An Atlantic Crossing

For Grand Tour Magazine

We are at sea. We are at sea. We are at sea. We are at sea and all contact is lost with land, all reassuring glimpses of peaks, green hills, low houses, white distant beaches. We are in our tub now released into the water, our faces around the rim staring inward at each other, questioning. There is nothing but the rising and setting of the sun to signal our time, and even these obscured by clouds. The monotony of the sea does not care how much you've paid for this privilege of a view from its center. The Atlantic spreads borderless and sullen around the full sweep of the compass, the Atlantic gray and vast. The Atlantic, once and future. The Atlantic, at the beginning and at the end, now and forever, endless miles of ocean.

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However, on the ship's video system, the daily movies start at 10 a.m. Today is Sleepless in Seattle, among other movies. Lunch in the Lido begins at 12:30 p.m. Dinner is served in the dining rooms at 6:30 p.m. or 8 p.m., depending on your seating. The after-dinner show begins at 9:30 p.m., and may run as long as two hours. The ship library closes at 8 p.m.

We are on the S.S. Rotterdam. We reached the open sea by 6 p.m. on April 13, four days ago, but stayed indoors to study the inside of our cabin. The ship rises and falls as if we lived in an elevator traveling constantly between floors one and four. Deep in the night you feel the long slow climb, the long tumbling fall of the swells. When you walk the corridors you may take up to three steps before you realize your feet have not touched the floor. After a while you get into the rock of it, and even subconsciously your world rises and falls with the gentle, interminable rhythm.

The Rotterdam is an old-style steamship, flagship of the Holland-America line, its fastest as well as its oldest ship. She is 750 feet long, 95 feet wide, 35,000 metric tons, capable of 35 knots on the open sea. The Rotterdam is a liner, as opposed to a cruiser, at home coasting ports of call as well as crossing oceans. She represents, perhaps, the last relic of a way of life which the population of young cruise-takers, drinking heavily on their party boats in the Caribbean, can't understand and don't want to. She crosses the ocean in seven days-much longer than the six hours it takes to fly over it-all the while hosting banquets and balls, and dances and formal dinners. In the modern age, such luxury is anomalous, the privilege only of those travelers wealthy enough to afford it. The ship's passengers are ancient-90 percent over 70, many in their eighties, and most are women. Aboard the Rotterdam they have relocated their favorite era and stuck to it. They have spent about $40,000 to be here. Yet to hear them talk, it's not an admission price at all they have given, but a kind of betrothal gift, the token one party offers another for the promise of abiding together always, in that sphere of shared taste, age and experience. They love the Rotterdam. They know that with her passing, as with their own, the midnight buffets and dinners with the Captain will also perish. They want to go around with her, together, one more time.

I went also.

The Rotterdam was built in 1958 and is a very old ship to still be in service. Not that she is fragile. While the younger boats beach or burn up in the Caribbean, the Rotterdam plies her steady way, captained by Jacob Dijk, a tall, iron-gray sort of man who as a child watched her launched.

She is a state ship, meaning her funding came from the people of Holland. Her decorative style therefore is richly imbued with the 1950's Dutch conception of chic, which turns out to be angular forms in glass and furniture of blue and gold velvet. She has decks of impressive teak planking which compose the shuffleboard court. But so warped is the wood, and so unpredictable the path of the game disks, that in a scoring competition, you'd have better luck overhanding them from the bridge. In other rooms: walnut and oak paneling and more than a hint of mahogany.

She has murals and mosaics depicting peasant scenes from 18th-century Southeast Asia. In the library there are purple velvet footstools and desks of blond wood. At every place where the business of hands is conducted, innovative carpentry meets the need in white, well-varnished woods.

There are two dining rooms, offering a clue as to how many people should be present today. The ship can accommodate almost 800 passengers, but on this trip, we have more crew than passengers. The crossing of the Atlantic is actually the last leg of a voyage which began in San Francisco in January. The 1995 Grand World Cruise, they call it, to distinguish it from the other 26 times the Rotterdam has gone around the world. The passenger list has dwindled to 500 or so-many got off in Israel-even though the crew's numbers have remained closer to 600.

