I. The Attic Window
One day, an early summer’s day, I set out across the sea — on a Norwegian freighter, no less, bound for Europe. This fulfilled a youthful yearning born of a view out an attic window.
It was a small window in our small house, gray and modest, sitting on a small fenced-off rise above our neighbors below on Salina Road. The view was of the sea — though just a small blue wedge, barely visible over the McIntyre’s green two-story house and the three-decker that, over time, had been home to people like Mrs. Baylion and Jimmy Kinally and Freddie Ferguson. It was mostly a harbor view and bay view: Boston Harbor and Dorchester Bay. Small waters in the grand scheme of things. But that was sea water out there, no less enticing to the embryonic imagination of a would-be Balboa; the blue threshold to the deep ocean of legend — of vast ships and fabulous creatures. A boy of eight or nine would see it that way. I was that boy.
That attic view invited me to imagine what lay beyond that little wedge of blue horizon. How long a voyage was it, I wondered, before one encountered deep-water seagoing vessels more substantial than the little smacks, fishing boats and pleasure crafts moored in shallow brown water at the boatyard docks of the Port Norfolk neighborhood off Tenean Beach? These, too, if memory serves me, were partially visible from that attic window. I knew there were Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and eventually, after sixth grade geography, Arctic and Indian Oceans.
And what kind of a world lay across the ocean?
There came a time when I couldn’t wait to get away from that house and that neighborhood that, to the teenage boy, had become a kind of prison with steel gray bars. I would travel to Europe. I would get there by sea — out memory’s attic window. Out beyond the harbor and the horizon….
Summer of 1966. There was an escalating war in Southeast Asia, a War on Poverty, and a measure of economic and racial turmoil abroad in the nation. There would be mass murder in Chicago and Texas. TIME magazine had asked, IS GOD DEAD?
I was 19 and between my freshman and sophomore years at Boston’s Suffolk University. Yes, I’d decided to travel to Europe from my native Boston. It was time for that kind of adventure; time to break the bonds of home and neighborhood; explore, touch, taste and see the greater world. The youngest of five children, I was the only one still living at home. For years, I’d clung to home, clung to my parents. Only now do I realize how much I missed my father, with whom I’d had an undemonstrative, sometimes distant but no less loving relationship. It was, perhaps, the failure to close the distance before his passing on Memorial Day, 1964 at age 54 — when I was only 17 — that made for a lingering sense of loss.
But I had the blessing of my widowed mother for my journey. I elected a cheap, unconventional means of passage, booking myself onto a Norwegian freighter out of Brooklyn, NY. It was due to sail late on the afternoon of June 7. I had my passport, Eurail Pass, $500 cash, my card permitting me to stay in youth hostels when that proved convenient. In those days, you had to get various inoculations before going even to Europe. Accordingly, I’d had my tetanus, typhoid and para-typhoid shots. The latter, I’d been warned, would make me feverish, nauseous and ill for twenty-four hours, which it did. I’m sure my mother marveled at my willingness to undergo such a trial for the sake of a romp on foreign soil. But then, that’s the youth of it.
I was due to sail 6/6/66 on The Black Falcon. But the date was moved to 6/7/66 and the ship was changed to The Black Hawk. I’ve wonder from time to time if someone in the booking office at Brooklyn’s Glaessal Shippinig was superstitious about 6’s. Not likely. Far more likely is the explanation I heard or noted somewhere – which was that the Black Falcon had grazed or otherwise come into contact with The Staten Island Ferry and been temporarily pulled out of service. I may never know. But what does it matter? It’s all history. My adventure began as re-scheduled three days after my brother Ron’s wedding and one day after my sister’s seventh wedding anniversary.
My mother saw me off from the little gray house at 210 Neponset Avenue, Dorchester in the mid to late morning and my friend and mentor J.L. Donovan drove me to Logan Airport for the New York shuttle. He was a parish priest in my native Dorchester. (Hale and hearty that day, he remained a cherished friend and counsel until his recent death on March 5, 2019 at the age of 91.) I’d bought and packed one big suitcase with soft plaid sides. It would prove to be impractical and burdensome, a real albatross. I’d later have to ship it home with a few unnecessary items of clothing after buying two small suitcases at a Paris flea market.
But that big plaid monster was my all-in-on-bag at the outset, stuffed with such impractical items as a large bound ledger-size journal and I’ve forgotten what else. It was very heavy, and when J.L hoisted it to carry it out to his car, he groaned, “What have you got in here, the family silver?”
After dropping me at the terminal, he went up to the observation deck dressed, not in his clerical garb but a white sports shirt. He waited to waive me off, elbows resting on the rail. Logan was a simpler, single-level complex in those days. You walked out onto the tarmac to board your plane.
When I returned home in August, that observation deck would be packed with teenage girls. What a wonderful and welcoming site! But of course, they weren’t there to welcome me. The Beatles were due to change planes at Logan on that particular August day, bound for Chicago, where John Lennon would famously have to explain his ‘Beatles are more popular than Jesus Christ’ comment before the group resumed a tour that would be their last. They’d return to Boston days later to perform at the Suffolk Downs race track not far from the airport– and that observation deck was probably packed again. The Beatles, reaching the peak of their early career, were just one of the bright lights of that summer that was seeing the escalation of the Vietnam war – for which a childhood friend was then in training and would die the following December. And there would be an unspeakable murder of eight student nurses in Chicago, the city that had so recently welcomed the Fab Four.
But on this early June day, J.L. Donovan was alone up on that observation deck, giving me my lone waving farewell and God speed…
I was nervous about getting to the ship on time. Thunder storms delayed the LaGuardia landing; forced the shuttle, a Northeast Airline prop, to bank and toss for an hour in skies over New York. That made me even more nervous.
I wrote in my 19-cent notebook:
“On plane to LaGuardia. Pilot speaking. It appears we have been stacked. Flying rough. Approach clearing time (according to the pilot) 3:00. It’s now 2:30. That’s not good. Must be at ship between 3 and 4. Mountainous clouds. Plane rocking. Landing difficulties at LaGuardia. No visibility. Rain streaking the window…
But we finally landed and I claimed my bag and lugged it out into the sodden New York air, hailed a cab and gave a driver the address of my Brooklyn dockside. He was a fine fellow, an easy-going New Yorker, probably thirty-something with close-cropped hair. He had posted humorous little notes on the Plexiglas barrier between the front and back seats. He took the time to talk to me (remember when New York cabbies used to talk to you?). He told me I was headed for the Red Hook section of Brooklyn – a famously tough neighborhood (at least in those days.)
