China Boat

Chapter 5

S.S. PRESIDENT HOOVER

Fastest Service between
San Francisco and the Orient
via Honolulu and the
Sunshine Route

SPECIAL FEATURES

The number of private baths and toilets available to the passengers carried is greater than in many vessels. 112 first class staterooms have a private bath or are directly connected to one.

IMPRESSIVE PUBLIC ROOMS — because of their extent and wide use of woods in the interior designing. Among the woods are many so rare and costly they are seldom heard of: Avodire, Framire, Bubinga, Eroka, African Mahogany, Padouk and Teak from Burma, Satinwood from India, Harewood from England, Prima Vera from Central America, Mahogany from the Philippine Islands, Circassian Walnut from Russia, Zerbrawood from Brazil and many of our American woods such as Oak, Walnut, Cherry and Maple.

SPACIOUSNESS — is indicated by the following dimensions: the Lounge 51 by 48 feet clear of any obstructions, Smoking Room 48 by 48 feet, Tea Garden 29 by 78 feet. All of these have a deck height of 13 feet 6 inches.

GYMNASIUM — large and equipped with the latest exercising machines and devices. Children's Playroom, a joy to young travelers — a fairyland.

EXCEPTIONALLY LARGE STATEROOMS — some 10 feet by 15 feet, with additional space of 8 feet by 13 feet for bath, wardrobe, passage way, etc., others 9 feet by 23 feet, with additional space for bath, -etc.

THE TOP DECK — or Sun Deck, is practically without obstructions; here the many deck games are played, walks, sun baths and a place for observation and rest.

* * *

Sunday, April 11th, 1937
S.S. President Hoover
at sea

Dear Jack:

Well, it's one thing to tell me, not to worry about your summons from your family; but it's another thing entirely, for me to actually do it. Or not do it; you know what I mean. So of course, I'm a little concerned; tell me how your visit went, all right? I'm sure everything's fine; but it will ease my heart, hearing it from you.

Besides, I want to know how Elliott's suit with Grace is proceeding; I hope you told him, how much we're both rooting for him … 

Jack's brother Elliott was hopelessly, head-over-heels in love with a Vassar girl he'd met at a mixer; but although they'd dated for some months already, she still seemed somewhat resistant to his charms.

Hearing all this makes Jack and I, both, very aware of how lucky we are, to have each other. We are extraordinarily lucky, in so many ways … 

In all honesty, Jack, I'm more concerned about your low spirits; especially because I'm so far away, and can't do anything to cheer you up. I hate like hell, this feeling of helplessness. I truly wish I were there. Tell me how you're doing, please?

As for me — well, I'm perhaps faring a little better, in terms of my own mood. And I have you to thank for that, old man; I am truly trying to be more like you, I'm trying to have a more positive outlook on things, and not stew about what I can't help. That capacity of yours is one of the things I most admire about you; and I'm learning from you. Very slowly  — (I can imagine you laughing, as you read the qualifier 'slowly'; I wouldn't blame you!)

On to the report.

Did you know that the S.S. President Hoover is 654 feet long, and 81 feet wide, with a draught of 34 feet? And did you know that she has two screws, powered by General Electric turbo-electric engines?

Well, I didn't either, until I was told so, by my new shipmate Tom; who is fourteen, terrifically smart, filled with information on any number of subjects, and is especially fascinated by ships. He seems to know (almost) as much on the subject, as you do about aviation; hard as that is to believe. Of course, he comes from Iowa, and has never even seen the ocean before. Irony abounds. He actually reminds me of Charles — but more about him, later.

I had to tread a little carefully, here; I assumed Jack would show Charles my letters, and I didn't want to say anything that would give offense, or worse, cause distress. Charles is very sensitive, and sometimes lacks in self-confidence, and can be easily hurt; although he tries not to show it.

Still; Jack and I know each other's minds so well, that I knew I could write-between-the-lines, to a certain extent, and still get the ideas across. 'He reminds me of Charles' would tell Jack volumes … 

I'm going to try to give you a feeling for what it's like, here, on board; and if it bores you to tears, feel free to skip on, and wait until you get the photographs. (I'm not sure my first shipboard photos will be printed, by the time we leave Honolulu, by the way; there's already a waiting-line, for the ship's developing-service. God, I hope they're printed in time.)

