Skip to main content

by Bruce K. Byers

On Sunday, June 12 the ship was well beyond the coast of Newfoundland when Harry went to breakfast. The weather had turned cold and rainy. The ship proceeded in a fog with visibility reduced to a few hundred feet. A fog horn sounded every few minutes and Harry assumed that the ship’s radar would tell the captain and helmsman of any approaching ships. The sea was rough with six foot waves and he felt the ship pitch and roll requiring that he take care moving along the corridors and stairways. Everyone was required to stay inside. He had not felt sea sick although he had seen several people in the dining room who could not eat.

At lunch there were numerous empty tables. He chose to sit at one of the round tables where he had earlier had the discussion about the ship catastrophe. This time there were several other people he had not met before. One chair was empty. Everyone introduced themselves. The three women were Nora, June, and Heather. In addition to Alan whom he had already met there were John and Preston. Harry sat between John on his left and Nora on his right. They began talking about the weather and Alan remarked that the barometer in the main lobby showed a low reading, a sign of more stormy weather. Harry added that the ship seemed to be doing well in the heavy sea although many people had become ill with motion sickness.

“Motion sickness?” Nora asked.

“Well, yes,” Harry replied. “That’s what sea sickness is. The body and mind can’t adjust fast enough to movement around all three axes at a time because we are used to standing on firm ground. Here our ground is constantly moving and our bodies are trying to adjust to this.”

“I just call it sea sickness,” Alan replied. “Oh, by the way,” he added. “I couldn’t find the book you spoke of regarding the ship collision on the St. Lawrence. Are you sure you saw it in the library? Perhaps you read about this before boarding the ship. In Montreal maybe.”

Harry replied that perhaps someone had checked the book out.

“It’s possible,” Alan said, “but I checked and there’s no record of someone borrowing such a book. I couldn’t find the title in the card catalog.” Alan sounded to Harry like a prep school boy.

“I didn’t say exactly that it was a book. It was more like a booklet or magazine,” Harry answered. “Anyway, I read it in the library two days ago.”

“Well, perhaps you were exaggerating a little when you told us the story,” Alan said.

This irked Harry. He had been moved by what he had read. He knew it to be a fact that he had read the story of the Empress of Ireland on board the ship. He thought Alan was trying to tease him or, worse, provoke an argument.

“Think about this,” Harry replied. “At this very instant we are plowing through the waves on this passenger ship. It has a single screw pushing us forward at fifteen or sixteen knots. Perhaps we are being helped by a tail wind or maybe the ship is fighting a head wind. I hope all of our portholes are securely closed.”

“Why do you say that?” June asked.

“Well, because it’s a long way to the bottom of the ocean.” Harry smiled.

“Oh, that’s not funny,” she replied.

Since it was Sunday, Harry decided to mix a little religion in with his remarks. “Look,” he said. “We all must put our trust in God. You know, ‘Eternal Father strong to save, whose arm doth bind the restless wave.’”
There was a pause and those around the table thought about the ship’s motion as they waited for lunch to be served.

“That’s a bit cruel, don’t you think?” Heather added.

“Cruel? How? It’s one of my favorite hymns. Haven’t you ever seen the film Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew? It’s all about the sea and men fighting for their livelihood in the fishing trade and we are now passing through the area where many of them sailed their schooners. It was a dangerous occupation. I’m sure that when they returned to shore and went to church on Sunday with their families, they sang this hymn.”

“Well, perhaps so,” she replied. “But we’re traveling to Europe and the sea is rough and it would be better not to talk about such things.”

“Yes, you’re right. I apologize if I upset you. It’s just that I know what I read and if the booklet is missing from the library, there’s a good chance that someone else borrowed it. Why should Alan here assert that I am mistaken? The other day another fellow thought that I was confused and talking about the Titanic. I wasn’t. The Titanic sank in April 1912. The Empress sank in May 1914. And we are crossing God’s deep ocean in June 1960.”

“Please don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “I’m not trying to belittle anyone but I’m not mistaken about what I read. I could just as easily have picked up Homer’s Odyssey and read about his shipwrecks during the long voyage back to Ithaca. If any of you have ever seen the articles in National Geographic and the photographs taken by Jacques Cousteau of sunken ships in the Aegean Sea, you would have an idea of what seafaring was like in ancient times. We think that because we have modern, steel-hulled ships with radio and radar, we are so much safer—and it’s probably true that we are. Nonetheless, these things can happen. Why do you think the ship’s fog horns are sounded whenever we are in a fog bank? Could it be that we don’t want to collide with a fishing schooner?”

The waiters began bringing food to the tables and everyone relaxed and passed the platters carefully around. Harry stopped talking.

He noticed how easy it was for the women to turn to themselves and find more pleasant topics and regretted that he may have been too bold in his remarks. He did not want to alienate anyone. He knew from high school how fast rumors could leap around and darken one’s reputation.

He thought that if there were any reason for rumors to spread among the students then they would arise from some of the romantic trysts that took place after dark on the aft deck or in cozy little corners. He had seen a number of young men and women doing more than holding hands. There had been some serious petting and he wondered whether those involved even knew each other. Maybe some of the couples came from the same schools or knew each other socially. He had no way of telling. There were just some students that seemed more involved in sexual activities despite the separation of the boys from the girls in cabins in different parts of the ship and chaperones that kept each out of the others’ area.

As he ate with the others he listened to them and did not say anything for a while. He remembered his parents telling him not to talk while eating.