I wrote in my 19-cent notebook (hand very unsteady, writing barely legible): Riding in cab to Brooklyn. Skies gray. Roads crowded. I’m late…
But we arrived in plenty of time at the dockside with its warehouses and it black puddles – safe and sound. I will regret forever that in my youthful inexperience, haste and disorientation, I under-tipped that cabbie. (He might have gotten a dime from me. Not much, even in 1966. In my mind I have revisited that Red Hook moment many times recently and I have told that cabbie how much anxiety he spared me, getting me to the ship on time and I’ve given him a tip of two greenbacks — probably two-thirds of the 1966 fare — and wished him and his wife — the subject of at least one of his humorous backseat postings — a very long and happy life If we both get to heaven, I’ll look him up square things up with him, with greenbacks or whatever the celestial currency happens to be. Meanwhile, I’ll pray for him, wherever he is, living or dead.)
As the cab departed, I stood looking up at the Norwegian-registered Black Hawk which would take nine days to cross to Belgium. I could see some passengers looking out over the channel and the docks. There would be just ten of us. I will tell you about these people, lovingly, and about my subsequent, though painfully incomplete, contact with them years later — at least with two of them. But I’ll remember all of them, always.
Freighter travel ( and today, tanker travel) is an unconventional mode of intercontinental transportation favored by equally unconventional souls looking, not just for a bargain, but for a more engaging way of seeing what Melville called “the watery part of the world.” They generally disdain those dull hours aloft in an airplane or the antiseptic luxury of the ocean liners. Freighter travel was recommended to me by a young college French instructor who also gave me the mailing address of the Brooklyn booking company.
Transatlantic travelers opting for passage aboard a ship not principally a passenger liners have not, based on a quick internet search, entirely vanished from the manifests or the sea lanes. But those good old freighters of yore — like the Black Hawk — with deep holds that needed to be emptied with netting and block and tackle, were long ago reduced to scrap and every bit lost to memory as the many-masted legendary Atlantic clippers or the frigates, the steamers. The modern seagoing commercial fleet consists of huge, drably utilitarian container vessels, lacking the freighter’s character — its serendipitous nooks, crannies, stacks and quirks. They take a few passengers. But I can’t imagine those passengers enjoying their time tucked among containers, like giant Rubik’s Cubes.
The Black Hawk’s passengers:
Just ten of us. In addition to me, there was an elderly Dutch-American couple from New Jersey heading to the continent for perhaps their last visit; a retired broadcast professor and his wife, seasoned travelers who loved freighters. They’d invited along the wife’s grieving and recently widowed sister, whose husband had died just before Christmas. They, too, were from Upstate (Warwick, NY). Then there was a thirty-one year-old English professor and his wife who, the story went, had met and married on the same night at a New York party and who planned to travel throughout Europe. They even had visas for travel through the Soviet Union. They were destined to be slightly anomalous hipster-outliers in this company. He was Jewish; they were bound ultimately for a year’s stay at a kibbutz in Israel, due to arrive there by June, 1967.
The husband of the Dutch couple, a man in his sixties who’d made a living selling tulip bulbs, informed me as we stood along the rail waiting for the ship to cast off, that thousands of world war troops had departed from this same dockside. “And many would never come home,” he said solemnly. A somber thought as I looked out over the squalid and aging waterfront. (This was Mr. Diepeveen. I’d become very fond of him and in nine days wave goodbye to him as he and his wife stood at this same rail.)
I wrote in my 19-cent notebook…the waters of the docks are green, the piers themselves fetid and smelling of indeterminate filth. A bridge of a New York expressway loops over the water nearby. There is a lumber yard and the harbor side is stacked with pallets. The air is hazy. There is the sound of a large fan. The lovely daughter (of the Dutch couple) is leaving the pier side by car….
And so, at about 5:15 p.m., June 7, 1966, the Black Hawk slipped slowly down the channel and out into New York harbor. In a separate journal I would note that the tugboat pushing and guiding us out toward open water was called The Julia Morgan.
I soon went down to explore my cabin. There had been a time when I thought I might have to share accommodations, but, upon boarding, learned — more “delight” here — that I was to have this “cozy” space all to myself. It was, as I wrote my mother “simply splendid…with towels, soap, shower, toilet, combination desk and bureau, closet — even a large divan (which was actually another fold-out bunk opposite and parallel to my own).” This was all luxury to a 19-year-old who’d never, to that point, spent a night in any public accommodation, much less an ocean-going ship. Certainly more luxury and comfort than I anticipated. This crossing was costing me about $200. Yes, a bargain, even in 1966. Once settled and somewhat unpacked, I stuck my head out one of those portholes in time to see us passing under the long span of one of New York’s large, beautiful bridges. The Brooklyn Bridge, I wondered? (What did I know of any New York burrough or its bridges?) A crew member later informed me that it had been the Verrazano Narrow Bridge. (I have crossed it (so far) only one time in my life in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — one of the world’s many nightmares hardly imaginable to that shipboard 19-year-old in that early moment of passage. I was to become a television reporter and, on the future day in question, was heading out to the Freshkills Landfill on Staten Island where the grotesquely twisted steel beams of the ruined World Trade Center were being carried and deposited by flatbed trucks. Those twin-towers, proud late 20th Century engineering feats, for so long taller than anything on the planet, absent from the Manhattan skyline or, perhaps even from the drawing board in that hour of embarkation — only the grand imaginings of their designers, destined to be material symbols of the West’s godless repugnance to Islamic enemy-terrorists yet to be born. I can’t think of that moment and not think of that future.
It was still rush hour on New York’s bridges and roads that June day. I could see cars rushing along that bridge and was glad to be leaving that land-bound madness behind.
