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Heroes

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Crossing With the Boys

May 29, 2019

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.

 

Photos below:

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).

People Places

A Momentous Occasion

August 10, 2017

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?

 

Photos below:

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.