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Historical Fiction

“C’mon, honey. Let’s get aboard. It’s starting to get crowded.”

“I don’t like this. I hate being on a boat. You know how I get seasick.”

“Let’s go. We have to check in and find out where our cabin is.”

“I hope it’s nice, for the money we spent on this cruise.”

“You know the price wasn’t bad. That’s why we’re going.”

“That money could be used for better things. You know how bad it is anymore. People out of work, losing their homes, and we’re piddling away money on a cruise.”

“We need to get away. Things are bad, that’s why we need to get away from them. Look, it’s only a week. It’ll give us room to breathe a little.”

“This is costing us a month of your salary. The way things are, I hope you still have a job to come back to.”

“You’re never happy. If I surprised you with flowers, a box of candy, and a hundred dollar bill, you’d still find something wrong with it.”

“If you came home with all of that, you’d probably be guilty of something, buttering me up before I found out what you did.”

“I love you too, dear.”

A steward led them to their cabin, a small but efficient wood-paneled room with a double bed, dresser, and a tiny bath. There was only so much room on the ship, and had to fit as many people as possible in the limited space. The snug cabins shared deck space with common areas, dining rooms, ballrooms, and other public places. Besides, it was assumed that most passengers would take part in the many activities offered instead of hiding out in their cabins most of the time. Not much of a vacation if all you do is sit on your bed. Reading is always an enjoyable thing to do, so enjoy it while relaxing on an open deck, in the fresh sea air and sunshine.

“Why are we in an inside cabin? I want a window so I can see outside. If I can see the horizon, I won’t get seasick.”

“It’s called a porthole, dear. And it would cost more for a cabin with a porthole.”

“I’ll get seasick. Thanks a lot.”

“We’ll have a good time. Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”

“And what do we do once we get there? I don’t speak Spanish.”

“So many Americans go there, I’m sure a lot of them speak English.”

“I just don’t want to feel like an idiot around other people. I can’t understand them when they speak Spanish. And they talk so fast. Even if I did know how to speak it, I still wouldn’t know what they were saying.”

“They have all kinds of things to do down there. Restaurants, nightclubs, even casinos.”

“Restaurants cost too much. Nightclubs have liquor and loose women. And casinos? You know I don’t like gambling. Money is tight enough without gambling it all away. You can’t win.”

“How right you are, dear. You can’t win. Neither can I.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Look. Just try to enjoy our vacation. We don’t know if we’ll ever have the chance again. We’ll sail for three days, spend two days there, and then three days sailing back. Can you please try to enjoy this?”

“Do we have to book a hotel room while we’re there?”

“No, we sleep on the ship. In our cabin. That’s what we paid for. We don’t even have to leave the ship if we don’t want to.”

“Kind of silly not to leave the ship if we paid to go somewhere.”

“Yes it is. Please try to enjoy this, okay?”

“I’ll try, but I’m not promising anything.”

They weren’t an hour out of New York when the parties started. A buffet was served as the alcohol uncorked in several onboard saloons. Although it was still a bit early for the nightlife to begin for most of the passengers, a band began playing and the dancing started. Others enjoyed the sky as it began to darken from blue to purple to black, stars shining brighter than they ever saw from land.

“I’ve never seen so many stars. They’re beautiful.”

“See? I knew you’d enjoy this.”

“Well, my stomach is a little queasy.”

“That’s because you ate too much.”

“The food was delicious and since we paid for it, I’m going to eat it.”

“It was delicious. That steak was something else. It’s been so long since we had steak, prices what they are today.”

She seemed to tolerate the trip better as time went on. They took part in various onboard activities, danced to the bands, even enjoyed dinner at the Captain’s Table one night. The captain, with the personality of everyone’s favorite grandfather, was a veteran sea dog with saltwater in his veins. He spoke of his exploits at sea, including outrunning a hurricane and transporting troops to and from Europe during the war. He looked the part in his crisp white uniform, silver hair, and salt-and-pepper whiskers.

When asked what he’d do if he ever had to leave his ship, he replied, “Well, I’ll just take her with me!”

They arrived at their destination and most of the passengers disembarked. So much to see and do, taxis parked ready at the dock.

He looked over a travel brochure and a local map. “See? We could go here. This looks like a nice place to go. I love museums and that would tell us all about this city. We’ll get the feel for it and it’s only three blocks from here. We can walk.”

“My feet are hurting already. Learning to walk on a heaving ship made me forget how to walk on dry land. We should take a taxi.”

“Heaving ship? It was as smooth as glass. The weather was perfect, there were barely any waves out there.”

“I don’t know what ship you were on, we were tossed around like corks. Okay, if it makes you happy, we’ll walk.”

“It’s only three blocks away. We have to watch what we spend.”

“Well, look at Mr. Moneybags. You pay for us to go on a sea cruise and now you’re worried about money?”

“Woman, please. I intend to enjoy this vacation, whether you do or not. Maybe next time I’ll just leave your ass home.”

“My what! Don’t you curse at me! We’ll find a church so you can go to confession! I’ll not listen to words like that!”

They walked in silence to the local museum. There was a friendly and helpful docent on duty who spoke English very well and went into great detail about the history of the city and the country. The museum was well organized and added to the stories the docent told to them. She finally seemed to enjoy herself. She loved museums as much as her husband did.

“Now that was really nice. Maybe this vacation was a good idea after all.”

“I’m glad you liked that. There was that little bar we passed that had Spanish music playing inside. What say we stop for a drink?”

