The World War II veterans with QM2 Captain Stephen Howarth (standing, center) and “bellhops”. Seated: Stuart Hedley, Joseph Reilly and Michael Ganitch. Standing: Steven Melnikoff, Douglas Dillard, Bruce Heilman and James Blane. – Photo courtesy of Jim Riedy, The Greatest Generations Foundation
“… we had on our best crepe marocain [dresses] and they always gave us a tendency to feel dangerously alluring.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
Time to get back in the fancy clothes. Go to afternoon tea. Dress for dinner. Evening gowns and opera gloves. On Friday, August 4, 2017, the QM2 would sail from Southampton to New York, and I was to be aboard.
I had taken the boat-train (there I go, using that term again) down from London Waterloo that morning, forcing myself through check-in and onto the ship. But saying goodbye to my summer with the girls, and to England, had made me sulky. Standing on the top deck of the ship, looking back at Southampton, I thought to myself about how my story was over, and this voyage back to the States might as well have been a flight from Heathrow, for all that it mattered to the tale.
Even the tantalizing notion of getting to be prissy for nine straight days wasn’t enough to lift the cloud over my head.
At least the pressure was off, I told myself. I wouldn’t have to “try”. I could just lounge around and read and not talk to anyone. That’s one of the beauties of travel: No one knows who you are, so you get to choose who you want to be each time you are in a new place.
This time, I would be the quiet, keep-to-myself, person.
That settled, I went to my stateroom to unpack. There, on the dressing table, was a brochure introducing the seven World War II veterans who were newly-announced featured speakers on my voyage. And that changed everything.
Suddenly this afterthought of a voyage had become a glittering grand finale, a last chapter that would really top off my enchanted summer. “A momentous occasion,” as Cornelia and Emily would say.
It started the next morning, when I spotted and barged in on five of the veterans having breakfast. They were never able to shake me after that. I was like a stalker, but the men seemed to take it in their stride. Every morning I made a point of getting some time with them at breakfast. At noon I would attend their lectures. And in the evenings, I would dance with them in the ballroom.
These men – Doug, Bruce, Joe, Jim, Mickey, Stuart and Steven – were all charming, charismatic and strong. They weren’t old men. They were men, and much more than that. They were heroes, and they were larger-than-life. I write extensively about them in the book – from Bruce’s continuing cross-country journeys on his motorcycle, to Colonel Doug quietly telling me about liberating Flossenburg concentration camp – and every moment I got with them meant the world to me.
It was especially poignant for me to meet Joe and Steven, both of whom had been there on June 6th, 1944 – D-Day – in Normandy. I could only think back to that day in July, when I was at Omaha Beach, walking in the footsteps of the soldiers… I hadn’t known it at the time, but Joe had parachuted from those sunny skies I had enjoyed that day, and on the beach I had walked in Steven’s footsteps.
And it would be Steven – a.k.a. the Foxtrot King – who would inspire me to take up ballroom dancing, which would lead to… well, that’s a story for another post. But I did take it up, because I made a promise to Steven that the next time we were together, I would be able to dance properly with him. A year later, I’m pleased to report that I’ve kept that promise, and I’m ready to dance.
Without question, my World War II buddies were the stars of the ship, and the stars of my voyage, but there were other highlights during the crossing, involving amazing friends and wonderful memories I made along the way.
I go on quite a bit about these people in the book, but I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is to have rockin’ tablemates at dinner. They are the ones who will elevate your journey.
One of my favorite memories of the crossing was going up on the top deck with my tablemate Matthew one sunny afternoon, to practice what we’d learned in our beginning waltz class. There, next to the shuffleboard and paddle tennis courts, we whirled around the deck, working on our steps as a fellow passenger attempted to play something on his guitar that we could keep time to. Sometimes life is perfect.
There were the many nights on the ballroom floor, when I attempted that waltz, along with the cha cha, foxtrot and rumba, with the encouragement of my tablemate Marianne, who got me over my embarrassment and anxiety about “not doing it right”. And while I might not have made it all the way to feeling “dangerously alluring”, I certainly became comfortable on the dance floor. Twirling around in those party dresses of mine, I was able to enjoy myself out there, in spite of the fact that I wasn’t any good.
Two days before we were to dock in New York City, we stopped for a day in the charming port town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. With Matthew, Marianne and our fellow tablemate, Robert, I made the trek to the deliciously picturesque Peggy’s Cove. There we climbed on the rocks and visited the lighthouse, which we then followed with seafood delights at The Bicycle Thief restaurant back in town.
(Stopping in Halifax was a bonus – most of the crossing are straight shots from New York to Southampton and back. But this special Canadian stop gave us a most-welcome extra day on the ship, just to make the voyage all that much more marvelous.)
And there was that one unfortunate late-night incident in the disco involving Long Island Iced Tea, and a bit of a snog with one of the guest piano players. But it’s okay, as memories go, only because…
“… that conscientious drinker from Princeton brought me a hooker of straight brandy… I also have the distinct recollection of going out on deck with that Pride of Princeton and letting him kiss me. Girls didn’t kiss much in those days. Those who did were considered ‘fast’”. – Cornelia Otis Skinner
Symmetry. It took me until the end of the journey to match that tidbit in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but – for better or for worse – at least I could check it off the list.
The crossing back to the States had turned out to be a glorious end to my travels, thanks to the vets, and to some great new friends I’d made aboard the ship. What an unexpected, happy surprise, just when I thought it was all over. I was especially going to miss my breakfasts with the boys, and my evenings dancing with them. It had become my habit, my daily routine. How was I ever going to let go of all of that fun?
Top row: A gorgeous day at sea; my single cabin, complete with dressing table and fainting couch; Matthew and I at the Captain’s cocktail party, before the complimentary champagne.
Bottom row: Dancing with Steven the Foxtrot King; my favorite photo of my friends the vets, courtesy of John Riedy, The Greatest Generations Foundation; utterly charming Peggy’s Cove.