When I was very young I was privileged to have a friend who understood the language of locomotives. His name was Mr. Caldwell, and he was a thin, leathery old man who took his own sweet time about everything he did, whether it was filling his pipe or speaking his mind. Mr. Caldwell had been a railroader all his life, and until he retired he had been a passenger engineer on the Louisville and Nashville for 20 years. On long summer evenings when there was scarcely any sound at all, Mr. Caldwell and I would sit together on his front porch and watch the lightning bugs blink and listen for the far-off mournful wail of train whistles. Mr. Caldwell always knew what they were saying. "That's a li'l ole switch engine roundin' up a crew," he might say, or, "That's No. 26 blowin' for the cross-in' at Irondale." Sometimes he would take out his heavy railroad watch and snap open the cover and say, "The Seaboard's runnin' 13 minutes late from Atlanta," or he might laugh quietly and say, "That's ole Ed Bowles. I know his touch. He's a-ballin' the jack an' wants everybody to know it."
One summer evening as we sat together in the darkness, Mr. Caldwell said—for no particular reason that I can recall—something that I have never forgotten. "I feel sorry for you, son," he said. "By the time you're grown, everybody will be getting places so fast they won't even know what it was like to relax and ponder along the way."
Over the years there have been many times when I have had good reason to recall Mr. Caldwell's prophecy. I have thought about it often when I have booked passage on an airline and have not even asked which route my plane was following but only how long it would take to reach my destination. I have remembered it on some weary occasions when I have driven more than 500 miles in one day and have not paid much attention to anything except highway signs and a couple of roadside restaurants and filling stations. I have had particular reason to reflect on it a few times when I have flown halfway around the world at one stretch and have sat in a sort of mental vacuum, scarcely glancing at the countries passing under my window like sections unreeling from a gigantic relief map.
Despite these dreary experiences, I have grown up to discover one form of travel that still is practically untouched by the jet and plastic age. When I have the time, the money and the inclination, I can travel with style amidst gilt and glitter and splendor that Mr. Caldwell never saw in even the grandest Pullman palace car. I do it simply by booking passage on one or another of the famous luxury liners plying the North Atlantic run. These floating Elysiums have schedules, to be sure, and in offices hidden somewhere there must be people who are concerned with seeing that they make money. But such vulgarities are not supposed to concern passengers, and they seldom do. Where other forms of travel peddle speed as their most important commodity, or, at least, make it a consideration, the ocean liners promise nothing really except splendor and luxury.
Altogether there are 24 shipping firms operating about 60 passenger ships on North Atlantic routes during the summer season. At least half a dozen of these ships—perhaps more, if someone has a favorite he insists on including—are luxury cocoons of the premier rank. Deciding which one has the most to offer is an intensely personal and mysterious matter, and a man shouldn't have to explain his choice or even necessarily base it on logic, just as he shouldn't be expected to explain why he can keep company with a succession of glamorous and beautiful women and finally honorably propose to only one. So I am not trying to influence anyone or provoke an argument when I confess that my heart belongs to the Libert�.
The Libert� is, of course, a French ship, long the pride of the Compagnie G�n�rale Transatlantique, known in this country as the French Line, and referred to by employees and seasoned travelers as La Transat. Along with hundreds of her faithful admirers, I was saddened recently to learn that La Transat has decided that the stiff and furious competition in the North Atlantic is too much for the glamorous old Libert�. She will be taken off the run next month and replaced by a new ship much heavier and reputed to be infinitely more beautiful and artful, named the France.
When I made a westbound crossing on the Libert� last spring, a farewell gesture to an old friend, I could find no signs of decrepitude in her pampered 936-foot hull nor was there any evidence that the joie de vivre is fading from her 120,000-horsepower heart. Still, the Libert� made her maiden voyage in 1930 as the Europa, and that does make her old. Compared with some of the sleek young rivals that have been launched in recent years, the Libert� is a veritable grande dame. Besides, though nobody mentions it much anymore, the Libert� is a lady with a rough and checkered past. She began life as a German liner 30 years ago and was a well-known fixture on the North Atlantic run. The Europa went off into hiding during World War II, and when American forces entered Bremerhaven in 1945 they found her sitting there placidly with a German crew still aboard and almost no damage.
The Americans promptly gave the already aging ship the toughest experience of her life. They crammed her full of bunks, turned her grand salon into a basketball court and pressed her into duty as a troop carrier. For almost a year she shuttled the Atlantic, returning home thousands of GIs, most of whom whiled away the tedium of the voyage by carving their initials into everything in sight or by scrawling scandalous messages in all the usual, and sometimes some highly unusual, places. In 1946 the Inter-Allied Reparation Agency awarded the ship to the French. Since she cost well over $19 million to build, she was, as far as anybody can determine, the biggest single war prize ever awarded a nation in history.
The French rechristened their prize the Libert� and sent her off to the shipyards for a complete remodeling job. The task took three and a half years and cost an astronomical number of francs, which finally totaled up to $19.5 million, or just about what the ship cost in the first place. The French did more than beautify and repair the Libert�, of course. They installed new engines and a new lighting system, shifted her ballast to make her ride more smoothly, equipped her with all sorts of modern devices to detect and fight fires and even slenderized her hull. They redecorated her from scratch, and when the Libert� took to sea there were only a few inconsequential bits and pieces of German equipment hidden around to remind one of her Teutonic origin.
The Libert� is not really a big ship, as modern liners go; she has never been considered very large (the Queens, Elizabeth and Mary, are more than 30,000 tons heavier). Nor does everybody think the Libert� is the grandest and most palatial ship. Over the years people frequently have said slighting, and even harsh, things about the Libert�'s rich and varied furnishings and appointments. They claim that her thick rugs, crystal chandeliers, tapestries, mosaics, statuary and murals add up to a sort of modernistic Versailles. Some of these critics prefer the functional and avant-garde d�cor of American and Italian liners. Others feel more at home amidst the paneled and polished brass elegance of British ships. But I happen not only to enjoy, but to esteem, the Libert�'s gilded and glossy atmosphere, from the murals in the enormous lounges right down to the old-fashioned wallpaper in some of the staterooms. It all seems to me to be gloriously French; perhaps a bit more frenchified than natural life but glorious all the same.