|Jul/Aug 2014 Nonfiction|
Image credit: Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov
None of us has gone to sea for longer than the year my father spent sailing the Atlantic and Mediterranean, but our experiences on the waters, near and far, go back a long way. I can't say just when they began; my early ancestors were illiterate.
At a guess, our first trip across salt water was around 4,000 B.C., give or take a few centuries. In my mind I see a calm day in August when my people left the Pas-de-Calais, which they thought was getting overcrowded, and crossed over to Kent in largish wooden boats with a couple of cows and pigs and a knowledge of farming, an art unknown in England. They must have crossed the Channel with trepidation; the family had been landlubbers since the earliest of us started walking north out of Africa, 40,000 years ago. Nor could they be sure what sort of real estate market, or what new neighbors, lay ahead of them.
Our family farmed in southern England for millennia without, it seems, any notable success. A few decades after Jamestown was founded, when starvation and wars with Algonquins were past history in Virginia, they crossed the broad Ocean with hopes as well as seasickness. They settled in the Tidewater, in Gloucester County, and there they stayed and farmed despite droughts, hailstorms, revolution, and civil war.
By 1900 my grandfather Thomas Francis Bridges was enjoying modest prosperity and siring many children. My grandmother, born Mary Otey Bartow Hughes, bore 14, of whom 12 grew to adulthood. The 12th was a boy christened Charles Scott who became my father. He was the family's world adventurer, at least until I came along. Sometimes he traveled in circumstances more difficult than what I have known, as I have moved over the waters these many decades.
On the family's Gloucester farm, Grandpa grew beans and melons for city markets and harvested oysters from five acres of beds in the York River. Across the road from his house, he kept a country store and a little post office—with all those kids, it was naturally called Bridges P.O.—and he was for many years the postmaster.
Gloucester is not 50 miles in a straight line from the city of Norfolk. For Gloucester people, though, the city was Baltimore, 200 miles north but an easy route by water. Three evenings a week a sidewheel packet steamer came down York River from West Point, stopping at piers on the Gloucester side to load freight and passengers. The packet sailed from the river out into Chesapeake Bay as night came on. The passengers supped in the dining room and retired to their cabins. At 8:30 in the morning they reached Baltimore, and their vessel tied up at the wharves at Light and Pratt Streets, where there might be as many as 20 other steamboats from small places down the big Bay. (The steamboats are gone now. The U.S.S. Constellation, once flagship of the Navy's antislavery African Squadron, stands at anchor there, with other historic ships nearby.)
My Aunt Lucile recalled, in a little memoir of country life in Gloucester, that several times a year Grandpa would take Grandma to Baltimore on the boat, along with his melons and oysters. It was a major event in the family, particularly the return home. A couple of the older boys would rise before dawn and drive the best family wagon down to the pier at Gloucester Point to meet the boat. The parents brought home seeds, tools, and other city wares, and always included some small thing for the children—bananas, for example, not a Gloucester crop. Once, my aunt recalled, her father bought several horses in Baltimore and brought them on the packet. Before they were set to plowing or pulling buggies, they were used for a family fox hunt.
My family's millennia as farmers ended in 1912. Grandpa had a stroke, sold his property in Gloucester, moved his family to Norfolk, and went into the wholesale grocery business. That did not quite end our family's link to Gloucester; my father's older sisters Lizzie and Marie each married one of the two Gloucester physicians. My father liked to recall his boyhood summers visiting his aunts in the Tidewater countryside. Gloucester was still a quiet place. The road from Norfolk ended at Yorktown, and one took a ferry from there across the river to Gloucester Point. When I was a boy, there was still no bridge to Gloucester. My older cousin Douglas Smith worked summers on the ferry. He was just the ticket-taker, but his visored cap said Purser, and I envied him mightily.
After 18 years in the Tidewater, my father graduated from Maury High School in Norfolk and shipped out to sea as an apprentice seaman on a tramp steamer. The S.S. Schroon was a medium-sized freighter for the time, 5,780 tons, with an elderly Dutch captain. They sailed from Norfolk to Tampa to load cargo and then crossed the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
It was a rough life down in the foc's'le, I heard my father say once to my mother, and life above deck for the apprentice was mainly scraping and painting the deck and bulkheads, but in a year he saw much of the world. I still have an album of small photos he took with a Kodak. Years ago I recognized Genoa in several of the snapshots. Still later, eight decades after my father's voyage, my wife and I visited Barcelona for the first time, and I realized that his ship had called there, too. Our second day we strolled along Las Ramblas, and I saw an older man of middle height, round-headed with hazel eyes. He looked like a Bridges... and I remembered one of those snapshots showed my father and two shipmates picnicking with pretty Catalan girls on the hillside above the port.
