Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Visiting the Waterfront

The famous passenger liner Queen Elizabeth 2 rested peacefully alongside Pier 92 on the West Side of Manhattan.  To most outward appearances, the ship seemed quiet.  As groups of passengers began to arrive at the pier and make their way on board, however, the initial quiet dissipated and was replaced by a hum of activity.  Conveyor belts delivered food, supplies, and suitcases aboard from the base of the pier.  Several decks higher, passengers strolled across a separate gangway to the ship and were welcomed aboard by Cunard Line representatives.  From the top level of the pier, Miss Patty and the children and I enjoyed a balcony view of the embarkation as well as a spectacular close-up view of the mammoth vessel and the surrounding riverfront.  It was a cloudy and warm Saturday, August 12, 2000, and we had come to visit the Queen.

Many years earlier, in the 1960s, my parents had brought my brother and me to the West Side passenger piers to see our grandparents off when they sailed on the Constitution or the Independence of the old American Export Lines.  My grandfather had engineering conferences to attend in Europe, and both he and my grandmother preferred ocean travel over air travel.  For my part, I envied them.  Sailing away on a long ocean voyage seemed so much more interesting than going to school.  Eventually, I did sail away on many long ocean voyages, not on glamorous passenger ships but on beat-up old freight wagons.  But that didn’t matter.  What did matter was that these freight wagons went to sea and they took me with them and they opened up the world for me.

While my Merchant Marine career had reached its conclusion as the children started to arrive, I continued to hear the call of the sea, and I wanted to share this experience with the children as much as possible.  Hence our numerous voyages aboard the Staten Island and Long Island ferries, among others.  But there were more occasions when we did not actually sail on the sea but simply went to visit it.  Such was the case this Saturday in August as we admired the great Queen Elizabeth 2 from the pier.

The children were fascinated by this beautiful ship.  From the vantage point of the uppermost level of the pier—a rooftop parking facility surrounded by a waist-high concrete wall—they could see everything.  They admired the Queen from stem to stern, taking in the anchor windlass, the lifeboats, the promenade decks, the navigating bridge with its oversized windows, the lavishly decorated passenger lounges, the swimming pools, and atop it all the famous red and black striped funnel that has for so long been emblematic of the Cunard Line.  They watched as middle-aged passengers casually sipped wine in deck chairs and as tuxedoed waiters danced attendance on pretty girls relaxing around the pool.  They asked many questions and listened carefully as I explained various aspects of the ship to them.  In addition to the Queen, there were tugboats and barges and other passenger ships moving about the neighborhood.  While these were all very interesting, the Queen nonetheless reigned supreme as the star of the show, and she commanded the children’s interest for the afternoon.

At 5:00pm, it was time to go.  Many things started to happen simultaneously.  The chief mate and several linehandlers appeared on the bow.  A younger officer with a similar group appeared on the stern.  Dock workers started to toss the mooring lines off the bollards on the pier and the crewmen aboard ship winched them in.  More dock workers removed the gangways and the crew then closed the sideports and secured them for sea.   A tugboat came along and towed away an oil barge that had been delivering fuel on the Queen’s starboard side.  Important looking personages stepped purposefully out onto the port side bridge wing—the master, the pilot, the mate of the watch.  These men and a host of others serving in less visible capacities would soon take the great ship to sea.

The Queen’s mighty whistle sounded a single prolonged blast which echoed off the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan—the signal for getting underway.  A moment later three shorts blasts sounded forth, signaling that the ship’s engines were now going astern.  As the whole family watched from the end of the pier where a small crowd had gathered, the Queen began to move, very slowly at first but then gaining momentum.  A space of open water formed between the ship and the pier as she backed out at a slight angle into the Hudson.  Propeller wash surrounded her stern and eddies of water swirled around her bow as the large hull gracefully pulled away from the city.

