasional cane tap, the piercing sound of stroller wheels turning drily behind some poor woman with a suffering expression on her face. I knew the elderly liked these ocean liners but this seemed a bit excessive, so many old men with snow-white hair and deeply wrinkled faces burnt a permanent sun-tanned bronze from some sort of life in the outdoors. The wives were soft and flabby, with milky pale faces punctuated by bright red lipstick. I was reminded of my mother in her old age, who daubed her cheeks with rouge and powdered her nose a pale skin shade when she was going out for the evening. Here was a whole flock of such women moving sluggishly down the corridors to eat their dinner or attend some event in one of the theaters.

            It didn't occur to me the first night that this was the week before Memorial Day. I should have realized that the old lanky men were veterans from the Vietnam War, maybe even from the Korean Conflict. They all bore the craggy features of General Westmoreland. They seemed to know each other and had certain short-hand ways of behind humorous or just wry as they sauntered along chuckling to themselves. It was like being at an Officers' Club, with all that brass owning the place. At one point we were strolling back to our state room after dinner when a short man with a friendly face approached us with well-rehearsed smile and a hand to be shaken by still another admirer. It was Marine Colonel Barney Barnum, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient for bravery in conflict in Vietnam. He gave a speech which we attended the following day, full of patriotic bravado about "killing the bad guys" and saving democracy for the world. It was awkward to sit through some of this worn-out rhetoric, and even more so later in the bar when he spoke loudly to a crony about the damned media saying we lost the war. A nice guy, I admit, and obviously a brave man at twenty-five to save his unit in the cross-fire. But a simple man with Old Testament morals hardened into iron girders in his head. He was bitter about the politicians running the war and letting the military slowly wither under their misdirection.

            So we had a boatload of these overly tall retired officers from the battlefield who were embittered by the public rejection of their bravery and neglectful of their sacrifices after the peace. It was clear that Colonel Barnum was royally pissed when he was told Pres. Johnson would not hang the medal around his neck. He told his aides it was unwise to bring too much attention to the government's approval of war heroes at that time. So some underling did the honors. Everyone on the ship stood up when he came into a room and applauded him vigorously as if to make up for seventy years of ignoring heroic deeds.

            The young on board were few and far between; if anything the spindly girls were grand-daughters of these ghostly vets. I met one or two but saw others sitting in a profound state of boredom in the bar at night. Poor things, they had no one to talk to. Even the ping pong tournament was monopolized by middle-aged men eager to show off their remaining vigor.

            There was something sad about the atmosphere of the ship, as if the glory days of England had long passed and here were the remnants of empire, with dowdy females fussing over their necklaces and bracelets, bathed in perfumes that had lost their allure. Their smiles were quick and evaporated in a moment. All very correct deportment for women long used to being in the colonies and playing whist and contract bridge with knowing little looks over their cards to their trusty partners. The dress code for evenings was a suit coat and tie, or a tux for the men; women were permitted a little more latitude but the idea was to wear a floor-length gown and a wrap around the shoulders. The sea was out of every window, shimmering with the dregs of an old moon, placid as a country lake in mid-summer. You could imagine the baleful cries of loons in the distance, and the shrill laughter of children playing in the twilight.

            The Queen Mary was very stable, even in the chop of some stubborn waves beating against the fat hull. She squatted down in the water like a contented duck incubating a nest full of eggs. The staff wore a lot of braid on their sleeves, and their badges and emblems sparkled as they walked along the passageways nodding and bowing at times. We were all living in a. J. Arthur Rank movie from the 1930s, with Olivia de Havilland or Talulah Bankhead waiting for David Niven on the grand staircase somewhat impatiently. In some dark, luxurious corner of a room was a trio or quartet playing softly under the cocktail chitchat. Waiters bustled about with trays of cocktails in frosty glasses. Laughter was light and airy, and without evident amusement. But everyone behaved as if in a dryly humorous play by Noel Coward, with the men in spiffy tuxes that fit them tightly around the shoulders and waists, and they rocked a bit on their gleaming black patent leather shoes. I admired them, if only because they had made a home of a disappeared past and were happy to live there.

            We were a mirage of sorts, a make-believe theater of faint echoes and ghostly pretensions. The staff that served them were from the Pacific islands, Bali, Jakarta, Cebu, Borneo, even more exotic places whose names I hadn't quite caught in my brief chats with them. But they were highly trained and overly polite and quick to withdraw into a shadow if necessary. Bravo for old Blighty, for all it stood for in a day long gone. The ship was the last of its kind, as the brochures said over and over again. It could have been a party on the Titanic on some vanished evening. But it was now, in the strangely amber light of longing and recollections of the glorious past.



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