After his year at sea and one year at the University of Virginia, my father aimed at a career in international business. In a few months he landed a job as a salesman with Libby's, a major producer of canned foods. They tried him out for a year in the South, and then he got the job he wanted.
For five years he worked out of the Libby's New Orleans office into the Caribbean and Central and South America. Alas, he kept no diary, but he was my idol, and I remember well the stories I heard him tell in later years, of traveling in the 1920s to little ports in Central America on the white-painted banana ships of United Fruit Company, and voyaging on the Grace Line through the Panama Canal and down the Pacific coast to Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. Sailing once from Havana to New Orleans, he went blind in one eye for a day and never knew why. He debarked once from a banana ship at Puerto Cortés in Honduras, and an immigration officer said his visa was invalid and put him in the miserable jail for a night. I still have his old passports with red covers, full of entry and exit stamps from many ports and other places: Belize, Panama City, Arica, Lima, La Paz, Havana, Managua, Caracas, Corinto, Antofagasta, Buenaventura...
His was, I think, a better time in those parts than what came later. I heard him say more than once that Medellín, an ancient place lying a mile high in Colombia's green mountains, was the prettiest city he knew. (He also knew a pretty girl in Medellín. I once took out her attractive daughter—hers, not his—when she was studying at Wellesley College.) Some decades after my father's visits to Medellín, the city had grown to an oversized three million and was headquarters of the infamous Medellín Cartel.
By 1930 he was traveling through the Caribbean not just by ship but, sometimes, on one of the new flying boats of Pan American Airways that coursed up the coast from Panama and ended their run at Brownsville, Texas. Not many years later, my father would take a huge Pan Am flying boat across the Pacific. Back in 1930 the flying boats were modest-sized, twin-engined Consolidated Commodores that had a maximum speed of 128 miles an hour and could carry only a dozen passengers if they were to fly several hundred miles without refueling.
One weekend, at a party back in New Orleans, my father met a lovely young New Orleanian whose date had gotten drunk on absinthe. He gallantly escorted her home, and some months later they married. Her name was Shirley Amélie Devlin. Like the Bridges, her ancestors had crossed the waters from Europe to America. Some were French and had come to Louisiana a century or more earlier; one female ancestor had accompanied her brother when he fled across the Atlantic to avoid conscription into Napoleon's army.
My mother's paternal grandfather, William Devlin, was one of four Irish brothers who sailed to the New World to seek success. The eldest brother had in his first American years been a steamboat clerk on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and he told William—perhaps because the jeans business that the three older brothers were running in Louisville didn't need him—that there was a big world to discover down river. William went down the Mississippi, established himself as a merchant on the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana, and prospered.
After the Civil War my great-grandfather left St. Mary Parish to return to Ireland on a visit, and he visited the Continent several times. His first postwar trip to Europe was in 1867. I find in the New York press that he sailed from New York on May 5 in the steamship Pereire of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, bound for Brest and Le Havre. I hope he had a pleasant trip. The Pereire was a good-sized ship for the time, 3,150 tons, with both steam propulsion and three masts for sails in a good wind. Two years later she was struck by a huge wave when six days out of Brest westbound, and eight passengers were killed. Then another CGT steamer collided with a sailing ship, and 226 lives were lost. Ocean travel could be perilous.
I was born in 1932 while my father was on business in what was then British Guiana. A month later, after he had stopped on his way home in Colón, Maracaibo, and Port of Spain, he and I met for the first time in New Orleans. Soon afterward he was transferred to Libby's corporate headquarters in Chicago, and the three of us moved into an apartment on the South Side. His salary was cut twice in the months after I was born, as Libby's like other companies retrenched in the Great Depression. At least he kept his job, unlike a number of his friends and colleagues. The first of my two sisters was born in 1936, and now we were four.
The following spring, my father went on a business trip to Virginia and the Carolinas--and he took me along! (I suspect my mother asked him to do so, so she and the baby might have some peace.)
It was the most memorable trip of my life. We rode in a Pullman car on the Capitol Limited overnight from Chicago to Washington, and my father woke me in my berth in the middle of the night to show me my first mountains, Appalachians dim in moonlight. We spent two nights at the elegant Mayflower Hotel, saw pygmy hippos at the National Zoo, and went to watch dollar bills being printed. Then in evening we sailed out of Washington on a steamer of the Old Bay Line. It was my first trip on the water.
The Old Bay Line was indeed old. It was founded in 1840, and its oil-fired steamers continued in service until 1962, running overnight down Chesapeake Bay from Washington (and also from Baltimore) to Old Point Comfort, across Hampton Roads from Norfolk. They were the last of the extensive network of vessels in the Tidewater that had included the packets that took my grandparents to Baltimore.
