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Around America: Sailing Into The Past
By Mitch Traphagen mitch@observernews.net
May 24, 2007, 12:10

The Queen Mary Hotel in Long Beach, Calif. After 1,001 Atlantic crossings, the legendary ship was permanently docked here in 1967. Although she is still afloat, her engines and most of the propellers have been removed. Mitch Traphagen Photo
LOS ANGELES
– Looking down over America out my window on a westbound flight to Los Angeles, I began to realize that we are all interconnected somehow. Below, the terrain changed dramatically, but what of the people? Americans may quibble and argue, but, for the most part, are generally looking in the same direction. And as a country, we all share in a common past.

When I was young, I would look up to see an airplane’s gleam in the sky and wonder what it would be like to be up there:  Where were they going?  What were the people like?  As I gazed down from 37,000 feet, I wondered if somewhere a 10-year-old boy or girl was looking up with that same curiosity.  With concentration, I attempted to transmit my thoughts to them:  “I’m here and I hear you.”

I have enough child left in me to be amazed at air travel.  That’s not to say I enjoy it much these days, but I’m still amazed.  The stress on complex components seems immense, and the physics of it is astonishing.  If you were to run an office desk down a runway at 200 mph I guarantee it wouldn’t fly.  An airplane weighs a lot more than a desk.  To me, flying is a miracle.


And it was a miracle that I was glad to see end at Los Angeles International Airport.  LAX is not one of the world’s quietest places, but navigating it was easy enough – within minutes I had my luggage and was on a shuttle, bound for my hotel in Long Beach. 


Around America Part 1: Location: Los Angeles
Hotel, however, is not really an appropriate term for where I stayed, although it is a part of the name.  My lodging was aboard the RMS Queen Mary – thus beginning my travels around America by sailing into the past.


The Queen Mary can be many different things, depending on one’s point of view.  It was considered the ultimate in luxury travel in her time and then served diligently during World War II, transporting nearly 800,000 troops.  As such, it was both a target and an aggravation for Adolf Hitler.  After the war, it reunited new families by transporting thousands of young brides and their children from Europe to the U.S. and Canada to be with their now ex-GI husbands.  It then resumed carrying passengers back and forth across the Atlantic.


At one time, she was the fastest and one of the largest passenger ships afloat, considerably larger than the Titanic.  A long list of celebrities and world leaders have been aboard – prior to the war, it was considered the only civilized way to cross the Atlantic.  It still holds a record for the greatest number of souls aboard a private vessel – approximately 16,000 servicemen and crew made a single Atlantic crossing.  


Aboard, there were two swimming pools – a luxury for the time – including a second-class pool, unheard of at the time.  Regardless of the class of passage, travelers were literally immersed in luxury.


But despite her dedicated service during WWII, advances in technology made during the war proved to be the ship’s undoing.  By the 1950s, air travel began to replace ships as the means of choice for crossing the Atlantic.  Also, newer ships provided features not found on the Queen Mary.  It seemed her time had come and gone.  


In 1967, she crossed the Atlantic for the 1,001st time and docked permanently in Long Beach, Calif.  The city had purchased her to serve as a maritime museum - at the time they had no intention of preserving her as an ocean liner.  But had it not been for Long Beach, her last voyage would have been to the scrap yard.  Today, she is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


More than 70 years after the ship had been cheered by tens of thousands of people upon departing on her maiden voyage, I stepped aboard in awe to find the past has come alive on the Queen Mary.  Much has changed, however, since it arrived in Long Beach; it no longer has a means of propulsion, the lower decks had largely been cleared to make way for the museum, and other modifications were made during the conversion into a hotel.  


The long hallways of gleaming burled wood can appear to conjure up ghostly visitors from beyond. Many guests claim to have seen or heard unexplainable things aboard the ship. Mitch Traphagen Photo
During initial renovations, no one gave much thought to the idea that the Queen Mary was a museum in her own right.  No one thought the accommodations and features that were removed would someday be missed.  

But somehow, through the changes, her spirit has remained intact.  The beautiful burled wood walls still gleam and the decks seem poised to tell the stories of the famous, powerful and forgotten people who have been aboard.


During the day the Queen Mary is a beehive of activity, with tourists visiting the restaurant and shops.  At night, I felt as though I had the ship to myself.  Walking outside on the Promenade Deck in the dark, I tried to imagine what it was like to be on this ship while it was at sea.  What were the hopes and dreams of the passengers?  Were they excited about the adventure?  Were they thrilled beyond words by the luxury and accommodations they found aboard?  Or, were they frightened by things unseen in the cold, dark waters of the North Atlantic?