It wouldn't bore him to tears. I knew how much he wished he were here, sharing it all.

I'm writing this in the First Class Library; which is a very handsome room, at the very front of the Promenade Deck (the main deck, really, the first superstructure deck, above the main hull). The room has bookshelves with glass doors; nice, wool carpeting; several chandeliers, and lights in sconces on the walls, and lots of wood-panelling, throughout. There are reading- and writing-desks arranged about the room, and some overstuffed armchairs. I could see you relaxing in one, easily.

An inside joke. Jack is very fond of armchairs, and is always at home in one; as I've teased him, repeatedly.

But none of the furnishings matters a bit, ultimately. The real attraction of the place is the view forward.

As I said, the Library is in the front part of the superstructure; underneath the Bridge. So, it has some huge, plate-glass windows looking right ahead, over the bow, and the ocean ahead of us. The windows (the outer windows are the Promenade Deck windows, of course) are a little salt-streaked; but the view is superb.

Just now, it's about 6:45 p.m., ship's time, which is a little after sunset.

For most of today, we were sailing in mixed fog, and relatively calm seas. But now, it's clear, and the sky ahead is a dark, indigo blue, shading along to a dull red, on the horizon line. And in place of the calm water, we have some long, rather deep swells coming from out of the West, almost straight ahead, one after another.

It's very different from when we're sailing at Newport, old man. On a small boat, in the water, you're in the swells, they're all around you; here, I'm several stories above the swells, watching them come on, from a height.

But, the ship still moves, to meet them. Slowly; and in a stately way. For the most part, we're pitching, up and down, with just a little bit of roll. But the motion is quite definite; the woodwork creaks and groans, as we make our way along. There are long, long seconds, between the time we pitch downward, and the time we pitch up.

It is very interesting to watch the bow, ahead of us, rise and fall, against the horizon. I never had a view like this, on the other two ships in which I've traveled.

The pitching motion might be why I'm alone in the Library, just now.

Or, possibly, not.

It's only the first full day, J., but in some ways it is already a slightly strange voyage. Our ship can carry almost a thousand passengers — or so I'm informed, by my knowledgable shipmate Tom — but there are far fewer of us on the trip; a few dozens, I'd guess. The ship has a rather deserted feel.

According to our Purser, it's due to the scheduling problems caused by the collision of our sister-ship, the President Coolidge, last month; she was repaired and sailed just the week-before-last, taking many of our would-be passengers with her.

But Father told me, privately, that the Dollar Line is doing very poorly, financially; there is talk in Washington, of a Government takeover, for the sake of preserving the mail routes. (He also asked me not to repeat this, on board.)

Well, I suppose yet another business in financial difficulty, in this day and age, isn't news. Still, it's discouraging. We all thought that things were getting better; and now it seems, we were wrong — Is this Panic or Recession ever going to go away — ?

I grimaced, a little, as I wrote the lines.

Jack says — correctly — that I'm a worrier; that I worry far too much, about too many things. Hence, my reference to 'stewing about things I can't change' … 

Well, paradoxically, maybe that in itself is something I can't change; although I'm trying.

Still. Talking things over with Jack, has always been a comfort to me; he really does have a level head, about most things. And, he shares his own concerns and worries with me, freely enough, in return … 

I decided against crumpling the page, and restarting it. Instead, I went on.

Still. Maybe Father's information is wrong; maybe the Purser is right; I hope so.

In any event, we get the benefit of an uncrowded ship; and that, I know from my previous trips, can be a luxury. I'm looking forward to running, on the top deck, the Sun Deck; and I doubt I'll have to compete for space. And, even better, there will only be one seating in the First Class Dining Salon; so, no meals at odd or inconvenient hours.

I should tell you about the rest of the ship! Immediately astern of the Library is the First Class Lounge, where there will be dancing — which I will avoid, of course; shades of Mr. Dodsworth's classes! — and, where we'll also watch films, which I will not avoid. There is an ingenious screen, which is lowered from the ceiling … 

*

It was a longish day's entry.

