A Taste of Maine

“Here honey, try this! It tastes like Maine!”

I watched as the little girl happily took the ice cold, orange wrapped bottle from her smiling, tourist father and took a long swig. Then she stopped, eye’s the size of half dollars. Dad laughed heartily and the little girl looked around desperately for some way to wash the taste from her mouth.

The soda that she had just been tricked into drinking holds a special place in my heart. Few will willingly let it pass their lips and fewer still will admit publicly to loving it. The drink, is Moxie and while I would expect a soda that “Tastes like Maine” to be a combination of pine trees, moose and seaweed, I find it to be quite refreshing. Others, would agree with the little girl.

Moxie is a regional soda and like so many others, it’s beloved by many Mainers, even those who can’t stand the stuff. To describe it, it starts off tasting a bit like root beer but that is quickly overridden with a very bitter finish. It has some, but not much carbonation and is old as the hills.

Back in the 1870’s, Moxie was invented by a Maine doctor who was, at the time, working in Lowell, Massachusetts. In its original form, it was uncarbonated, billed as a curative aide, (though in those days, what wasn’t?) and must have been fairly hard to get down. Of its many healthful claims, in addition to preventing “softening of the brain” as well as the “softening” of other male specific anatomical bits, the good doctor hoped it to be a respectable substitute for alcohol. In an era when most everyone you met was in some degree of drunkenness, the inventor hoped to have come up with a beverage that could be consumed by adults with out being laughed out of the corner watering hole. To some degree, he succeeded. Moxie appeared in some New England bars and was allegedly given to patrons who had already had too much but were demanding more. Whether it slaked their thirst or just put them off liquids for a while is not known. The effect was the same.

Over the next several decades, Moxie’s fame grew and spread, though mostly through costal New England. Ted Williams endorsed it at one time as did Calvin Coolidge. It has also seen advertisement space in the illustrious literary circular, Mad Magazine. With time though, Moxie’s star began to fade. Then, one day, a young New Hampshire boy found it.

When my family traveled to the Maine coast for the summer, I knew that it would mean beaches, sea gulls, lazy days and, of course, Moxie. Kids will naturally try anything providing that it is loaded with sugar and that your parents want you to limit your intake. My Grandmother always made sure that there was a big bottle of Moxie in the fridge and every summer, it took me a while to get used to the taste again. Often, it was the only soda in the house, and since kids seem to need soda to live, I drank Moxie. I even started to like it!

Fast forward a few years and now you have an older, far geekier version of the little boy sitting at the cottage picnic table, eating his hamburger and drinking his medicinal soda. I had moved beyond the things of youth. I was older now and there were more important things to do. For me, that was spending long evenings, sitting around a table with friends, saving the world from evils beyond description using nothing but pencils, bits of paper and dice sporting far more that the usual six sides. It was the early 80’s and I had been eaten whole by Dungeons and Dragons.

The games would run long into the night and required close attention to detail, lest you miss the secret door that lead you to the treasure room or the pit that ends abruptly in ten foot spikes. Artificial stimulant was called for. The soda of choice was usually Coca Cola and it was sucked up by the gallon. I remember watching six packs practically vaporize at these sessions. The problem was that if you had paced your self in your soda consumption, hoping to make the drinks last, inevitably one of the guzzlers would start bugging you for some of your precious supply. I bought a lot of Coke that I never got to drink. Enter, an old friend.

On my way to some weekend D&D game, I stopped in at a corner store for the required survival provisions of chips and soda. With a fresh bag tucked under my arm I reached for the Coke and saw… Moxie! It sat there on the bottom shelf, looking neglected and sad. I immediately left the big red bottle I originally grabbed and swapped it for the orange “Bottle of Bitter Doom!” As expected, after an initial taste from the unfamiliar members of the group, no one ever asked me again for a soda. It was mine, ALL MINE!

Like most adolescents, I drank an indecent quantity of carbonated, corn syrup flavored beverage. I shudder to think what its done to my intestinal track and marvel at the fact that I never developed diabetes. Things have changed and I’ve long since forsworn soda. I just don’t drink it anymore… with one notable exception. During the weekend days at the house, especially if I’m doing loud and manly things with power tools, I need a drink. Beer is out of the question for the industrious hours. It makes me want to sit down and relax. No, if I’m going to get covered in sawdust and scare the hell out of Action Girl with my dubious handling of a Sawsall, then I need something to keep me going. I need Moxie!

I live in Maine now and Moxie is the official beverage of the state. Not a stellar use of our governing time, voting it in, but still, it makes me happy. Short Stack too, has started to appreciate it. Most likely because his dad seems to like it so much, and he always wants a sip.

