A Christmas Cruise to Remember

The cruise-ship Crown princess completed a four-week exotic journey across the Pacific on Sunday in Los Angeles with some 170 of its 4,100 passengers or workers having suffered from the highly contagious Norovirus, which celebrates its activities in the human body by driving up the temperature, making the bones feel like they're under an 18-wheeler and causes all gastric-located substances to vacate the body from any orifice available, though perspiration pores seem ineligible, thankfully. The CP is known for this sort of activity, but nevertheless departed Sunday evening with a few thousands more for some exotic spots in Mexico, after being scrubbed with (at least hopefully) stringent Norovirus-killers.

All of which is to stir remembrances going back to Christmas-day 1948 not of Norovirus but of an even worse disruption of the gastrointestinal system—yep—seasickness, that affliction with no more cause than simple motion...okay violent simple motion. I was hardly a month out of boot camp during which I spent some three weeks in Sick Bay (infirmary) in Great Lakes Naval Base's Camp Moffett taking some 64 shots of Penicillin over eight days for pneumonia, a stroke of luck excusing me from a week of KP and maybe two weeks of other torture altogether. My recovery was hurried along when I was given a tray of alcohol filled with alcohol and injection-needles and told to run a thin wire through each one to scrape out human tissue.

On Christmas 1948, I was part of ship's company on the USS Coral Sea spending my work-time in dry-dock each day holding a fire extinguisher next to a welder making repairs, when the call came for volunteers for temporary duty on the USS Saipan, heading out that day from Norfolk to rescue 11 downed Air Force crewmen on ice-covered Greenland. Bored to madness and never having even seen the ocean, I volunteered, crammed all my worldly belongings in my sea-bag and joined the Saipan just in time for Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, including a fine cigar to finish in style.

We had hardly cleared Norfolk when we entered what was either a late hurricane or nor-easter or both. I was in the farthest aft compartment staked out on the top rack, with four more below me—perfect for such privacy as existed. Soon, the ship began to roll over-and-back and tremble occasionally from stem to stern with its twin-screws (propellers) actually coming out of the water and its bow awash nearly to the flight deck. This was a 700-foot carrier, not a kayak and I wondered about this, especially when the word was passed that no one—but, NO one—was to go topside (outdoors) for fear of being blown away...so, naturally I headed for the near topside catwalk.

I had ample time, before being caught, to witness what I could never have imagined in reading all the sea-sailing-novels (remember Howard Pease?) in the Danville High School library. On that large ship, I could look UP and see more water than sky and the waves rolling OVER the BOW. The cork-screw motion was too exhilarating for words. BUT, the violent motion brought on sea-sickness, even to the captain and a movie-news crew (probably the old Movie-Tone) aboard to film the rescue. Soon, the GI (trash) cans, decks and heads (bathrooms) were inundated with gastric elements from hundreds of Christmas dinners embellished with cigars.

Tables were not set up on the mess deck. Sailors who could went through the line (pork chops and the works) and sat around the bulkheads on deck but soon everything was sliding the 70 or so feet from one side of the ship to the other—an unholy mess, but it was funny to see guys try to walk across that mess only to go down and join it. I got lucky and listened to an old cook in the galley who set out piles of saltines on a table that night, told us young sailors to stuff our pockets with them and eat only them for a coupla days. I did that and was never sea-sick then or later no matter how rough the seas.

By the time we fought our way through those seas to Cape Farewell on 28 December, the Air Force had already rigged a plane with skids and picked up the plane-crew. For some strange reason, the captain decided to fly a plane off for mail or to deliver something, and I was told to point a fire extinguisher nozzle at its exhaust pipes (I'd never done that) while the motor was started. Fire flew everywhere and I lowered my head as the ship turned into the wind with wind chill at about zero. I felt my 125 pounds being blown down the deck but latched on to a landing wire strip and held on for dear life until I could make it to the catwalk. For an 18-year-old who had never seen the ocean, this was a thrill. The plane did NOT take off. The ship lost one gun on its bow and all of its antennas.

Ironically, a few months later while I was stationed on the USS Palau, a “baby carrier,” I got bereavement leave due to the death of my grandfather and was transferred by helicopter to the Saipan just off Gitmo for the trip home, during which we hit a storm so bad that somewhere off the coast of Florida the ship was turned around and headed back south until things calmed down. The outer hull had ruptured on the starboard side and clanged back and forth 24/7 thundering the noise throughout the ship, sorta like when as a boy I clicked a tin-can top back and forth with my thumbs and fingers. The two smaller destroyers accompanying us were heeling over at least 70 degrees before righting but kept on heading for Norfolk, mostly in the water rather than on it.

When I was a locomotive engineer decades later, a tornado ripped through the center of a freight train I was throttling near Moreland, Ky., and I saw a lot of havoc wreaked but I never saw any act of Nature then or ever again to compare with those two storms at sea.

And so it goes.
Jim Clark