 

I ended up drawing Jack a colored pen-and-pencil sketch, of the ship's layout, in brief; a thing I couldn't have done in a photograph. The Library, the Lounge, the Smoking Room —  (complete with a slot machine, of all things! For use in international waters only, of course; it was kept discreetly covered, in port) — then, last of all, a Marine Tea Garden, open to the air, astern — 

Not quite last of all, actually. Exploring aft of that, Tom and I had also found an open-air Soda Fountain; although it had been shuttered, on this, our first day out. Still; the expression on Tom's face, as he'd discovered it, was priceless … 

Which was only exceeded when we took stairs up from the side of the Soda Fountain to the Boat Deck, and found the swimming pool.

I should have known it was there, of course; but I hadn't been in the mood to read the travel brochure which Father had left with me, at school. And whatever information Tom had had, about gross tonnage and turbo-electric drives, hadn't included information about swimming-pools.

In any case, it was empty, at the moment, and covered with hemp netting, for safety's sake; but it was richly tiled.

"Well," I'd said, peering down. "If they fill this before too long, maybe we'll get a chance to use it, near Hawaii. It'll be warmer, there."

"Maybe," Tom had said, a little tentatively. It was quite cold out, and the pool did look rather mournfully out-of-commission. He'd peered down, and then gone on. "Why does the ladder go so far down — ?"

I'd looked. The pool ladder did extend downward, quite a ways; then I noticed the pool gutter, running along the sides, several feet below deck level; and it'd dawned on me.

"See that gutter, there?" I'd pointed. "That almost certainly means the pool is heated; how wonderful! And, that's where the water level is; I guess it's so the water doesn't go sloshing around on the deck, when the ship is tossing around — "

Tom had looked very thoughtful, at that.

I'd tried not to smile, at his expression — and then, I'd noticed the signs, on the bulkhead, behind him.

They were of brass, one above the other, with arrows preceding the words; and they pointed in the same direction, forward. 'Showers', read the top plaque; and then, underneath that, 'Gymnasium'.

I'd been delighted. I was looking forward to running, of course; and that was my main and favorite mode of exercise. But 'Gymnasium' practically promised the presence of a rowing-machine; and sculling is very important to us, to Jack and me, both … 

I'd looked from the signs, down to Tom.

"Do you like to run — ?" I'd asked. Smiling.

*

Back in the First Class Library, the sun ahead was well down; only a faint line of pale blue showed the horizon, in the distance.

Enough boring detail for one day, old man. There are three more nights before Honolulu, after all. And, I suppose I should go change for dinner; it will be interesting to see if anyone else shows up.

Not that I'm all that hungry, myself; maybe some soup, and a little bread. We are pitching a bit more, now.

I really do want to know how things went, and how they're going, with you and your family? And with Elliott too, of course. Let me know?

Thank you for rescuing my comforter! Although I can't think Coe deserves your old one. (Oops! Don't show him this page, all right?)

And, don't worry about disgusting stains. One good stain, deserves another.

I couldn't help smiling, at the timing. Because, in my last U.S. letter to Jack — not knowing of his crack about stains — I'd included a Surprise, of my own. Three of my own hairs — only two of them, from my head — 

And, I'd left a — discoloration — on the lower right corner, of the last page.

I'd meant it, quite sincerely; I'd masturbated, luxuriously, in my room at the hotel, thinking of him; and I'd carefully dipped a small corner of the page, into the puddle of warm semen, on my stomach.

I'd known he'd guess what it was; we have lots of experience, when it comes to each other's semen stains.

I do wish you were here, Jack. I'm remembering that perfect day we enjoyed, last September, when we went swimming in the lake; and then, that day in the Fall, when we shared that little fire in the woods. May we have many other such adventures, together.

It was only partly a way to let him know, that I'd discovered the hidden message; it was really my way of saying, how much those days meant to me.

I found myself blinking, as I wrote the words.

More tomorrow.

My best to all our friends, and especially to Charles. My very best, I reserve to you.

Take care of yourself, all right? And, keep me posted on doings at school?

M.O.C.

Yours always,

Rhys

And then I smiled to myself, as I put my next Surprise into operation.

P.S. — I hope this letter is still readable, when it finally reaches you. This Airmail stationery is so thin and light, I think it would be almost transparent, held up to the Sun; I hope it doesn't dissolve, altogether.

