The SS United States has been laid up in Philadelphia for many years now. She has not sailed under her own power since 1969.
Her final voyage returned from Europe bound for New York, collecting my parents, our 1963 Rambler and myself in Southampton U.K. along the way and then never setting out to sea under steam again.
I was only five years old at the time and it was all part of a great adventure. My father had just retired from the U.S. Army; his final posting had been in West Germany and we took several months to travel around the continent before returning home by ship. The military used to pay to ship personal vehicles overseas and probably still do sometimes. Apparently my parents wanted to take full advantage of that service. It all certainly made an impression on me.
I remember boarding the ship but I don’t think I ever saw its profile with the huge red, white and blue smoke stacks from a distance. It was just a giant black wall with round windows that we passed through at the pier in Southampton. My father had gone ahead to load the car the day before. He then returned to my mother’s parents’ house in Birmingham in a rental car and picked up my mother and me.
I had the general idea of what was going on. We had been on the channel ferries on five different occasions prior to that and I had the distinct impression that the ship was a giant ferry. I think that was influenced by the design of the ship. The United States had been designed to be entirely fire resistant, so the interior was entirely devoid of the sort of wood paneling that are the most charming feature of her main competitor the RMS Queen Mary.
It was November and once out in the North Atlantic it started to get rough. My only memory of the next couple of days was that it was very rough and I stayed in bed seasick. Our tourist class cabin was near to the water line and when I finally felt well enough to start acting like a curious five year old and looked out the porthole a big wave rolled up to give me a splendid view of bottomless, green ocean. I was terrified. I don’t think I went near the porthole again, at all.
There were a few things beyond that, which I remember fairly clearly. The main dining room, which was decorated in warm cream and gold colors; I have never been able to find a photograph of it, just pictures of the first class dining room above it. A family with children invited me to go to the movie theater with them. It was some cartoon, I don’t remember what it was but not a Disney film as far as I recall. We only saw about half before their toddler started to get restless and act out. The mother’s response was to take us out to the lounge. I never have known what that movie was or how it ended.
The next memory I have was a children’s party. The entertainment was balloon animals and I was amazed. A clown blowing up long balloons and twisting them into animal-like shapes was something I had never seen before and I was fascinated! Probably, if asked at the time what was the best part of the trip? I would have said balloon animals.
We arrived in New York in the darkness of the early hours of the fifth day of the journey. I was rudely awakened and bundled up in my warmest clothes just in time to be on deck to pass under a huge suspension bridge, obviously the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and a big green statue of a lady with a torch, wrapped in a toga. “So What?” I thought to myself I’ve seen animals magically made out of balloons. “What could possibly top that?”
About three years ago I discovered on Wikipedia that America’s flagship ocean liner had not been scrapped years ago. My mother had told me that we had been on the final sailing and that after that she had been scrapped (the ship I mean) a not unreasonable assumption, because that is what generally happened to old ocean liners. Both of my parents have long since passed and many of my most treasured memories of them are from 1969. When I found that the “Big U” is still afloat it brought back that year in much more vivid detail than I ever could have imagined. At one time we had all of the usual leaflets and brochures that you get with your ticket. Those are long gone now. It wasn’t until I rediscovered the ship that I understood what valuable mementos they would be to me now, if I still had them.
The ship is now in the possession of a nonprofit conservancy group that is determined to save her and put her to use as a hotel and museum in a way that is appropriate to her historic status. She is fundamentally sound, having been built to exacting naval standards but she needs a home, a new career and a lot of paint and repair. I hope they can save her.