I still remember standing with my father on deck in the spring evening, as we sailed down the peaceful Potomac and he pointed out George Washington's mansion up on its modest hill. Then we went to eat in the dining room. The tables were covered with white linen and our meal was served by a courtly black waiter who spoke kindly to me. Next morning Uncle Hughes and Aunt Petah met us at Old Point Comfort, and we took the ferry over Hampton Roads and drove to their bungalow and seven acres of woods, on a tidal creek in what was then open countryside between Norfolk and Virginia Beach. All memorable, but the voyage on the Old Bay Line was the best of it.
Before long Charles Bridges was made head of the company's export department. This expanded his commercial horizons. He traveled to England by ship in 1937, and went on to the Continent by rail and ferry, and then to Africa. It was a trip of some months, prolonged when he came down in Johannesburg with what was diagnosed as both dysentery and typhoid. After several weeks in a hospital he made his way north to the Mediterranean, mainly by flying boat: Mombasa on the Indian Ocean, Khartoum on the Nile, Alexandria. Imperial Airways took him onward from Haifa across the Mediterranean and Europe to Southampton, with overnight descents to the seaplane terminals at Brindisi and Genoa. (Stamp in passport: "3.5.38.XVI Entrata Brindisi Aeroscalo." The "XVI" indicated the 16th year of Fascist rule in Italy.)
That was enough travel by air for the moment. He came back to New York by ship from Southampton and returned to us in Chicago after seven months away, still, I think, not quite recovered from his sickness in South Africa.
My father's ancestors had all come from England, and he was something of an Anglophile. When he got back to Chicago, he announced that English children called their fathers Governor, and henceforth my little sister Bart and I were to do the same. Governor soon became Gov, and not only his kids but his wife and inlaws often called him that.
In 1939 Gov took Pan American's China Clipper from San Francisco to Manila. These Clippers were huge, four-engined Boeing 314 flying boats, the biggest American commercial airplanes before the Boeing 747 entered service in 1970. They had a crew of nine, including two cabin stewards, and seats for up to 70 passengers.
Boeing claimed a Clipper had a range of 3,500 miles, but that was not enough to get to Manila nonstop. The Clipper came down on the water each evening, at Honolulu, Wake, Midway, and Guam, to take to the air again in the morning. Hawaii and Guam had good hotels for the passengers. Midway had been the site of a small trans-Pacific cable station, Wake was empty of humans until Pan Am came. On each of the two atolls the airline built modest hotels for its passengers.
For once Gov kept a trip diary. He was one of only 19 passengers on his flight. They reached Midway in ten hours from Honolulu; the flight from San Francisco to Honolulu had taken nineteen. He took an afternoon walk along the beach at Midway among hundreds of prancing big gooney birds, Laysan albatrosses, that would soon fly off to spend half a year at sea, never touching land.
The next day, at Wake Island he had a relaxing evening swim in the clear water and then strolled along the water's edge, where he picked up a number of thin glass balls, floats for Japanese fishermen's nets. He brought a half-dozen of them home to Chicago. Two years later they were still decorating the coffee table in our living room when a large Japanese invasion force attacked Wake, whose garrison of 500 U.S. Marines and sailors stood them off for two weeks.
Gov went on from Manila to Singapore, Batavia (now Jakarta), and Sydney. He was scheduled to take another huge flying boat, a Short "Empire" of Imperial Airways, westward from Australia to England. Then the Wehrmacht invaded Poland and World War II began. The British closed down Imperial's long route and the American consulate in Sydney marked his passport "not valid for travel in any country of Europe." Gov retreated to Japan, which was for the moment not at war with either Europe or us, and sailed from Yokohama back to San Francisco in first class on the S.S. President Coolidge, a smaller luxury liner just eight years old.
A Pacific crossing in first class on the Coolidge might not make for as dramatic a trip as had his trip to Manila by flying boat; certainly at 20 knots it was more leisurely. The company let him travel in first class, which accommodated just 300 passengers, unlike the hordes in today's elegant cruise ships.
When he returned to us in Chicago, Gov told my mother that he had had a pleasant trip and she, who had stayed home with two small children, was unquestionably jealous. (Three years later the Coolidge, now a troop transport, was struck by a Japanese mine in the New Hebrides and abandoned, after all 5,000 men aboard got safely ashore.)
War was not going to deter my father from completing the final, European portion of the trip he had planned around the world. In late September 1939 he got French and German visas and sailed from New York to Southampton on the S.S. President Harding, a modest-sized (18,000 tons), aging (built in 1921), and slower (18 knots) vessel of the United States Lines. One imagines him on deck as they sailed up Southampton Water to the docks, thinking how he had originally planned to descend there from the skies.
That was the autumn of the Phony War. Germany and the USSR destroyed Poland, but in the West, the French began a land attack on Germany and then halted it, deciding they would instead fight a defensive war when the Wehrmacht attacked their impregnable Maginot Line. For now, though, the Wehrmacht did not attack. Nevertheless the British would not let Gov cross to the Continent. After several weeks with Libby's people in London and at their milk canning plant in Cumbria, he sailed home again from Southampton.
