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January 16, 2006

Waikiki by Troopship

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It was a far cry from my only previous visit to Hawaii.

High on the hog. Very high. The Fiancée and I spent the last five days of 2005 in Honolulu. We stayed at the fancy, classic steamship-era Moana motel in Waikiki. She splashed in the ocean and sunned herself while I read. We perused fancy shops (Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Hermès). On New Year's Eve we ate a buffet dinner at the Halekulani while watching the sun set behind a smooth Hawaiian musical trio and a hula-hands former Miss Hawaii. After dinner we repaired to the Royal Hawaiian's beach bar for drinks while awaiting midnight.

That was now, but what about then? -- "then" being 1963 when I was in the Army.

It was a shock to get orders to be sent to Korea. Korea was a 13-month "hardship" duty tour (unlike two-year European or Japan tours) and when the orders came through I was on the cusp of having too little time left in my enlistment to be sent to such a place. In those days South Korea was a poor, economically isolated country where most damage from the 1950-53 war had been repaired, but not much progress had been made beyond that. At the time, we had a corps with two divisions between Seoul and the frontier. It was considered a potential war zone, and it still is.

I was able to arrange a short leave in Seattle on my way from Fort Meade, Maryland to the Oakland Army Terminal in California. (I flew from Baltimore to Seattle and took the bus from Seattle to Oakland.) While in Seattle I was on hand for the death and funeral of my 94-year-old grandfather and I also was able to make arrangements for entering grad school the next fall at the University of Washington.

At the Army Terminal barracks I bumped into some guys I knew from the Army Information School at Fort Slocum, New York who were to sail on the same troopship. We were able to get into San Francisco and have dinner at a popular Italian restaurant on Columbus Avenue. A day or two later we boarded the troopship and sailed through San Francisco Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge and past the Farallon Islands into the Pacific. A popular song those days was Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." I came to hate it, knowing that it would be a year before I could actually be in San Francisco again.

AP class troopship.jpg
AP Class Troopship.

The troopship was a late World War 2 vintage vessel which meant that it was fairly large (length just over 600 feet, beam about 75 feet) and luxurious, in troopship terms. As you can see from the nearby illustration, it resembled passenger liners of its day; in fact, it was broadly similar to the Matson liners ("Lurline," etc.) that sailed between the Bay Area and Honolulu until the end of the 1960s. And it was liner-like in that the superstructure cabins were reserved for officers and families -- we enlisted men were berthed below-deck within the hull.

Most of us had never taken an ocean voyage and were worried about seasickness. For instance, my mother supplied me with Dramamine pills "just in case." Once we passed the Farallons we left the continental shelf and were in deep water; the ship began to pitch and roll more strongly. At this point some guys had to throw up. This was not so good because a few of them did so in the drinking fountains. Plus, the smell of barf made others feel like heaving, compounding the problem.

As it happened, I never got seasick outbound to the Far East or on the cruise back to the States. We never encountered a storm, so whatever pitching and rolling we experienced was simply normal behavior for the ships involved. My hazy memory has it that the barfing lessened after the first day and that there was little or none of it on the return trip, so I conclude that most of it was due to suggestibility.

We were assigned duties so as to avoid "idle hands" problems. Some troops did KP, others worked in the ship's laundry. We PIO (Public Information Office) types had the task of putting together the ship's newspaper. Each morning we got some wire service copy that we edited and typed on mimeograph masters and then printed for distribution by afternoon.

It took about five days to sail to the Hawaiian Islands. I remember being on deck the morning of our arrival as we passed through the channel between Molokai and Oahu: lovely sight. We sailed past Diamond Head, Waikiki and Honolulu and turned into Pearl Harbor, passing the nearly-new Arizona memorial and docking near the submarine base.

The ship had to do some loading and unloading and wouldn't sail till the next morning. So they gave us liberty the rest of the day. Some of us took a bus tour to the Pali (on the ridge line separating the windward and lee sides of Oahu) and the Punchbowl military cemetery (actually, to the grave of famed World War 2 correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was already "before our time" because we were too young to have read his reports when they first appeared) and were dumped out in Waikiki with instructions about which city bus to take back to Pearl.