Eventually, standing, excited and pleasantly disoriented on the after deck, looking through the hazy dusk, the wind picking up, I saw a beam from a small, mysteriously stationary ship receding in our wake. A Spanish crew member identified it to me as the famous Ambrose Lightship, a familiar sight for generations of mariners as they sailed in and out of New York Harbor. (On another future day, in my late forties, I would dine with my 13-year-old son and my companion Diane at South Seaport, seated only a matter of several feet from that red-painted, permanently docked, once distant and so mysterious nautical landmark. And I thought, naturally, of those hours of debarkation; of that ship now close enough to touch and then, decades before, receding in the mists of that early summer evening and of what had happened — or failed to happen — in my life in the interceding years. This is an inevitably rueful experience for anyone But I was forced to awareness at that moment of some painful facts: I’d never married, that my relationship with the woman at my side was forever fraught and tentative and therefore painful; that I had not married the mother of the boy at my other side; that I had lost more of my innocence than necessary, squandered my virtue, forfeited the joys and rewards of fatherhood and failed for want of even trying so very many things in my life. But — as I get well ahead of my narrative — I write here and through all these pages in the hopeful spirit that I can redeem the hours, days and years left to me by being a better man — by realizing who it was God intended me to be. There is a prayer embedded in that sentence, and an acknowledgement of all for which I must be grateful, not lease of all my son’s life and the love Diane has shown me, despite all.)
Perhaps the helpful crew member I recall from that moment of chilled gray mist was the same quiet young Spaniard I encountered on an exploratory amble up to the bow area, which was rocking ponderously. He informed me that he was the watchman. We exchanged what thoughts were possible, given the language barrier. I must have asked him his impressions of America. The young watchman turned out to have a disapproving view of my homeland as “reckless,” too rich and lacking in “sinoritas.” Since America was never short of women, I assumed he meant “sinoritas” suitable to him and accepting of a low-ranking Spanish speaking young freighter sailor. In any event, there was in that very brief exchange, an unexpected bonding of two humble contemporaries, one a Spanish merchant marine leaving a strange land aboard a Norwegian ship, having chosen for a youthful interval an itinerant way of life but now probably eager for home and perhaps for a more settled way of life. The other, equally immature, was leaving home far from settled about his life’s direction, embarking on a grand adventure and perhaps, like his Spanish confrere, hoping it would be a gateway to grander things — to romance, perhaps with some sinoritas.” But I was a chaste virgin at that hour in June, 1966, and intent on remaining so until marriage, though sensing I was heading into the maws of Europe’s storied decadence.
The sea was becoming more turbulent as it pushed away from us to port and starboard (which I probably knew only as left and right). Soon, we, the passengers, would sit down for our first meal, awkward strangers yet to get acquainted with one another or meet the kindly and elderly Norwegian woman who was to be our cook and steward. I would be the youngest, and most innocent person at the table.
“For nine days, no one will know how or where I am,” I wrote in my bound, over-sized ledger journal. We’d be well into open water by then, the towering landward storm clouds long dissipated, the huge, glowing New York skyline vanished, the beaches and seaside amusement parks with their serpentine roller coasters newly opened and primed for the crowds of another mid-century American summer as that first night at sea descended on me, a 19-year-old American who had chosen to spend that particular summer far away, traveling alone, uncertain of all that might await me. At a point in my life still far distant, I would make frequent visits with my New Jersey-born companion Diane to the section of the Jersey Shore called Sandy Hook. It has a commanding view of Brooklyn, New York Harbor and the Verrazano Narrows. I’m sure the Black Hawk passed in sight of Sandy Hook that afternoon. Some souls must have seen us from the vantage point, heading for open water.
And so The Black Hawk, bound east for Antwerp, commenced its 112th voyage according to my records, sailing into the North Atlantic darkness, and into my long, fond memory.
II. Innocent ‘Aboard’
June 8, 1966
Somewhere in the Atlantic
I am writing this at two-thirty of my second delightful day at sea….
And so I was delighted to be on my own somewhere on the planet that was essentially the middle of nowhere, though, at this point, not actually too very far out into the Atlantic — the radio in the lounge was still pulling in New York stations. But I was happily far from the gray childhood confines of home, neighborhood, Boston subway and college. I could not resist the pretentious thrill of such an adventurous heading — Somewhere in the Atlantic –– in my first letter home, apologizing to my mother for not calling her before boarding the ship. In fact, since this letter would not be mailed until I finally settled into Paris nine days later, she would have no idea where I was, safe or otherwise. She’d be worried, poor woman. But I’d left home. A kind of homesickness would overtake me later, but now now.
It was, as previously noted, my freshman French instructor – a Mister Byrd –- who turned me on to freighter travel while trying to turn me on to French. He gave me the name of the Brooklyn shipping company I’d need to contact. It was the only “gift” he’d be in a position to offer me, academically-speaking, given my poor scholarship. I suspect he would have shown me all the pedagogical clemency in the world if I’d left him any other alternative than to flunk me. I deserved to flunk. He’d actually invited me to his untidy Beacon Hill walk-up one day, this native Californian, to share some recorded music with me (I recall a choral piece by Ravel and perhaps some blue grass) and I even told him I hadn’t done well on the final. As a student, generally, I hadn’t settled down by my college freshman year at Boston’s Suffolk University. I was in the grip of an execrable lethargy. I’d won a full four-year full scholarship simply by winning a Suffolk-sponsored speech contest. I’d essentially talked my way into college. Mr. Byrd, himself, just a young man still in his twenties, might have hoped a Continental sea and land adventure would awaken my inner scholar. That inner scholar was a sound sleeper. As a favor, I agreed to buy him a new guide to the Paris subway system to be delivered when I returned to school. He obviously intended a return trip, like any good French instructor.
I woke in my ship’s cabin that June 8 to find a rich sea fog out my floral-curtained portholes. This contrasted to what I wrote in that letter home several hours later: It is very clear outside; the leaping foam of the waves is visible almost to the horizon. At some point, I wrote in my journal how the orange sun is threading through the cold night clouds to the unseen ridges of the earth….Ridges of the earth? There were no ridges now, only the seamless horizon and, as the fog lifted and that sun rose, a bright blue sea. By mid-afternoon, when I was sitting down to that letter to my mother (destined not to be mailed until I reached Paris), I wrote, it is very clear outside; the leaping of of the waves is visible almost to the horizon where the two shades of blue are sealed on all sides. The sea is a richer shade. You sense here that a young man new to the experience of being “somewhere in the Atlantic” was trying to verbalize his happy disorientation the way someone raised along the equator might try to capture his virgin sense of being at The North Pole. (Snow and ice everywhere!)
