Sitting in a cramped seat eight miles high, breathing stale, recycled air, with just a couple inches of steel between me and eternity–that was one of those situations.
Problem is, as a young man, I also traveled a good deal between Europe and the West Coast of the United States.
I had it down pretty well. In those days the Canadian railroads were excellent and, if traveled on certain days of the week, were also quite cheap. It was a four-day trip from Vancouver all the way to Halifax. The first time I took that trip I sat up the whole way–another one of those situations to avoid. Subsequently, I would always get a little cabin. A bit of a splurge, but still better than flying. Bring plenty of books and a bottle of scotch and things were just fine.
Problem was, that once I was in Halifax, there was that nasty Atlantic Ocean to navigate. I solved this, sort of, by taking British Airways on the shortest hop I could figure across the Atlantic, landing in Glasgow. It was white knuckles for a few hours, but once in Scotland, it was land–and Channel–all the way back to Vienna.
But one spring, with a similar voyage ahead of me, I learned of the SS France and it’s special one-class sailing from Cannes to New York, with a stopover in Madeira. Madeira, ma dear–I’d never been. The France, about to be mothballed (this was 1974) had just completed an around-the-world cruise, depositing many of its bloated and gouty passengers in Europe. Instead of sailing half-full with its American passengers across the Atlantic, it filled up with the sale of cut-rate tickets.
How much was it? Sad to say I cannot remember, but it fit my extremely limited budget, which thus put it in the range of under $500. I managed to get one of the last tickets and could now fulfill a sort of youthful churlish dream of traveling from Europe to the West Coast of the United States on the surface of the planet instead of hovering above it. Besides, there would be a fine symmetry to such a journey, for my sister Gwen, as a young backpacking tourist, sailed on the first voyage of the France east, from New York, in 1962; I would be on the final Atlantic crossing of SS France (which ignominiously finished its days as a cruise ship for the Norwegian line).
The grand day arrived and we were taken out to the ship in launches. As we left shore I was struck by how huge the SS France was. I thought it was close to shore, but soon discovered it was much more distant than I had thought. As we approached, our launch was dwarfed by it.
Some statistics: the SS France was the flagship of the French line from 1961 to 1974. She was over three football fields long and more than a hundred feet in height from the waterline. She had a crew of 1200 and could take 2000 passengers. It traveled at thirty knots or about thirty-five miles an hour. And then there are not even words to describe the appointments: there was both a first-class and a tourist-class library, if that gives you any idea. There were bars, restaurants, theaters, auditoriums, a gym, swimming pools, and racquetball courts.
You could hit golf balls off the stern; ditto skeet shooting. At the very top deck was a miniature French village for dogs. I kid you not. Passengers who traveled with their pets could take them for walks in this faux village; there were plenty of fire hydrants for leg-lifting.
And food. There was food every two hours, if you were so inclined. And waiters so attentive that one’s glass could never stay empty for long. One class, I mentioned. That meant the best for all. And the SS France had the best. They started the world tour with two tons of caviar aboard. Was this urban myth? I am not sure, but that astounding number has stuck with me over the years. And by the time I boarded the ship, that store of fish eggs had almost been depleted.
There was also, word had it, a padded cabin in the very bowels of the ship for any passenger unfortunate enough to be
afflicted by mid-ocean madness, a kind of agoraphobia. Some very few, once they are in the midst of water, water, everywhere, do indeed panic and need to be restrained.
I believe I met the Irish writer Edna O’Brien on that voyage, though I was too callow to have ever heard of her Girl with Green Eyes. I hit golf balls and shot at dastardly clay disks and finished off each day with a midnight bowl of French onion soup.
The one drawback to the whole dreamland voyage was the steward for my room. I am a tidy person; that is not the same as clean. But I do tidy up after myself; I leave things in a way that is organized for me. My shaving things, brush, toothbrush, pocket lint, whatever, would be arranged atop the one bureau in my narrow cabin. And every evening when I returned from my adventures aboard, these items would be meticulously arranged in a very different order. Neat, tidy, and clean. The precise hand of a steward had in fact been at work with my personal items–items I had already left tidied.
This irritated me. A bit of sand in my shell, yet I let it take a larger importance: it became a battle of wills. Each morning I would arrange the items in an ornate design only I could decipher. And each evening said items would again be arranged linearly by the steward like a well-deployed Napoleonic army. No matter how tidy I left the bureau, my faithful steward found a way to make it even tidier.
One morning I left a condom on the bureau just to test his sangfroid; I came back mid-morning out of perverse curiosity. Again the tidy top, but the rubber, I noticed, was missing. I later found it in the top drawer amid my socks and underwear, tucked into a more discreet location.
I saw the chink in his armor. I purchased sanitary pads in the ship’s pharmacy and left one on the bureau. It ended up next to the condom, but the top of the bureau was a little less tidy than before. At lunch I left the bureau-top articles, including another sanitary napkin, in disarray. Following afternoon tea, I returned to the cabin to discover the pad missing, tucked away once more in the drawer. However, the other items were not aligned in the steward’s usual military fashion: a toothbrush out of alignment, the razor left on its edge as I had placed it instead of on his back, the steward’s preferred placement.
I was winning, and made plans for upping the ante, playing on the man’s obvious prudery. A skin magazine, perhaps, except that I did not possess one nor was there one to be found on board. I became desperate to think of some other offending article, but suddenly caught sight of my own frenzied features in the mirror over the bureau. Is this what they mean by mid-ocean madness? I wondered. The early symptoms?
I threw the rest of the sanitary napkins away, put the condom back in my pack, left the top of the bureau in pleasant but friendly disarray, and headed for the activities deck to hit golf balls into the ocean.