He’ll take a tentative slurp, make a sour face much like the girl did, but then after shaking it off, comes back for another. I think he’s starting to really like it. I doubt that Action Girl will object too much about his choice in soda, so long as it’s accompanied with the promise that my old Dungeons and Dragons books stay carefully locked away from his sight. I doubt seriously that she could deal with that blow.

*Fsssssssss!* Moxie, anyone?
*Slurp* Ahhhh!

Quiet Friends

It’s the high season in Maine and it seems like every advancing wave on the beach washes up another family toting cameras, sunblock and a cooler big enough to put a complete thanksgiving dinner for twelve in. I don’t begrudge them their visit. It’s beautiful here! If it wasn’t already my home, I’d probably be tromping up the sand, ready to lay claim to some quiet corner of costal summer with my own sofa sized cooler. As it is though, we, the locals, get used to being the only ones here for much of the year and it’s always a little jarring to suddenly have to share. We know each other, who’s doing what and most importantly, where we need to stand to be out of the way.

No so, the tourist. They are everywhere and move about the place like a bunch of deranged and possibly concussed, chickens. Trying to get through our little downtown area gets aggravating but trying to drive out by the shore practically becomes an Olympic sport. Out on the ocean road, away from the docks, piers and tightly placed houses, tourists travel in packs of four to fourteen and decorate the roads. Blind turns and crests of hills become extra exciting when driving along these stretches. At the last possible second, the tourists will look up and gasp in disbelief that someone would actually choose to drive a motorized vehicle on their chosen path. Only begrudgingly will they make room. This is usually accomplished by the flock splitting in two like an amoeba and lining both sides of the road, thus insuring that if another car is coming from the other direction, one of you must stop and let the other go first.

For this reason, I try to take my bike as much as possible. That, and the fact that gas is now… what? Sixty two bucks a thimble? The reason for all the driving or bike riding is my son, Short Stack. You show me a two year old who can be successfully “put down” in his own bed for an afternoon nap and I’ll show you a bottle spiked with vodka. It’s out of the question. At least as far as MY two year old goes. What does make for a successful nap? Two things: lunch and motion.

After feeding him one or two of the six food items that he will let pass his lips, I take him out for a ride. He’s wise to this as a nap inducer, so I usually have to mask our trip as an adventure.

“Hey, Buddy! Let’s go see if we can find the sea ducks!” or…
“Hey, Short Stack! Do you know where the blue boat is? Let’s go find it!”

You get the idea. He’s only mildly interested when I’ve pointed out ducks before and as far as the “blue boat” goes, I just plain made that up. We might spot one but it would be pure luck. The point is to get him ramped up to go out. Nap? Who said anything about a nap?

So, since it’s not blowing snow in my face at the moment and I’m starting to feel a bit fluffy around the middle, I decided to pull out the bike trailer and my trusty mountain bike. The trailer is a really nice, top of the line “Chariot” which I was able to afford only because it was last years floor model. The bike… Ah, the bike…

My ride is a Gary Fisher Tassajara that has done some serious thundering over the years. Its been dumped off rock faces, gone end over end due to the roots of old and malevolent trees, been wheel deep in questionable brown water and carried my butt while flying through the air and praying for a solid landing, wheels first, if at all possible. The mud that has covered its frame could have build your dog an adobe house of their own. Action Girl and I have had some fantastic times flying through the forest at break neck speed. Now, it sedately tows my sleepy son as he questions me about the location of these dubious ducks.
He’s asleep within five minutes.

The crowds are pretty think and just trying to navigate amongst the day-trippers is starting to frazzle me. That, and the alarming frequency of having one yell to another of their group just as I pass with my snoozing cargo. I have to find a place to hide.

The beaches are, naturally, packed so I have to go somewhere a bit off the beaten path. The problem is that even the unbeaten paths tend to be filled with berry pickers or teenagers testing out what they learned biology class last year. Where to go?

I pedaled along for a while longer and then thought of it. In just a few miles, I quietly pulled into my favorite, secluded cemetery. I parked the bike and Short Stack in the shade, got out my book and leaned against a stone. After some time reading in the July sun and listening to the ocean breeze blow through the trees, I put the book down and simply soaked up the moment, place and peace.

I love a well kept cemetery. I find them peaceful, welcoming and above all, full of wonderful stories and affection. The white marble stone I was resting against belonged to Margaret C. She was born is 1842 and died in 1922. Not a bad run at all. She had lived through the American Civil War, had seen the first automobiles, watched the boys come home at the end of The Great War of 1914-18 and lived in the era of the giant airships. Across the top of this monument, even above her name, was simply inscribed, “Mother”. This was someone’s mother, and here I was leaning against her monument and looking at my sleeping son as father, born long before Margaret was gone. I smiled and pointed my boy out to her as if she was sitting next to me and in a quiet voice, told her how special he was.

