The Cruise

My flesh creeps as i imagine myself trapped on a boat with most of the kinds of people that i hear about taking cruises. But then, people i like tell me about their cruises, and i realize that i wouldn’t mind being on a boat with them. But still, the very idea of being trapped on a boat bothers me and not because much of the time the nearest land is over a mile away…straight down.

I’ve already made a transatlantic voyage on a boat, one that i did not particularly enjoy. My voyage was from New York to Bremerhaven on the USNS Simon B. Buckner in August of 1964 when i was a brand new US Army 2nd Lieutenant on my way from Brooklyn Army Terminal to my first duty assignment at the USAREUR ASA headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany.

The Buckner was no cruise ship but rather a WWII troop transport measuring a fraction of the size of a modern cruise ship but employed to carry almost as many passengers. Well, see, the accommodations were somewhat more cramped.

Since i was an officer, i resided luxuriously: Four of us lieutenants shared a room that was the length of two bunk beds plus two feet for a cabinet between them and the width of the beds plus two feet. In the wall opposite from the beds there was a door leading into a tiny bathroom that we shared with a similar room next door. Oh, and pearl beyond price, at the far end we had a porthole giving us a view of the ocean. Hate to date myself here but one of the inhabitants likened looking out the porthole to watching the test pattern on a TV. Still, it was way better than no porthole.

For the enlisted men, life was grim. They were stuffed into “compartments” deep in the bowels of the boat, and when i say “stuffed” i mean that the bunks were stacked four high with barely enough space between them to walk through.

My duty assignment for the eleven-day voyage was Commander of Compartment C-3, and my entire duty consisted of a morning and night ritual at which the men filed past me as my NCOIC called their names in alphabetical order, showing me their ID’s so that the Army could determine the precise twelve-hour period in which someone had gone AWOL. I rather imagine that my duties would have become more complicated had one of my charges disappeared, but none did.

Pretty easy duty, right? Well yes, and a good thing it was, too, because as a fresh new second lieutenant i was petrified that i would somehow screw up and make a fool of myself. However, i lucked out because at the very beginning, when a naval lieutenant commander met with my NCOIC and me to explain to us how to conduct our twice-daily headcount. Immediately after he left, my NCOIC (roughly my father’s age) asked me why the naval officer had called me “Mister” when it was obvious that i was not a warrant officer but rather a lieutenant. Thank goodness i was able to get some credibility by telling him that field grade naval officers traditionally addressed company grade officers as “Mister” rather than with their precise ranks.

After that, it was smooth sailing. Well, at least until the eighth day out when i was awakened in the night by the pitching and rolling of the boat and was feeling a bit queasy by the time morning arrived. Yes, the weather had turned and the seas were up.

Alas, it was not just i who was queasy. When i got down to my compartment and opened the door, i was hit by an awful stench. It had never really smelled like roses in there, what with 253 men packed into a space about the size of my one-bedroom apartment. But today was dramatically different since during the pitching and rolling night a number of them had been unable to make it all the way to the head before they threw up. And this almost immediately made others sick, and some of them didn’t make it to the head, either, so it fed on itself. Yes, it was foul.

And i was already queasy. Oh no, i prayed, pleasepleaseplease don’t let me throw up in front of 253 enlisted men. The horror, the horror. Luckily, i didn’t need to say anything during the headcount – Bailey, Carter, Clemens – so i could close my nostrils like a camel and breathe through my mouth to lessen the stench – Douglas, Edwards, Ellis – while i speculated that there was a conspiracy to drag out today’s headcount until i finally tossed – Gates, Goodwin, Graham.

It crept on – Hamilton, Howard, Innes – as my stomach churned and i locked my jaws tight. And on and on until finally – Watson, Wright, Yarbrough – the end was near. And then, Zamboni, and the count was done and i needed only to open my mouth and utter one sentence to turn the compartment over to my NCOIC. Which i did successfully.

I’d almost made it. All i had left to do was, showing no haste at all, stride purposefully toward the door, open it, go through, and walk calmly away as it slowly swung shut.

But wait. I can’t throw up here because even if someone didn’t open the door and display me heaving, i would be by far the most likely source of the mess on the floor. So no, i had to put some distance between me and them, so i started running up the flights of stairs (6? 8?) until i got to my level where i’d seen barf bags tucked into the handrails along the hallway.

Finally i made it all the way to safety, leaped into my hallway, grabbed the closest bag … and nothing happened. I even kinda tried to throw up, but no, i was simply not at all sick anymore.

So there it was. I had invented the perfect seasickness cure and could have made a million dollars if it had only been patentable.

The remaining three days to Bremerhaven were uneventful.

Meanwhile, an interesting paint job on a house across the street.

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