Cell phones, microwave ovens, and the “Internet” existed only in sci-fi TV series like Lost in Space; seat belts weren’t mandatory yet; gasoline was 34 cents a gallon; color television had just become widespread in the US and was being introduced to the Philippines in small, incremental stages; and CBS’ iconic “60 Minutes” program would premiere in that fall.
Barely had we began our trip in Hong Kong than news flashed that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. The Prague Spring was in progress. Two weeks later, when we were in Nice, chaos erupted at Columbia University in New York City when students took over major buildings. “People Power” wasn’t in vogue yet, but a month later, we had luckily left Paris behind when the City of Light, in turn, fell into an anarchic state.
It was against this larger, chaotic canvas that we began our own travel adventure which we had planned for over a year.
Remembering and Honoring my Mother
With this article, I would like to belatedly honor my mother, Dr. Lydia Molina-Garcia, by sharing memories of our Atlantic crossing fifty years ago. My mother was among many things, a provider, a caring physician, an artist, a seamstress supreme, and a self-made businesswoman. She was also a survivor—having graduated from the UP College of Medicine during the Japanese occupation in 1943. She then completed her residency at the PGH (Philippine General Hospital) while much of Manila was being shelled and pulverized during Liberation.
She married my father in 1946, established a thriving medical practice, and raised a family in suburban San Juan, Rizal. In later years, she was extremely active in various civic-medical societies (Philippine Women’s Doctors Association, the Rizal and San Juan Medical Societies, of which she was president [1976-77], and spearheaded numerous charitable activities).
Above all, I remember Mom as a giving humanist who paid back the hard-earned opportunities that came her way, helping many people less fortunate than her -- she came from a very needy background herself -- and still providing generously for her own as well. She paid things forward more than she took.
Planning the Great Adventure
My brothers and I have been Titanic rivet-counters/ocean-liner aficionados since time immemorial, so when planning the 1968 trip, crossing the Atlantic by ship was a seriously favored option.
Mom, sole femme in the family, thought it would be too expensive vs. just flying. The guys argued that it would cost just a little more but worth the experience. So, Mom was outvoted; and she eventually came around to our perspective. Thank our lucky stars for that.
Lest the reader get the impression that I came from dynastic, oligarchic clans like the Ayalas or Madrigals, etc., or corrupt Marcos-crony sources, let me set the record straight: our assets came entirely from legitimate, honest, and hard-earned means. While my father had some farm lands, it was Mom, with a successful practice going, who earned and set funds aside for two years so we could afford the grand vacation of 1968. Thus, I most proudly and lovingly honor her memory here.
Further, the exchange rate at the time was still in our favor. While it was going into the third year of the Marcos presidency, he hadn’t wrecked the Philippine economy yet in 1968. So, the exchange rate of the peso to the US dollar was only 2.5 Php to one US $ (est.). Also, we timed it so that my youngest brother could travel on half-fare, not being quite twelve years old. (Today, he would most probably pay a full adult fare.) With all that taken into account, it was going to be an affordable and manageable vacation.
The big question during the planning was, should we book passage on the SS France or on the sole American ship plying the north Atlantic? The Cunard queens were out of contention since the RMS Queen Mary was already on its way to her permanent home as a hotel/tourist attraction in Long Beach harbor in 1967, and RMS Elizabeth I was being decommissioned in 1968.
Since the SS France was more expensive and we didn’t speak French, it was the SS United States by default. Also, we felt that the SS United States would be, well, more egalitarian. (And this was before “third world” personnel, like Filipinos, were employed on luxury liners – unlike today with the prevalent presence of Filipinos in all classes of cabin service on the cruise ships.)
The United States was also definitely less class-conscious than the French ship. Premiere Classe was still First Class but 2nd/Duxième Classe was Cabin Class, and 3rd/Troisieme Classe (or “Steerage” on the Titanic) was “Tourist” on the US ship. It might have been a matter of semantics, but it did remove the stiff snootiness and rigid class system of the British-French liners.
