I awakened to total silence.
I had fallen asleep to the raucous laughter, boozing, amorous groping and other fulfilling activities which mark a last night at sea with a shipload of grad students, all off for a year in Europe. Some had already spent a junior year abroad. Others, myself included, were excited about our first taste of the Continent. We were to reach the British Isles the next day at Southampton, then up the English Channel to Bremerhaven in Northern Germany.
Someone had borrowed a heavy wrench from a member of the crew. In the closet of each cabin, right at carpeted deck level, were half-moon bulkhead covers. Off came the bulky nuts from their bolts, exposing low crawl spaces allowing celebrants to crawl unimpeded from one cabin to the adjoining, linking three cabins in all. Along the way bottles of alcohol, wine and beer were stashed in the crawlspace to lubricate the narrow passage.
So how had it come to this? I had almost missed the boat. Literally.
Saying my farewells to family less than two weeks before, I had taken the Western Pacific’s California Zephyr cross-country to Chicago, the former Twentieth Century Limited to New York’s Grand Central station, and planned to spend three nights in a high-rise hotel overlooking Central Park as the embarkation date approached. Then came the fateful call. The local draft board had denied my petition to leave the country. I was to return immediately to the West Coast.
With a sorry heart I contacted the Fulbright people and told them I would forego my year abroad. I cancelled my passage on the SS Europa, one of the last of the grand German liners making trans-Atlantic crossings. And I flew American Airlines back to San Francisco. That evening, as I sat bemoaning my fate with family members, I got the news from an attorney friend of my elder brothers. A reprieve from the draft board. I had a year before I would be called up to fight in Vietnam.
Mad morning rush to catch a flight out of San Francisco. No time to even say a second good-bye to family. Back in New York anxious waiting in the hotel room. Yes, my cabin booking on the Europa was history. No, there were no more cabins available. Yes, stay tuned for further developments. By evening I’m pacing like crazy. Show up at the docks in the morning, they said. We’ll get you on board, they assured. Oh my god, I worried.
So there I was dockside on the day of departure with the huge ship towering above me, my suitcase at my side. The ship’s purser advises me to wait patiently, and I watch and watch as all the other passengers ascend the gangway and board. Now they’re pulling up the gangway and loosening lines. Now the officers are racing toward the crew gangway as crew members loosen the ship’s ties. And finally, the purser appears again, grabs my suitcase and hurries me on board with the last of the crew as the ship’s whistles scream departure and the last of the heavy lines are freed of their moorings.
I watch the struggle of the tugs as they push and pull the huge vessel away from dockside. I join the other passengers and help them wave to family and friends below. Don’t worry, says the purser, we’ll find you someplace to sleep. For the nine-day crossing. We all salute the Statue of Liberty with our cocktail glasses and turn our gaze from the Hudson River to the open Atlantic.
I’m picturing myself taking up residence for the duration of the crossing in one of the lounges, back near a wall in an easy chair. But there’s a reception for the Fulbright scholars on board, and a thirty-something German man asks my name and what cabin I’m in, and I share my dilemma. He comes back shortly, having spoken to the ship’s purser, and tells me that he is the Fulbright representative on board, and he offers the shared use of his private cabin. All the other students are four to a cabin, and I find myself having just one roommate. The only proviso: he reserves the hour from nine to ten for planned “private” meetings with girls. No knocking or drop-in cabin calls during the restricted hours. Ten-thirty to eleven-thirty is to be my hour to use as I please without interruption.
And so the Atlantic crossing went: introductory classes on German customs in the morning up top in “Die Taverne,” deck chairs and various pursuits in the course of the days, plenty of lifeboat drills, dancing, parties both public and private, and no end to food and drink and recreational pleasures. There was a long day and night of stormy North Atlantic seas, with paper bags stationed thoughtfully the length of every hallway, and most passengers holed up in their cabins wishing the world would end.
Until that night of the grand farewell party. Since I wasn’t much of a drinker (I kept up by emptying my bottomless beer glass into fellow party-goers’ mugs the moment they were off dancing or otherwise occupied), I wasn’t as stupefied as most. At some moment I just crawled up into my upper bunk and fell asleep to the constant din around me.
And awakened to silence. The incessant rumble of the ship’s engines, our constant companion over the long days and nights of the voyage, was gone. My watch indicated just past four a.m. The cabin was empty. The hallway outside was empty. I went up on deck, encountering no one, and found a sea that was more than full. To the far horizon in all directions boats and ships of every description bobbed in place on choppy seas. Under overcast skies an armada seemed to hover in the chop, their running lights blinking in the haze of pre-dawn hours off the coast of Britain.
A fellow grad student, Mike, whom I had befriended in the past week, stood at the railing, his eyes scanning the waters. He told me the story.
After midnight he and a co-ed had strolled the fantail of the ship and seen a crew member lower himself over the side, just above the screws as the ship plowed its way toward port. No sooner had the sailor dropped from sight then Mike and his companion raced to the railing, only to see the man clinging desperately to the edge, his body hanging into the blackness and certain death below. The would-be despondent suicide had changed his mind at the last moment.
Mike had dropped to the deck and reached through the scuppers to grab the man’s wrists, and his friend ran for help. There was no crew to be found, so she made her way to the bridge to convince them to stop the ship and come aid the rescue. But no one was manning the controls. The duty crew had apparently also decided to celebrate the last night at sea, and the ship appeared to be steering itself.
Mike’s grip on the sailor’s wrists had ultimately weakened and failed, despite his very best efforts and the entreaties of the doomed man.
And then, finally, when too late, the alarm went out, the ship had slowed to a stop (it takes quite a distance to stop a large vessel), and the search for the body began. It was soon joined by every fishing vessel and ocean-going ship in the vicinity. No one survives those cold waters for more than a few minutes, we were told. We sat silently for hours, only the cries of gulls marking the passing of time. Then the engines commenced their rumble, and the Europa plowed on toward Europe.
Postscript: Months later Mike ran across mention of the incident in a Hamburg paper. An official inquiry had found no fault in the crew’s or shipping lines’ behavior.
I thought of a comment I heard from a crew member that damp morning as we huddled on deck, watching the futile search: “We usually lose one or two along the way.” I’m sure he hoped to make us feel better.
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon