This past week, I bought five cabins on the Carnival Ecstasy out of Mobile to take my two Oak Grove graduating grand girls on a five-day cruise to the Western Caribbean. Frankly, I’m unsure why it takes five cabins for two high school seniors – I suspect we are also taking mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sisters, in-laws, outlaws, and quite possibly the mailman and the pest control guy. Personally, I always preferred to sail out of New Orleans because I enjoy navigating all the twists and turns in the Mississippi River as you depart and return to the Crescent City. I was once stationed at the old Naval Station that was just down the river from the French Quarter, and I could look out my office window and watch the ships pass by.
The amount of paperwork needed to get onboard is astonishing: passports, birth certificates, a driver’s license or some other government-issued ID card, a recent COVID test, and COVID shot records (anti-vaxxers need not apply) I think it would be easier to get into the French Foreign Legion, which I tried when I was a kid. It’s all good, though, because I don’t want to be quarantined on some floating petri dish for weeks as many cruise ship passengers were when the COVID outbreak occurred two years ago.
In my experience with cruises, you get what you pay for; but I always feel like I’m lost inside a gigantic pinball machine, or maybe like a rat trapped inside a scientific experiment – smart enough to realize what’s happening, but not smart enough to press the correct lever to escape. I’ve been on several since I got out of the Navy, and my wife says I’m bad company. She says all I want to do is read and sleep – the two things I did and couldn’t do onboard Navy ships for 20 years.
For many people, a cruise liner is just a chow line that’s open around the clock and a soft serve ice cream machine that never freezes up. When I hear people talking about “going on a cruise,” I think to myself: at best, you spent a few nights on a floating Motel 6 and heard the water sloshing around in your bathtub. I’m just an empty suit, but, to me, many cruise liners today are only floating pizza parlors, with a few tight slot machines that never pay off, a swimming pool or two that I wouldn’t stick my toe in, and a foreign crew that can’t even come ashore, except to jump ship and ask asylum. Based on my naval experience, here’s some of my ideas about what constitutes a perfect cruise:
When you’ve gone through the Suez Canal, where the sand dunes are level with the ship’s bridge and it was 120 degrees in the shade, and there was no shade; that’s a cruise. When you’ve been underway for at least 180 days without once stepping ashore, but you did have a steel beach picnic with one warm beer per man at the four month mark; when you’ve sat off Nova Scotia on a little destroyer escort for three months straight in the dead of winter, with 40’ waves and ice on the decks; when you’ve sailed around the world on a nuclear-powered ship that never had to stop and refuel; when you sailed straight into the teeth of a typhoon in the middle of the Pacific because there was no place to hide; that’s a cruise. When you spent six months on Yankee Station, lobbing shells day and night on the Ho Chi Minh Highway; when you crossed the Equator at the International Date Line and became a Golden Shellback, after crawling around the main deck on your hands and knees, getting beat half to death with rubber hoses, before finally kissing the greased belly of the Royal Baby; when you ate sandwiches three times a day for two weeks in the North Atlantic because the ride was so rough that pots wouldn’t stay on the stove in the galley, that’s a cruise. I could go on, but you probably get my drift.
On civilian cruises there’s often no sense of tradition. As Gertrude Stein famously said about her childhood home in Oakland, California: “There’s no there, there.” She would be amazed if she visited today, especially to Jack London Square, Oakland’s answer to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, across the bay. Jack London, of course, was the hometown boy who wrote such famous dog books as “The Call of the Wild,” and “White Fang,” both about his adventures in Alaska’s 1897 Klondike Gold Rush. On display is part of the actual cabin that London lived in during his Klondike adventures, although the other part is on display at the Jack London Museum, in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada. Of more interest to me, and on display for tourists, is the USS Potomac, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential yacht that was also known as the “Floating White House. This is an interesting story. The wooden-hulled Sequoia served as the presidential yacht from 1933 until 1935, when the steel-hulled Potomac took over. Redesignated as the presidential yacht in 1969, the Sequoia filled this role until Jimmy Carter sold it as a cost-cutting example in 1977.
We won’t be crossing the Equator on the Ecstasy, but that’s another case in point. When you do cross it on a Navy ship, it’s traditional to get initiated and change your status from a lowly Pollywog, one of the unfortunates who has never crossed the line and seen the grandeur of King Neptune’s Royal Court to that of a Shellback, one who has. On a cruise ship, or so I’m told, you stroll down the main deck in your Bermuda shorts, and get gently doused with a garden hose before drying off and having a drink with the Captain; but unless you’ve been served a royal summons the night before, listing your crimes, such as chit requesting, brown bagging, apple polishing, sympathy seeking, gun decking, mail call wishing, liberty hounding, sea lawyering, and reveille neglecting; unless you’ve then crawled the length of the main deck on your hands and knees, wallowed in a life boat full of week-old garbage; ran the gauntlet of your paddle-wielding Shellback shipmates; kissed the greased belly of the Royal Baby; been declared guilty at a fair trial by none other than King Neptune Rex himself, your Shellback diploma is phony and you should be ashamed to show it. Alas, I’ve heard that the “woke” movement has now descended on Navy ships, and the Shellback initiation now resembles what is now found on cruise ships, if the sailor decides to participate at all. Just drop by the ship’s office and pick up your certificate – your participation trophy. If there’s another war, we are all going to die.
