Suburban Soliloquy

131. Ocean Liner

We assume that engineers have insured our safety when we climb aboard vehicles or into buildings that would otherwise conflict with natural forces. We ride elevators into high buildings not worrying about the growing abyss beneath the elevator’s thin floor. I don’t mind elevators. I understand the mechanics of the elevator brake invented by Elisha Otis. However, I am afraid of flying.

Statistics are used to demonstrate how flying is safe. My own belief is that such statistics are misleading because the measurement is for distance covered before there is an accident. Planes, by virtue of the long distances they cover quickly, have an advantage by this measure. By this same measure, satellites are incredibly safe, yet all satellites will conclude their exceptionally safe records in a fiery death of falling back to earth. I would be more interested in seeing statistic that measure safety for time spent traveling. Consider too the number of survivors in a train or car accident versus a plane accident. There are also characteristics to the experience of a plane falling out of the sky that are more frightening to me than other scenarios. It is that particular loss of control to alter one's fate and the long time spent confronting the futility, with no escape routes and no lifeboats.

I haven't always been frightened by flying. As a child, I went for rides in small planes and sometimes the pilot permitted me to take control and fly the machine myself. Even now, if I absolutely have to fly, the excitement doesn't leave me. I enjoy the window seat and delight in the partaking of a meal on a tray, not because it's delicious, but merely because it is possible. It impresses me that such mundane things as eating a meal can be accomplished at 35,000 feet and 550 miles-per-hour. Most of my fear unfolds in the nights leading up to the flight and not during. Still, it has to be a very special reason before I'm willing to override my fear of flying.

In 1978, I was working for Sears, Roebuck and Company in Manhattan. I was a Clerk-Typist in a skyscraper located across Broadway from the Winter Garden Theater. One does not live well on a Clerk-Typist income in New York City then or now. Happiness came from the length of windows near my desk that provided a grand view west over rooftops to see the Hudson River, and New Jersey beyond. That view included the piers of the New York Passenger Ship Terminal. When the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 was in town, she docked there. It was said that the best wine cellar in Manhattan was when the QE2 was in her berth. While it was a difficult time for me, the late Seventies, unhappy with work and little money, whenever the Queen was there, I gazed at her constantly from my office aerie, pining for wealth and escape. Here was the mode of travel I would prefer to flying. I daydreamed of steamer trunks turned on their narrow ends and used as armoires.

That same year, across town was a fabulous new skyscraper, The Citicorp Center. It was conspicuous against the skyline because this white-silver tower had a steeply angled roof (originally intended for solar panels). It was equally thrilling at its base, the mass of the building appearing to be held aloft on pillars. It allowed more space and light to reach the pedestrians. The towering structure overhung a new church on the northwest corner of the block. The original church had been demolished to make way for Citicorp. (The symbolism is inescapable, spiritual matters giving way to capital and church spires becoming overshadowed by skyscraping corporations.)

What few people knew at the time was that an engineering student from Princeton University had been studying the fifty-nine-story Citicorp building and found it structurally unsound. He realized it would not stand if seventy-mile-per-hour winds hit it from just the right direction. William LeMessurier, the structural engineer responsible for the design, had called for welding certain joints, but during construction, to save cost and labor, it was decided to instead bolt the joints. When the student brought to his attention that these joints had been bolted, LeMessurier alerted the Citicorp people. In September, a construction crew was six-weeks into their three-month project of secretly welding at night two-inch-thick steel plates over 200 bolted joints. Of course I didn't know this at the time. Meanwhile, North Atlantic tropical cyclones peaked in September and Hurricane Ella was climbing up the coastline of North America.

Fortunately, Hurricane Ella did not make landfall. Instead, Ella turned out to sea and combined with a frontal system over the North Atlantic. By 4th September, Ella became a Category 4 hurricane with winds reaching 140 mph, a Force 12 storm on the Beaufort wind force scale. But because it didn't make landfall, it was not to become one of the major events to mark 1978. For the 1,200 passengers and 1,040 crew aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2, the intersection of the storm's path and the ship's itinerary was "memorable".

It is to the credit of British over-engineering (she was built in Scotland) that such a magnificent ship could endure fifty-foot waves and the twenty-four hours of battering sea. Passengers stared into canyons of water measuring 100 feet from trough to crest, yet while passengers and furniture were tossed about, and the Observation Platform was knocked loose and thrown up onto the bridge, there were only two significant injuries among the many bruises, a broken arm and a fractured collar bone. The captain, as good captains do, went around reassuring his passengers and not sleeping. When a particularly distressed passenger asked if he was calling the Coast Guard for help, Captain Ridley responded, "Madame, first, there was no need for help. And secondly, if there had been a Coast Guard cutter in the area, the Queen would have had to help the Coast Guard." I honestly wish I had been onboard the ship for that voyage and adventure.

Following that voyage, I watched from the office window as the QE2 came to dock twenty-two hours late. During an extended lunch, I strolled down to the dock to see her up close. She was humongous. I stood at the foot a metal cliff rising twelve stories out of the water and stretching a block long. High above welders were repairing the iron railing at the bow of the ship that had been bent by a wave that hit broadside. It was impossible for me to imagine the sea reaching so high and with such force.

There was some disappointment in seeing the leviathan so close. There were giant rivets holding wide expanses of sheet metal. It was not the smooth sculptured lines I had admired from six blocks away. There were even spots of rust about. Not far away at that time was the SS Canberra, another ocean liner just returned from a cruise around the world. Only slightly smaller than the Queen, she was all white with sweeping sculptured lines. Whereas the Queen reminded me of a 1965 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, the Canberra had the sleek grace of a 1930 Bugatti Type 41 Royale. Perhaps the Canberra was more beautiful, but I favored the sturdier appearance of the Queen.

It might be that my fear of flying stems from May of 1979, when I was still working for Sears, but at that time in Chicago’s Sears Tower. From those office windows I saw the black smoke rising from where American Airlines Flight 191 crashed on takeoff killing all on board.

In my imagination, a voyage aboard an ocean liner is still attractive. So, since I fear flying, how do I expect to emigrate from the United States to the United Kingdom when I've finally retired and Ms Keogh, my more significant other and a British citizen, will take me home with her? My suggestion to Ms Keogh is an ocean liner. And not even a direct route, but we would depart on a world cruise starting from New York. Ms Keogh replied that we should sell all our possessions and work as crew on a merchant vessel in exchange for passage. She has such unrealistic daydreams.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions,
the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"