The “Mostest” Ship on the High Seas
The SS United States was the pride and flagship of the small American civilian maritime fleet. The ocean voyage as a rite of passage began at the start of the 20th century with the likes of the Titanic, the Mauretania, the Queen Mary, etc., in a time when moguls and titans of industry, celebrities, major and minor, of the day, and those afraid to fly, crossed the north Atlantic on those floating palaces. It was the more leisurely way to travel before passenger jets and the jumbos took over and ruled the transatlantic skies.
These days, taking a sea voyage is back in style although the more proper term is “cruising.” Booking a cruise today is just a phone call or a click or two on your computer keyboard away. There are more than a dozen major cruise brands than you can shake a stick at, and each season, they come out with one more, big behemoth—floating “mini-cities” actually—which displace the volume of Lake Superior when they pull into ports like Venice and Pireus.
Because they were primarily like a shuttle business, the ocean liners raced against the clock and staked their reputations on it. The SS United States was the last north Atlantic liner to win the prestigious Blue Riband honor for the highest average speed since starting service. On her maiden voyage in 1952, she crossed the Atlantic in three days, eleven hours, vs. the usual four days. Of course, that was just for securing the Blue Riband title and snatching it away from the British liners. However, once she won the honor, her actual top speed (supposedly 43 knots or 80 kmh or 49 mph)) was never achieved again, on purpose, as it was kept a military secret until declassified in 1977.1
The SS United States was also the largest ocean liner built in the US, constructed mostly of aluminum for both weight and fire safety considerations; and entirely state-of-the-art in 1950-51. Building the ship with a mostly aluminum superstructure was determined by lessons learned from the burning of the SS France’s predecessor, the SS Normandie, the pride of the pre-WW2 French civilian maritime fleet.
The Normandie, considered the most beautiful and glamorous of the pre-WW2 luxury liners—a floating showcase of mid-20th century French Art Deco style, burned to a crisp while being retrofitted as a troop carrier on New York’s Pier 88 in 1942. Most of the French ship’s Art Deco furnishings were made of wood and other luxurious, flammable material, when an errant spark sent it all up in flames.
The highest safety standards were set in planning the new US ship. So thorough were the fireproof precautions that the ballroom's grand piano was originally to be made of aluminum until Steinway found a rare, fire-resistant wood variety. In the cabins, even the clothes hangers were made of aluminum rather than wood—a little declassé but at least fire-proof.
Planning our overall trip—land and sea—for almost 90 days, hinged on picking a sailing date to cross the Atlantic. That was the linchpin of the overall schedule. Once we settled on a sailing date, everything else fell in to place. We booked two rooms in Cabin Class (since First Class was way out of our price range): an inner, windowless cabin for the three boys, and a starboard-side cabin, with porthole, naturally, for Mom and Dad.
With the Grand Tour of Europe behind us, we were ready for Act II of the trip—crossing the Atlantic by ship and visiting the US and relatives there. On May 23, 1968, we left Waterloo Station in London to catch the 9:00 a.m. United States Lines train to Southampton, as thousands before us had done. It was an uneventful train ride, except for a lot of gray, colorless, still Dickensian towns along the route.
We arrived in Southampton at around 10:30 a.m. The train pulled right into the embarkation terminal. There she was, the SS United States—the gleaming liner on the quay. I think it was the biggest thing I had ever seen at the time, a sight straight out of the Titanic film.
We boarded the ship around 11:30 a.m. We quickly found our cabins, and when the suitcases arrived, we settled in. We then had our first meal onboard, a light lunch, before casting off at 1:30 p.m. As soon as we were out at sea, the lifeboat drill was called. After the unequaled tragedy of the Titanic in 1912, a lifeboat drill was instituted and became mandatory on all passenger ships.
The greatest memory of the voyage also turned out to be its greatest paradox. For the first three days of the crossing, because of particularly rough seas, three guys (my father, my second brother, David, and I) who were so gung-ho on taking a ship were, for the most part, confined in bed due to seasickness. Even the Dramamine didn’t help much. Mom and Philip, however, turned out to have the worthiest sea legs.
Since food and fare were prepaid, we could, like on today’s cruises, have as much food as we could humanly consume (although not on a 24-hour basis). I remember ordering chateaubriand and Maine lobster more than once during the fifteen meals we had onboard. However, the three guys could not keep most of the superb food down.