The phony war was not so phony at sea; a German submarine had sunk an unarmed British liner, the Athenia, off the Hebrides in early September. Gov had crossed the Atlantic eastbound after that, but on an American flag liner. The Germans were still honoring U.S. neutrality. Indeed, our liners called at Southampton on a route from New York that until December 1939 ended at Bremen.
For his return to New York, Gov took not an American ship but the Statendam of the Holland-America Line. The Germans assured the Netherlands that they would respect Dutch neutrality, as they had done in World War I. Gov landed safely in New York on December 5, 1939. Five months later the Germans invaded the Netherlands without warning. The Dutch set the Statendam on fire at Rotterdam to prevent her being captured. That same month the President Harding, the ship that he had taken on his eastward crossing and that had subsequently been sold to the Belgians, was destroyed by the Luftwaffe on the River Scheldt.
That was the end of my father's foreign travel until he flew across the Atlantic to London in the summer of 1945, weeks after Germany's surrender. From London, with the blessing of the Allied high command, he flew onward to the Continent to try to ensure that Libby's canning plants were in full operation by the coming winter, when starvation might loom for millions in the ravaged countries.
Gov took my mother to Europe for the first time only in 1956, on a trip that combined business and pleasure. Years later I learned how much the trip had meant to her. In the early years of their marriage, he would sometimes bring home to dinner in Chicago one of Libby's resident representatives in a foreign capital. They had such representatives in Manila, Batavia (now Jakarta), Sydney, London, Brussels, Paris, and perhaps elsewhere. My mother assumed, she once confessed to me, that someday Gov would take her (well, and us kids) abroad, say to London or Paris, to lead a more glamorous life than on the South Side. My guess is that Gov had no intention of seeking a foreign assignment. Those might be pleasant jobs but they were dead-end jobs, and he wanted to rise in the company—and did so.
My parents sailed to England in May 1956 on the S.S. United States, just four years old and the flagship of American liners. It was also the fastest liner on the Atlantic. It made the crossing from New York to Southampton, at least in good weather, in under four days.
I was then a U.S. Army private based in cold and rainy Verdun, living with my young wife in a garret. Mary Jane and I joined my parents in Paris for a weekend in luxury in the Hotel George V. But for my parents the highlight, or one of the highlights, of the trip was their voyage home from Naples, in late June, on the S.S. Independence, one of two liners that provided the Mediterranean service for American Export Lines. The two ships plied between Naples and New York in ten days, with several stops en route.
During my parents' westbound voyage they docked at some port next to that most modern of Italian liners, the Andrea Doria. My mother remembered thinking that American ships were fine but it might be nice someday to take a voyage on such a lovely Italian ship. That proved impossible, at least as regarded the Andrea Doria. Just a month later it was struck by another vessel off Nantucket, and sank. Rescue operations worked relatively well—meaning that only 52 people died out of 1,660 passengers and crew.
For our time with the Army both my wife and I had come to Europe by sea, in rather different circumstances. I crossed the Atlantic for the first time in January 1956, from Brooklyn to Bremerhaven, in the troop quarters of a military transport, the 9,676-ton General Simon B. Buckner.
Our bunks were in the hold, in tiers of six. The ship's heating and ventilating system produced a temperature up in the 80's at top-bunk level and not much over 50 for the bottom bunks, just off the deck. My bunk was halfway up, which in relative terms was ideal, but the air below deck soon reeked of sweat and cigarette smoke. I stayed on deck as much as I could but even on deck, the sea air was fouled by what the ventilators brought up from the bilges. Finally, though, on the eighth morning I saw a lighthouse amid the waters, and then the low green Scilly Isles. On the ninth morning, coming on deck before dawn I saw the lights of Dover harbor. On the tenth morning, we sailed up the Weser to dock at Bremerhaven, and at six p.m. we boarded a troop train at dockside and went off into Europe.
Mary Jane was meanwhile working for an investment counseling firm in Chicago. The Army would permit a private's wife to come live with him off base in France, but would not pay her way there. This private's wife bought a third-class ticket on the S.S. Ile de France, three decades old but sizable (44,000 tons). There were newer and faster liners, but none so elegant. In 1925, 30 of Europe's top designers had collaborated to produce marvels of Art Deco for the ship's lounges and salons.
Libby's transportation manager asked a favor of a colleague at the French Line, and the lady was elevated to second class. After many decades she still recalls the wonderful time she had on that ship with a range of new acquaintances: an Indian diplomat, the owner of a hotel in the Swiss Alps, a sheep raiser from the Isle of Skye, and a cuckoo clock manufacturer from the Black Forest—a different group from us poor privates on the Buckner.