Short Stack woke up about an hour later and once he got his bearings, we spent some time poking around this grassy place of memories. He’s been there many times with me and so knows what to look for. The puddle that’s ideal for tossing pebbles into, the best walls for walking on and even the which stones he can hide behind. We spent some time soaking up the sun and running over the short, mown grass. Eventually, we packed up and headed back to the house, weaving our way between the wandering sunburns and returning home to play with Lulu Belle.

It was a wonderful way to spend some time with Short Stack and I fully expect to do it again. Our friends at the cemetery don’t talk much, but their epitaphs say volumes. That’s the kind of folk who always make me feel welcome.

When the visiting tourist and summer crowds get too deep, it’s always a safe bet to look for us at Margaret’s. She’s always there and I hope, happy to see us. Also, she has the best place in town to nap under the whispering, July trees.

Lonely Mountain

The snow and ice covered rocks sloped down and away from us in an alarming fashion. The same stacked and wintry boulders that had just been inches from my nose on the ascent not ten minutes ago now looked very far away and impossibly spaced to allow for a safe descent. I turned to my companion, Mountain Man for his thoughts.

“So, how are we going to get down?”

Cold winds swooped by us and I waited for some good idea from my friend. How the hell do I wind up in these situations? Oh right, I follow friends like Mountain Man up actual mountains in the dead of winter.

Wow… That’s a long way down.

It all started some time in the fall. My climbing friend had a lot of training to do. Though his lightly built frame would fool many into thinking that he lived a more sedentary life or at most, was a weekend runner, He’s the poster child for the saying, “Looks can be deceiving.”

He’s tall, thin, almost gangly and always seems to sport a special, goofy , lopsided smile. He is also made of what I gather, must be steel cables and iron. He is very strong and I have never once seen his stamina wane. He is also supremely confident when it comes to outdoor experiences. This can be… overly exciting at times.

The training he was so hot to get in was, as he put it, “All preparation for climbing K2”. The news had just come out that its summit might just be a smidge higher than Everest’s and so if it wasn’t the highest, he didn’t want to play. K2, it was. His plan was to wait for the winter to properly nestle down on our corner of New Hampshire and then climb our beloved, lonely mountain, Monadnock. All this preferably after a really good, solid snowstorm. In the early autumn evening when this idea was put forth, it sounded like fun. A simple thing, really. How many dozen times had I been up that piece of granite? I could do it blindfolded. Sure! Why not?!

It was late in February when it all was brought back to me by my outdoorsy friend. “Remember the plan?” he enthusiastically chirped. “This is the perfect time! Next big snow storm comes and we go the next day! That way we’ll be assured of having to break the trails!”

By “breaking trails” he meant that we would have the “enviable” task of beating down the fresh snow and finding surprising holes at random intervals. Does he know how to live or what!?

Mount Monadnock is not a difficult mountain to climb, at least in the warmer months. If you take the right trail, you can be up and down in about four hours. That’s not to say is doesn’t get steep, but you can do it.. There are lots of ways you can get to the summit though, and some of the alternate paths will change that quick excursion into an all day affair. Naturally, the harder version was our chosen route.

When Mountain Man and I met at the deserted and closed parking lot, he wore his regular, big smile and a far bigger pack. The thing was huge!

“Are you ready to go?”
“Yah. What the heck is in the pack? It’s only a day hike, right?”

Visions of an unscheduled snow camping trip floated through my head. I wasn’t packed for that!

“Oh, it’s mostly my dirty laundry. That and some heavy stuff I had in my room.”
“Uhh, do you… always…”
“Training! I needed some weight.”

This is Mountain Man I’m talking about. Just winter wasn’t going to make this hard enough for him. He needed more. Perhaps the loss of a leg on the way up would make him happier.

After insisting on digging thorough my bag and poaching anything weighty to add to his pack, we were off. Almost immediately, it was slow going. The path was wide and the slope, fairly gentle but it was also just shy of knee deep, unbroken snow.

No… That’s not accurate. The top foot was unbroken snow. The next few inches was slushy ice and the final two or three was actual, running, melt water. All I can say is “Thank God for Gortex.” My boots were lined with the stuff and at the time, it was a new and mysterious substance. I had paid a lot for the privilege of being able to point at the little “Gortex” tag sewn on the side of each foot. Right now, they were worth every penny.

As we slogged on up our trail, Mountain Man started a running commentary. It was in the tone given by Captain James T. Kirk as he kept his captain’s log. Mountain Man’s long, colorful entries however, were of our climb up K2.

“Day 5: The Sherpas are keeping a good pace and the supplies are coming up easily. We shall miss the friendly people in the villages, but the mountain awaits.”

After an hour or so, our path changed dramatically. We broke away from the easier, if not wetter, main trail and started the first part of the real climb. The route is called the “Do Drop” trail. A lot of folks think that’s a typo and it’s supposed to be “dew”, but no, it’s intentional. It’s called that because if said in a proper, old New England accent, “It do drop, some” so watch your footing. Here it starts getting interesting.

