ATWELL: Off To Civitan Convention, Lad Sailed On Packet Line


Off To Civitan Convention,

Lad Sailed On Packet Line

Young Jim Atwell embarked for Norfolk, Va., on the Baltimore Steam Packet Co.’s SS President Warfield, named after the company’s president.

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

Fifteen years old. Never away from home overnight without my parents. And yet, wonderful! Sprung loose for two days on my own – with the night in between to be spent on a 250-mile trip on a steam packet, traveling down Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore, Md., to Norfolk, Va.

Jim Atwell, a Quaker minister and retired college administrator, lives in Cooperstown.

I owe that dazzling adventure to the Annapolis Civitan Club, which had a junior branch in my high school.

I was an officer of the junior club and several times had spoken at the senior club’s luncheons, reporting on our doings.

Admittedly I’ve always had a wide vocabulary and an easy flow in using it. And, impressed by the skills, the senior club’s president hatched a bright idea: The Civitan national convention would be gathering in June, down in Norfolk – about a thousand Civitaners from across the country, conducting the organization’s business by day and conviviating, genteely, in the evenings.

The Annapolis president’s idea: Why not send this well-spoken, if scrawny and bespectacled, boy down to Norfolk to address a plenary luncheon session? He’d wow them, of course, and cast admiration back on the Annapolis club.

I’m presuming my parents were at first uneasy. But the club president, an old friend of both, convinced them I’d be watched over – and, I think, clinched the matter by pointing out how valuable a listing this venture would be on college scholarship applications.

So, almost before I knew it, I was deciding the most exciting part of the venture: how to get to Norfolk. Annapolis Civitan offered two options: One, I could be flown down from and back to Friendship Airport (now Baltimore/Washington International) outside Baltimore. Mind you, I’d never flown before and so found this possibility very exciting.

But the alternative! A 12-hour trip each way, to Norfolk and back, on the S.S. President Warfield. I wasn’t conflicted for long. It’d be south by water, back by air!

Only a couple of days got me ready. I’d shot up a bit since getting a dark gabardine suit, and Mother had to turn down and then iron down pants cuffs before the legs touched my shoe tops. I already had a natty Tattersall shirt, a red necktie, and, of course, a bronze Civitan medallion for my buttonhole. Look out, Norfolk!

On departure day, I was picked up for the drive to Baltimore by a member of the senior club. He was an oculist by trade; perhaps that automatically makes for a very careful driver. He surely was.

I was raring to get going on my adventure. But my driver putted up the 30 miles of dual highway to Baltimore at a stately 45. He kept his window open to wave by the drivers of cars and trucks that, going 55 and 60, stormed up and careened around us, often shaking their fists. My oculist smiled and waved back, smiling. I closed my eyes finally and began to examine my conscience.
But we weren’t crushed or run off the road after all and finally parked quite close to our destination, Baltimore’s inner harbor. But keep in mind that, when I stepped out of the car, it was into a scene of 65 years ago.

Today, the whole sweep that curves around the harbor is a posh destination for tourists and shoppers. But back then, first impressions were of smells, though the main ones very pleasant. For the giant factory and packing plant of McCormick Foods fronted the road where we had parked, and the air was rich with the scents of spices and herbs ground there, then packed into signature red tins.

Delighted, I drew in scents that put me in my mother’s kitchen at Thanksgiving or Christmas, with a hefty turkey sharing the oven with mince and pumpkin pies; and arranged along the stovetop, lids ajar, were those little red tins. They’d been playing their part in a feast’s preparation.

I thanked and waved at my smiling oculist driver, and was glad to learn later that he’d putted safely back home. And, since I had a couple of hours before boarding the ship, I could amble along at a pace that would have gratified my oculist chauffeur.

The S.S President Warfield was not named for a U.S. president, of course, but for the steamship line’s president. (Interestingly, close kin to him was Bessie Wallis Warfield Simpson, whose philandering with England’s royalty raised hob with that country’s kingly succession and brought about an abdication.)

Since I was traveling light with just a small suitcase, I could easily amble along a roadway paralleling the water and separated from it by lines of sheds, each with a dock extending out eighty or so feet. To the docks were tied local boats that had hauled melons, tomatoes and even blue channel crabs from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. More common, though, were literal banana boats, up from Central and even South America with cargos of bananas, plantains, and other tropical fruit.

All this made my walk an exotic one – even though I was still only 30 miles from my home. But hang on! More excitement lies ahead.

In a next column, I’ll climb the gangplank onto the President Warfield and entering a world of elegance that dazzled me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.