A gathering of heroes.
I write this aboard the Queen Mary 2, as she traverses the North Atlantic on her way from New York City to Southampton, England. It’s always an exhilaration to watch the ship cut through the water as she travels in this direction. Sailing east means the journey is just beginning.
At the start of my last book project, on my first voyage on the QM2, I crossed with the girls, Cornelia and Emily, and we traveled together throughout that summer. Even when I strayed from their path, it was always with the sense that the girls were there waiting to rejoin me and carry on with our adventure.
This past Friday evening, as we sailed out of New York harbor, I was quite cognizant of the fact that it’s different this time, that the girls aren’t here, that I’m going it completely alone. This time around, there is no security blanket of Cornelia and Emily and their book to help me make my sojourn and my story.
I’m also aware that on this journey, I will be traveling exclusively in the present. Two years ago, I traveled in a fusion of 2017 and 1922, often peppered with moments from the World War II years. This I will miss as much as trekking around with Cornelia and Emily, because there was magic to that summer, when the boundaries of time and space would blur, and I would feel myself slipping into the past.
But this journey is all about the here and now. Can there be magic in this?
I find I’m experiencing a disconnection even from my past voyages. When I recall the friends I’ve made aboard the QM2 who aren’t on this crossing, I certainly miss them and picture them here. But there is a surprising, lovely newness to this sailing, in spite of the fact that it is a familiar experience for me.
With this comes the same doubts I remember having when I started my first journey and my first book: What if nothing happens and there is no story? What if I can’t do this? What if it’s all an astoundingly terrible idea? What if…?
I’ve been taking great comfort in sailing with the boys, a.k.a. the veterans of World War II who are the featured speakers on this crossing, as they make their way to Europe for the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Once again, these men are the rock stars of the ship. And I’m fortunate and blessed that they not only gave me a top-drawer ending to my first book, but a brilliant beginning of my second.
These WWII heroes are the same charismatic, strong, dynamic, witty, smart, extraordinary men I remember from when I sailed with them in August 2017. This time around, most wonderfully, there are sixteen World War II veterans traveling with The Greatest Generations Foundation. And like all proper rock stars do, the boys are traveling with an entourage – a posse of Vietnam veterans who look after their big brothers in arms. The Vietnam soldiers are warm, engaging, generous and deliciously funny, and they bring a marvelous new dimension to this already profound experience.
The boys are also flanked by TGGF photographer John Riedy and Denver newsman Jeremy Hubbard — simply stellar men who have done an admirable job in attempting to keep up with the vets, and I thank them for some great laughs and high times during the week.
Just as I did two years ago, I spend my mornings grabbing time with the boys at breakfast, the days taking in their compelling, often heartwrenching stories from the war, and my evenings with them in the ballroom, dancing with ninety-nine-year-old Steven Melnikoff, a.k.a. The Foxtrot King, whenever I can manage to get a turn with him.
(In all the times I’ve made mention of Steven, I’ve never written about his service in WWII. Technical Sergeant Melnikoff served with the 1st Battalion, 175th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. A veteran of D-Day, he was wounded twice – first during the battle of St Lo on “Purple Heart” Hill 108, and in August 1944 he was wounded for a second time during the Breast Campaign. He returned to duty in December of that year and continued fighting until his unit met the Russians on Elbe River. Melnikoff’s unit was responsible for capturing over 10,000 Germans.)
What has been especially touching for me is how much throughout the voyage the vets have shown up for me. They have shared memories of some of their favorite travels as they helped me formulate some ideas of what places I should visit in these next six months. They’ve given me sound advice on where to go looking when I begin researching war records for a future book I plan to write. Navy veteran Donald Cobb, who, at the age of ninety-four, has just published his first book, The Lady With A Shamrock about his World War II experience aboard the USS Murphy, shared tips on the writing and formatting software he used and recommends. And this morning, Sergeant Greg Melikian, age ninety-four – the radio operator who was hand-picked by Dwight D. Eisenhower to broadcast the General’s message of Germany’s surrender – shored me up when I was feeling shaky about how my trip and my writing will go, assuring me I can do this. This was soon followed by a second pep talk from Steven, who understood well and offered sympathy and advice on coping with the emotional fatigue which has hit me hard in the last day or so.
These men saved the world, and — just like two years ago — they’re still saving me now.
It means everything that the end of my first journey is repeating itself in the beginning of my second journey. It makes for a jubilant, rock-solid starting point for my travels, and I’m so thankful for the gift of once again being with the vets. They soften my fears, and I draw from their strength. And Steven, as I hoped, provided me with the first dance in my twirl around the world. He is the one who led me here, so this is nothing less than the perfect beginning to my adventure.
In less than forty-eight hours, we will dock in Southampton and I will have to say goodbye to the boys. More goodbyes. These will be especially hard.
Then it will be time to cut the ropes on the beautiful safety net I’ve enjoyed this week. From the moment I step off the ship onto terra firma, to when I return to board the QM2 to New York in November, the journey will be mine alone to make. Wish me Godspeed.
Top row: Starting the day with the boys at breakfast; ending the evening with the boys in the ballroom.
Bottom row: It’s an extra special pleasure to be sailing with these three once again — Stuart, Steven, and Gentleman Jim (and yes, that would be me sitting in Steven’s lap).