By Suzy Beal
This is the third episode of a memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas. Click here to read the earlier episodes.
We boarded our ship the next day. Once aboard the Italian Line “Augustus,” a trans-Atlantic liner, we found our cabins below decks in the depths of the ship.
Notes to Harbor Light
(The editor of our high school newspaper had asked me to write to him about our travel experiences.)
As we sailed out of the New York Harbor passing the Statue of Liberty, I wanted to wave at her, but I didn’t want to appear foolish. When our ship sailed past her, she looked smaller than I imagined her to be. I remembered stories and pictures I’d seen of the immigrants coming to this country and seeing her for the first time. My heart swelled with a sense of pride that my country had been a haven for so many. I felt as though I was going the wrong direction.
By sheer coincidence I’d chosen to read “Exodus” by Leon Uris during this voyage across the U.S. and the Atlantic Ocean. I spent hours reading and living the life of the Jews leaving their homelands. My voyage didn’t compare, but I understood what it meant to leave home. Everything for me now was about leaving, leaving friends, my horse, our home, our town, our country, and now the Statue of Liberty. My thoughts are with you all back in Newport.
Our first day and night out, we encountered rough seas and four of us got seasick.
“Mom, is this seasickness? I think I have to throw-up.”
“Yes, honey. Throw-up if you can, it always makes me feel better.”
“Will I be sick for the whole five days crossing the Atlantic?”
“Probably not, you will get your sea legs and then it isn’t as bad. Maybe the ocean will calm down, too.”
I was nauseous with the rolling of the ship and seeing Mom sick added to my fear of this huge ocean. Mom kept Frank and Conrad with her in the cabin. Jan and I stayed below decks helping to entertain them while Dad and the older boys spent their time on deck.
Carl came rushing in “You guys should come on deck and see the huge waves crashing over the bow, it’s so wild up there.” He was trying to keep us informed of the happenings on deck, not that we cared. I couldn’t imagine wanting to watch the ocean and I feared we might just roll over and never come up again.
Suddenly, loud buzzers sounded filling our stateroom with noise. Mom, Jan and I stared at each other. Dad appeared at the door saying, “It’s just a drill, it’s just a drill, but you need to come on deck. The ship’s crew need tell us what to do in a real emergency.” Mom moaned, but we drug ourselves on deck to the main lobby. They showed us how to put on life preservers. They directed us to where the life boats hung off the side of the ship. My mind swirled with the possibilities. I’d read of the Titanic, but I never thought we faced the possibility of sinking. I didn’t want to know we were vulnerable.
Once our seasickness subsided, we joined the others at mealtimes. Since the ship was of Italian registry, most of the waiters and ship’s personnel were Italian. They assigned us a specific table we shared with other passengers. We couldn’t make our likes and dislikes known in a foreign language, so we had to accept whatever they served to us. A salad served for lunch one day proved to be the first of many culture shocks. “Mom, what are these things with legs?” I lifted the lettuce leaves and found my plate loaded with these creatures sliding around in the oily dressing.
“I think they are pickled baby squid,” Mom explained.
“What’s a squid?” we asked in unison.
“You don’t have to eat them, just push them off to one side.”
Not eat them! I wasn’t going to eat the lettuce they touched! My stomach lurched again. The waiter shook his head at all the baby squid left on our plates.
It was our youngest brother, Frank, who broke the class barrier first. We learned upon boarding we had tourist class tickets, which entitled us to certain liberties and not others such as First Class luxuries. There were whole decks off limits to us. This became a challenge for my brothers. One day little Frank went missing. Mom panicked, although she never said it out loud, we understood what she was thinking. Dad tried to reassure her.
“Check out the enclosure around the entire ship, he couldn’t have fallen overboard.” Mom didn’t look convinced. We spread out over the decks calling his name, but we kept coming to the doors we couldn’t open. Dad explained our distress to a crew member, and he ushered Dad onto the First Class decks. There Dad discovered Frank swinging on the knee of a gentleman seated at the bar. At six years of age, blond hair, blue eyes, and a smile that came from his heat, he charmed everyone. The older gentleman, delighted with Frank, didn’t know to whom he belonged. He didn’t speak much English and Frank didn’t speak Italian, so they only exchange smiles.
Mom became friendly with the wife of a missionary. They were returning to Africa with their young daughters. She told us stories of living in Africa that worried me. Would we have to use out-houses? Would there be doctors to cure our illnesses? The missionaries told us bananas were the only safe fruit to eat without becoming sick as other fruits needed washing, but the water carried dysentery. “What is dysentery, Mom?” Mom frowned and her eyes squinted as she listened to these stories. I tried to remember Dad and Tom’s visit to Mallorca a few months earlier to pick out a place for us to live. They didn’t talk of these hardships. Their pictures and reports showed civilized towns. Our only other source had been that National Geographic magazine article on Mallorca. I kept remembering those pictures while the missionaries talked of the awful conditions in Africa. I wondered why they returned year after year with their little girls if it wasn’t safe.
© 2018 Suzy Beal
Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com. Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted on the last Wednesday of each month! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.