Memories of the Olympic

The whistle let out a long, booming blast, and a light outside drifted slowly by the porthole, showing that the Olympic was under way. But that’s all I saw, for these were the days of midnight sailings, and I was around nine years old. It had been decreed that I must go directly to bed, and so I was never able to join the crowds that lined the rails as the great White Star liner eased from her New York pier on July 9, 1926. [If it had been daylight, it would have been similar to this scene of Olympic (right) at her pier and steaming past the Statue of Liberty (left, below).]

Next morning it was different. I was up bright and early and out on deck exploring the ship. At the time, I considered myself quite an Atlantic traveler, having been to Bermuda on the Arcadian (bottom left), a 12,000-ton RSMP liner that rolled all the way, and returned on the sturdier Orca a comfortable 16,000 tonner.

But neither of them prepared me for what I now saw. The decks on the Olympic seemed to go on for miles; the public rooms seemed like a palace; the four funnels seemed big beyond belief [photo taken at her pier in New York]. The buff color of the funnels especially fascinated me­­it wasn’t simply a yellow-tan, the way they are often colored; there was a touch of pink in the buff, and I spent hours trying to duplicate the exact shade with crayons.

First day out was foggy but calm, according to my sister’s diary, which I still have. She and the teenage set spent a good deal of time in the pool, but I never went in once — perhaps because I didn’t know how to swim yet. But the gym, with its mechanical horse, and the “bicycles” were an unending source of fascination for any small boy. Of the public rooms, the one I remember best was not the ornate lounge or smoking room, but the verandah and palm court, all the way aft on A Deck. It has never received much attention from Olympic and Titanic buffs, but to a small boy, the mere fact that there were green plants actually growing there was intriguing and somehow said more about the size of the ship than anything else.

The next four days passed with magical speed. I remember chiefly walking endlessly around the promenade deck and also playing shuffle board with whomever could be bludgeoned into the chore of taking me on. There were no other children my age on board, and I felt quite a sport, consorting with teenagers and even grownups in these pleasures. I must have looked dignified too, for in the snapshots that have survived I am invariably attired in a suit, usually blue serge or grey flannel with short pants that just touched my knees. No crumpled stockings for this shipboard dandy ­ mine always seemed to be neatly pulled up to just below the knee.

There were two high points to our voyage. The first was when we passed the Leviathan going in the opposite direction. She was very far off on the port horizon, and for a long time I couldn’t see her at all, just looked where everyone else was pointing. Finally, I saw, or thought I saw, a grey three-funneled form far off in the haze and in fact it almost certainly wasn’t my imagination, for another snapshot shows her steaming along on the northern horizon, looking just the way I remembered.

The other high point taught me a lesson too. This was the ship’s treasure hunt, an exciting pastime cooked up for all the first class passengers. We assembled in the A Deck foyer shortly after lunch, and the purser gave us our first clue. I didn’t understand it at all, but in a mass we all surged down the staircase, I along with the pack. Reaching D Deck, we rushed through the reception room into the dining saloon and began turning dishes, trays, pots, everything, over. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I proceeded with every bit as much energy as the rest.

We did this for a long time, and eventually some of the passengers began to get tired and drift off, but I continued ransacking the place. Suddenly I turned over a large silver tray and there was the next clue. A more worldly treasure hunter would have kept quiet and slipped off, content with this sudden advantage, but I shouted my discovery and my yell could have reached the crow’s nest. The rest of the mob surged over and there went my last chance to win the treasure hunt. It taught me the virtue of silence under certain conditions.

Thursday, July 16, we touched at Cherbourg, and along with every one else I leaned over the rail watching Cherbourg passengers get off in the little tender [White Star’s Nomadic and Traffic in foreground] and chug away toward land. While we were doing this a blimp flew by overhead, and this was an extra dividend to the excitement of the crossing.

Then the trip across the channel to Southampton, where we landed about 3 p.m. It was a hectic landing — mother lost the railroad tickets, we couldn’t find a porter, and had a lot of trouble with the luggage -­ but eventually we were on the boat train moving away from the Ocean Terminal. We were abroad at last, but I knew that nothing that lay ahead could possibly be more exciting than the six-day crossing just ended. As the train moved off, I pressed my head against the window, looking back as long as I could at those four great buff funnels of the Olympic.

This article was a gift from Walter Lord to Ed Kamuda and The Titanic Commutator.