The Airmail stationery was thin, almost like tissue paper; it was to save weight, I knew. Airmail is paid for by weight, and Airmail stamps are very expensive.

Of course, it was ludicrous for me to worry about weight; I'd be sending great packets of photographs, and whatever paper souvenirs I could find; I'd be including the mimeographed sheet of the morning's Ship's News, with this letter, just for fun. Still; using airmail stationery is what one does; avoiding needless expense. One just does it.

 

The thinness of the stationery had given me the idea, for my Surprise.

 

From my pocket, I took a little square of cardboard I'd secreted away, earlier; thrust through the cardboard was a straight pin, taken from one of the laundered shirts in my steamer-trunk. It was the sort with a little rounded ball, for a head, which made it easy to hold.

I looked at my letter, a moment, holding the last page up to the light; then, I decided to test things out, first.

I took a fresh sheet of airmail-stationery, and I uncapped my fountain pen, and I wrote out a sentence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

It is the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, of course; I know the whole thing almost by heart, it is a favorite of mine. It is such a glorious, eloquent, and perfectly framed statement of defiance; I still get chills, reading it.

I blew on the page, and then blotted it, carefully. Then, taking up the pin, I'd carefully examined the words — and then, even more carefully, I'd applied the point of the pin, to select words; creating the smallest pricks in the paper that I could; being careful to always put the mark in an inked section of a letter.

It is an old, old way to send a concealed message.

I know it was used in Colonial times; as a way to cheat on stamp expenses, oddly enough. It seems that sending letters by mail, then, was much more expensive than sending newspapers by mail; for what reason, I don't know. But I'd read of postal inspectors checking mailed newspapers very carefully, looking for pinpricks — like mine — spelling out the words of concealed, personal letters … 

I held my test-message up to the light, examining the pin-pricks I'd made. My first few were a little too deep, too obvious; the later ones, better, almost unnoticeable.

Well. It might not fool an eighteenth-century postal inspector; but then, no one except Jack would be looking for any kind of hidden message, a code or cypher … 

 

But would Jack actually find it — ?

I hoped so.

 

I bent down over the last page of my letter, holding the pin; and then, absurdly, I looked up, and looked around me, even though I knew I was alone. Then, I bent back down, over my work.

It was hardly a safe cypher, and I would not be fool enough to encode anything dangerous, or incriminating; certainly not the 'I Love You', which I longed to say openly, and which could lead to disaster … 

Still. It was something.

Jack was right, in saying that life at school is like living in a fishbowl. And that meant I needed to be far more careful, more circumspect, in my letters to him, than he had to be in his letters to me. On my end, he only need fear Father intercepting a letter; on his end, I had to think of the eighteen other boys with whom we lived, in our House, as well as the Headmaster, and the odd teacher.

My greater constraints were depressing; I longed for a way of communicating which was at least a little more private.

It was worth the try.

In the end, my first, trial message was extremely simple:

If you can read this, write back Eureka in your next letter?

To make it a little safer, I'd pricked out the words going from back to front; starting with the last page, and trying to choose irregular intervals, between the words.

When a pinprick signified the selection of a whole word, I made the prick lower down, and in the first letter of the word.

I had spelled out 'Eureka' with individual letters; making the pinpricks higher up in each letter, and never in the first letter of a word. I'd made the difference fairly clear. I hoped.

Of course, it might all be just wasted effort. Nothing was really obvious. I was sending no key, no hint, no clue, apart from my mention of the thinness of the paper.

But I knew Jack; I knew he'd be looking for — something. He'd look, and he'd notice; he would decipher my message. I knew it.

And so, when I held up the finished product to the light — the light of one of the wall sconces — it was with a warm feeling.

The feeling persisted, as I double-checked the pinpricks, making sure they were visible; bracing myself against the long, slow pitching motion of the ship.

Of course, it would be weeks, before I could expect a reply. I'd be in Shanghai, by then  — the prospect of the delay marred my happiness, for a moment — 

Still. It was something. And, just the act of devising the cypher, and sending it to him, was an expression of love. An expression of my love for him, as his Surprises were expressions of his love for me.

In the end, did anything else truly matter?

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