We set sail on a gravy boat

Speaking of emotions recollected in tranquillity, that was a very good year. I had been promising my one-time bride that when the children were through college and had flown the nest we'd close down the old farm, pack our duds, and hie to Europe to broaden ourselves with travel and bring home some cuckoo clocks. We could stay as long as we wished, see everything, and there was but one condition. I was firm. We would not fly. In Europe we would buy a car so we could meet people between airports and I could shake hands and get acquainted and ask how their hens were laying.

As to crossing the ocean, breakfast in New York and tiffin in London is to deny 3,000 miles of difference, and if I'm going somewhere I want to do it at my speed. But this was the age of flight, and every travel agent said there's only one way to go now.

The liners had quit, but cargo vessels still carried passengers. Ralph Leavitt, a marine broker on the Portland, Maine, waterfront, and the grandson of a Downeaster master mariner, told us to keep away from our own merchant marine, but we could trust the Montreal Shipping Co. and to mention his name. It was, indeed, a very good year. It was 1966.

We waited, and then were informed that we had passage on the cargo vessel Wolfgang Russ from Montreal to Hamburg, on or about Aug. 28. I commend that phrase, "on or about." Today's split-second people have no notion how sweet it is. Fast-food folks flew on time to Europe and came home again, and we hadn't started yet. The Wolfgang Russ was still in Toronto!

When she did arrive to tie up at her pier, we were ready and waiting, and we could board, but there was a hold of tinned green beans to stow, and another of Hiram Walker goods that pay good tariff. "On or about" would perhaps mean Friday. We were eight passengers, four German, four American.

Our vessel was of the Ernest Russ Lines of Hamburg, leased or chartered by North German Lloyd, and handled in Canada. We were told the ship was built for the Great Lakes route, and so closely designed that with another coat of paint it couldn't pass the locks. She had an air of plodding utility, comfy but not luxurious, and about halfway up the narrow gangplank we caught a whiff of the brown gravy in the galley, the German cook's compelling promise to trenchermen of all breeds.

We had the pleasure of watching the derricks go up and down and up and down for two days of green beans and booze, and then we would cast off after supper. The pilot would come aboard any minute. "On or about" was nigh.

When a pilot is aboard, the craft's captain is at ease, so Captain Eichorst joined us aft to look at the enormous red Canadian sunset that augured delight. Our French-speaking pilot would leave us at the Isle of Orleans, and Captain Eichorst would be in command until we entered the Elbe and a Hamburg pilot came aboard. A matter of, perhaps, say, 10 days? Who cares?

The designer of the Wolfgang Russ had artfully placed the galley exhaust fan so the passenger quarters were flavored with brown gravy no matter which way the wind hie-ho'd as a-roving we did go. The next day we began teaching the chief engineer how to play cribbage. He learned quickly, and the third afternoon he beat me.

We passengers shared the amorous dilemma of the young radio operator. A Hamburger, he loved a maid in Buffalo, but she refused to live in Germany and he refused to live elsewhere. He talked to her every day by ham radio. But she was unyielding.

One of our passengers was an artist named Willi Lemm from Bad Neustadt, who had been to Manitoba to do a portrait and had started a number of Lake Superior scenes. The boat's pharmacy, where he painted, was the one place you got turpentine along with brown gravy.

I'm grateful to reader Dan McCormick of Massena, N.Y., for a picture made at the Eisenhower and Snell locks in 1968 of the Wolfgang Russ. Her black hull and derrick masts make a silhouette against a somber sky that in no way suggests a fairyland barge garlanded for a dream voyage to the enchanted isles. She looks like the freighter she was, but do I notice a brown-gravy touch?

When the Wolfgang Russ left the ocean and started up the Elbe River, the pilot came aboard and Captain Eichorst came to sit with us. He said it would be too late to go ashore tonight and we would have to endure the noise of the harbor. "Hamburg never sleeps!"

He also told us there'd be a restaurant at the harbor that serenades arriving vessels with their national anthems, by recordings over a loudspeaker. This seems all right until you wonder what they play for a German boat out of Canada with four American citizens and a crew that was heavily Asian. There was no reason to wonder.

When the Wolfgang Russ came along, it was after hours and the restaurant was closed. It drizzled the next morning, and we stepped ashore, eager for our tour abroad. We looked back at the Wolfgang Russ for a farewell to our laboring freighter, where the green beans were already being derricked ashore.

"Did you notice," I said to my one-time bride, "that those derricks are peppermint sticks?"

She said, "It's like owning your own yacht!"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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