SS Constitution Mid-Atlantic

by Charles Wheeler

(Member Charles Wheeler, who has a letter elsewhere in this issue, was kind enough to jot down some reminiscences of a crossing with his family on board the American Export Line's Constitution back in the fifties.)

The opportunity to serve the U.S. Government abroad in the 1950's and the early 60's meant sea travel; and although one would never cite that as a specific reason for signing up, the fact is that it was a big magnet for me and my wife Ellie. Both our families enjoyed sailing on ships.

They conveyed shipboard to us, particularly in the 1930's. In my case, a trip to Bermuda on the Queen and return on the Monarch was a great introduction to the sea, followed in 1936 with a West Indian cruise on board the Statendam. In 1937, it was the Hansa to England and a return via Hamburg. From 1928 to 1937, my wife to be had made several crossings on such ships as Manhattan, Baltic and Reliance.

In 1955, I was assigned to a position in Germany and the prospect of many days on the ocean seemed a reward for the dry spell following my 1945 return from England aboard Ile de France, then a troop ship. (A number of civilians with business or government connections were included in the 5,000-or-so members of the military, though with 16 persons to a normal double stateroom, one could say that we hardly encountered French Line standards.)

I was directed to report to my post in Munich by late October. Certain regulations applied: Travel had to be by an American carrier, and fare costs could not exceed the lowest available First Class rate. Schedules showed that the S.S. Constitution would depart New York on October 15th and would arrive in Genoa on October 24th. Perfect! Particularly so because stops at Casablanca, Gibraltar and Cannes meant that the trip would be leisurely. And yes, there was available a qualifying stateroom that would accommodate me, Ellie and our two sons Tom, aged seven, and Gordon, aged five.

The normal hazards of departure were aggravated by the rainiest of weather and by running out of gas on Riverside Drive on the way to loading my car on the ship. But determination prevailed, and the 10:00 a.m. boarding time saw the four of us and about ten of our friends and family members in happy confusion as we tried to reach stateroom A- 313.

The large wedding reception taking place in the Boat n' Bottle Bar and the Commodore's Terrace added to the festive atmosphere. When we finally reached out 12' x 12' stateroom, we grasped the significance of "lowest First Class rates." Cramped quarters no doubt propelled some of those bidding us farewell to seek the hospitality of the newly married couple, the Laceys, decks above. The latter, if they noticed, did not seem to mind, through their subsequent nightly honeymoon activity of switching shoes-for-polish from door-to-door did strike us as odd, if not retaliatory.

A rough start

We sailed at 12 noon. In farewell to New York, my sons and I braved the wind and rain and hiked to the top deck. As I put a key in my pocket, I touched a piece of paper. When I pulled it out to see what it was, a great blast of air tore it out of my hand. Watching it waft over the stern, we thought it a symbol of our good-bye to America. That same symbol became a ritual during our 1958 and 1963 departures from New York.

Soon after sailing, we all assembled for lunch, an introduction to the gustatory pleasures that marked the entire voyage and an introduction as well to Charles Jones, our steward of unparalleled talent. More importantly, he became our friend, particularly the boys'. Steak and potatoes, unfortunately, did not mesh very well with the weather, as Tom and Gordon and most of the passengers found out that first afternoon. The decks were almost deserted and only a few passengers came to dinner. Tom, however, did make it. He began memorably. The proffered fingerbowl's water was instantly consumed, prompting a series of etiquette lessons which included coat-and-tie at the evening meal.

After dinner, minus the kids, we decided to visit the Boat n' Bottle Bar (ever after known simply as the "B & B," a term then unencumbered with today's somnolent significance.) The contrast with the pre-sailing wedding party hijinks could not have been starker. No one was there.

The Social Whirl

The next day began with an invitation slipped under the door. But of greater momentary interest was the morning assembly of First Class passengers in the lounge for social introductions, including such staff members as the purser, bridge and dancing instructors and social directors. Then came the call for the passengers to come forward when the name of their state was announced. Virginia's turn came, and the Wheelers, most recently of Alexandria, presented themselves while the orchestra banged out Carry me back to Old Virginny; the Commonwealth's banner was thrust into my hand. Luckily, no speech was expected, for it would have required a confession that we were really carpetbaggers from Buffalo.

Despite the still fairly heavy seas, the captain's reception took place as planned. A glittery affair it was, with minks and many black ties en totale. The scene was in the beautiful Observatory Lounge, that wonderful, forward-facing circular room which, several months later, was converted (sadly) to additional cabins.