Our first real surprise was discovered by Mountain Man, as he took the lead. In one step, he disappeared up to his armpits in snow. His arms shot out to his sides and his “WOAH!” was muffled by the heavy snow cover. He had found a hole, and a big one to boot. It only took a minute to help him climb out and another few to empty the snow from clothing. This was more like it! He was beaming.

“Day 9: A dark day for the expedition. An unseen crevasse has opened at our feet. Three Sherpas have perished as well as Dr. Robinson. We have decided to press on. The good Doctor would have wanted it that way.”

We did press on and as we finally climbed out of tree line, we bundled up against the sharp wind. The last quarter of the climb was nothing but granite covered in ice. Crampons were attached and progress slowed down as greater care was taken. We had not seen so much as a foot print ahead of us all day.

Mountain Man’s climbing log got more and more desperate as we went. Sherpas went missing in the night. Supplies were lost. Members succumbed to altitude sickness and our oxygen ran dangerously low. The actual climb was not even close to dire, but his running commentary made it seem like a far greater feat.


Photo via nh-photo.blogspot.com

As we clambered on our bellies up the steepest, last bit of the mountain, we proudly looked across the small, flat summit and stopped, just as frozen as the stone we clung to. Looking across the small plateau at us were… two other men just making the summit as well. Both parties boggled at the other, like a stunned bird after hitting a window. The same unspoken thought floated through everyone’s mind: “What the hell are YOU guys doing here?”

As it turns out, they had climbed Monadnock from the other side, making the top at the exact same moment. We all laughed, made introductions, shook hands and then… my moment of glory. I pulled out my camera and asked them to take a photo of us at the top. Happily, they obliged but before he could set up, I quickly dove back into my pack. Mountain Man looked confused. From my bag, I pulled two things. The first was an American Flag, the second was a piece of poster board. On the board I had scrawled “Summit-K2, 28,251 feet”. He laughed, we posed and the picture was taken. It hangs with some pride in my house today.

After all the picture taking and niceties were done, it was time to go down. The other expedition headed down the gentle slope the way they come up. We looked back at the path that took us back to our starting point. “Hmmm. That’s quite a drop.”

“So, now what? It’s going to be awful for climbing down. What’s your plan?”

Mountain Man looked at the huge stones covered in ice and snow, thought for a moment and then, with out a word… jumped. HE ACTUALLY JUMPED! My eyes must have been the size of saucers as he sailed through the air and bounded from the top of one frozen rock, six feet down to the next and then the next. It was like watching a rubber ball disappear down the slope as he bounded along at high speed. I looked back at the empty summit and then to the rapidly shrinking image of my friend. With out a breath in my lungs, I leaped after him.

It was one of those stupid but life defining moments. If either of us missed our footing, the damage would have been horrific. This was long before the days of cell phones so there was no way to call for help if we needed it. Foolish? You bet your ass it was foolish. Exhilarating? Hooooooo Yah! The two of us yelped and hooted as we bounded at full stride down the rocks and path. What finially stopped us was an unseen root that reached out and snagged Mountain Man’s foot, mid-run. He went down quickly, disappeared into the deep snow and plowed along benieth its surface for ten feet or so. All that could be seen was his oversized pack, cutting along like a sharks fin through water. I got to him and helped him up. Mercifully, the only injury was a cut lip and tender ankle. He hobbled the remaining way down, and we let the adrenaline slowly subside. We had made it. We were soaked, we were tired, and one of us was a little bloody, just the way he hoped.

I’ve never climbed Monadnock in the snow again and to be honest, I don’t feel the need. Call me too old, call me too cautious but I know the real reason.

Don’t you know? I’ve been to the top of K2, and have the photo to prove it.

A Hierarchy Of Worth

I spent a large chunk of my youthful summers by the sea shore. There’s a little community on the Maine coast where, back in the fifties, my Grandfather built a vacation house to take his sizable family on weekends. How a man from the hills of New Hampshire came to find this place is another interesting little bit of history. As a very young man thrown into the armpit of a hellish war, he made a friend. Both of these young men had become captains of large, specialized landing craft in MacArthur’s island hopping campaign. The branch they belonged to was the Army’s Combat Engineers and the fact that they both survived to the end is a minor miracle in its self.

His good friend was named George, though most everyone, with the exception of myself, called him Skip. I was a little kid and in those days, a child did not refer to an adult by nickname. George had grown up not merely on the coast, but on the water. He was a lobsterman by trade. One of a rugged bunch of men who made their living harvesting bugs from the ocean floor. George was gruff, big and instantly likable. At some point during the war, he told my Grandfather that if they ever got out alive, he should come see where he lives. George thought he might like it. He was right.

