Sink or Swim

Telluride Daily Planet, Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Amid recent personal upheaval and loss, I have spent days and weeks sifting through papers, photos, memorabilia, searching for things I cannot find, among them a set of Xeroxes of photos of my family boarding a ship. The original photos, sent to a glossy magazine in the mid-‘90s for a story it paid for but did not use, were never returned to me, nor were the ship’s dinner menu and postcards — also blindly entrusted them.

Unable to find even the copies now, I am gripped with the idea of further loss — of never again seeing the image of myself on the steep gangplank of a one hundred thousand-pound ship. If I cannot retrieve this first memory of mine — or even footnote it — what will protect the tip of my life’s sand spit from a progressive disease called erosion?

Online, I type in “S.S. United States,” and this is what I find: Earlier in the year, the S.S. United States Conservancy receives a gift of $6 million and 20 months to try to reverse her fortune at Philadelphia Pier 82, where the peeling paint of her massive hull and twin smokestacks have become a fixture on the skyline. She lives, but she, too, is fighting erosion.

It is 1962. My family is shoving off from North America again, this time for dad’s last tour of duty, in Orleans, France. In the lost photo, we are alongside this vessel, dressed for the trip and ready to embark: my sister Joelle, my brothers Eric, Gael, my grandmother Beatrice, and my parents Jim and Jeannine. In another lost photo, we are in the dining room around our table, looking very much like the other privileged families who have planted themselves on tufts of leather and velvet, oblivious to the vertical miles of water beneath.

We aren’t like them, though. My father, having decided to expand our horizons, make us into rounder, more calibrated people, has orchestrated the army’s paying for our first class passage. It will serve us well, he believes, to dress formally for dinner and have our turn at the captain’s table, to march the seven miles of windy deck, stare across the limitless green and gray, to slice across the (deep, thrashing and unpredictable) Atlantic while stewards bring us sandwiches on platters. While we kids watch movies in state of the art theaters and while our parents smoke cigarettes and slide olives off toothpicks shaped like swords.

For Lieutenant Colonel Curry, Army Corps of Engineers, this ship represents every conceivable achievement of man: speed, strength, beauty, luxury, and impeccable science. At nearly 1,000 feet long and 16 stories high, her maiden voyages quickly set records for both east and westbound trips. She can steam 10,000 miles without stopping for supplies. Though built for 1,900 passengers and half that again in crew members, she is designed — on the tail end of WWII and the eve of the Cold War — to double as a 15,000-troupe naval warship, which is why the U.S. government initially subsidizes $50 million of the $78 million price tag.

Eventually the S.S. United States will log in 2.5 million miles and sail as far as South Africa without encountering a single noteworthy mechanical difficulty. Eventually, passengers will include countless VIPs, among them Marlon Brando, the Duke of Windsor, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Harry Truman and Walt Disney, who is so impressed with the ship, he casts her in a supremely inane movie, which I watch in order to hear the sound of her horn again and again.

Listening to this sound, I wonder, as I have wondered many times before: have photos become my memories? Have memories of lost photos replaced even those? I scan heaps of online snapshots — of the ship, of other people’s crossings, snippets of footage of her at sea. Somehow, eventually, I retrieve a few undocumented moments of time: the hallway to a playroom where I am deposited with children wearing party hats; the bunks of our stateroom where we lay sick as dogs as a day-long storm rages. Red grapes on a silver tray. I think I remember “Day of the Triffids” at the movie theater, and when I search it, the year confirms the possibility. These memories are retrieved like parts of a dream — with a visceral hook dredging up the occasional flashing fishes of time and place.

Encouraged, I try to imagine the feel of my mother’s hand as I step aboard this floating city, this metaphor for so many things besides beginnings. For the dark that lies beneath the fearless first steps of a voyage, for the illusions of civilization upon the mysteries of the wild earth.

Save our ship. Yes, please: Save all our ships.

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