Front Porch Perspective
Well, I’d circled the Baltimore inner harbor dockings and stood a bit, suitcase in hand, gazing up at an impressive three-domed building, each dome flying a huge pennant reading, “Old Bay Line.” And alongside the building a gangplank beckoned me. It climbed at a fairly steep angle to the main deck of the S.S. President Warfield.
Suitcase clutched with left hand, I hauled myself up the gangway’s handrail to the deck. There stood a tall smiling black man dressed in a starched white uniform. As I extended a hand, the man spoke in a rich baritone.
“I take it you are Master James Atwell?” Awed, I smiled and nodded. “I am James, your personal steward. If I may take your suitcase, I’ll escort you to your stateroom”
And he meant stateroom. Down a long corridor that seemed to be following the ship’s keel, several decks below. James bowed and stepped ahead of me and turned on lights in a room easily 20 by 20 feet. Its main part held a double bed, an easy chair, and desk. James gestured to the desk.
“Just in case you have some polishing to do on your speech,” he rumbled in that deep baritone.
Oh, and over there is your bathroom.” The last-mentioned took up 5 square feet – and even featured both tub and shower.
“Now, after you’ve settled in, Master James, you’ll have plenty of time to walk all the way around the main deck of the President Warfield. Just follow the outside rail and you’ll get a real sense of your home for the night.
“When you hear a brass gong sound, on deck and indoors, it’s calling you to the dining room. I’ll come looking for you so you won’t be late.” He grinned and winked.
“Mind you, we have quite a meal waiting there for you!”
James followed me back to the gangplank, and from there I headed aft down the starboard main deck of the 200-foot ship. Off to my left was the same view from my stateroom portholes but now broadened to a full panorama of the inner harbor all the way across to Federal Hill and past it to the flag (still there!) above Fort McHenry.
Still heading toward the stern, my quick glances in portholes showed a kitchen that could easily accommodate a restaurant, then a well-stocked bar, and then the dining where, as James had said,
“quite a meal would be served to me.”
A few more portholes and suddenly I was glancing into somebody’s stateroom – and shocked, her hand to her mouth, an elderly woman was staring back at me!
Shame-faced, I broke into a shambling trot past a couple dozen more portholes, my eyes fixed across the harbor at distant Federal Hill. But by then I’d reached the ship’s stern and could surmise that
the ship had, minus space for preparing and serving meals for all its overnight guests, almost as many main deck staterooms sternward as it had forward of the gangway where I had boarded.
Ten more minutes’ walk brought me up to the President Warfield’s bow. Departure preparations were under way there, and I saw a deck hand cup his hands and shout down to the dock, “Loose the bow line!”
I guess the man down below caught a glimpse of my head and, realizing there was an audience, snapped a salute and shouted back,
“Aye, aye, matey!” I laughed aloud when he loosed the hawser, a good 4 inches thick, by flipping the two loops of the massive clove hitch up and over the top of the deck piling. They struck the pier below with a deep report but were hardly still before five men edged me aside and hauling the hawser first off the dock and into the harbor, and then up the ship’s side.
They didn’t take time to coil the hawser but dragged it across to the deck to the port side and started hauling it sternward there. I wondered why this extra work. Someone down starboard side was bellowing into a megaphone:
“ALL ASHORE THAT’S GOING ASHORE!” They were about to raise the gangway and draw it aboard. That done and with the stern hawser also hauled aboard, we’d be separated from the land.
My 12-hour voyage had begun!
Next time: The shipboard feast.