The ship's rolling provided a good test of stewards' sea legs as they moved deftly among guests with trays of stem-glassed martinis and manhattans. Once or twice some fancy hors d'oeuvres met the carpet, causing joint comments with a neighboring couple who became close shipmates. Ed and Kitty Straus, unlike us, were aboard at their own expense, made comfortable possibly through his family's ties with R. H. Macy & Company. Not surprisingly, they had seats at the Captain's table.

Shipboard Games

After the Captain's Gala, many passengers adjourned to the B & B for horse racing, a staple evening's entertainment. We met up with our, by now, "old friends," the delightful Helen Kelly of Boston and tablemate spritely Alfred Kirth, vice- president of Kitchen Kraft foods. A wealthy widower, he impressed us with his $140 of ship-bought perfume, appar ently intended for shipmates.

At the race, I impressed myself with a one dollar bet. Ellie was asked to shake the dice. She did and I lost. Later there was much dancing, some of it accompanied by the purser's call to change partners. Considering the rolling of the ship, this was pretty risky, leading to several sore toes.

As the days passed, we enjoyed increasingly good weather. Poolside buffet lunches became standard. While kids played their usual games of ping-pong and shuffleboard, adult friends got into heavy topics such as what to wear at an upcoming costume party as well as the tricky subject of card-playing, as in bridge.

To say that this was not my strong suit is no pun and all the more reason to wonder how I let myself in for a round with Kitty Straus, new friend Ruth Atterbury and a Mr Haddock. He was secretary of the Longshoremen's Union and sharp as five tacks in his play and his tongue. To my frequent mistakes, he would say :"Wow, you sure screwed that one up!" or "I'm glad I'm not your partner." One rubber and a $1.70 loss said finish for me.

Some passengers gave their own cocktail parties. The Straus's were special and appealed even to the Captain.

Fellow Passengers

At Ruth Atterbury's, one of the guests was a great story-teller, one Admiral Smith who had been on Admiral Kimmel's staff at Pearl Harbor. After the war, he was chairman of the Maritime Commission and was responsible for obtaining the government subsidy that helped the funding of the United States.

One evening's excursion to the B & B was delayed by an intriguing talk with another "B" -- Jim Bishop, author of The Day Lincoln was Shot. I had recently read the book and so could ask some passably intelligent questions. A man of real charm, Bishop proved himself as gifted a talker as he was a writer. Perhaps his volubility had roots in the observation that his wife never talked to him about his books and did not read them; he said she read only detective novels. In the "small world" department lay a reference to his Harper's editor, Evan Thomas, who happened to be the husband of one of Ellie's best friends.

As we approached Casablanca, son Tom became fascinated by the small craft that began to circle Constitution. He leaned so far out the Promenade Deck ports that intervention by an as-yet unknown gentleman probably saved him from joining the locals below. My thanks led to talk and introductions. My job? "Army" was my transparently thin reply.

"Me too. My name is Boatner." Wham! This was Major General Boatner of Korean War fame.

Our time in Casablanca was short. A tour of its busy bazaars included the purchase of yellow leather slippers and a fez. The former lasted 20 years; the less-used latter still sits stylishly on its closet shelf. A friendly quayside encounter with a native in billowing robes proved a lesson in Moroccan sales techniques and personal gullibility. The offer of a Parker 21 fountain pen in exchange for $5 could not be resisted. The hasty departure of the seller was soon understood when a close examination of the pen revealed that it had no innards.

The gradual departure of the ship eased the catch-up problem for numerous passengers beguiled into buying what seemed to be dozens of big round brass table tops or trays. Their reflection in the later afternoon sun made a splendid sight.

Another splendid site was a sunset seen from the terrace of the Rock Hotel in Gibraltar. With Ruth Atterbury and the boys, we had left the ship by tender, rented a horse-drawn carriage and wound our way up through narrow streets to that point where we could see the Spanish coat. "Solid as the Rock of Gibraltar" was proven for us.

Cannes was a pleasant though uneventful diversion before we reached Genoa, the final port for us, at 7 p.m. on October 24th. Our feelings the day or so before were mixed--anticipation of another European experience and regret at leaving our "close" friends and the intimacy of our congenial surroundings on board Constitution. Late nights, daily clock re-sets, superb meals consumed at leisure, continual partying in our "island" atmosphere had all contrived to make us feel we had experienced something very special.

As we shuffled down the gangplank, Charles Jones waved goodbye.

(Our thanks to Mr Wheeler. Your Editor made the same crossing on the same vessel in 1962. That southern route differed markedly from northern crossings: The apparition, not long after New York, of sunny but windy lunches on deck made for a remarkable change. )


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