After they all came home, my Grandfather bought a piece of property from his friend’s mother-in-law, just across the street from George’s own house, in fact. The two friends set to building what would become our family’s cottage. Fast forward about twenty years and now there was a little boy, tottering around in the grassy lawn looking for toads and bugs. That, was me.

That place was magical to go to. By the time I was old enough to walk down to the little market in the village on my own, or ride my bike to the sea wall down front, I knew exactly where to go to find the most sought after kid-treasure of the ocean. I knew where the sea glass was.

I always remembered being amazed that it was there just for the picking. It was like finding jewels on the beach left behind by a careless lady, just waiting to be scooped up and dragged away by the incoming tide. The part that I liked the most was that just finding it wasn’t enough. For it to be any good, it had to be “done”. No sharp edges, no clear, unscuffed bits and yet, not over cooked either. The pieces had to be big enough not to slip through the hole in the corner of your pockets. It was like sifting for diamonds.

We had a particular place that we liked to go to and the few of us who knew about it, guarded its location carefully. It was set up as the perfect mechanism for grinding glass into jewels. A natural outcropping of rock funneled the sea through a small gap where the stone was warn smooth by a billion waves. As the sea surged in, it ground what ever it pulled along over a blanket of fine sand and pea sized rocks. We called it “The Gates” and it was natures polishing wheel on the Southern Maine coast. The gates look directly out to sea, but for some reason, an amazing quantity of glass was refined and deposited there and for those of us who knew the secret, we were its stewards. All this would have been a boon for any treasure seeker but there was another surprise. This place was rich in one of the rarest of commodities: blue sea glass.

There was a hierarchy of sea glass that was pretty universal. Kids could understand it and take to it quickly and no one who I ever heard of, disputed where the various colors were on the list. From the least to most sought, they run like this…

Brown,
Green,
White,
Light Blue,
Blue,
Oddities.

Oddities were bits of pottery with intricate designs or glass colors that were just so rare that they belonged on a list of their own. The oddity that was claimed the most was red glass, but calling it common is not right. It was simply the most common of the rare. I can say that I’ve probably only come across a dozen or so pieces of it in my life. You never expected to find them but when you did, it was big news.

No, blue was the color to look for. The pieces were usually small. Smaller than any of the browns, greens or whites. Nothing back then was still being sold in blue glass jars and so what we were finding were the remains of inkwells, old medicine bottles or bits of depression glass. They had been rolling around with the sea for a long, long time and had been reduced to tiny fragments that were easily missed. A honed eye could find them, though. So, like a bunch of wet footed truffle hunters, we scoured the sands at The Gates, sun burning the backs of our ears and chins welded to our chests. When the incoming waves finally chased us off our patch and the last glance down was torn away, our eyes focused upwards and we would go home to count our bounty.

First came the sorting. Color piles were made and sandwiches were provided by smiling mothers. The potato chips and pretzels were always a little soggy from the humidity but it was never minded by the happy hunters. After that, the vetting process began. Pieces that had been picked up in haste were scrutinized by the group and if they did not pass muster, then they were voted down. They were not done yet and need to be returned to the ocean. The piles must all be of high quality. Then, the trading began.

“How many light light blues for that good blue piece?”
“I have a white that looks like a horse’s head. I’ll trade you for five big browns.”
“This once still has some pattern to it. Any one want to trade? What do you have?”

It was a great way to spend a summer day.

Now when I walk the beach, I can’t help but look down. In various boxes, forgotten to the basement or shed, sit bags and bags of old, hard won treasures, far too special to dump. I don’t need any more sea glass but I still can’t seem to keep my gaze away from my feet for long. I’m more particular about the pieces that go into my pockets now and try like hell to leave most of it where I find it, but old habits die hard. Blue is not as rare as it once was, now that it’s back in bottling use. I tend to walk past it now. An old bottle rim will stop me though, as will a piece with some printing on it. Though I don’t get down to the family cottage much anymore, I have found little places here and there near my new home. The pickings aren’t as good, but then again, no place ever could be. Some day soon I’ll have to make a pilgrimage back and be sure to bring my treasure hunters in training. Once they get a little older, I think they’ll be good at it. After all, they’re closer to the ground and have better eyes than the veteran, showing them the ropes.

The Blue Lady, Epilogue

Now, for those you who don’t know, The Doctor is my oldest and closest friend. He’s a year younger than I am and exactly 426.8% smarter. The why our friendship worked out over the years was…

I come up with brilliant plan.
The Doctor figures out how to make it happen.

This brilliant plan came about a few years after my cruise on the Norway. I had told him all the stories, possibly multiple times and he agreed that the best possible plan would be to go together. THAT would be fantastic!