We spent the rest of the afternoon trudging along the sidewalk near the beach, taking a break to bus into town to have a beer. Early in the evening, bored, we caught the bus to Pearl Harbor.

And boy did we feel out of place.

You see, we were wearing our uniforms because that's all the clothing we were allowed while being transferred. And it made us conspicuous. (Oahu was and is a large military complex. But off-duty military personnel stationed there normally wear civilian garb off-post.) People noticed us. We felt inferior. We (well, I) suspected that those folks figured we were a bunch of yahoos anxious to get drunk, laid, or ideally both, ASAP.

Those observers would have been right at least part of the time, because doubtless some soldiers from the troopship were keen on making the most of the short liberty.

But our little group was comprised of college-educated (or nearly so) men. One guy's dad was a big wheel at one of the Sacramento newspapers. Another fellow had been a radio announcer at a 50,000-watt St. Louis network affiliate (KMOX). But we were in costume, so who would suspect.

At any rate we steered clear of the Moana, Royal Hawaiian and other fancy hotels because we knew we would have been out of place had we dropped in.

My enthusiasm for Hawaii remained tepid for decades thereafter.

I wonder if, in 1963, I suspected that I would eventually be part of the vacation crowd and spend serious time at those fancy hotels we were too shy to visit. Hard to say. I'm pretty sure I never swore an oath that I'd stay at the Moana someday. On the other hand, at age nearly-24, I probably figured that the future would somehow take care of itself and that the possibility existed. And so it did.



posted by Donald at January 16, 2006


But isn't that the wonderful thing about 24? You *do* figure that the future would take care of itself and that all kinds of possibility existed. Sometimes I think that feeling is better than the eventual possibilities that present themselves? Okay, I don't really believe that, but oh boy, isn't that some feeling?

(Whenever I fly through the Minneapolis airport, on the way to visit the folks in Iowa, I always see men in uniform going through the airport, and as they walk by, people very gently let their eyes follow: they don't turn their heads, they just look and look. I wonder how shy that makes those being looked at?)

Posted by: MD on January 16, 2006 07:42 PM

Actually, MD, I long since came to the conclusion that longing, hope and dreams are almost always more emotionally intense than their fulfillment in reality.

When I see young kids wandering around, their heads full of dreams, I'm confident that they in all likelihood in a more special place than they will be once they've actually realized their dreams.

This comes with one major caveat: becoming a parent. The reality of that far, far outweighs any expectations I had before the event.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 16, 2006 07:59 PM

"...folks figured we were a bunch of yahoos anxious to get drunk, laid, or ideally both, ASAP.

But our little group was comprised of college-educated (or nearly so) men. One guy's dad was a big wheel at one of the Sacramento newspapers. Another fellow had been a radio announcer at a 50,000-watt St. Louis network affiliate (KMOX). But we were in costume, so who would suspect."

Ah, so only blue-collared non-collegiate neanderthal men would stoop so low?

Thank God for red-blooded American men!

(Perhaps I misunderstood?)

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on January 17, 2006 01:38 PM

Pattie -- Ek-choo-lee (I say in my best attempt at a Ronald Coleman English accent, being careful of course to hold the pinkie of my right hand at the correct angle), I had been drunk quite a few times before I turned 24 (I drink very little nowadays). And I've got nothing again getting laid. But even back then I knew there were smart and stupid ways of doing so.

In Korea one guy once complained that he was on his fifth or sixth episode of antibiotic treatment for VD and he was getting concerned that he still had symptoms (he used more graphic terms) with only a couple days remaining in his latest treatment. Masculine perhaps, but not smart.

Also, I found I had more success with the ladies when I was charming rather than so drunk I could barely talk.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 17, 2006 09:38 PM

And so you are - charming, that is!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on January 18, 2006 01:17 PM

"We (well, I) suspected that those folks figured we were a bunch of yahoos anxious to get drunk, laid, or ideally both, ASAP."

Maybe not. For those activities, you'd have been over on Hotel St., not down by the beach.

Not that I've, etc.


Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 18, 2006 03:40 PM

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