She has a ballroom called the Ritz-Carlton, where an orchestra plays every night, and which contains a lavish staircase up to the balcony. She has a buffet restaurant called The Lido, where roll-down blinds cover each window, and where each table contains a green broadleaf plant, and other plants and ferns stand on dividers among the tables. The lighting is recessed in the ceiling. Aft of the Lido is an outside deck with a swimming pool, deck chairs, and room for the outdoor cookouts they have on every fair day. There's also the outdoor bar, sheltered by an overhanging deck.

She has a large smoking room, three indoor bars, a card room, a library, a movie theater, a video room, several laundries, a fitness room and two decks full of shops. She has a casino, a photo gallery, a land excursion office, a shuffleboard and tennis deck, though probably no one could play tennis on that surface. The deck chairs are of carved and bent wood, beautifully lacquered, cantilevered, masterpieces of both craft and engineering. Like all the furniture on the Rotterdam, they are unique, attractive, and now almost antique-the kind of furniture you can picture one day in a museum as an excellent representation of something, Dutch Renaissance, perhaps. All of it was built for this ship.

They don't build ships like this anymore. And as her passengers know, the Holland America Line was recently purchased by the Carnival Cruise Line, the same company that has built ships with names like Ecstasy and Imagination and that is currently building the largest pleasure ship in history to accommodate 4,000 passengers at once. Everyone thought the Rotterdam's end had arrived. But a company representative came out and nosed around, and rather liked the vessel. So her demise was not imminent.

One almost feels relief among the 500 septuagenarians and octogenarians aboard for this fact. One feels that they, as well as you, want this era to continue just a little longer.

This ship sails out of the past with a certain conception of service. The size of the crew on this journey reflects a now outdated method of running civilization. The old method was to put a human hand on every wheel, at every task, in every phase of operation-human beings creating an atmosphere for other human beings. As I write in the Lido Restaurant, on the Promenade deck aft, three waiters stand idle near me, not far from the bar where until five minutes ago several more waiters and a bartender waited. They are at every turn obliging, ingratiating, accommodating, indulgent.

We have a room steward to make over our room twice a day. We have a floor steward to oversee his actions. We have sweepers and squeegiers and housekeeping staff innumerable. There are 79 people just on the kitchen staff. When we sit to eat, a wine steward pours the wine, several waiters attend us.

The staterooms receive their daytime cleaning sometime around 1 p.m.: beds made, mail delivered, clutter straightened. In the early evening the stewards strike again, turning down the bed clothes, putting a chocolate on the pillow, and such notices as might be needed. Usually these notices are reminders to set clocks and watches back an hour, the ship having crossed another time zone. Six of our seven days at sea will have 25 hours in them.

There are shoe-shine, manicure and fitness people waiting to serve me, also a doctor, several shopkeepers, bartenders, waiters, movie projectionists, actors, comics, video technicians, librarians, chefs, cooks, food servers, sailors. We also have a golf pro, a dance troupe, at least a score of big band and lounge musicians, doctors, nurses, casino hosts and dealers, beauticians, travel agents, photographers, pool technicians, singers, comedians, shopkeepers including perfume specialists and art dealers, a naval historian or two, a chaplain, a rabbi, a masseuse and a foot masseur.

We have print technicians, administrators, writers and editors aboard to oversee the reception of the daily faxed newsletters. We receive, because we are American, a Comsat version of the New York Times, along with a ship-produced schedule called The Daily News, listing all the events of the day. Other nationalities receive faxed versions of their countries' papers.

And, in what may be the largest gesture to a habit of life rapidly turning to memory, we also have a group of men who dance with the ladies in the Ritz-Carlton. These are men-middle-aged, trim, well-groomed-who have taken a small stipend in exchange for the work of sustaining a now outdated elegance. White Sharks, they are called by the crew. They dress in dapper white coats and hold themselves poised and available. They hover at the fringes of all dancing surfaces aboard ship, ready with an assent and an extended hand.

In the over-70 population at large, females outnumber males substantially. Aboard ship this imbalance is evident, many of these women having come here almost straight from the funerals of their husbands. The White Sharks ease the disparity gracefully to the music of Guy Lombardo's Royal Canadians.

And if that fading age of elegance still communicates with us, certainly its preferred expression is dancing. Dancing takes place everywhere in the Ritz-Carlton, in the Tropic Bar, in the smaller bars, and in the cafes. So spirited is it, this will to dance, that one might easily mistake it for desperation.

