by Brooks Riley (who is standing on the bow of the ship above on September 11, 1959)
The freight trains at night are so loud that in my dreams they become horizontal twin towers spewing sound into the air in horrifying percussive bursts. Sometimes they sound like jumbo jets landing beside my pillow. Or a full-throttle matriarch with her brood in tow. Or Wotan at the height of his wrath in Die Walküre. I know these trains now, their varied speeds and decibels depending on the number of cars trailing the locomotive. If I’m awake I count freight cars instead of sheep, adding up the metronomic ticks of the wheels as they cross a switch.
When I was growing up on the right side of the tracks, I never imagined I would one day live right beside them on another continent. But I do remember a crossing near Berryville, Virginia where the Baltimore & Ohio, (or was it the Chesapeake & Ohio?) snailed by on its way to the rest of the vast country out there. It took 15 minutes and more than 100 freight cars to pass before the barrier was raised (I counted them then, too).
That may be why this little girl wanted a toy train for Christmas. I got one, nothing fancy, just a circular track, a locomotive and a couple of freight cars. I loved its simplicity, the kinetic pleasure of its motorization. Most of my friends were into horses. I was into mechanisms of the vehicular kind, those that could move me from one place to another in an interesting way, or better, take me somewhere. A horse could also fit that bill, but I was rarely allowed to race my pony through the countryside, hair blowing in the wind. I would really do this only years later in Monument Valley when a kindly Navajo let me canter through an arroyo seco without supervision, just like John Wayne in a John Ford Western.
I have a full-scale model train now, right at the front door. It’s nothing to look at, nothing you’d want to open up on Christmas morning, just a deadpan locomotive, a chain of grey tank cars and the occasional thread of flatbeds hauling VW Tiguans in an array of colors to places east of here. I get wanderlust every time I hear it go by.
Those trains have traveled well along the synapses in my brain, their siren songs now identifiable as I play name-that-train with my eyes closed. The Südostbayernbahn is especially witty, with its second locomotive as coda, the extra oomph of base tones filling the air as it mysteriously adds push to pull.
I was always seeking ways to be transported, in the ecstatic sense, and in my early years transportation played a decisive role. I still cannot travel from point A to point B without being buoyed up by rapturous thoughts, or held in the thrall of imagined scenarios suddenly bursting into song out of nowhere. (I’ve written about train rides before here and the power of the moving image outside the train window.)
At first, and for a long time, it was ships that cast their spell. Being cradled in that mammoth man-made womb of creaking metal as it swayed through the waves toward a perpetual horizon that made no promises: That was the allure, to be carried into nothingness on a grand scale, exposing a strange wish to get really lost somewhere, in a forest, in a desert, on an ocean.
Ocean liners used to be sleek, streamlined vessels, not the top-heavy mass-transit container ships they’ve become in recent years, stacked to pack ‘em in like sardines. Ship design used to be nautically driven—the principles of grace and hydrodynamics outweighing the lure of higher profits that has led to today’s grotesque mutations. Liners were big then too, but not at the expense of their fine contours or their modus operandi, sailing full speed ahead instead of wallowing precariously toward a point in the yonder. Back then, aesthetics ruled the waves, not mass-marketing.
On my first transatlantic voyage, at three, I wasn’t allowed to see much, forced to enjoy the fresh ocean air in a cage on deck with other toddlers, for safety reasons. According to my mother I cried nonstop the entire voyage.
By my early twenties, I’d crossed the Atlantic 8 times, on the Ĭle de France, the Nieuw Amsterdam, and the Rotterdam, its wild maiden voyage without stabilizers as it rushed to arrive on time for the 350th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s own entry into what is now New York Harbor (9/11/1609). I remember seeing the future Queen Beatrix, then a princess in blue jeans, lounging on the upper deck once the ship had finally moved past the nausea-inducing English Channel out into the mercifully and exceptionally calm North Atlantic.
The Rotterdam was the first ocean liner built without a signature smoke stack or two, a heresy of modernism that soon took hold. In New York she received a proper maiden welcome, fire boats spraying water in the air and a fleet of tugboats waiting to guide her into port. I stood with my parents at the railing on the starboard side and marveled at Manhattan’s approaching skyline in the morning sun.
As exciting as it was, I’d rather have remained on board. I could never get enough of these vessels and always made sure I could find my way to forbidden areas by simply ignoring the polite little chain across an access. Sometimes I went up to the bridge just before dawn, to peer into the darkness inside where the infra-red instrument panel cast a faint red glow on the faces of the officers on duty. With tens of thousands of tons of metal under their charge, the crew relied on stars or radar to guide us through the night. In those early hours there could also be fog, a dangerous situation for a vessel whose reaction time might be compared to the sluggish maneuvers of a manatee.
I liked to drop by the cavernous engine room, where vast boilers puffed, clanked and groaned in a continuous, ominous basso profundo: This was Wagner’s Nibelheim where an oil-stained crew, the maritime Nibelungs, fed the hungry monster of an engine that kept the ship on the move.
It was thrilling to stand on the bow, to see the sharp angle below me cut through the black depths like a knife, displacing volumes and leaving foamy white wakes to the sides.
