Sometimes the threads of one's experience cross over in unexpected ways. So it was for me the day a Smithsonian editor called the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History.
What did we have, she wanted to know, in the way of historical cruise ship advertising? As I searched our collections, I had an odd sensory experience.
Our collections are housed in a dull, gray environment: gray document boxes sit on gray shelves, which in turn perch on industrial gray carpeting. A little bleak really, except for the several million pieces of advertising ephemera and trade literature, which are anything but dull and gray.
It was a 1941 postcard from Nassau, a tropical sunset over a blue-green ocean, that sent me into a reverie. The reference room was far from a sandy beach, but I swear I caught a scent of coconut oil. I had a sudden recollection of my father on a beach, his beautifully tanned and weathered face uplifted to the sun, thinking perhaps of names for a boat he hoped someday to own.
For you see, my father had carried on a lifelong affair with the sea. He'd been second mate on a charter fishing boat and served on a submarine in the U.S. Navy; he'd sailed across the Atlantic to Africa and weathered many storms at sea. My father's love of the ocean was the reason for the many cruises we'd taken when I was growing up.I always felt lucky on those occasions when my brother and I boarded the ships with names reminiscent of the adventure novels we read together: the Emerald Seas, the Coral Princess. Even then, at 12 years of age, I recognized the technological wonder of those modern-day floating cities. They were completely self-sufficient communities—and you needed a map to find your way around!
But for all the order and formality, it was the decadence of the kind you'd expect to find on a pirate ship that charmed me. Different rules applied. Children could gamble in the casinos. Ordinary women, my mother included, wore glamorous evening gowns to dinner and then argued with each other over whose turn it was to sit with the captain. Fabulous meals were served five, six and seven times a day. And I still remember the wonder I felt at the parade of waiters carrying Baked Alaska high over our heads as if we were attending a coronation.