There is a woman on board, for example, who calls herself Dancing Annie. She stands about four feet eight inches, dresses beautifully at all times, and has made a quest of dancing with every man on the ship. So thoroughly has she danced through the passenger list, that no new face escapes her notice, nor her persistent request for a new dancing partner.

One evening I followed three young women who work in the fitness room to the Ritz-Carlton, on a kind of good-will visit to Dancing Annie, stationed as always on the dance floor. For more than 50 years Annie was the wife of a popular Catskill comic, and since his passing in 1992 she has shipped with one grand voyage after another.

We sat and watched until Annie came over, the conversation began as it frequently did, Annie telling listeners about the bliss of her married life now gone. The young women listened in sympathy. Then Annie produced some photographs from her handbag, showing her husband, her husband and her, and both of them standing before their home in New York. "I miss him," she said. "I don't like to be alone."

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Lifeboat drill: Maritime law requires one every seven days at sea. When the seven long whistle blasts sound, you turn out with your life jackets tied properly, near the boat you will use to make your escape from the, god forbid, sinking liner. Ours is boat station three. We have only to walk out our cabin door, march 60 feet down the corridor, turn left and out the door to the deck, and we stand beneath our boat.

During our one drill, we emerged on the deck to find ourselves in a crowd of older people already tied and trussed with their garish orange life preservers. The boat crew said women and children should stand forward and this we explained to some older ladies standing at the back. They told us they had practiced the drill several times already and it was old hat, and anyway if it were a real emergency they would flatten us.

Many of the passengers arrive for these cruises prepared to die. Some bring their EKGs, some bring all their medical records. Some file wills and living wills with the ship surgeon and some bring their own doctors. The happenstance of death is not uncommon on a ship, and it is accommodated as would be any special passenger request.

In the old days when people died aboard ships they were buried at sea. Burial at sea involved a small ceremony, after which the deceased was placed-already wrapped and weighted-on a wooden chute opening to the water below. Following the ceremony, a catch was sprung and the dead fell to its deep rest. Tradition dictated that the man who built this chute receive a bottle of drink as reward.

On one occasion, so goes the lore, this reward was enjoyed before the actual ceremony, and during preparations someone hit the catch and sent the body plummeting. No matter. A bag of garbage was collected and wrapped, and assembled into human shape, and when the time came it served the purpose just as well as the body. This plan was not even foiled when the wife of the dead man asked to kiss her husband one last time. She was told that maritime law forbade it. Now, they no longer bury at sea, but keep the deceased in a refrigerated box in a room that might otherwise hold fruits or vegetables-in any event something needing cold. Julie, our ship's host, told us of a time when a passenger had died and the next day everyone on the ship had bananas served with every meal, bananas displaced from the refrigerator. Doctor Echo Ens, one of two doctors on the Rotterdam during this trip, said no one had died during this long voyage. The refrigerated box that would contain the bodies of those dearly departed instead contained flowers.

Death closes all. But meanwhile the ship runs like a handsome clock, and the surrounding admirers only watch and comment. The ship corridors bustle with crew, housekeeping staff, and officers, and the corridors also rustle with the the halting walk of an elderly man with a cane. An electric wheelchair is parked in a corridor outside a stateroom. At dinner, elderly women stow their walkers discreetly by their tables.

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Meanwhile, no dark feelings invade the pleasantness of the decks. We have cloth towels in the public bathrooms, hot chocolate served on the Promenade Deck, and a new vase of flowers every day. In the evening, a man goes around with a kind of upright xylophone on a stick, playing a diminutive rendition of reveille. This announces dinner. Once seated, a violin and guitar duet begin to play for you.

And you are always at pains to wear the right clothing. Grand voyage custom decrees that on certain nights you dress formally. In fact, on the Rotterdam we have three levels of formality in evening dress, and a different level is in force each night. The dress schedule is listed in the trip itinerary and reminders show up every day in the newsletter. On Casual nights, you wear what you like, shorts and t-shirts excluded, though most men wear jackets at least. On Elegant Casual nights, you wear a jacket and tie. On Formal nights, you wear a dinner jacket. A certain latitude is built in and no one has yet been thrown overboard for violating this code. Yet it must be admitted that this uniformity commends a certain fellowship to the passenger list.

