The romantic encounters of the 1960s could not be reinvigorated by text or email.
My mother was always nervous about getting on an airplane. That’s why she and Dad decided to travel separately in May 1963. As my McGill University classes were winding down, he flew to Portugal and Spain for a few weeks of sketching. Then Mum and I drove from Montreal to New York to board a ship – taking our car on board as luggage, no less.
Driving the family’s 1961 Vauxhall with Quebec license plates had been deemed the most cost-effective way for us to tootle around Europe. However, aiming to arrive in New York with a nearly empty tank of gas was rather nerve-wracking for us both.
The car’s gas tank had to be empty for it to be placed into the ship’s hold. Living through the Great Depression made my parents frugal enough to want to avoid the waste of syphoning out gas just beforehand, for heaven’s sake. So, as we approached New York City we’d only buy one gallon at a time.
After spending one night in a YWCA, we boarded the Greek Line’s Queen Frederica and settled into our second-class cabin. Third-class seemed to be full of Greek-Americans sailing to their country of origin, to disembark at Piraeus, the port nearest to Athens. We’d get off earlier in Naples and be met by Dad
and my cousin Faith. Then the four of us would tour around Italy and France in our car.
While recently studying second-year science at McGill, I’d enjoyed my first genuine romance with a Californian student named Ed. It began in January and involved our seeing each other for weekend dates, but it wasn’t a particularly serious relationship for either of us: I was only 17, he was 21. After our exams, Ed headed to California to a summer job as I headed to Europe – with no plans to stay faithful when apart or write to each other.
This being my first trip to Europe I was enthralled to be on a ship far from dry land for the nine days the crossing would take. Passengers had no communication with the rest of the world via radio, television, telephone, or Internet and the isolation of traversing the Atlantic Ocean and then Mediterranean Sea was most exhilarating.
Being practically the sole young passenger, I was thrilled to strike up a few conversations with a swarthy, handsome Greek junior officer while I relaxed with a book on a deckchair, and he was on patrol. His English was pretty good and how dashing he was 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 only recall one awkward, brief kiss and hug before I made up an excuse to meet Mum for lunch. That was that.
The next day, I met an American college student named Bill. I would now use the term “preppy” to describe his appearance: button-down Oxford-cloth shirts, 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 to do anthropological research for the summer, via Greece.
Bill and I frequently 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 provided on today’s cruise ships. They consisted of things like Bingo and Shuffleboard. I was too young to drink and can’t recall whether he did.
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, it will be permanently over, I thought. He celebrated his 23rd birthday two days ago so he’s far too old for me!
We Bid Adieu
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 share several delicious kisses. Then, he
reached into his sports jacket pocket and produced his high school graduation ring, from some prestigious boarding school.
Made of gold with a smooth dark blue stone, he slipped the heavy ring onto my finger! This naïve Canadian assumed its design was an American tradition – I’d never seen such a thing. I was both stunned and delighted at the same time.
“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 14th birthday and it didn’t carry too much emotional significance. It was a simple band of brushed silver about ¼ inch wide. His ring was too large for my finger, so I threaded it onto a gold chain to wear around my neck – the teenage style at the time.
The next day Bill and I casually bid each other farewell before I walked down the gangplank with Mum. There were no tears to control on my part.
On the Naples dock Mum and I met Dad and Faith to start our travels. Thereafter my summer
unfolded like this: 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 masses of relatives.
Having given Bill Keith’s London address, he wrote me several steamy letters over the summer. In a memorable passage, he described dreaming about being in bed with me (hmmm…) and saying something “in a mealy-mouthed way” – a term I’d not heard before or since. I don’t recall writing to him.
A Surprising Development
In early September, prior to boarding the Greek Line’s Homeric at Southampton to sail home to Montreal, I dropped into the office at Imperial College to say goodbye to the ladies 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.”
My tummy felt an odd mix of happiness (“This nice man really cared for me!”) and dismay that
we’d missed each other. He’d never said anything about planning to come to England. What on earth happened?
Once back in Montreal, I packaged up the golden graduation ring and mailed it to his Pittsburgh address. He never responded. I never saw my little silver friendship ring again. An early reader of this essay asked if I’d ever thought of not mailing the ring back. Might Bill have gotten in touch? How could he have found me in pre-Internet 1963? The only follow-up I’ve ever done was in 2001.
After moving to Pittsburgh in 1992, my friend Rae earned a PhD at the University of Pittsburgh in 2000, and then taught graduate courses in reading education. I asked her to search the Pitt Alumni database for Bill J. but nothing turned up. Perhaps he was a fraud and didn’t even study there! Or maybe he dropped out of society and died of a drug overdose.
I only knew him for six days.