“We are all alone out here,” I wrote. “It is something to see and feel.”
I don’t recall, nor did I record how I spent those first early hours at sea but I obviously went up on deck. Somehow, from someone, I learned we were at our cruising speed, whatever that was.Lunch was at 1:35 by my watch, after which I presumably sat in my cabin and penned that letter to my mother – though we were destined to pass through time zones. I was wobbling about a bit, still nervously getting my sea legs, ignoring the bobbing horizon in every porthole. The luncheon soups also invariably swayed gently in their bowls. I had my Dramamine just in case I felt any seasickness coming on. Happily, I don’t recall ever feeling the need to take it on this voyage.
At the little desk in my cabin, I sat reviewing my Berlitz French phrase book, which is where,, among other things, I’d learned to ask for a haircut — Je veux couper les cheveux — and the French phrase I hoped would tell any prospective coiffuer to simply “take a lot off the top, not too much off the sides.” (It remains an aspiration of mine, against an obdurate tendency toward sloth and procrastination, to learn French, a language to which I’ve had considerable classroom exposure. I love language. Every writer should know more than one language, n’est pas.
I planned to ramble beyond France, but would stay the longest in Paris – three weeks. For a sense of The City of Light, I’d packed Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast but also Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in preparation for the obligatory Venetian sojourn. In those volumes I thought I was breathing in the powder of Continental enchantment. Passenger (Professor) Paul Williams (who freely acknowledged, with his white hair, white pointed beard and portly frame, a significant resemblance to Burl Ives) sat in a sling-back deck chair that first day out, reading a paperback edition of The Green Berets. Seeing that book cover was an uncomfortable reminder to me that thousands of 19-year-olds like me were spending the summer of ’66 in Vietnam. A boyhood classmate then in training would die there in November. I still had my student deferment. I was grateful for that. I’ll never know if winning that speech contest at Suffolk and, hence, that four-year scholarship saved me from the war zone. The draft would catch up with me three years later, immediately after graduation from college. I’d wind up in Korea, not Vietnam, and, once again, be grateful.
But now I was headed to Europe.
Freighter travel is serene. No fake entertainment. No organized volley-ball or shuffleboard. On the Black Hawk, there was a solitary ping-pong table on the upper deck. I don’t recall seeing anyone use it. There were no stand-up comics off the resort and cruise ship circuit. Just silence and the sea and perhaps, if indoors, the drone of the ship’s engine. During my voyage, the handful of passengers knit (at least two of the women did), played cards, chatted, lounged on deck (under brown blankets if there were a mid-ocean chill), told stories, and, in lieu of any professional comic, told jokes of our own – “adult” jokes, of which I had none to share. Invariably, at least on this voyage, those “adult” jokes were discretely risqué (there’s a good French word), and mildly so. Laughter and life stories, especially from the World War II years in the case of Dutch-born Mr. Diepeveen, became, when the jokes lost their punch, the solemn ritual of post-meal gatherings in the small, wood-paneled lounge that also had a radio capable only of pulling random squeals but few voices out of the Atlantic night air.
During those nightly gatherings, Professor Williams – the dulcet-voiced broadcaster and sociable and seasoned traveler — proved the ice-breaker and fasciliator of all our sometimes awkward interactions. I believe we’d have been a less interactive, less congenial group without him. In my journal I wrote that he was a skillful raconteur. He always made a point of seeming to be entirely absorbed in Mr. Diepeveen’s very deliberately told stories and would answer with an equally long story of his own. When he had the whole room’s attention, he drew on a repertoire of jokes that on one memorable occasion, dipped into Norse mythology. That was the one about god Thor, eager to experience life as a common man, coming down from Valhalla and picking up a woman in a bar. You can imagine how that turned out.
Les Rabkin’s jokes continued in that vein. As things turned more and more blue, Mrs. Diepeveen broke into a Dutch-accented grandmotherly lament on my behalf. “Poor Greg!” she would say, and all but block my ears. (Is there a nineteen-year-old on earth today who’d be suspected of such innocence?)
These occasional sessions were lubricated by a little alcohol. For drinking, there was a cabinet of assorted booze. Dazzling bottles of beautiful amber and pastels. They were more intimidating than inviting to someone who grew up in a house whose adult beverages were usually limited to a half bottle of Seagram’s rye under the sink and a can or two of Narraganset in the fridge. And I was, after all, under-age, inexperienced and, on these occasions, would imbibe timidly. Nonetheless, Mr. Diepeveen, the retired tulip salesman, an affable sixty-something with light brown hair swept back over a broad face, warmed by our “happy hour,” grabbed a bottle of Bols liqueur, held it up for me and declared, “this is from the balls… family!” — then poured me a shot.
And so it was, out there on the bounding main. It occurred to me that no one knew where I was at that moment, suspended over ocean depths between time zones and nations, but still the soul of innocence.
III. SEA MEMORIES WITH CHUTNEY
The sea was bright and smooth out ahead of the Black Hawk on those first full day underway. The air was clear and mild. The ship’s wake was a white thoroughfare trailing back to land now long out of sight. I stood on the afterdeck and watched it widening and vanishing toward the western horizon.
We had finished lunch by 1:35 on most days, according to my watch set back in The States — 13.35 hours in nautical time, if we had not already crossed a time zone. There was a female German passenger, dark haired, possibly as old as fifty. Did not record her name. Very quiet. She was roommate with a younger Dutch woman. Didn’t note her name, either. They must have agreed to bunk together for economic reasons, though they were strangers upon boarding the ship and seemed cordial, in a remote northern European ways, in one another’s company. Professor William’s wife was a ruddy, attractive woman with white streaks in her gray hair, possessing that pleasant reserve of America’s upper middle class. She smoked – and when she did so, braced her right elbow and made a statue of her right arm as it held the lighted cigarette aloft. Indeed, from what I could gather, the Williamses were comfortable financially, owned some 36 acres in Warwick, New York and traveled by freighter for the same reason people of means might prefer to rough it in the Adirondacks rather than check into the Holiday Inn. “When I travel by sea,” said Mr. Williams,” I want to feel like I’m going somewhere.” And that was not the case, in his estimate, amid the artificial diversions of a big luxury liners as they rushed across the Atlantic in five days or so, compared to the Black Hawk’s lumbering, unadorned nine-day passage. Mr. Williams told one passenger he’d love to circle the globe by freighter.