Other than the obligatory lifeboat drill, cruisers get no real sense of life at sea and the evolution of ships and shipboard life that came together to set their sea-going malls afloat. For example, take something as simple and basic as the unique talk of sailors and the large number of nautical idioms that have been borrowed by landsmen who have no idea as to their origin. While every sailor would use “Big Chicken Dinner” to describe a Bad Conduct Discharge; or “scuttlebutt” to describe a watercooler; or “lucky bag” for a repository of lost and found items; or “shipping over” to describe a reenlistment; or “sally ship” to describe the recent phenomenon of immigrants in the Mediterranean rushing to one side of their fragile boat and capsizing it; almost no civilian cruiser would understand the origin of such basic terms as “feeling blue,” (sailing ships flew a blue flag returning from a cruise on which someone died); “lend a hand” (give assistance in rowing a boat); to “be above board” (to be visibly honest – pirates often hid behind a ship’s bulwarks or walls); or even “by and large” (close hauled and running free before the wind). I think you should talk the talk before you walk the walk.
It would have been wonderful to have lived back in the era of the trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific cruise lines, particularly during their glory days of the 1920s and 1930s. If you went overseas before the Pan-American Clipper Sea planes started chipping away at the routes, your only choice was to go by ship. When I was stationed aboard a ship in Brooklyn, New York, in the early 1960s, I was fascinated by the ocean liners that still tied up regularly at New York City’s Piers 84-92, where I saw such famous ships as the SS France, which was known as “Le Plus Grande Paquebot du Monde,” or “the best mail boat in the world;” the SS United States, which was our merchant marine passenger flagship for many years, and which could do 20 knots backwards, and even the mighty HMS Queen Mary. In Honolulu, I used to hang around the Aloha Tower on my off hours just because I knew it had once been a major embarkation/debarkation point for Pacific steamers. All the hula girls and their flower leis were long gone.
Many years ago, I got to spend the night in one of the Queen Mary’s luxurious cabins, although it was then chained to the pier in Long Beach, California, and serving as a floating hotel owned by the Disney Corporation. Even sitting dead in the water, it was an unforgettable experience, striding the same passageways that Winston Churchill frequently walked during his many trips to and from the United States during World War II to enlist our support. In fact, the after lounge, overlooking the ship’s fantail, is named in his honor. Apparently, he spent a good bit of time there, smoking his cigars and having a few cold ones.
For many years, just aft of the Queen, you could also visit another relic of World War II, Howard Hughes’ so-called “Spruce Goose,” the largest wooden airplane ever constructed. It was constructed at a cost of $23 million or $213 million in 2020 dollars and was designed to ferry 750 combat troops across the Atlantic, avoiding the German U-boat threat. Unfortunately, it wasn’t completed until 1946, when the war was over, and it only flew once – about a mile across Long Beach harbor at a height of 60 feet with Hughes himself at the controls. When Disney sold the Queen Mary/Spruce Goose entertainment complex in 1991, the “Flying Lumber Yard,” as the plane was jokingly referred to, was moved to McMinnville, Oregon, where it is now on display. Ironically, the geodesic dome which formerly housed the Goose in Long Beach is now the Carnival Cruise Line terminal. The Queen Mary, now owned by the City of Long Beach, is closed for much needed repairs.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that for many, a cruise on their favorite behemoth of the sea is a highlight of their lifetime, and rightly so. There’s something to be said for going to sea and standing no watches, sleeping all you want to, eating every time you get hungry, and having absolutely no responsibility, other than avoiding sunburn. The statistics don’t lie: in 2019, over 14 million Americans took an ocean cruise; however, the number dropped to less than 3 million last year because of the pandemic, although the industry is recovering rapidly. And if it wasn’t for the construction of newer and larger vessels to support this industry worldwide, many shipyards would go belly up.
I just received an e-mail from Carnival, advising me what to pack, what to look out for, and how to best enjoy my upcoming holiday at sea. Of course, my priority will be looking out for the family, but I do plan to travel light, carry my own pillow, go aboard with a positive attitude, stay out of every one’s way, and read the two novels I’ve been saving.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, www.bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.