I got a three-day pass from the 97th Engineer Battalion and met my wife when the boat train from the Ile de France reached Paris. We kissed and compared notes and found we had had differing experiences on the ocean. After a grand weekend in Paris (a night club in Montmartre, Les Halles at dawn, noble Notre Dame, bright sun firing stained glass in the Sainte-Chapelle), we took the train to rainy Verdun. She burst into tears when she saw the drab garret I had rented. It was far better than my barracks but not quite like the French Line. I painted the bedroom walls, and she stayed.
I did not regret my crossing on the Buckner, but I did wonder if someday the two of us might do a better sort of voyage together. We had, in fact, already traveled together on the water, and more than once. We had met in Manhattan, as graduate students at Columbia University. I had little money but I wanted to entertain this beautiful girl whom I would soon want to marry.
I found that we could take a salt-water trip, if not a very long one, for five cents each on the ferry from the Battery to Staten Island. We did that sometimes on a Saturday or Sunday, and the waves and wind were refreshing after a week in noisy great Manhattan. We would see sometimes an inbound ship, and wondered whence it came. Mary Jane's paternal grandparents had landed nearby in Brooklyn from Norway seven or eight decades earlier, her grandfather a farmer's son from the Nordfjord, her grandmother a sea captain's daughter from Trondheim. (Her mother was descended from a William Bartholomew who arrived in Boston in 1634 on the ship Griffin, 300 tons burden and so probably just 100 feet long.)
Once, on a fine spring day, the two of us had a yet longer voyage, on the big old river steamer Robert Fulton. We sailed up the Hudson to Poughkeepsie and back, and we spent almost the whole day on deck, enjoying the broad water and the rounded wooded heights beyond. Ever since then, I have loved above all other American art the romantic works of Thomas Cole and the painters who came after him in the Hudson River School.
In 1957, after serving two years as an Army private, I began to serve the country as an officer of the Foreign Service, and continued in that line for three decades.
Our first post abroad was the embassy in Panama, to which we flew in 1959 on a Pan American DC-7. I spoke Spanish, and I got to know a broad range of Panamanians who, rich or poor, all thought we should give them the great Canal that we had built a half-century earlier.
After a year I was sent to take charge of our consulate in Colón, on the Caribbean side of the Isthmus. It was a temporary assignment. The consul at Colón had been transferred, and Washington wanted the post closed while the embassy did not. Panamanians saw the American consulate as a testament to our interest in the future of Colón, a dreadfully poor place. While the discussion continued, my family and I kept on living in Panama City, and I commuted, five or six days a week, across the continent, which took an hour on the old trains of the Panama Railroad.
A friend of mine who was Panama agent for the Grace Line asked me one day if my wife and I would like to transit the Canal on one of their weekly ships. Our ambassador, Joseph Farland, readily agreed; it was about time that an embassy officer had a first-hand look at our main interest on this Isthmus.
The Grace Line had begun service in 1882 between New York and the west coast of South America, via Cape Horn until the Canal opened in 1914. My father had taken their ships in the 1920s. Now, in 1960, a fleet of six ships maintained this service, with weekly departures from New York on a round-trip voyage that took 40 days. The ships were modern "combos," freight carriers that also accommodated 50 passengers in well appointed quarters, with a play deck and outdoor pool.
One morning we left our children with our fine maid, Sabina, took the early train across the Isthmus, and boarded the S.S. Santa Cecilia. It took us eight pleasant hours to reach the Pacific. We went from the Caribbean up the three flights of massive locks to Gatun Lake, and across the lake to the eight narrow miles of Culebra Cut. We had lots to see, a delicious buffet lunch, and an hour in and around the pool.
In 1881 a French canal company had begun excavating the Cut through the ridge and upland that divided the two seas. They had gone bankrupt, and the work had been finished by an officer named David Gaillard from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose six thousand laborers—many of them from elsewhere in the Caribbean—removed 100 million cubic yards of earth and rock in the course of six years. (In Colón I had once met one of these laborers, a tall black man who showed me the passport that he had used to come to Panama, issued in 1907 by the governor of the then Danish Virgin Islands.)
We went through the narrow Cut at a slow six knots, and I tried to imagine the old days. Over 20,000 canal workers had died in Panama during the French era, mainly from yellow fever and malaria. Then came the Americans. The mosquito, it was now clear, carried the diseases. Colonel WIlliam Gorgas undertook a huge sanitation and eradication program, yet 5,000 more men died.
By late afternoon we came down the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks to reach the edge of the Pacific. We said goodbye to our new shipboard friends bound farther southward and went home for dinner with the kids. It was a memorable voyage if not a long one.
Not much later I enjoyed an equally memorable trip through the Canal—on the bridge of a Soviet freighter.