Nonetheless, he and Mrs. Williams planned to return from this European trip aboard The Queen Mary, possibly out of deference to Mrs. William’s sister – I recorded her name as “Mrs. Forsythe”. She, like her sister, appeared to be in her fifties and had been invited along for the voyage, possibly to sooth her lingering grief over having lost her husband just before Christmas. In my journal – a larger volume than my tiny 19-cent notebook, I wrote after lunch one day, Mrs. Forsythe told us of a dream she had last night – in her incomparable manner. But, unfortunately, I did not record the content of the dream. Only the manner of its telling – which I’d found “incomparable”, probably for being a bit abstracted, a bit …‘dreamy.’ It might, in retrospect, have been the demeanor of a lonely widow. Looking out through the porthole of the dining room and seeing a portion of a wide yellow-painted pipe, she’d remarked how it resembled an enormous banana. She was given to these quaintly charming observations, and, apparently to dreams.
The captain joined us for dinner at the end of the first full day. His last name was Jenson. I forget and nowhere noted his first name. He was just Captain Jenson. I’ll call him Captain GN, for Grand Norwegian. He was the quintessence of Norwegian-ness. Dark blue captain’s jacket and necktie, probably in his forties, ruddy, tall, lean, blond, spoke in a deep whisper – in English. Competently answered question about the ship. Right down to the wood used for the decks (Oregon pine).
At mid-meal – and I was thinking we were well out in the ocean by now — a plane buzzed the ship. What the hell!?
“Canadian Coast Guard,” the captain assures us, very calmly. (Thank God, given all the other terrible possibilities. A rogue Cuban MIG, for instance.) Calm, yes our captain, like the sea, was calm, and smooth. But ‘calm, smooth seas’ was a relative phrase to a young landlubber from Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood on his first sea voyage, fearing the humiliation of sea sickness, still unused to the normal pitch, roll and yaw of a big old vessel and the blue horizon lifting gently up and down. I was reassured on this score by observing my nine globe-trotting, freighter-experienced fellow passengers and diners who were eating heartily. And I was noting our captain, serenely bringing fork to mouth as if this were a café in Oslo. I notice also that he and the German and Dutch women passengers didn’t round up the fork when they ate. Stuck it in upside down. This, I learned, was the European way. It figured. Captain GN isn’t going to have bad table manners. Impossible.
Freighter food, it turned out, or at least this freighter’s food, was good; prepared and served by our kindly Norwegian steward, sort of like a doting, attentive mom. BUT — the best food anywhere on land or sea was going to be a foreign adventure for a kid raised on beef roasted until it was gray and chicken boiled until it was white. (Dad had plain tastes, liked meat well-done; Mom, Irish-born, was given more to the writing of poetry than to culinary concerns – and all of this was fine with me.) Chicken curry with chutney sauce with a mango base, therefore, was formidable in its unfamiliarity. I was looking at it as it was served to me and thinking, is that mustard on that chicken, with a side of relish? But wouldn’t many Irish-American urban-dwelling citizens of the northern states in 1966, enclosed as we were in little ethnocentric enclaves and yet to acquire any Caribbean-born neighbors, think a mango was a dance? I guess the British-born would know chutney sauce as one of the Kingdom’s colonial imports from India. Today, of course, curried chicken is mall food. Mangos are everywhere. Whatever the case, I bit down and gingerly, tasted the curry, then the chutney…and my senses were happily off to the Subcontinent and all its gustatory delights.
And the cheeses! I knew sliced processed Kraft American, period. But these big hunks set out on wooden chopping blocks as pre-dinner appetizers were another adventure for my taste buds, and for my eyes: I didn’t know cheese came in hunks, and could be Danish, or Blue.
The captain joined us for post-dinner drinks in the lounge. Things loosen up. (The liquor selection, as I noted previously, was various as the cheeses.) Mrs. Williams had a question: Does the captain’s wife mind him being away at sea for so long? Oddly enough, he explained (acknowledging the irony of it all), pride in Norway’s maritime tradition made a sea captain’s long marital absences a point of pride, even envy, among the nation’s wives. (I’d like to have surveyed Norwegian wives about that one.)
I asked if the captain had been to Boston. He had, and liked how the downtown was an easy walk from the waterfront. He had wandered one night into the Kon Tiki bar at the old Statler Hilton. The bartender broke out the cocktail shakers, made him a “special” Polynesian concoction.
“He shake and shake and shake” said the captain, his hands mimicking a cocktail shaker. “Then I drink…and I shake and shake and shake….” He’d extended his hands and was wiggling them. Laughter. And more drinks.
Ultimately, the older passengers went off to bed. That left Les and Karen Rabkin, the captain and me, the virtual juvenile. Les was obviously a brilliant guy. Thin, not real tall, gray-flecked beard. He had a rabbinical look about him. Picture a Jewish leprechaun. He vied with Professor Williams in the joke department – telling great Jewish stories. Karen was blond, pretty, much younger. Maybe, I was thinking, kind of close to my age. But, of course, she was married — to Les. (Recall that I told you they met AND married, at a New York party just before boarding the ship. There must have been a J.P. handy – and probably a lot of alcohol. ) Now, at our little party, Les, with sinister joviality, was setting about getting the captain drunk. And the captain wasn’t resisting. I’m thinking: it’s June, no ice bergs, right? So maybe it doesn’t matter if the captain’s loaded. I also noticed, sitting in his wingback chair, that Captain GN was amorously stroking the back of Karen’s wingback chair. I have no reason to think that matter ever got beyond the upholstery. Perhaps those long bouts away at sea, though a point of national pride, were actually quite tough on the captain. A couple of cocktails, a couple of month at sea, and he mistakes a chair for his wife.
