Friday, October 9, 2009

A Little Slice Of History

This entry may seem a bit less about writing than it is about personal history. But maybe the fact that it is written makes it writing enough.

Have you ever come across something on the Internet that strikes you as deja vu? That maybe you were somehow connected to the story or image? Here's a bit of a personal journal entry about a recent such encounter I had.

I saw a photo of an old steam ship which had been captured and frozen in time by a German photographer about 15 years ago, similar to the photo below. It was a ship which, as it turns out, has particular personal meaning to me, my three sisters and my mom.

I had seen this photo of the ship months ago---several times in fact. At the time, it struck me as just another photo, albeit a rather remarkable one for lots of different reasons. I mean, how often might one see a huge ocean liner stuck on a beach, virtually fully exposed from its keel to its stacks, rusting away but still magnificent looking even in its decay? Indeed it was a bit spooky in a ghost ship kind of way. Yet it wasn't until recently that I realized that the ship in the photo was not just any ship.

I'm not certain why but in somewhat of a reflective moment recently, I felt compelled to do a search on the SS America to see where it might be these days. You'll see the connection in a minute. I came across several sites with photos and history, including information about plans to convert the ship into a floating hotel or a museum. One such website was created by a former crew member trying to locate other former crew members and passengers who had traveled on the ship. I think he wanted to set up reunions and collect memorabilia people might still have.

Then out of the blue, a slide show arrived in my e-mail---a total coincidence. You know how these things on the Internet can just show up. I don't often spend time browsing through photo files. But I must admit to enjoying all the various scenes the photographer had captured in this slideshow. I was particularly drawn to the photo of a huge passenger liner which had apparently run aground and was being battered by the waves like a beached whale. That's when it struck me that this haunting photo looked very much like some of the photos I had seen during my Internet search of the SS America.

So, why the interest, you may ask. In fact, the ship in the slide show is the former SS America on which my Mom, sisters and I crossed the Atlantic in 1963. I was 16 at the time. It so happened that the photo was taken very shortly after the ship had run aground in the Canary Islands in 1994, over 30 years later. I hadn't realize at the time we were aboard that we had been on one of the final Atlantic crossings while the ship still carried the proud name SS America.

I have a vague memory of some talk when we were on the ship that the United States Lines was thinking about selling the ship to another company. But that seemed unbelievable to me. After all, how could the United States even think about selling the ship which had been the symbol of America on the High Seas for over two decades?

Alas, it was indeed sold in 1964 to a foreign shipping company. In the 30 years that followed, it would change hands and names several times until a powerful Atlantic storm ripped it away from its towing boats en route to what was to be its hotel conversion. Adrift, it finally ran aground in the Canary Islands and that was the end of it. The photographer had been in the right place at the right time to catch the ship while it was still intact and basically upright. For very soon after the photo was taken, the opportunity to capture this moment in time was lost.

Looking at the photo of the iron carcass still leaves me with a melancholy feeling---wishing I could have gone to the Canary Islands to see the ship while it was still in one piece---an opportunity missed. Now there is nothing much to see. The ship split apart in the pounding waves shortly after running aground. Over what some have reported as being a ten-year period the ship finally sank in pieces. At low tide, only a small chunk of it can sometimes be seen sticking out of the water---a sad ending to a grand old lady.

So, if you happen to see the photo of the ship as the slide show drifts by on the Internet, make note that the SS America was once among the grandest ships on the High Seas. This one-time passenger in the spring of 1963 remembers her in her glory.

Here is a URL to the site with the ship's history along with photos in her prime and in her decline: .