SS UNITED STATES
She was framed symmetrically in my rearview mirror, an elongated picture post card hanging above my dash board. I drove as slowly as possible to keep her there as I headed south across the James River on Interstate Highway 664 and she traveled east into Hampton Roads. The alignment was perfect for over a mile. The time was ten minutes to nine on the morning of June 4, 1992, and that was the last I saw of her.
Looking back, she was mine. What a sight! There was no bright sunlight to show her streaked paint and faded stacks. They and the rake of her hull gave the illusion of speed. She was every inch the Blue Riband winner. The tow bridle was not visible and to my mind she moved under her own power. It was not the first time she brought tears to my eyes.
For young teens in the early fifties in Newport News, Virginia, things were pretty ordinary and dull, except for the fantastic ship being built in the local shipyard. We read her specifications (those that were not top-secret) in the paper and marvelled at her size. She was a frequent topic of conversation in families because most fathers worked on her or close by in the Yard. We all had the feeling she was ours. We heard details of the construction of her all-aluminum superstructure. We heard the rumors and speculation about her potential speed and her ability to be quickly converted for use as a troop ship by the Navy. "The fastest ship in the world," we heard. She was said to be virtually fireproof and built with watertight compartments so she couldn't be sunk (at least not by an iceberg). We were so proud when famous government people came to the Yard to look her over. (These days we call that a photo-op.)
She made us feel improtant. On the way to Sunday school each week we checked on her progress as we drove past. After school on Tuesdays, she was the topic of our Mariner Scout Troop meetings. We had chosed her to be "our" ship and eventually, because of that, we attended her christening!
We stood warm in the crowd in our long-sleeved sailor dresses and hats, thrilled and excited. During our tour of the ship our guide pointed out that each of the forty-eight states had contributed something to the ship. We remarked on the blue and green decor, noting smugly that usually those colors "didn't go together," but that they were used with distinction on our ship. To our minds the etched glass and aluminum artwork represented "modern art," but we were able to appreciate its classical deep-sea themes. We knew what we liked.
Enthusiasm for the ship was a community thing, but it probably never entered the minds of most of us to ever hope to sail on her. And most of us did not. She left us for her home port in New York City, a world apart. We later shared the excitement when she returned to the Yard for yearly maintenance. She was still our ship.
I foolishly continued to feel personally connected to her when, in later years, I saw her docking or leaving Pier 86 at the west end of 46th Street in New York. But I was not the only one. She attracted attention with her coming and going even in Manhattan. Her deep-throated whistle rattled windows. Tugs tooted, bells rang, and people stopped to watch her when they could. Who doesn't stop to watch a parade?
We don't like parades to end. We are forced to leave the euphoria behind with the ticker tape and horse do. After her parade it was no different. In her case the clean up crew shamefully cleaned her out and stripped and sold most of her insides when she was retired in 1969 after 400 voyages.
People who wanted to get across the ocean in a hurry were becoming jet-setters. American union maritime workers wanted higher hourly wages than workers from other countries. It became impractical to run her.
In later years while she sat docked in Norfolk or Newport News I'd sail close for a look with a horrible sense of her defenselessness. I would helplessly moan something about somebody should do something and shrug my shoulders.
On that day in '92, somebody did something. They had her towed for 36 days across the ocean to Turkey, where she was to have her super fire-retardant asbestos removed and be refitted as a cruise ship. The refitting never materialized and now she is back in this country, thank goodness, and docked at a private dock in Philadelphia with paint peeling. For some reason it was not to be prosperous to run her on the Bosporus.
Now her fate is largely in the hands of at least two organizations--seemingly at odds over her future. One, the S. S. United States Foundation, wants her to be docked somewhere meaningful to her history, designated a national monument, and maintained as a museum.
The other, the United States Conservancy, is working with her current owners, Norwegian Cruise Lines, exploring the possiblity of having her refitted and put to sea once again, this time as a cruise ship.
That company at least offers some validity to the dream. They have recently launched a ship, The Pride of America, and developed on-board a library dedicated to the memory of the sister ship to the SS United States, the SS America. NCL apparently has an interest in preserving the maritime heritage of these ships, whereas no one in our country can afford it. (NCL is receiving a subsidy from our government enabling The Pride of America to be the first cruise ship to sail under the American flag. As part of this arrangement workers on board must be American, thus allowing this ship to cruise the Hawaiian Islands).
Personally, I'd probably be more likely to visit her again as a museum than to go on a cruise on her, so I lean more to that outcome. I'd prefer either result, though, to thinking of her being totally dismantled and sold off as just so many tons of scrap.