No, I didn’t really think that. Though a tender youth, I instantly recognized our Grand Norwegian as a Man of the World – and a handsome man, in a world full of women.
This rolling nightcap ultimately transferred to Les and Karen’s cabin. I retired to my cabin. I’d had enough of the fruits and sauces of the world for one nautical day and evening. (“You’ll never make it,” Les told me at some point in the proceedings. “Make it as what?” I asked. “As a degenerate,” he said. And he grinned that impish rabbinical leprechaun’s grin.
These were the wild Sixties, but, in many ways, still (relatively) innocent times. And what I’d witnessed on that second night was light-years from a sea-going saturnalia (though I admit I lay in the dark wondering how that protracted “meet-the-captain” social was going down — down the hall. And as the voyage progressed, Mr. Diepeveen now and then found cause to pound on the Rabkin’s wall, demanding silence and Professor Wilson appeared rather sleepless at breakfast one morning after an especially noisy colloquy chez Rabkin where, once again I believe, the captain had been the only invited guest. But peace and civility prevailed.
Meanwhile, on that night and every night, I could hear and feel the ship’s huge engine thundering rhythmically somewhere below me. I imagined diesel pistons the size of silos, pumping up and down. Lying briefly awake in the dark, hearing that engine, feeling that unaccustomed yaw, pitch and roll, I occasionally imagined the old Black Hawk foundering and sending sea-water rushing under my cabin door…
But usually I just drifted off, a contented babe in the woods. Dreaming of what lay ahead for me….
IV. THE MIME
All eyes were on present-day Europe as I wrote this. Britain had exited the EU. Dark, rough, uncharted waters lay ahead, no matter where you stood on that ship.
But at sea in June of ’66, The Atlantic was still smooth. The Black Hawk (Norwegian registered, Brooklyn to Antwerp) was mid-way in its nine-day voyage to Antwerp.
And all at once, I and fellow passengers Les and Karen encountered– a mime! Yes, a practitioner of the art of pantomime, at mid-deck on our freighter. Ageless ( though probably about my age of 19), wearing blue denim and blue jeans — NOT white face, white gloves and leotards, the costume of his craft. He was a ‘workaway’, working as a deck hand in exchange for food, bed and transportation; bound for Paris, planning to advance his mimetic skills under the man who trained iconic mime Marcel Marceau (possibly Etienne Decroux or someone of equal stature at Marceau’s Paris institute). I’ve forgotten our mime’s name or hometown. But then, mimes emerge from stage blackness, don’t they? Just as our mime appeared incongruously from the bowels of the Black Hawk. Name and persona fluid as his body. Marceau was “Bip the Clown”.
Our “Bip” clowns, leaped about, talked and talked. Ironic in one pursuing “the art of silence”. Brown hair blown forward to a point, he resembles the muse Terpsichore and posed for a Kodachrome (I have it somewhere) flamboyantly aloft on a shipboard guy wire. He was either on break or in momentary flight from his seaboard duties, as befits a muse. He was, as you’d expect of a mime, thin, lithe, animated (as noted), supple of body – not the bulked-up deckhand of legend, built for wrestling with block and tackle. Paint brush and mop would suit him. (Is it possible our captain took on our mime to entertain his crew? Stroke invisible brushes? Push invisible mops? Fun to imagine it.)
I recall one mere piece of our mime’s chatter. Alas, it renders him a soul, unlike me at that point in time, eager to be initiated into the Spirit of the Sixties. Once settled in Europe, he told us, “I’m going to do two things I’ve never done before. Smoke pot and get roaring drunk.”
These were the innocent aspirations, easily exhausted, of sheltered adolescence, in a world that was easing up on the primacy of sex, drugs and rock and roll. I think our boy knew Paris wouldn’t tolerate a listless, hung-over mime.
Here’s hoping he did it all in mimesis. Make-believe joint, make-believe bottle. Staggering thereafter into theatrical renown.
I do wish I remembered his name. I’ve got it somewhere. And I wonder where he wound up, that summer and thereafter. In the footlights or in a classroom, or — at a desk? If I ever find his name, I’ll add it here. (I believe I do have it scribbled on some obscure note page.
V. LAND FALL
A thing of beauty is a joy forever –no less a poetic soul than John Keats reminds us always of that — and that beauty is truth. But “things” were very tough when I wrote this in the summer of 2016. Anxiety contended with beauty. The barque of my memories could not sail too far beyond bulletins from Istanbul, Orlando, Bangladesh. There were incidents of terror and death in all those places. My sister Anne in Sarasota was recovering from cancer surgery but she would succumb in late September and I would lose my first sibling and a great sorrow would descend on my extended family. And I would think — because I was thinking it back in 1966, having done a freshman class paper on him — that Keats, before a very early death, had told us from the distance of nearly two centuries how “Some shape of beauty moves away the pall/ From our dark spirits.”
Young John Keats –poet, bright spirit – had never been on “the mighty deeps”, as he called the sea. But I invited him aboard the S.S. Black Hawk during the closing day of my one and only Atlantic crossing, summer, 1966. This followed a startling nautical moment one afternoon late in the voyage. Relaxing with a book in my cabin, I suddenly heard through a port hole some self-appointed ship’s lookout up on deck shouting, “land-ho!” Really? I scrambled topside to find a fellow passenger, Professor Paul Williams (that Burl Ives look-alike), perched at the ship’s bow, bellowing into the wind and sun, pointing east, like Magellan. Sure enough, gray bumps were cropping up along the horizon. They were the Isles of Scilly, the professor informed me, off Great Britain’s extreme southwestern tip. Land fall! At last! After eight languorous days sealed in a globe of seamless sky and ocean. Soon Cornwall — remote, rocky, windswept — was sliding by on our port side. We were entering the English Channel. That’s when Keats came to mind. I’d just done a freshman paper on his epic poem Endymion, based on the Greek myth about the moon goddess’s love for a shepherd boy. “A pretty piece of paganism,” Wordsworth called it. But you’ve got to love that famous first line: a thing of beauty is a joy forever.