Soon the bridge wing would come abreast of the crowd at the end of the pier.  I picked up the two youngest children, Steven and Michael, so they could see over the heads and waving hands and balloons of the assembly.  James and Karen squeezed into an open space along the low wall at the end of the pier.  Miss Patty and I then squeezed in behind them.  As the Queen continued astern and the bridge wing came alongside the crowd, the children waved enthusiastically to the great men there who were directing her.  They all called out loudly,  “Hi, Captain!  Hi, Pilot!”  To all the children’s delight, these two great men took a moment from their duties to gaze down at them and smile and wave and return the friendly greetings.  Then, back to business, they looked sternward again as the Queen slowed and started turning upstream in a wide arc as she cleared the pier.

With her bow now pointing seaward, the Queen came to a momentary stop in mid-Hudson and then gradually started moving forward.  She would now proceed to sea.  We watched carefully as her propellers bit into the water and eased her ahead.  Her speed increased as she headed south and away from her audience on the pier.  She continued past many other piers where no doubt many other people were watching.  Eventually, she passed from sight.  The children waved a last good-bye to her as she became lost to view behind the buildings of Lower Manhattan.  Their previous excitement now gave way to melancholy as they expressed the wish that they could sail away on the Queen instead of walking back to the subway.

The Queen Elizabeth 2 was one of many merchant vessels that we took the children to see.  In the New England seaports closer to home they gazed upon oil tankers, bulk carriers, container ships, pilot boats, fishermen, and an occasional cruise ship.  But the purpose of these outings was as much to gaze upon the water as upon the shipping.  The words of England’s most famous merchant seaman, John Masefield, come to mind:

I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.1

We answered this “wild and clear call” many times.  In Portland and Portsmouth and Boston, at Nubble Light and the Footbridge Beach and Point Judith, we answered the call and were rewarded with many windy days, flying clouds, and spray flung from whitecaps.  We gazed upon “the lonely sea and sky”2 but without experiencing loneliness.  Instead we enjoyed the soothing feelings of peace and quiet and a renewed appreciation for the beauty of the Earth which only the sea and sky can generate.  In short, the seaside was our special place in which to feel the presence of the Spirit.  Even as young as the children were, they sensed this, too.  They would gaze upon the ocean with expressions of wonder showing on their faces.  In this way the innocence of childhood came face-to-face with the pristine natural elements of the sea and sky.  What a beautiful way to spend a day!

Of course, children being children, they did not simply sit and stare at the sea all the time.  They enjoyed many happy hours of splashing in the waves, climbing on the rocks, running across the beach, building sand castles, and eating picnic lunches.  Their fun was as limitless as the sea and sky around them.  And they always asked questions.  The waterfront was a place of learning as well as a place to feel the Spirit, and the children wanted to know everything.  How do lighthouses work?  What do the buoys mean?  How did you use the sun to navigate?  Did you miss Mommy when you were at sea?  And so on.  There was even the occasional language lesson.  One summer morning in Portsmouth we happened upon a freighter bearing Hellenic block letters that identified her as the  AΛEΞANΔPEIA     from  ΠEIPAIEΨΣ.  Suddenly called upon to remember the odd bits of Greek that I had learned in my vagabond youth, I explained to the children that this ship was the Alexandria from Piraeus.

Occasionally there was sadness.  Regrettably, the sea has not always been used for strictly peaceful purposes.  The lighthouse at Point Judith, Rhode Island, stands on a narrow spit of land that is surrounded on three sides by water, a truly beautiful location.  A historical marker on this site informs the visitor of a maritime battle that took place a few miles offshore in the final days of the Second World War.  On May 5, 1945, the American coal carrier Black Point was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-853.  On the following day, the U-853 was depth charged and sunk by a half-dozen American naval vessels.  Twelve men out of the crew of 46 aboard the Black Point perished, as did all 55 crewmen aboard the U-853.3  How tragic that 101 men lost their lives so unnecessarily, when the outcome of the war had already been determined, and in a place of such sublime and pristine beauty.  It grieved all of us to read the historical marker and contemplate these terrible events.  No doubt it grieved the Lord as well, for these seamen were all his children regardless of which side they had fought on during the war.

