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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).

Places

Where Journeys Begin and End: Southampton

August 4, 2017

The Queen Mary 2 leaving the dock in Southampton.

The story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is all about the magical, crazy, eye-opening, summer that forever changed the lives of Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough.  And yet it came very close to not even happening at all.  The girls’ journey almost ended before it began, right here in the ancient port town of Southampton.

When the Empress of France docked here on June 21st, 1922, Emily and Cornelia were in a real bind.  By the time they reached the English shore, Cornelia was extremely ill with the measles, and the tell-tale spots were starting to form on her skin.  This was a very precarious situation for her, because, in 1922, if the health inspectors got wind of her illness, they would have had her quarantined and sent to a German hospital/camp, where – Cornelia feared – she would “be nursed by a Valkyrie”.

Luckily for Cornelia and Emily, a couple of the conquests they made on the crossing from Canada to England just happened to be those dashing young doctors, Paul Dudley White and Joe Aub.  Risking their budding careers, Paul and Joe pledged to keep the girls’ secret, and had even managed to score some meds from the ship’s doctor without raising suspicion (can you imagine passengers being able to do that with the shipboard medical staff these days?).  Those had helped keep Cornelia’s illness in check, but they couldn’t conceal the truth much longer.

Joe had gotten off the ship in Cherbourg, France, but Paul stayed with the girls and helped Emily slip Cornelia through customs, immigration and the dreaded health inspection, then into the care of Cornelia’s parents, who had come to the dock to meet the girls’ ship.  From there, according to the book, Otis and Maud Skinner, along with Emily and Paul, took Cornelia to a hotel a few blocks away, where they stayed for ten days while Cornelia went through her illness and recovery.

As a nod to their experience, when I arrived in England on the QM2 back in June at the start of my own journey with the girls, I had stayed in Southampton for a night before heading on to London.  I figured it would give me a chance to explore this historically significant port, and also try to retrace the path of my 1922 traveling companions.

I had already booked a room at the White Star Tavern, which was right in the heart of Old Town, close to the piers.  This was a new experience for me, as I had never had the opportunity before to stay in a pub.

It had been a surprise to me how few of these pubs-with-lodgings still exist in the UK.  I thought those charming old tavern inns like the one at the beginning of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” were to be found everywhere.  It’s a true shame that they aren’t.

After getting settled in at the White Star (which happily exceeded my hopes and expectations about staying in a pub), I went for a walk around town.  My first stop was South Western House, a beautiful 1897 building that now housed condos, but had been the hotel where the Skinners and Emily had stayed in 1922.  The girls had given a specific enough description that, even with the passage of ninety-five years, I could work out that I had the right place.

“The hotel was one of those British terminal ones, part caravansary, part ticket office, right on the tracks, the sort that gives the impression of having engines running in and out of the potted palms.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Some internet searching for the place they described had turned up the South Western House (formerly “Hotel”), a six story turn-of-the-century building adorned with white stone Victorian flourishes that resembled frosting on a cake.  It was a hotel through the first half of the twentieth century, playing host to celebrities and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth.  The hotel is also famous for welcoming many of the first class passengers – including Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line – on the night before the Titanic sailed from Southampton.

During the Second World War, the hotel was requisitioned by the military due to its close proximity to the docks and was used as the Headquarters for Combined Operations during the planning for D-Day, which in part was launched from this port.  According to legend, a lot of the plans that went in to effect on June 6th, 1944 were formed in this building, with Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower allegedly meeting here at least once to discuss important invasion matters.

Once again, another piece of the girls’ story is tied to World War II.

On the far side of the building, the railroad tracks which once carried those “boat trains” filled with passengers, were still set in the ground, though a bit unkempt from lack of use, (the main railway station for Southampton is now located about a mile away).  Cornelia and Emily had been right about just how startlingly close the hotel was to the tracks.

I circled back to the front of the building and stepped into the South Western Café.  Though it was clear that things had been altered in the decades between when the girls were here and my visit now, one could still make out the remnants of an elegant showpiece of a restaurant dining room.  On the walls, there were enlargements of vintage photos of the building, some circa 1920s, and I studied them all with delight as I explained to the woman working at the host desk about my project.  At this, she stepped over and unlocked some nearby doors, inviting me to go through into what had been the lobby of the hotel.  Needless to say, I was pleased as punch.

Its furnishings were sparse, but what was now a foyer for the residents of South Western House, had retained the sumptuous marble paneled walls and columns, and high, elaborately carved ceiling mouldings worthy of a grand hotel. I was able to picture a front desk where Otis had checked into their rooms, and a seating area flanked by potted palms where, over a cup of tea, Maud had beguiled and staved off the Empress of France’s doctor, who had come to check out rumors of a sick Cornelia.  I could even imagine Cornelia, in her hat with the red cock feather and big white veil, being whisked through the lobby to the very elevators I was standing in front of.

This had been unexpected, and I was thrilled to have gotten a glimpse at the lobby.  I was very glad on that day in June that I was starting my travels abroad in Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps.

Leaving the South Western Hotel/House, I turned back the other direction and followed along the perimeter of the Roman wall which ran through the oldest part of the city.  A lot of the town had been bombed in World War II and rebuilt, but it was still rich in beautiful architecture, from the Tudor period through the Edwardian.  Set within the paving stones of the sidewalks were brass placards inscribed with bits of Southampton’s history.  While the main tourist draw in Southampton seemed to be the Titanic connection, I was far more intrigued and moved by the placards noting that the Mayflower pilgrims had sailed from here, and how it was from here that many thousands of the D-Day invasion troops had been deployed.

It was staggering to contemplate how much history had been launched from this port town.

Later in the day, I ambled back over to the docks and watched the Queen Mary 2 as she pulled away from the pier, turning into the estuary, heading towards open water.  Already sensing on that first day of my travels how quickly this enchanted summer would pass, I felt a little sad knowing that the next time I saw the QM2, it would mean that my journey was over.

As expected, that next time came way too fast.  Now here we were.  I had blinked, and suddenly it was August 4th, the day the girls and I would board the Queen Mary 2 and head back to America.

Little could I know then what a grand finale that voyage would turn into.

 

Photos below:

Top row: The White Star Tavern; South Western House, formerly the South Western Hotel; the lobby seems almost ghostly, but retains its graceful charm.

Bottom row:  A placard honors the two million American soldiers who passed through Southampton on their way to the D-Day landings; the Empress of France; the lighter which carried Joe Aub into Cherbourg, as noted by Paul Dudley White in his scrapbook.