The Summer of '63
My shipboard romance
Photo by Daniele d’Andreti
It was my first trip to Europe, and I was sailing to Naples on the Greek Line’s Queen Frederica, a crossing that would take nine days. I was accompanied by my mother, who was nervous about getting on an airplane, and our family’s 1961 Vauxhall, which was safely ensconced in the ship’s hold and would be our vehicle for touring Italy and France.
While I relaxed with a book on a deckchair, I was thrilled to strike up a few conversations with a swarthy, handsome Greek junior officer on patrol. His English was good, and he was dashing in his white uniform with gold and navy trim. Surprisingly, I accepted his invitation to his cabin in the middle of a sunny day — something about seeing a glorious view. I recall one awkward, brief kiss and hug before I made an excuse to meet Mum for lunch. That was that.
A few days later, I met an American college student named Bill. Preppy would describe his appearance: button-down Oxford shirt, khakis, light brown hair carefully parted and combed to one side, and a ready grin. He was studying history at the University of Pittsburgh and would be a senior that fall. He was headed to Egypt via Greece for the summer to do anthropological research.
Bill and I hung out together for the rest of the voyage and had lots of fun dancing, strolling the deck, and participating in whatever entertainment option was available. In 1963, shipboard pastimes were tame and unsophisticated compared to the fabulous shows, sports, and casinos on today’s cruise ships. They consisted of things like bingo and shuffleboard.
I found him amusing, knowledgeable, charming, and down-to-earth. I’d heard about shipboard romances in movies and novels, and that term fit my feelings for Bill. This is fun while it lasts, but when we say goodbye, I thought, it will be over. He celebrated his twenty-third birthday on board, so he was far too old for me!
At the end of our final evening, before docking at Naples, we did our usual stroll around the upper deck, pausing to admire the moon’s reflection on the ocean and sharing several delicious kisses. Then, he reached into his sports jacket pocket and produced his high school graduation ring, made of gold with a dark blue stone from some prestigious boarding school, and slipped it onto my finger.
“What does this mean?” I asked.
“Nothing, really,” he said. “I just want you to wear it to remember me. When you fall in love with some other guy, just mail it back to me.”
Love? I wondered. We’ve never said anything about love. This is just a shipboard romance that will soon evaporate! Nevertheless, I slipped a silver friendship ring off my finger and gave it to him. My friend Sue had given it to me for my fourteenth birthday, and it didn’t carry much emotional significance. It was a simple band of brushed silver.
The next day Bill and I casually bid each other farewell before I walked down the gangplank with Mum.
Onshore we met Dad and my cousin Faith and started our trip. My summer of ’63 unfolded as planned: tour Italy and southern France, fly alone from Marseille to London, work a few weeks at the Registrar’s Office of Imperial College, where my brother Keith was studying, attend Keith’s wedding, and travel around England with my parents to meet relatives.
I had given Bill my brother’s London address, and he wrote me several steamy letters over the summer. In a memorable passage, he described dreaming about being in bed with me and saying something “in a mealy-mouthed way” — a term I’d not heard before or since. I don’t recall writing to him.
In early September, before boarding our ship to sail home to Montreal, I dropped into the office at Imperial College to say goodbye to the women with whom I’d worked for a month.
“Well Pat, a handsome young American dropped in to see you here. He was most distressed that you no longer worked here, and we had no forwarding address for you,” declared Miss Adams, smiling broadly.
“Really? When was that?” I asked in astonishment.
“About the middle of August. He’d come all the way from Egypt. He said he’d met you on a ship and recalled that you had a job lined up here,” she said. “He was rather distraught and wrote his home address on this paper, making us promise to give it to you.”
I felt an odd mix of happiness that he cared and dismay that we’d missed each other. He’d never said anything about planning to come to England. I wondered what on earth happened.
Once back in Montreal, I packaged up the graduation ring and mailed it to his Pittsburgh address. He never responded. And I never saw my little silver friendship ring again.
I only knew him for six days.
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