So, I left it to his huge brain to figure out the way to our dream vacation and I couldn’t have entrusted it to any better grey matter. In short order, the collusion had begun and the mechanism of our master plan was in motion. Independently, we waited for the appropriate moment with out respective parents. We talked about how great the cruise was. I simply had to keep it fresh in the family memory while The Doctor related my vacation tales with has much enthusiasm over his own dinner table.

Then, well… “Lie” is such an ugly word. I prefer to think of it as “seeding”.

One day, I related to my folks that It looked like The Doctor’s parents were planning a cruise on the Norway! Naturally, my friend was at his house saying the exact same thing about us.

Then the hook.

“Wouldn’t it be great to make the trip with them? You guys could do grownup stuff and I’d get to travel with my best friend!”

Amazingly enough, not only did this work, but it worked almost immediately! The enthusiasm that both sets of parents exhibited quickly quelled any residual guilt and things looked good. The only hiccup that was encountered was the airline to be used to get to Miami. Our fathers looked at different criteria and it led to a little discomfort in the beginning. I remember that the cheapest alternative was Eastern Airlines but their safety record at the time was one of the lower ones in the industry. After a little polite bickering between fathers, we elected to book our flights separately. After all, We were going to the same place. There would be plenty of time to spend together, later on the ship.

Our cabins weren’t very far apart but that wasn’t the point. As far as The Doctor and I were concerned, those were for sleeping in only. We had adventuring to do. This was the part that I dreamed about. I got to show my best friend the ropes on the ship. Where everything was, how to get from point A to point B with out being seen and where hang out and just watch. I’m thinking of the pool viewing room here.

Oddly enough, I have fewer memories of this trip on the Norway than I do of the first one. I remember that Zane, our young waiter from the first time, was on another ship. I can recall that we drank indecent amounts of Coke and that at least 50% of our time at sea, the two of us had the racquetball court signed out. Both of us got really quite good at it on that trip. Even though the memories of the trip have blurred and faded over time I can assure you that we had a fantastic time. We always do when we’re together. We could be running, playing, reading, planning, traveling or even working. As long as we were doing it together, we seem to enjoy the time immeasurably. That’s the kind of friend he is to me. That’s why I call him my brother.

I won’t delve too deep into this time spent on board. We did a lot of the same things I did alone, the first time. It was just better with a buddy. It all ended far too soon and we had to pack our bags, too full of baubles and souvenir t-shirts, and leave them out in the hall the night before departure for the baggage handlers to remove and get ready for transfer to the dock. We kept our secret of how we got our folks to take this trip, thinking that it would be better to let a few years pass before we reveled how our two families managed to go to the same place at the same time. We figured a decade might be long enough.

Many, many years later, I meet a fellow who was seeing a young lady who just happened to be a member of the family who owned Norwegian Cruise Lines. I enthusiastically told him about my time on the Norway and he sort of grimaced. He had been on the ship in the last few years and he had said that she was looking a little rough. I hoped that it meant that she would be getting a refit soon but I was worried. The Norway was an throwback ship even in the days when I had ridden her. Her name even gave it away. She was the S/S Norway, in a day where almost every other ship was the M/S Whatever. The “M/S” stands for “motor ship”, meaning that it runs of diesel motors. Very modern and efficient motors. The “S/S” stands for “steam ship”, meaning that she has boilers and turns the shafts with turbines. A design that came about over a hundred years ago. Hers was a highly refined steam engine system, to be sure, but it was an anachronism in this age.

Her other flaw for modern cursing was one of design. She had originally been built as the S/S France and had sailed on her maiden voyage in 1962. She was meant for transatlantic trips and therefore, built for speed and comfort. As inexpensive jet travel took over the duties of ships, she was mothballed and then later sold to Norwegian Cruise Lines. NCL had her refitted for duties in the Caribbean but after fifteen years or so, she had a hard time competing with the newer, albeit smaller, ships built specifically for warm water vacations. It was simply not what she was designed for. She wasn’t profitable enough.

Then, one day while in port during a refit, disaster struck. A boiler explosion in the engine room and ten crew members died. All work ceased and after damage assessment, the decision was made that she was too costly to repair. There was some interest in her from new buyers and one individual did buy her and renamed her the “Blue Lady”. Naturally, there were high flying plans and naturally, they all fell through. The should have talked to The Doctor, first. As it was, she was finally sold for scrap.

The end of the S/S Norway isn’t really so sad, if you think about it. She did wind up in a breakers yard, getting cut up and melted down but let’s be honest with ourselves. This is a ship. A beautiful one to be sure, but a ship none the less. What other possible end could she meet? So many other great and beautiful liners have sailed the seas and met far worse fates with hideous loss of life. She was never carved up and refitted as a troop ship later to be used as target practice after the war. She was never torpedoed to the bottom of the ocean or ran into a mine field. No Iceberg ever claimed her or fires swept her deck, causing her to roll belly up, still tied up to her berth. No. She passed with as much dignity as a cruise ship could have. Though she never attained the rarified status of the few ships that we choose to preserve, that is a very elite and tiny bunch and one should not expect immortality for an object designed for hard work.