More happily, however, the innocence of childhood prevailed on these visits to the waterfront.  One thing that growing children like to do is eat, and our four had especially good appetites when next to salt water.  We always brought a picnic lunch with us, and if we left the house early enough we brought a picnic breakfast, too.  They dined with views of the sea in several locations.  The best one of all, though, was at the end of the breakwater in Portland Harbor in Maine.

This stone jetty extends 900 feet into the water from Spring Point in South Portland.  At its end stands the historic Spring Point Light, which warns arriving and departing ships of a section of shallow water at the harbor entrance and dates to 1879.  The breakwater that connects the light to the shore dates to 1951.  It has a reasonably flat walking surface, and visitors are free to hike out to the lighthouse.  People fish, eat, read, sunbathe, and relax on this jetty, but it does not get crowded.  From this vantage point one has unobstructed views of the city skyline and tanker docks to the left, and Casco Bay and its lush islands to the right with the Portland Head Light to the far right.  It is a truly beautiful place, and we have visited it with the children numerous times.  One of these occasions in particular stands out in memory.

It was in the late morning of Wednesday, August 7, 2002.  The sun shone brilliantly in a bright blue sky decorated with tufts of white altocumulus clouds.  We carried our lunch cooler to the end of the breakwater and sat down on the rocks with the lighthouse at our backs and the open water spread out before us.  Except for the line of stones and the lighthouse immediately behind us, we were surrounded by blue water—always a pleasant sensation.  We ate a leisurely and informal lunch as we enjoyed the unsurpassable beauty of the area.  Ferries periodically passed before us on their voyages between the city and Peaks Island and Long Island.  Then a tugboat materialized, passed in front of us, and proceeded seaward.  We watched as it went in the direction of Portland Head.  Before long, the bow of an incoming vessel appeared off Portland Head, and the tug went to meet it.  A merchant ship was coming into port, and we were there to see it!

The family watched in rapt attention as the tanker Nassau Spirit arrived.  A second tug went forth to meet her as she passed through Casco Bay.  Soon she stood abeam of Spring Point.  With the two tugboats’ assistance, she made a wide and graceful turn to come around the end of the breakwater.  Then, straightening her course, she made her approach to the Portland Pipeline pier a short distance to the left of the stone jetty in South Portland.  She eased her great bulk slowly alongside the pier and came to rest.  The tugboats held her securely in place until the mooring lines were made fast.

When they were finished with the Nassau Spirit, one of the tugboats headed seaward again to meet a second incoming vessel.  We watched again as the passenger ship Regal Empress came up the bay towards Portland.  An older vessel with traditional lines and fresh blue and white paint, she made an impressive sight as she passed abeam of the Spring Point Light.  But she did not dock at the Portland Pipeline pier.  With the tugboat’s assistance, the Regal Empress gracefully turned herself about and then backed alongside the passenger pier in Portland proper.

Two large merchant ships had arrived in Portland in succession, and we had watched them from the best seats in the house.  It had all happened literally right before our eyes—a thrill for the whole family, and one which brought back many memories for me.  It was a privilege to be present, all the more so because the Spirit was present, too.  Later in the day, it was very difficult to leave.

Another seaside spot that was difficult to leave, and for that matter, took considerable effort to get to, was Peggy’s Cove on the south coast of Nova Scotia.  The cove itself is a small fishing port surrounded by modest wood frame buildings and protected from the open ocean by a rolling landscape of solid rock.  In the center of this rock stands the famous Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse, a diminutive white tower with a red cap.  Tourists come in great numbers to see this.  We did, too, but we lingered longer, unable to pull ourselves away from the wide open Atlantic that stretched out seemingly endlessly before us.  It was an overcast Wednesday, June 25, 2003.  Both the sea and sky were largely gray, but even in this unremarkable weather, Peggy’s Cove stood out as an indescribably beautiful location.  Gray waves topped with white foamy crests rolled in towards the shore and washed up on the rocks.  The water made a soothing natural sound as it came ashore, like subtle background music.  There were plenty of visitors on the rocks, but it did not seem crowded.  Nor did it get noisy.  We could have sat on the rocks looking at the ocean all afternoon and felt quite undisturbed.  But the children had far too much energy for something so sedentary.