I had gotten to know the number-two in the Atlantic Division of the Panama Canal Company. One day, comparing careers, I told him that I knew Russian and hoped one day to serve at our Moscow embassy. Two weeks later he called me to say that perhaps I could use my Russian very soon. A Soviet ship was due to transit the Canal in several days. Canal pilots did not speak Russian, and the ship's captain might not have much English. Would I like to spend a day as interpreter on the freighter's bridge? Yes, and my ambassador said okay.
I met the pilot, a middle-aged American named Clayton, at dockside in Cristóbal early one morning and we took the pilot boat out to the anchored vessel. She was new, built for the Russians in a Danish yard, and she was carrying 10,000 tons of Cuban sugar from Havana to Vladivostok. It was early in Castro's regime, the Soviets were consolidating their relationship with him, and one way to help was to take Cuban sugar, which may or may not have been needed in Siberia.
The Soviet captain, whom I will call Krylov, was a seemingly pleasant fellow of fifty. I translated for him what Captain Clayton wanted him to know, that in this canal, unlike other major canals like the Suez, the pilot had full control over navigation of the vessel. Captain Krylov said he fully understood.
In a minute Captain Clayton ordered Full Speed Ahead. We started across Limón Bay and soon entered the narrows leading to the huge gates of the Gatun locks that for now, I could see, remained closed.
Before long I thought I saw a worried look on Krylov's face. His ship was brand new and we were charging through a narrow passage toward a steel wall. He said to me in Russian, "When will the pilot reduce speed?" I myself was beginning to wonder about this, but could only respond "In due course."
Two more minutes passed and we were still steaming full ahead. In accented but understandable English the Russian said, "Mister Pilot, I think we need Dead Slow now."
Clayton turned to me and said, "Kindly tell the captain that if I hear one more word, I will send him to his cabin."
Krylov turned red and silent. In another minute our pilot ordered "Dead Slow Ahead." The ship was beginning to meet a huge invisible flow coming out from the bottom of the lock. We slowed to a crawl, the lock gates slowly opened, and we coasted safely in.
The captain and the pilot got on well enough after that, with what help I could give. There was a lot of traffic in the Canal that day, and the stars were bright in a cloudless black sky by the time we came to the calm Pacific.
The pilot boat was coming out to take off the pilot and his interpreter. Captain Krylov said to me, "Wouldn't you like to stay on board? We will have a pleasant voyage to Vladivostok."
"Spasibo, Captain. In fact," I said with a smile, "I would like to, but I doubt my superiors would understand. I wish you well." And I meant all that.
Toward the end of my time at the Colón consulate, I also had a trip down the Caribbean coast, on a little Navy minesweeper. One day I had been visited at the consulate by three thin and dark men who identified themselves as representatives of the Union for Progress of the town of Nombre de Díos. They had heard that the new Kennedy administration had launched an Alliance for Progress in Latin America, and they wanted to join. More plainly said, they wanted help.
Nombre de Díos was a very old place, 50 miles down the coast from Colón in the direction of South America. It had been the first terminus of the Spanish gold road across the Isthmus, and its latter-day population were the descendants of Spanish slaves. My visitors explained that when the Canal was being completed, American engineers had explored the Caribbean coast searching for good sand to make concrete for the locks. Nombre de Díos had the best sand, and a big dredge came down the coast and excavated tons of it. This also benefited the town, because the sand was dredged from the confluence of two little rivers at the edge of the sea, thus providing a channel and anchorage for the town's fishing boats. Now, alas, the channel had silted in. Could the Alliance for Progress please send a dredge back to them?
I asked my friend in the Atlantic Division. No way, he said, we're going to send a dredge down that coast. In case you didn't know, the trade winds produce big waves. We just can't risk it.
I reported to Ambassador Farland, and since he liked to travel around the country I added, "Want to go take a look?" There was no road to Nombre de Díos, but I knew the young skipper of the minesweeper that was the only U.S. Navy vessel on the Caribbean side of the Isthmus. He liked to cruise that coast if he had reason to do so.
Joe Farland called the admiral in command, who gave his blessing. Ten days later our party of eight gathered in early morning at the Crístóbal docks to board our little ship—so little, perhaps 150 feet long, that I wondered if it would better be called a boat. Besides the ambassador and me and an officer from our AID mission, and our three friends from Nombre de Díos, I had invited the governor of Colón province and the mayor of Colón city to come along.
Our skipper greeted us and we started out to sea. It began to get rough, and the eight passengers went in and to the wardroom.
After an hour had passed it was very rough. I felt seasick but the others were listening to the ambassador and they seemed all right. I went up on deck, saw no one, and went up to the bridge. There were two men there, the helmsman and a young ensign who was vomiting into a bucket.
"Sorry," he said. "I always get sick the first hour or two."