Besides, she did her job. I have only the fondest memories of traveling in her beautiful hull. I can see the decks when I close my eyes and recall watching the soda in my glass move ever so slightly as the Captain announced that we were plowing through eighteen foot seas. She was a beautiful ship and the glass boxes that have taken her place on the waters look like cheap tarts compared to her elegance. She was a lady whose silhouette will be missed across the oceans but, damn, she still makes me smile when I think of her.

I’m not sure… but I think The Doctor and my secret might have actually out lived the ship its self.

The Blue Lady, Part II

Soon after my first celebrity sighting, the life vests were stowed away for the next inhabitants of our berth and forgotten by me. It was time to get to know what was essentially going to be my home for the next week.

There are a couple of things about the way I am that make life both difficult and deeply enriching. For what ever reason, my mind tends to ascribe a personality to inanimate objects. I tend to see things less like a piece of machinery, a structure or what have you and more like a bona fide being. The lesson that rooted too deeply in my mind is “how would you like to be treated?” and I have a bad habit of attaching that lesson to most things in my path. Selling a car, for instance, is hell. This same mode of thinking however, means that I get a real sense of pleasure and affection from most things in my life. Not a bad way to live, but it does make you a pack rat. I’ve gotten better about this, but when I was a kid, I wanted to save everything.

Being on this ship now, I was easily understanding why we called them “She” and spoke about them like they were people. To me, being underway and feeling the gentle roll of the deck felt something like being carried along on the back of a very well appointed whale. The movement of the deck made her breathe. Now, I wanted to know what made her work. It was time to explore.

Another goodie that I discovered was that as a kid, being on a cruise also meant freedom. With pretty much the only stipulation being “Don’t fall overboard.” I was left to my own devices. There weren’t many other kids on board. Back then, a kid on a cruise ship was an oddity. To be honest, I don’t recall any other kids there at all. There must have been some but I didn’t notice and really, that was fine. I’m rarely bored and easily self entertain and so, I immediately got down to finding out as much as I possibly could about this floating home away from home. Two discoveries were found that would have made the trip an success if nothing else had gone right. The first was the movie theater. It ran pretty close to continuously and being part of the cruise package, it was free. I watched a lot of movies in that theater. The second find was akin to Nirvana for your average 10 year old boy. As I walked down an otherwise unimpressive corridor, I came upon a small room, unlit and unmarked. I quietly stepped inside and tried to figure out what I was looking at. Then it dawned on me. It was an aquarium… full of bikini clad vacationers.

What I had here was a series of tiny portholes spaced every few feet that went around the entire pool up on deck giving views from below the water line. What ten year old boy wouldn’t thank God for a gift like that.

My day of discovery turned up a few more gems. An arcade was found, ensuring that I wouldn’t be weighed down by those pesky quarters, the bars dispensed bottomless glasses of Coca-Cola, and if you stood still long enough to actually take in where you were, the views were really quite spectacular. The whole thing felt special and grand. I was really coming to like my ship.

Dinner was a lot of fun as well. It was the only organized meal of the day and the equivalent of eating out at a fancy restaurant where the waiters knew your name and preferences. I can recall on person vividly. His name was Zane and on the wait staff pecking order, he ranked pretty low. Not quite a busboy but most definitely not a waiter. He perhaps eighteen and from Micronesia and had a smile that when flashed, had the same effect as opening heavy curtains on a sunny day. When Zane was around, it was always sunny. It was he who, between dinners and desserts, taught me origami. I can still make a frog thanks to his lessons. His good heart was obvious and he and I actually remained pen pals for some time afterward. Like most friendships, we’ve long since lost touch with each other.

Other than Marla Gibbs, the only other “celebrity” on board was some writer/poet whom I’d never heard of. He was a big guy and bald and I think fancied himself a sort of Shel Silverstein. The performance, if you can call it that, that he put on was a reading of some of his works and a talk which was mostly one sided. Pretty boring stuff to a kid. I can, however recall a few lines of a poem that he wrote especially for the crew of the ship. It was made up of nothing but stupid questions that they must hear a thousand times a year. The poem was called, “What Time is the Midnight Buffet?” and part of it went…

What time is the midnight buffet?
Does the crew sleep ashore?
Do those stairs go up or down?
and what’s the little white bag for?
is dinner in the dining room?
is you job really paid? And,
I’d like to change my cabin to the side that’s in the shade.

Not exactly Emerson, but hey, it’s stuck with me for over two decades now. Not too shabby.