Sitting in my room – formerly a first-class stateroom – I wondered about those who were here before me.  I found myself wishing the walls could talk.


And perhaps they can.  Several ghosts are said to haunt the Queen Mary.  In fact, the haunting reports are so frequent, not only does the hotel offer several ghost tours of the ship, but a stateroom has been closed, reportedly due to frequent otherworldly encounters.


All of that, of course, causes many maritime historians a fair amount of chagrin.  It seems that reports of ghosts didn’t begin until the Queen Mary arrived in California.  But maybe there is a reason for that – perhaps she is haunted by memories.


I wandered the decks at night and walked along back staircases.  I peered down hallways that, in a Hollywood movie at least, would certainly be haunted.  But in the end, I saw no ghosts.  I did, however, feel … an indistinct, forlorn sadness.  Perhaps somewhere in the no-longer-functioning mechanicals of this grand ship, her heart is still beating.  The soul of the Queen Mary may still wish to be at sea.


But, like all of us, this ship is dying.  The wood is slowly beginning to rot; the heavy metal is rusting away.  Not even the most meticulous care will stop that from happening.  The Queen Mary will never sail again.  Meanwhile, the hotel staff works to maintain her dignity.  Signs on the decks remind visitors they are indeed on a ship, and four times each day the horns sound.  She is still afloat, but there is no longer a path to the sea – a breakwater of boulders blocks the way.  All she has left is the past.  


How many people have stood on this deck of the Queen Mary and marvelled at the sights around them. In the early morning hours, it felt like a privilege to have the place to myself. Mitch Traphagen Photo
Just yards off her stern, cruise ships come and go while the Queen Mary remains in port.  That is how it will be until the day comes when her heart finally does stop beating.


I am a sailor.  Despite common sense and higher education, I still believe that ships have souls.  That includes, of course, the Queen Mary.  Perhaps what people feel when they see and hear things supernatural is the strength of will possessed by this great ship.  Or maybe there is something more.


Late one night, I visited the area near the first-class swimming pool – what some call the haunting epicenter of the ship.  I took dozens of photographs and returned to my cabin to look for anything out of the ordinary.  If I saw something of interest, I walked back to check it out in person.  But I saw nothing but the beautifully varnished woodwork and chrome trim.  


I also shot pictures near the closed stateroom.  It was kind of eerie – they had even removed the cabin number, but you could see where it had once been.  I neither saw nor heard anything out of the ordinary in the vicinity.


My own cabin, however, was a different story.


My cabin door shared a narrow hallway with another cabin off the main hallway.  There were no guests staying in the other cabin.  Yet each time I entered the narrow hallway near my door, I could smell a very distinct perfume, like nothing I had ever smelled before.  It was pleasant and refreshing – and it gave me the impression of being very Old World.  Where it came from, I don’t know.  It seemed as though a woman wearing it had been waiting near my door within the past few seconds – but there was no one.  It happened not once or twice, but every time I entered my cabin, yet only rarely when I left it.


For that, I have no rational explanation.  But I have a feeling she was beautiful.

Late at night, few people could be seen roaming the decks, and it was amazing to walk out and feel as though I were alone on the ship- it almost felt like a privilege.  The same solitude could be found during the early morning hours, before the non-hotel tourists arrived for the day.  In the daylight, a visit to the foredeck reveals the details of the stately bridge – you can’t help but admire the ship and the men and women who built her.  Surely they would be proud to know that nearly 80 years after construction began, their ship still generates respect and admiration.  The builders likely couldn’t conceive of the 21st century, but on this ship, we have a connection to them.

Much of the wooden decking is still original on the Queen Mary. Pictured above is the Promenade Deck. Kings, queens, celebrities, the powerful and the meek have all walked here. Mitch Traphagen Photo
The shops aboard are relatively few, some parts of the ship are a little tired and there is virtually nothing in the way of evening entertainment in the immediate area (although the city of Long Beach does provide free shuttle service to downtown).  But despite all that, my strong recommendation is to go.  Go and stay aboard the Queen Mary.  Don’t look for the latest in mindless entertainment, but rather go, wander the historic decks and immerse yourself in the history and a luxury from a different age.  Go now while her heart is still beating and perhaps you, too, will feel the spirit of this legendary ship.


And if you encounter an unusual, beautiful woman wearing a refreshing, Old World perfume, please give her my regards.



Resources for this story:

Queen Mary Hotel
Super Shuttle
K&B Travel - Martha Biers



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