As there were no closed-circuit television sets or DVDs in the cabins yet, you were stuck with whatever films were being shown at the theater. Thus, we trooped over to the First/Cabin Class cinema when we could manage it. For five days, we were stuck with two movies—Hollywood films, of course. No cinema verité European films. The two flicks were Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Happiest Millionaire, a cringe-worthy Disney film which boasted Fred MacMurray, Jr., the thoroughly artificial Greer Garson, and Tommy Steele of the blindingly incandescent smile. (Dad wasn’t really all that interested in musicals.)
Arrival in New York
The days at sea slipped by fast. On the fourth night, still some 400 miles off Newfoundland, Canada, I was sure we sailed close to the fateful spot where the Titanic went down fifty-six years earlier. Finally, on May 28, 1968, after 4.5 cold, rather rough days in the Atlantic, we reached US waters and sailed into New York harbor.
Waiting at the harbor was the Statue of Liberty, standing proud and tall. It truly was an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience—getting my first glimpse of America and entering under the gaze of the Great Lady of the Harbor. (The twin World Trade Center towers weren’t up yet.) This was the same sight that greeted millions of immigrants before me; those who answered poet Emma Lazarus’ call:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
I wasn’t aware of those magnificent words yet back then, and I would not begin my own immigrant journey until four years later, in 1972, but from the Pacific side.
Once the SS United States docked, we collected our luggage and cleared Customs & Immigration (back then, a not-so fearful force yet). Meeting us was Aunt Laura, mom’s first cousin, who was now a New York City resident. We hadn’t seen her in seven years. We stayed with her for a week or so. Reuniting with fun Aunt Laura is another story unto itself.
After we had returned to Manila and resumed our normal lives, we were both saddened and relieved to learn that the SS United States was being taken out of service after the 1969 season, due to falling ridership. We were saddened in that a vaunted way of life was being shut down yet relieved that we undertook a unique experience before they pulled away the gangplank for good.
(Similar Southampton-to-New York cruises are now available on a new Queen Mary 2, operated by Cunard, for as little as $999 for an inside stateroom on a seven-day transatlantic crossing.)
Sunset of the American Empire?
Over the last three decades, various efforts to revive the SS United States as a cruise ship or a docked casino have all come to naught. There is the small conservancy group keeping her on life support, away from the scrap heap. Oddly enough, she sits in dry dock outside the city where the American republic and empire were born, Philadelphia. Is that an augur for this hypocritical Make America Great Again era of Donald Trump that signals the demise of the American empire? Time will tell.
When I returned to live in New York in 1972, the transatlantic passenger trade had dried up and the fabled liners were gone. Today, fifty years later, they are just ghosts of a bygone age that sort of live on in online fan websites.
Finally, I don’t think I ever thanked my mother enough for all that she did and was. Enduring thanks, Mom, for memories of a lifetime and your love. We miss you every day.
Thanks to my brother, David M. Garcia, MD, for resurrecting photographs that I thought were lost and still recalling many of the trip’s details.
Myles A. Garcia is a Correspondent and regular contributor to www.positivelyfilipino.com. His newest book, “Of Adobe, Apple Pie, and Schnitzel With Noodles – An Anthology of Essays on the Filipino-American Experience and Some. . .”, features the best and brightest of the articles Myles has written thus far for this publication. The book is presently available onamazon.com (Australia, USA, Canada, Europe, and the UK).
Myles’ two other books are: Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies (latest edition, 2016); and Thirty Years Later . . . Catching Up with the Marcos-Era Crimes published last year, also available from amazon.com.
Myles is also a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) for whose Journal he has had two articles published; a third one on the story of the Rio 2016 cauldrons, will appear in this month’s issue -- not available on amazon.
Finally, Myles has also completed his first full-length stage play, “23 Renoirs, 12 Picassos, . . . one Domenica”, which was given its first successful fully Staged Reading by the Playwright Center of San Francisco. The play is now available for professional production, and hopefully, a world premiere on the SF Bay Area stages.
For any enquiries on the above: contact email@example.com
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