"Where's the captain?"
I went up above, to the open bridge. The vessel was rolling from side to side as much as thirty degrees. The captain said, "Hi! I always come up here when it gets a little rough."
"The ambassador wants to know," I managed to say, "how much longer it will take to Nombre de Díos." I was lying; I was the one who needed to know.
"Oh," he said, "A couple of hours. You're welcome to stay up here and enjoy the ride."
"Thanks, but I'd better get back to my boss."
I went below and somehow kept down my breakfast and survived our journey. At Nombre de Díos we went to see the river mouth that needed dredging. Our AID man said quietly that they did not need a big dredge from the Canal; if the townspeople went at the sand with shovels they could clear the channel sufficiently that the stream itself would scour out the channel.
"Fine," said Joe Farland, "But for now let's let them dream of a dredge."
The trade wind and waves were at our stern when we sailed back to Colón, and the minesweeper and I both rode easy in the sea.
Years later someone told me the end of the story. The Alliance for Progress provided two dozen shovels and a vice consul took them up the coast on the minesweeper. When the people of Nombre de Díos saw shovels instead of a nice big Yankee dredge, they almost lynched my colleague.
I had one other trip on the water in Panama. I went by piragua up the Bayano River, into the lands of the Cuna, a proud independent people in a pristine forest that was soon to be destroyed.
The Bayano rises in the highlands of Darién and flows to the Pacific. A piragua is a long narrow canoe whittled from a single tree trunk. Ours had an outboard motor at the stern and it went like hell, which is to say a good 20 miles an hour.
As to the Cuna, they are unique and admirable. They are one of the shortest peoples in the Americas, the men no more than five feet tall and women shorter. The women sport black beauty lines down their noses and gold nose rings, and wear blouses with molas of bright appliquéd cloth. They refuse to intermarry with outsiders and have a highly developed political system headed by three great chiefs. The Cuna living on the San Blas islands, off the Caribbean coast, were taught Christianity by their own ministers rather than by foreign missionaries; they were the only Native Americans who had themselves translated the New Testament into their own language.
There was a young Canadian missionary living on the lower Bayano who wanted to proselytize the non-Christian Cuna living up that river. The Bayano people let no outsider enter their lands, except for an occasional Panamanian official—and the young Canadian. They made an exception for him because he brought medicines and an occasional physician, but they would have nothing to do with his religion.
I had befriended the Canadian because I was doing my best to get around Panama. The Cuna might not count for much as regarded US-Panamanian relations, but I could not understand this country by sticking in the capital and hobnobbing with other diplomats and reading Panama's unreliable newspapers—which was what my immediate boss in the embassy did. And this Canadian, from what I knew, honored Cuna culture while wanting to acquaint them with Christ.
He and I and two Panamanian guides went up the brown broad Bayano on a brilliant day. Monkeys chattered unseen and bright birds squawked in the great trees along the bank. Soon we entered Cuna country. In four hours and 50 miles, we turned from the Bayano into a smaller stream, the Aguas Claras, whose cool limpid waters came hurrying down through the forest from the low sierra that lay somewhere ahead. Soon we reached Icantí, a village of large open-sided huts and three hundred people. The local chief was pleased to accept a box of antibiotics, anti-malarial drugs, and sundries like aspirin, and he offered the four of us a good stew made from who knew what sort of game. When it turned dark we were assigned hammocks in one of the huts and soon retired. In the next hut an old woman was chanting some endless tale.
I was almost asleep when I heard music coming from another quarter, pipes and a drum-like beat, very soft and small. I slipped out of my hammock and walked into the village street toward the music. No moon, but the bright stars gave some light. I stopped at the corner of a hut. Just beyond was a little earthen plaza, where a small crowd made a circle a hundred feet across. A kerosene lantern on a pole gave dim light. In the center of the circle stood four youths with pipes of Pan and four maidens with a kind of tambourine. Someone said two words. They danced a round dance, barefoot and so lightly they barely touched earth, and as they danced they played light fleeting music. They were like courting birds in a glade. It was beauty, mysterious, ancient.
I feared they would see me so I stole back to my hammock and soon fell asleep, with the old person next door still chanting. At dawn we left, and coursed swiftly downstream. I was home by afternoon. That evening my family and I went to the movies at Fort Clayton in the Canal Zone, a million miles away from the Río Bayano.
Soon we left Panama for Europe. Not many years afterward the Cunas' pristine valley became a huge lake for a hydroelectric project, to provide power for Panama's exploding population. The people of Icantí were forced up into infertile hills. Their Arcadia was gone forever but they would not forget it; nor did I.
In my first two decades of diplomacy there were still scheduled trans-Atlantic liners, and Foreign Service officers and their families were permitted to take them on transfer to a new post. We flew out of Panama but later we crossed the Atlantic three times by ship, twice on the S.S. United States. As mentioned earlier, this was a fast ship. It was designed for use as a troop carrier if war came, and it was so fast that its top speed remained secret for years.