I knew Keats had written his epic on the Isle of Wight, an English Channel island, weekend resort, scene to music festivals and expensive real estate. It was marvelous terra incognita for me fifty years ago, and creative isolation for Keats two hundred years ago. We would pass it in the middle of the night. “Wake me, I want to see it, too” said Professor Williams, tapping into my sense of wonder. But – middle of the night? We’d need help from the moon goddess. We got pea soup English fog instead. Standing at the rail in the wee hours, peering into darkness, groggy but undaunted, the professor said to me, “Let’s go look at the chart.” He led me up steps into the dimly lighted ship’s bridge, rushed us in among a few silent, busy crew members. Then, to my astonishment, he commenced to shuffle through navigational charts resting on a center console. Was this okay? Apparently it was. The Norwegian officer of the watch and his able seamen, after briefly glancing our way, ignored us. Old Professor Williams was a seasoned freighter traveler. I believe he determined that a fuzzy, winking point of illumination penetrating the murk a few miles to port was St. Catherine’s light, among Great Britain’s oldest lighthouses. Alas, that phantom was all we were destined to see of Keats’s enchanted isle. But, of course, a thing of beauty, fog or no fog, is still a joy forever. Right?… /Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth Of noble natures, of the gloomy days/ Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways/ Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness…
And we passed on through fog toward Antwerp.
ANTWERP: VOYAGE’S END
On June 16, 1966 – Bloomsday to the literary-minded among us — we left the English Channel to cruise up the tidal estuary of the Scheldt toward the Port of Antwerp.
Things become dreamlike during the approach to that final port destination. Sunlit cottages passing to port reminded Karen Rabkin of charming Belgian villages replicated in the previous year’s New York World’s Fair.
by nightfall, we lay at anchor in Antwerp Harbor, awaiting the morning boarding of the harbor pilot, debarkation and the ship’s off-loading. (Our cargo, we would come to realize, included hundreds of cartons of American cigarettes for the legions of rabid European smokers and, rumor had it where were a couple of American cars in the hold slated for special delivery to some Continental driving undaunted by gas-guzzling American auto engines.) Things were still dreamlike. A galaxy of lights ascending a buzzing and towering harborside oil refinery reminds someone — I think it was the mime — of surreal structures in an avant-garde movie of the day. (The movie was Fellini’s “8½”. I’d see it eventually and would recall the lights of Antwerp Harbor.)
The now-stationary ship’s air stagnated by slow degrees, no longer cooled by rainy spells or the crisp, autumnal temperatures of mid-Atlantic latitudes. Passenger Paul Williams (Professor Williams), had called it “freighter weather”. Now for us would commence the vagaries of Continental weather: Cool-to-sultry days, random showers, sudden thunder storms….I would have charming memories of sudden Paris rainstorms.
We were ten people from diverse generations at rest in a northern Europe harbor, anticipating debarkation and separation. I can reflect now on how those much older than me, those seasoned voyagers on life’s seas like Professor Williams and Mr. Diepeveen had shared large swarths of their life’s narrative. For them, as for me now, there were fewer years ahead. Time was precious. So were their memories. The other only slightly older passengers — Karen Rabkin, as I said, the closest to my age — who had a reasonable expectation of a long life ahead. The German and Dutch women were far too taciturn. But Karen and less shared many stories. And they were off to make more stories at a “progressive” Israeli kibbutz after a jaunt through the USSR.
I realized some years later, that they would have arrived in Israel just in time for the historic and violent disruptions of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War. Had they survived? I always wondered what happened to them. I managed to connect with Les on the Internet sometime early in the current century… He half-remembered me. He’d settled, I believe, in Seattle, become member of an organization that helped Eastern European Jews migrate and resettle in Israel. I made an obvious inquiry and learned that –yes, he and Karen had easily survived the war, though at times they had looked up and hoped that the planes overhead were Israeli, not Egyptian. Their party-made marriage didn’t survive for long, however. Les had long ago remarried and I suspected, long ago lost contact with Karen. At least she got a memorable trip out of the deal. I wonder where she is now. Alive, I hope. She might enjoy knowing I remember her — even if she’s forgotten me and all but forgotten Les in that other life time.
I set out to a friend’s house one day to FAX Les some shipboard snapshots of our time together. (This was before the days — not that long ago — of the iPhone or the sending of photos via email.) But it happened on that day that the FAX was not working and the mailing was deferred and never gotten around to again.
In June, 2016, I reached out again to Les who was 81 by then. I wanted to remind him that our voyage had reached its 50th anniversary – though for him, a world traveler, it was not, I’m sure, as memorable as it was for me. I also planned finally to send him those pictures — this time through the web. But to my sorrow, I learned that he’d died since our last contact.
I also reached out and found, many years ago in the Seventies or early Eighties, Professor Williams and his wife in Warwick, NY. I found him ( Memory of me was revived by a single line in Mrs. William’s journal ). I received snapshots — one of Professor Williams decked out as Santa Claus — then I forgot about them again. They, too, and Mrs. William’s sister are doubtless long gone.
Perhaps someday I’ll go looking for the mime. Or maybe not. Time passes. Memories weaken. People move on.
I don’t recall seeing Captain Jenson that last morning. It seems likely I did; I have no record of a final meeting. I can only guess how long his sailing days continued — or if his somewhat bibulous and flirtatious ways ever got between him and a comfortable and honorable twilight retirement away from the sea. I know our gentle old steward was near her retirement and planned to open a little candy shop in Norway. I’m don’t recall at our last breakfast, but she must have been there.
But I will always remember, once off the ship, my last moment dockside. I’d loaded my massive suitcase into the trunk of an Antwerp taxi. Les and Karen were already squeezed into the back seat. (I was destined to spend the day with them in Brussels and on the train to Paris where we parted that evening at the Gare du Nord.) Half-in the taxi, one foot still on the ground, I looked up to see the Diepeveens, arm-in-arm like newlyweds, high above us at the ship’s rail. For some reason, they were still on board and seemed in no hurry to disembark. They were forward of the forecastle, framed against the late morning Belgian sky. I shouted my “goodbye” up to them and gave them a wide-arching wave. They looked down and both gave me their own grand wave of farewell.
I wanted to believe it was just “until we meet again.” But I knew it was forever.