Dinner with the captain (if you have been invited) begins with cocktails on the Promenade Deck at the Tropic Bar. Then you take elevators down to the dining rooms on C Deck, file through the La Fountaine dining room to a special dining room in back, the Grand Voyage room, a stately, walnut-paneled place, with square columns throughout and oil paintings on the walls. The table is set opulently, with five forks to the left of the plate, four spoons and three knives to the right, an additional set of silverware above the plate, two wine glasses and a water glass. There are ten Indonesian men in green uniforms surrounding the table, which is set for 14 diners along each long side and two at each end. In the center of the table, a huge floral display obscures your vision of the captain's overbite. You get five courses, starting with a fruit plate, each a gourmet dish as you can tell from the great expanse of white plate surface left uncovered by food.

While you eat, the staff lines up behind you, and a photographer snaps pictures of whole blocks of you and your fellow guests. These photographs appear the next day in the photo gallery and you find the one showing you and your dinner mates. You appear to be having a good time.

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The passengers on this voyage know that it, like all voyages, will come to an end. As it nears the finish, we will see more freighters around us, gray bumps on the horizon, and know they prelude our return to land.

Two nights before arrival, the ship staff will throw a farewell ball, a formal occasion at which the captain will give out mileage awards to those who have traveled 50,000, 100,000 and 250,000 miles.

I will take a last walk through the Queens Lounge, with a line of windows 10 feet over the churning Atlantic, and take a last look into a room set up with tables and flags of many nations. A string quartet consisting of two violins, a cello and a guitar will play "Falling Leaves." I will walk through the smoking room, admiring the colorful carpet, noticing that the cushioned love seats by the windows have been turned to look out over the water. I will be seated in the Lido letting David, a young Javanese, explain that "salamat," Indonesian for "good" or "God bless," can be used with "Jalan," which means "road" or "journey." He will be wearing a deep blue uniform shirt with red trim. "Salamat Jalan," he will explain, is also a way to say goodbye.

And then, on the final day, we will rise at 5 a.m., go outdoors, and crowd toward the bow. Many more freighters will be around us. We will pass large lighted buoys, then a signal boat. A light will appear above the water in the distance, and then become a pair of lights. Dr. Ens and her boyfriend, several of the musicians and dancers, will stand with me on the sky deck, watching the pair of lights become the top of the World Trade Center, the lower lights become the Verrazano-Narrows bridge. We will wear overcoats and feel the shore wind in our hair. I will hear Dvorak's "New World Symphony" in my mind. We will be home.

Yet the idea of death is hard to escape in a little bobbing tub poised on the lips of the infinite void. Two nights out of Portugal, a friend and I walked out along the stern rail and saw that we were flying along, throwing up huge spumes of spray and leaving a wake like a comet trail across the Atlantic.

"Do you realize we are surrounded by oblivion?" he said. "Do you realize that, one step, one little railing, one little whim, over you go and disappear in a space so vast that your presence magnified even 1,000 times would still be insignificant?" That was it. Before us lay several thousand miles of open water. In the heyday of steam ships, these liners pared the crossing time to a fat seven days. And you can see why they'd want to. Around us, the blackness of the sky sat on the blackness of the water without so much as a blinking light to distinguish the sea from outer space: two vastnesses not materially different in their emptiness, their despair and austerity.

I think of the toy ocean liner I took to the public swimming pool as a kid, how I would set that little boat on the choppy pool surface, near-fatal swells to my little ship and push it out in the direction of the far wall. Calculated to scale, the far wall of this swimming pool would be nearly five miles off. Five miles of creeping along in the bob and flounce and dip and roll of the open pool. Somewhere in this passage, with the far horizon uninterrupted to your eye, and everywhere blackness enhanced by blackness, you realize it's death you're crossing. Climb up the railing and over the other side and you're gone. You'd be almost a mile astern in two minutes, falling back and away faster than a tin can over a spillway. Many people choose this method of ending themselves, though ship staffs never call them suicides. Rather they say these people disappeared during the voyage. Details of their disappearance, such as the knowledge when, or why, or even precisely how they vanished, are rarely known.

And yet, aboard, all is coziness and twinkly lights. And it hits you that this is why they do things so regularly here. You eat by a gong, dress nicely on specified days, appear on deck for drills, while your days away with bridge and shuffleboard to distract you from the central fact: You are poised over the abyss. You are dangling in the jaws of the great, gargling black. And you return to your cabin to find the sheets turned back and a little chocolate on your pillow.

The End

© Rob Laymon

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