We walked into the little village.  Like most tourist attractions, it had a gift shop.  Like most gift shops, it sold a lot of junk.  But it also had a well stocked book section.  This was not junk.  There were history books, particularly the history of seafaring.  Much of this history had taken place in and just offshore of Nova Scotia.  Much of it had been peaceful, but some of it was not.  In recent years the coast of Nova Scotia had commanded the world’s attention in a terribly tragic way, and a monument just up the road commemorated the event.  It was not a shipping casualty, but ships and boats of various descriptions tended to the cleanup.

On September 2, 1998, a Swissair flight enroute from New York to Geneva diverted toward Halifax in order to make an emergency landing because of an onboard fire.  Unfortunately, this attempt proved unsuccessful, and the aircraft came down in the water just outside of Peggy’s Cove.  Everyone aboard perished in the accident.  The monument stands atop a hill overlooking the site where the airplane came down.  Inscribed in both English and French, its prose is clear and concise:

            In memory of                                      A la memoire
            the 229 men, women, and children     des 229 hommes, femmes, et enfants
            aboard Swissair flight 111                  qui ont perdu la vie au large de
            who perished off these shores                   ces cotes voi Swissair 111
            September 2, 1998.                             le 2 Septembre 1998.

            They have been joined to the              Ils appartiennent maintenant
            sea and sky.                                        au ciel et a la mer.

            May they rest in peace.                      Qu’ils reposent en paix.

Despite the horrific and violent nature of the accident, this monument overlooked a placid and quiet scene.  Shrubberies interspersed with rocks covered the slope that led down to the water.  From the walkway in front of the monument we looked upon a still landscape, a calm sea, and an overcast sky.  It was a very peaceful and spiritual location.  We did not speak.  The inscription on the stone had said it all, and there was nothing that we could add to it.  A few other visitors came along.  They also read the inscription and then gazed at the sea and sky.  No one spoke.  We exchanged only nods of acknowledgement.  The atmosphere was one of walking on hallowed ground.  Everyone was reverent and respectful.  The presence of the Spirit was obvious.

It was a time for quiet contemplation.  In considering the deaths of over 200 people, the words of Isaiah came to mind:

Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live;
and I will make an everlasting covenant with you (Isa. 55:3).

One of the best aspects of visiting the waterfront, whether at Peggy’s Cove or anywhere else, is the opportunity to do just as Isaiah said, to incline the ear and hear; in simple terms, to simply be quiet and listen to the still small voice.  In a world that is saturated with noise—blaring televisions, squawking loudspeakers, canned music, traffic jams, and people who talk incessantly but say nothing—the quiet, gentle, and soothing sounds of nature in the wind and surf come as medicine to the soul.  In these magnificent settings where earth, sea, and sky meet, the Spirit of the Lord resides and the still small voice speaks to us.  All we need do is go there and listen.  Not even a tragic accident or an act of war can prevent the Spirit from reaching us.

Several hundred miles to the southwest the Spirit reached us in an entirely different way.  On a rainy Saturday, August 24, 2002, my three sons and I drove from their Nana’s house on Long Island to Philadelphia on a family history expedition to visit the great passenger liner United States.  Built in Newport News, Virginia, the United States entered transatlantic service in 1952 and set speed records between New York and Europe that have gone unmatched since.  In her day she was the largest and fastest American merchant ship ever built, the flagship of the United States Lines, and the pride of the American Merchant Marine.  As a small child, I had the honor of seeing this great vessel at her Manhattan pier in the early 1960s.  My grandparents, Robert Burns and Julia Murphy, had the honor of sailing aboard her once, though somewhat before my time.  They left New York aboard the United States at noon on a rainy Friday, June 24, 1955 and sailed to Le Havre, France, arriving there in the evening of June 28.  From Le Havre they travelled by train to the sites of my grandfather’s engineering conferences.4