We rode it once at top speed in 1964, when we had left our Moscow embassy to return to Washington. One fair September afternoon, westbound in the mid-Atlantic, our captain announced that we were turning south in order to take on board the owner of a sailing yacht who had been struck by his boat's boom. The yacht lay a hundred miles to the south. We reached it in less than three hours, and a motor launch from our ship soon got the man transferred and into our surgeon's care.
Now it was time to make speed; we were hours late. The United States pointed toward Manhattan and reached an amazing velocity. The sea was almost calm, but we were going so fast the ride was unpleasant. We reached New York on schedule. Later, we learned that we had made 38 knots, or almost 44 miles per hour, as fast as any naval ship could go.
My third trans-Atlantic voyage with my family was the best. The first two, on S.S. United States, were pleasant enough but she was designed for the North Atlantic, which was not a tropical sea. The swimming pool was indoors and while we played shuttleboard on deck we did not lounge there.
The third time, we sailed east from New York to Naples on the S.S. Constitution, the sister ship of the Independence that my parents had once taken on their way home from Europe. The Constitution sailed east that September in warm and sunny weather, we spent hours in and around the (outdoor) pool, and after coasting by the Azores the parents and children enjoyed days ashore at Lisbon, Gibraltar, La Palma, and Alghero, the little Catalan-speaking port in Sardinia. It was a grand ship; no wonder Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr had fallen in love while on board in "An Affair to Remember."
In addition to the three trans-Atlantic voyages I went on with my family, my wife, our youngest son, Andrew, and our dog Jethro took a fourth, in 1987. I had retired from government and was working for a small foundation in Washington. Mary Jane and Andrew (and dog) were still in Rome, where my wife had begun a tax business, my son was completing high school, and the dog enjoyed occasional strolls in the Villa Borghese. The government would pay the humans' way home and I would pay for the dog; but how would they come? We had flown Jethro to Rome several years before, the plane's pressurization system had not worked well, and we knew he had been hurt. Better if we could bring him home by ship, but there were no more scheduled liners.
"There is one, though," said David, our clever eldest son. "Polish Ocean Lines."
Indeed, the Polish company was still operating the Stefan Batory between Gdynia, Rotterdam, and Montreal. She was a smallish (15,000 ton) liner, earlier the Maasdam of the Holland-America Line. Wife, son and dog took the train from Rome to Rotterdam and embarked on a trip scheduled to take ten days.
I was apprehensive. Poland was still Communist, their accommodations might be rough, and ten days was a long time to be cooped up. The day before they were scheduled to arrive I drove up to Montreal, spent the night, and went down to the pier in the early morning. After an hour the Batory came steaming slowly and impressively up the St. Lawrence. It docked, and I could see my family waving down at me from the deck.
I waited, a long wait. I began to suspect they were having trouble with Canadian Customs, not an outfit I liked. Our daughter Elizabeth had studied at McGill and Customs had hounded us for months, claiming wrongly that she had illegally sold a pair of skis in Québec.
After two hours they finally came down the gangplank, my wife and son with broad smiles and Jethro wagging his tail.
"We had a really lovely voyage," said my wife.
"Has Customs been harassing you these last two hours?"
"No, no. We had a farewell champagne breakfast."
In all our times on the water, we have only owned one vessel. We kept it at the yacht club at Anguillara, on Lake Bracciano, in the warm months of 1971, when we were nearing the end of my first assignment to the embassy in Rome. Bracciano is 20 miles north of the city, five miles across, and blessed with enough wind but seldom too much of it. The yacht club was a small place at the edge of town where on Sundays we often met our fellow boat owners the Melones for a sail, a swim, and lunch. Our vessel, like the club, was small: a sailboat with a single mast and a blue fiberglass hull that was all of 14 feet long. Son David was in his first year of high school, our children were sturdy swimmers, and we let him sail the boat around the lake with his sisters, Lizzie and Mary, or with Regan Melone, whom years later he would marry. Those were idyllic Sundays. That autumn I was transferred to gloomy Communist Prague.
Since the end of the liner age we have gone no more a-voyaging across the ocean. In recent years we have contented ourselves with ferries on the Mediterranean to Sicily and Sardinia and Corsica, a longer crossing from Barcelona to Civitavecchia, and several cruises, including one to Istanbul when I turned eighty. The best of these later voyages has been on the car ferry that plies overnight from Naples to the Aeolian Islands. It is a grand thing to come on deck at dawn in May, and see ahead the smoking cone of Stromboli across a calm sea. I think of Ulysses's troubles after Aeolus gave him that perilous bag of winds. My family and I have known better times on the waters.