During my last semester of college, with time on my hands and a deep longing to sail away, I’d drive down the Hudson to Manhattan where ocean liners still docked along the west side. In those pre-terrorism days, I was able to sneak on board without much ado and spend whole afternoons exploring these empty floating cities that were preparing to depart the next day for some far destination, newly pregnant with passengers.
It was a reckless thing to do, to go where I would never be found, had someone gotten the notion to keep me on board against my will. But those were innocent times, and although I was mildly chastised for trespassing, I was usually also given a fine tour of the ship. One of them, the MS Berlin, a gem from the 1920’s still crossing the Atlantic in 1966, was a late discovery. It had a pedigree, starting out as a Swedish ship, the MS Gripsholm, before ending up as a German ship. Its lines were thoroughbred, its interiors—including stain-glass skylights and deep dark leather easy chairs—lovingly preserved from some faraway era when a crossing meant really going somewhere in grand but not grandiose style. The MS Berlin was small as ocean liners go, but it deserved better than to be scrapped later that year. There should have been a landmark commission for ships.
The world was bigger in those days. To sail to Europe meant having the time to dream of what might be waiting on the other side, and at the same time, to divest oneself of homeland familiarity. Seven days of limbo, neither here nor there, but somewhere in between. Seven days of flat horizons, like empty billboards in shades of gray adding up to this: Wherever the ship finally docked would definitely be far, far away from what you might call home. The further the better.
That limbo, the one that exists between the alpha and omega of any journey with a destination—a state of being without a ‘there’ there, where the absence of experience gives way to unmanned flights of fancy—that limbo is gone, replaced by the few necessary hours we spend in the air as spam in a can on our way to wherever, the means to an end reduced to a secular instant.
Those crossings always ended too soon. Docking in a foreign land promised other attractions and limitless adventure, but the means—getting there—engaged me more than arriving, at least for a time. The sadness at the end of every voyage—une petite mort not unlike the end of a good book, a great film, a fine meal or even that 16-hour journey called Der Ring des Nibelungen—lingered for days.
I sailed to Europe one last time, on the Leonardo da Vinci, before the high-flying future closed in on transatlantic ocean liners as, one by one, they were sent to their berths to die: to be dismantled, or to eke out their last years as cruise ships to a variety of unreal ports of call. Years later, I persuaded an old friend to join me overnighting on the Queen Mary, which had eluded ship breakers by becoming a hotel in Long Beach, California, permanently docked. The engines were silent, the once noble dame of the high seas now in a state of cosmetic rigor mortis. The thrill was gone. A ship that can’t move is dead in the water.
I used to believe that my passion for ships also had to do with moving toward an unknown future, all those blank horizons on the open sea just waiting to be filled, the ship itself a mother carrier to my destiny (the existential version of destination, with the same Latin lineage). But even after that future had begun, I was lured back once more when I decided to make a film about tugboats, those powerful little red engines that could, and still do, maneuver the big guys away from their berths.
Eight hours on a Moran tugboat (Was it the Barbara Moran or the Katie Moran? At that time every tug was a gal.) opened the door to another reality as we escorted freighters in and out of Brooklyn and Manhattan, some of them headed for Vietnam to feed the war. I’d borrowed a 16mm camera and bought enough film for the day. My then boss, editor of The Drama Review Richard Schechner, tagged along to take sound.
This time I thrilled at bobbing in the wakes and darting around the hulls of ships, the soaring bows like oncoming blades that could cut us to pieces. It was the reverse shot of the times I had peered over the railing down at tugboats below taking us out to sea or bringing us in—a Rashomon variation on a familiar story.
We ate with the crew, boiled beef and potatoes, and saw the great city of New York not only in its circumferential glory but in the nooks and crannies of its once busy maritime life, every ship a small society on the move, every dock a lesson in logistics, every departure a well-rehearsed choreography performed by stevedores and, of course, tugboats.
At the end of every push-pull strategy to get a ship under way, our tugboat would briefly nestle against it like a duckling by its mum, where a door opened in the hull just above sea-level to allow the harbor pilot to debark, his role as midwife to a smooth passage out to sea now over.
The undeveloped film sat in my fridge for years, accusing me of failure to finish what I’d started, every time I reached in for a carton of milk. I never seemed to have the extra few hundred dollars to have the footage developed, and after a time my future had so many other priorities that I was content to rely on the memories of that day, at the same time avoiding the certain disappointment over what might been missing from my documentary.
There are many things that transport us, that take us from down here to up there, from right here to way over there. The analog vehicles of transport began to fade in importance when I realized I could move and be moved without leaving town or leaving my seat. Some works of art take us so far away that we have to struggle to get back at all, even if we haven’t budged.
Transport, epiphany, enchantment, are not the exclusive freehold of solitary souls, but they do tend to be dinners for one. I was good at dining alone. Some things can’t be shared. No two people feel exactly alike, or lift off at the same time over the same things: One man’s voyage is a revelation, another’s the source of unmitigated boredom.
I don’t travel much these days, at least not physically. Still, I listen to the trains next door and allow myself to dream once more as I did then, of where they’ll take me, of where I’m going, or where I’ll still go before I’m gone.