Because of the historical significance of the United States and the family history connection to her, I brought my sons to see her at Pier 82 in South Philadelphia.  My grandmother had noted that it “poured rain on [the] way to the ship”5 in 1955; appropriately, then, it poured rain with thunder and lightning on our way to the ship in 2002.  Unlike my grandparents, who had sailed on her when she was young and in her prime, when she was “the last word in everything”6 and had “every convenience on board”7 including “a regular moving picture theatre,”8  we visited her in her old age, and it showed.  Covered with dirt, peeling paint, and rust spots, the United States was held alongside the pier by miles of mooring lines, many more than were really necessary to keep her in place.  She was a forlorn sight, locked away in an industrial backwater.  Little wonder, though, as she had been taken out of service in 1969 and had received scant attention since.  Nonetheless, she was in her own way an impressive sight.  The rake of the funnels and the mast, the sweep of the promenade deck, the graceful curvature of the hull, the flare of the bow, the oversized bridge windows facing forward with confidence—it was all still proudly there.  No amount of dirt, peeling paint, or rust could erase the ship’s grand persona.  As my oldest son James remarked, “She still looks ready to race.”

And she really did.  I could easily visualize my grandparents standing at one of the large deck-to-overhead windows on the port side promenade and waving good-bye as the great ship eased away from her Manhattan pier, and I asked my boys to imagine such a scene, too.  This may have been a stretch for them, but the family history connection was undeniable.  I had a sense that my grandparents were watching us, not from the promenade deck of the United States, but another, higher, vantage point.  It was a special moment.  Naturally, I took several photographs, especially after the rain had stopped.  One shows James, Steven, and Michael standing on the dock with the United States looming large behind them.  I later gave a framed enlargement of this picture to my parents.  They immediately put it on display in their living room.  Because it bridged four generations of the family, it meant a great deal to them.

It didn’t show that much in the photograph, but South Philly was everything that Spring Point and Peggy’s Cove were not—part of the “opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11), no doubt.  An industrial neighborhood of battered pavement, railroad sidings, truck terminals, warehouses, freighter piers, overflowing dumpsters, and barbed wire fences, it hardly seemed the place to go to feel the Spirit and hear the still small voice.  And yet they were both present.  Despite the difficulty of driving in the pitch dark through heavy rain and heavy traffic to get there, and afterwards fighting a traffic jam the size of New Jersey to return to Long Island,  the presence of the Spirit and the feeling of closeness to deceased yet still beloved family were unmistakable.  It was truly well worth the effort.  Perhaps because it required such an effort, I appreciated it all the more.

Living inland as we do, it always involves some effort to answer “the call of the running tide”9 and go to the sea again.  But it is always worth the effort.  We have never been disappointed.  No matter what the weather conditions are, no matter what the location is, no matter what time of day or night it is, the sea always calls and the Spirit of the Lord always stands watch over it.  Just as the call of the tide is clear and undeniable, so the presence of the Spirit is also clear and undeniable.  Just as the tide flows endlessly between the coastal estuaries and the open ocean, so the Spirit also flows endlessly between the celestial and earthly realms.  For centuries and even millennia, humans have spoken of “the eternal sea.”  Just as eternal as the sea are its Creator, his Spirit, and his people and their families.  When we visit the waterfront, the still small voice testifies of this.

1 John Masefield, “Sea-Fever,” in Salt-Water Poems and Ballads, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916, p. 55. 
2 Ibid.
4 Information from my grandmother’s travel journal, entries dated June 24, 1955, and June 28, 1955.
5 Ibid.
6 Letter from my grandmother, dated June 28, 1955.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 John Masefield, op. cit.