All in all, the food was fantastic, the people were wonderful, and the young ladies of the crew sunbathed topless where they thought no one could see. The freedom it granted a young kid was beyond dreaming about. I never wanted to leave. The destination islands that we went to impressed me far less than the ship did. I would have been pleased as punch to stay aboard the entire time.

When our time came to a close aboard the Norway, I was heartbroken, but also determined. I would be back. I would ride on her again… and I did, this time with The Doctor…

Epilogue later.

The Blue Lady

Many years ago, when I was just a dusty kneed kid, my parents decided that we might try something new for one of our family vacations. We had done the Disney thing, and even the Hawaii thing and many other places, far and near. We had truly enjoyed our selves on all these trips but there was one kid of travel that piqued my parent’s interest that we had never done. Cruising.

Living in western New Hampshire, my exposure to cruise ships had been mostly limited to “The Poseidon Adventure”, “A Night to Remember” and “The Love Boat”. The lesson that my young brain had extrapolated from all this dubious infotainment was that if the icebergs or rogue waves didn’t get you, Gopher would. I had my doubts. Actually, I didn’t want anything to do with them. The whole prospect of swimming for the life boats or meeting Carol Channing, frankly scared the hell out of me.

I stood as firm as an eight year old kid can to his parents. Basically, I implored them not to do it. Then one year on vacation, we found ourselves with easy access to an actual cruise ship. We were in St. Thomas and from a high mountain road, you could see right into the port and down on to the docked ships. My Father spotted a likely looking one and drove us down just to “take a look”. Dad always likes to “take a look”, with varying amounts of hilarity and/or upset armed guards involved. His personal best was wandering off into “no go” territory in Yalta during the days of Reganomics and the old Soviet Union… but I digress.

So, we drove down to the embarkation center and much to my amazement Dad asked an official there if we could go aboard and look around. I would have been worried but the request was obviously so ludicrous that even I knew the answer before the guard had time to react. I started to turn back to the car.

“Sure. Just be off before we leave port.”

WHAT?!? I did my best to keep my eyeballs from falling out of my skull.

Very, very pensively, I accompanied my Dad up the gang way and on board. We were going to get lost on the ship and it would leave with us.. I knew it. I have rather vague memories of being on the ship and I can’t recall what line it belonged to but I do remember being impressed. The lounges were plush, the air conditioning, cool and on the whole, the place looked like a lot of fun. I definitely felt like an interloper and was too anxious about being on board too long to really enjoy the novelty of it. My Father made a point of showing me the life boats and how sturdy they were. I had to admit, they did look rugged.

We did get off with out incident and my perception of cruise ships changed a bit. Perhaps it wouldn’t be to bad. I hadn’t even spotted Carol or Gopher lurking about.

The next year, the itinerary had been set and we were going to do it. By now, I was actually excited at the prospect. We had gotten to pick out our berth from a glossy brochure and the places the ship would go sounded like fun. What I didn’t expect was that the ship would become far more special to me than the places we’d go on her. The departure port was Miami and when our taxi pulled up to the docks, our ship stood out boldly. There were three other ships there, one gate per ship… except ours. She had two. She was the S/S Norway and to say that she was big would be an Olympic sized understatement. She was vast. Not only that, she was the biggest there was. She was number one in the world as far as passenger ships went. Her baby blue hull looked like an unending wall of steel and little doors could be seen all along her length, letting cargo and crew move back and forth. I was awed.

Once aboard, you tended to loose the sense of her size. She felt more like just a big hotel and our berth looked far smaller in real life than it did in the brochure. The one thing that really impressed me though were the portholes. We had PORTHOLES! How cool was THAT?! Once we were mostly unpacked, it was time for the cast off. This, I had been waiting for this! I had watched about a thousand hours of the “Love Boat” and couldn’t wait for the part with the streamers and waving well wishers and such. It looked like such a party on the TV!

Cruise reality tip number one: That doesn’t actually happen in real life. It’s a big, fat lie.

I can vividly recall feeling cheated. Seriously… What the heck? After getting over my disappointment and watching Miami float away to our stern, it was time to reassure the passengers before everyone got drunk. It was time… for the life boat drill.

I had been warned about this so it didn’t catch me off guard. We were instructed via the P.A. to go to our rooms and get our life vests. After that, we had an assigned lifeboat station that we were to go to. Dutifully, we all seemed to do as instructed and soon enough, the majority of the passengers were standing at their allotted places listening to the “How to get into a life boat with out getting killed” talk. As I stood there in my orange life vest, paying strict attention to the guy with the megaphone, my father tapped me on my shoulder. “Look over there!” he whispered as he surreptitiously pointed into the crowd of our would be lifeboat mates. “It’s Marla Gibbs! You know, from The Jeffersons! She’d be in out life boat!”

I secretly wondered to my self how old you had to be to get a drink on this thing?

More later…

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