“Haven’t you been hitting the bottle a little too much? You were really pounding them down on the ship. I think you have a problem.”

“Pounding them down? Like you said before, what ship were you on? I had two drinks at the dance and we were there for almost three hours. I nursed one drink when I was playing pinochle with those guys I met. I had one beer with each dinner we had. I want a drink.”

“All right, if you really have to. I won’t. I’ll just order a fruit juice or something.”

“If you keep at me, and maybe I will start drinking heavy.”

“Cursing at me, and now the drinking. I don’t know about you sometimes.”

They stopped in for a drink. He tried a local rum drink while she discovered mango juice. She liked it enough to order it three times, while he nursed just one rum punch.

The rest of the time they strolled around the city, taking in the sites. In broken English, a policeman warned them about what parts of the city to avoid and how it was best to stay near the restaurants and casinos and their ship.

“If this place is so dangerous, take me back to the ship. Maybe we’ll be safe there. If I had only known that you would take me to some dangerous place, full of criminals and troublemakers.”

“Stop it. Let’s get ready for dinner.”

“Sure. In that postage stamp of a cabin. We have to take turns getting dressed, it’s so small in there. The two of us don’t fit.”

“Going to complain about the dinner too? Like you did last night?”

“My potatoes were overcooked. And the salad was wilted.”

“Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to make you happy.”

“Not at the rate you’re going.”

She ate silently while he chatted with the diners near him. He was going to have a good time, even if it killed him. Or her.

The two-day stay in the city came to an end and the passengers arrived to the ship and settled in. The captain was concerned about leaving on time, as a large tropical storm was forming to the south and heading their way. He had outrun a hurricane before and was confident that he and the ship could do it again, but was still concerned. It was company policy to give the passengers their money’s worth, and a rough ride sailing in rough seas was to be avoided at all costs.

Halfway to their New York destination, emergency drills would normally be held. Life jacket as well as lifeboat drills would be practiced so everyone would know what to do, just in case. It was voluntary for the passengers to take part, so as not to disturb them, but the crew was to try to persuade them to take part anyway. Crew members who dealt with guests were required to know what to do, although other crewmen who worked behind the scenes were not. But since the storm was closing in on them, the captain cancelled the lifesaving drills.

Passengers were later concerned when the captain didn’t attend the traditional last night at sea dinner, one of his favorite pastimes to do on the ship. He enjoyed being around his passengers. But word was that he had suffered from stomach problems and wasn’t feeling well.

The sea became angry as the storm approached from the south. But they didn’t know the storm behind them, now a hurricane, had spawned a nor’easter ahead of them. They were about to be caught between two big storms.

With the ship rocking and rolling in the bad weather, most passengers spent the time in their cabins. Many became seasick, especially in the inner cabins with no portholes to peer out to the horizon. Those with stronger constitutions worked on emptying the bottles of duty-free rum they bought on shore; untaxed liquor not permitted to be brought ashore back in New York. Maybe riding out a storm was easier if you had half a bag on.

The mood on the ship became even more somber when it was learned the captain was found dead in his cabin by the ship’s surgeon. Rumor had it he suffered a heart attack.

The first officer, already awake and on duty for thirty hours, reluctantly took over as acting captain.

Not long after, a steward found inebriated guests tossing lit cigars and cigarettes into a trash can in the Writing Room on A Deck, aft of the bridge, just ahead of the forward stack. The crewman doused the smoldering rubbish and sent the partiers on their way.

An hour later, stewards were dispatched back to the Writing Room to investigate reports of the smell of smoke. Opening a locker storing books and stationery and other writing materials along with blankets, flames erupted from the locker once the doors were opened and smoldering embers inside gained oxygen. In mere seconds, the Writing Room was ablaze and spreading fast.

The ship’s hull was built of steel but most of the interiors were of varnished wood paneling, along with other wood furnishings and decking, carpeting, and wall fabrics. Open decks and wide open windows designed to catch tropical breezes did their job well as the howling winds from the storm fanned the flames.

#

Loud voices in the hall and pounding on their cabin door woke them up.

“The boat rocking all over making me seasick, and they said the captain died, and now the noise and pounding on our door? Now what’s going on! What kind of vacation is this!”

#

“In our bed, you slept on the right side and I slept on the left. I don’t like being switched like this. We’re on the wrong sides.”

“I didn’t put us this way.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“Not much we can do about it now.”

“Why did they switch us, after all the years we were the other way?”

“I’m on the left and you’re on the right.”

“Great. Now I have to put up with this for eternity.”

“So do I. We have to accept it.”

“I just wish they checked with us first.”

“How? We weren’t in any condition to answer questions. Be thankful they figured out who we were.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“I’ve put up with your complaining my whole life. Nothing makes you happy. I will not listen to any more of it. We’re going to be right here for a very long time. Our gravestone says I’m on the left and you are on the right. Will you please shut the hell up.”

He thought he’d never have to hear her complain again. He was wrong.

#

As they attempted to move toward the stern of the ship, the panicking crowds blocking their way in the hall prevented them from getting to safety. Even before the flames reached them, the intense heat and poisonous gases ended their lives.

#

George and Mary Williams, died September 7, 1934, among the victims of the Morro Castle ship disaster off the coast of New Jersey. Of the 546 people aboard, 137 directly or indirectly lost their lives as a result of the devastating fire.

Out of respect for the actual victims, George and Mary Williams are fictitious characters.

September 15, 2020 14:08

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