I pulled the door shut , the taxi rumbled over the dockside cobblestones and we were off to the train station.
The voyage of the Black Hawk was over.
The taxi ride from the dockside took us along a swarming Antwerp street of cluttered sidewalks and I seem to remember trees — to a train station. I just have this one thin memory of that Antwerp street — my only memory of Antwerp. Minutes, just minutes. It is strange about things like that. I spent most of my life in Boston. Periodically, I believe I met someone whose only memory of Boston was of a view from an airport window as they waited for a flight or as they passed by taxi — or our day, uber — along the Turnpike Extension en route to their actual destination, which might be Springfield or other point west. They had a “glimpse” of a city, a famous city, that I came to know as a native. Yet, how well did I know it? Even as a news reporter privileged to be shuttling into every cranny of the city, or as a child or teenage over many, many years — how well? Every building, every road, did I know them? I could still find myself, even today at 73, in neighborhoods I’d never seen or known. There is so much to know about a city, about any place, even the smallest city or place. Then you have New York City. Who could know more than their own borrough. The late Charles Kuralt, CBS reporter and raconteur, said he was asked how anyone could live in such a huge place as New York City. And his answer was, no one lives in New York City. He suggested, I think, no one even lives in Manhattan. They live in neighborhoods — they live in Soho, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Yorkville, Harlem, Murray Hill, Midtown…And even if one lives in a small town like Norwood, Mass, I found that they lived, not in Norwood but in “The Flats” (South Norwood) or other neighborhoods. And often, though they might commute to Boston, their world was “The flats.”
So, I got a glimpse of Antwerp. Much of my coming European trip would be glimpses. I would fix some of those glimpses, blessedly, with my small cheap Brownie Instamatic camera. Such a frail little aid to faltering memory! I might have hoped that, someday I might get back for more than a glimpse of things. Such is the case with Antwerp. I wish to see more than a glimpse of you someday, Antwerp. I just recall a hot June, swarming street seen from a moving, crowded cab that bore, among other things, my fat albatross of a suitcase as I got my very first look at a European city.
And I have, sadly, no memory of the Antwerp train station where we would take the short rail trip to Brussels. It was probably Les Rabkin who was making these travel decisions. All three of us, ultimately, wanted to end the day in Paris. We would catch a train from Brussels, but had time to kill before the Paris train.
I do have a memory of that brief train ride. We were standing, no seats. Rain, if I recall, briefly lashed the train windows. The train was smooth, swift and silent, unlike subway rail train I had known. And there was, near me, seated, a man and a woman, middle aged, appearing most grim and unhappy, speaking softly in French, doubtless of their domestic life, of some domestic dilemma. Perhaps, on that day in 1966 in Belgium, their tortured domestic life was holding them from valuing, enjoying even…a glimpse …. of happiness.. I will never know. But I detected great stress, a dilemma in need of solving, now, lost, solved, forgotten, I hope. Another glimpse. glimsian (Old English) “shine faintly” (v.) “brief, imperfect view” (n.)
So: I was with two people I knew only from nine days on the ocean. A wider, longer glmpse. Two people, man and woman, man, age 31, woman, younger, forget how much younger, who’d known one another only since being married at a party in New York ( if I have that correct, and there is know no way to confirm it). I recall only this: I recall, once disembarking in Brussels, putting our luggage in temporary storage and a man assisting us in a hallway of storage doors, with that and, when it came to my big fat plaid suitcase, me say, because he was a French-speaking Belgian, the word, “maintenant”, meaning, “Now ( for this embarrassingly awkward and oversized thing). And, smiling, the porter or whoever he was repeated “maintenant” ( man -te-NONE) (whether I was using the word correctly or not, I don’t know but he graciously appropriated the word and wrestled my suitcase into a storage locker).
Then we walked, for a brief June afternoon, in one or two streets of downtown Brussels. I seem to recall only a narrow concourse, as in a 21st Century outdoor mall. This was when I found out that the most popular song of the moment was Frank Sinatra’s “Stranger in the Night.” It seemed to pour out of every cafe and bar we passed. It is the music of my brief and so far only passage through Brussels, Belgium. Les was wearing a gray suit ( so nice when people don’t look like tourists) and he was walking in a somewhat stiff-shoulder way by his young wife — these people who would ultimately pass through the Soviet Union and end up in Israel and be there during the Six Day War that consequently and viiolently altered the map of the Middle East and the geopolitical universe in precarious ways. It was an afternoon in June, 1966 — and, Les, not knowing exactly what Sinatra was singing, san, briefly, “stranger’s in the town…” We were strangers in the town and I was with strangers and my memories of Brussels are hardly less threadbare than those of Antwerp, though I spent slightly longer there.
Did we eat lunch? We must have. In some deep well of memory I remember a sandwich on baguette or maybe not. I was, for the first time, on European soil, deeply dependent in that moment on my more experience companions, aware that I was about to be released alone into the world where were spoken languages I would not understand. Everything I write here is subject to possible augmentation if I should find notes that tell me more, or I should remember more. It is a terrible thing to forget and yet we can’t fail to forget things, can we? Or do we, really, Isn’t that what the subconscious is all about? Perhaps every minute of Brussels is stored somewhere in my brain and could be released by something — by a madeleine, by a wafted aroma, by perfume, by a face — and yet I am destined to forget, unless I painstakingly record them, even the paltry events of this day — June 16, 2020 — when I am writing this. And, of course, for James Joyce, June 16, 1906 was the day, the entire time frame of the opus that ( supposedly) revolutionized literature and perhaps the way we write about memory as revealed by our internal “stream”, wordless sometimes.. Because Joyce, though it was fiction, made every moment of that day in Dublin vital and, of course no one day can bear that much — , as did Ian McEwen in his novel Saturday make a day bear that much, that one Saturday (and I did not think much of that novel or its artifices. Not nearly so important a book.) But every moment, God give me moments and, as Nobokov should so nicely urge it, Speak, ( if you can) Memory.
We caught our train….
STILL TO COME: PARIS, BARCELONA, NICE, ROME, VENICE, FLORENCE, INNSBRUCK, VIENNA, MUNICH, AMSTERDAM, ROTTERDAM….AND LONG NIGHTS ON NIGHT TRAINS.