After they had finished the main meal and were waiting for dessert—usually fruit cocktail out of a can – John returned to the topic of the sea voyage. He claimed that a collision at sea was not very likely, given modern communication technology. Alan reminded the group of the collision and sinking of the Andrea Doria a few years earlier. The rescue had been televised. It had been another ship collision that had occurred near Nantucket Island in the middle of summer. Harry was well aware of it. It had happened while he was living in Catonsville and after his parents had bought their first TV set. He remembered seeing news reports about it and watching film of the stricken ship taken from aircraft that had flown over it.

“Yeah,” Harry said. “That was another night-time collision between two passenger liners. The Andrea Doria was bigger and faster but the Stockholm rammed it all the same. Again fog played a key role. The collision resulted in some of the lifeboats being damaged. It listed sharply so that others could not be launched. Still, it stayed afloat for hours and the Stockholm and other ships came to the rescue and took the surviving passengers and crew off the ship before it sank. The only people who did not make it were those who were killed by the collision.”

“You seem to know a lot about maritime accidents,” Heather said. “Have you done a lot of sailing?”

Harry felt a little embarrassed. He had only been to sea one other time in his childhood on the ship from San Juan to New Orleans. He had gone fishing on the Chesapeake Bay several times. That was the extent of his maritime experience. “No,” he said. “I come from a landlocked state. The only places to go boating are the Rio Grande if you’re fool enough to try and some of the larger reservoirs and lakes. Otherwise, you’ve got to travel to places like Corpus Christi or San Diego.”

“Well, but I meant your interest in accidents,” she replied.

“Oh. No. I see your point. I’ve seen the aftermath of aircraft accidents at the base where my father works. They’re pretty unforgiving. I’ve seen a few car accidents on the highways,” he answered.

“So, you have an understanding about accidents,” she said.

“Well, I’ve been in one collision in my car and it was a bit of a jolt.”

“Your fault or the other person’s?” she asked.

“I guess it was mine. I ran into the back of a parked lumber truck. Fortunately, the lumber did not come crashing through the windshield.”

“So, would you say that the collision was an accident or just your negligence?”

He thought that Heather sounded like an attorney. “Are you studying law?” he asked.

“Ha! Not hardly. I just enjoy games and learning about mathematical probabilities.”

Wow, he thought. A girl interested in higher math. That’s a subject I’m not so good at. I’d better watch what I say.

“So, Heather, I’m sorry if I sounded pushy.”

“I’m not surprised, Harry,” she replied. “You talk too much. You seem to want to be the center of attention. That’s probably why you bring up topics like ship wrecks. We should be talking about our summer stays with our AFS families.”

He felt sweat on his forehead. Maybe he did talk too much. He was just trying to explain that he had, in fact, read about the Empress of Ireland in the ship’s library and that such historic accidents interested him.

“Well, I’m sorry but I’m not obsessed with ship wrecks or natural disasters. I’m interested in human behavior. Aren’t you? I mean, if you’re interested in mathematical probability, then there must be some purpose behind your interest.”

“So, was it your fault? The collision with the truck?” Preston asked.

“My fault. I was delivering the evening newspaper and came around a bend in the road. The sun was down on the horizon, shining right in my face. I lobbed a newspaper into a driveway across the street as I had done many times. Just as I glanced to see whether it had hit the driveway my car hit the rear wheels of this parked flatbed truck. It wasn’t supposed to be there.”

Everyone at the table laughed. It had not been humorous to Harry at the time but now he could laugh about it too.

“So, would you say it was an accident or just your stupidity?” Preston asked.

“My stupidity,” he replied. Again there was laughter. He thought laughter was the best way to get through Heather’s interrogation.

“Now, given mathematical probability, would you say it was an accident or not?”

He thought Preston was starting to play a game with him for the amusement of the others. He remembered Al Jones’s comment on the bus to Amarillo. There are no accidents, only human error.

“It definitely wasn’t an accident. I was just negligent. I took my eyes off the road for a split second to throw a newspaper. The sun was blinding me when I turned to look at the road. Bang! I hit the truck.”

“Explanation accepted,” he replied.

“Preston, it seems that you don’t believe in accidents either?” Harry asked.

“It depends upon what you classify as an ‘accident’. It depends upon intention, doesn’t it?”

Harry knew he was in the presence of several very bright people. Heather seemed to be the most assertive and inquisitive. He admired her grit but did not want to get into an argument with her or Preston over words. Her explanation was as good as his. No use arguing. He knew what he had experienced. He asked the others at the table if any of them had ever been in a car crash. They replied that none of them had. Harry felt he had a slight advantage in talking about collisions. Still, he did not want to monopolize the conversation.

Dessert arrived: vanilla ice cream and strawberries. Everyone stopped talking and enjoyed the surprise. No fruit cocktail out of a can at this Sunday lunch. Several of them commented positively about the food on board.

Afterward, they excused themselves and left the table. An announcement had been posted on the bulletin board at the entrance to the dining room stating that there was to be a film showing after dinner. The brief description stated that the film starred David Niven, Ann Blythe, and George Saunders. The announcement did not say much about it but it was the first feature film to be shown since they had left Montreal. Harry decided that he would go watch it rather than attend another dance. He had seen two short films about Norway on an earlier afternoon that he found very interesting but he wasn’t going there. He hoped they would show some films about Germany.

Several groups of students traveling to different countries had decided to meet informally to discuss their destinations. The weather still kept everyone off of the decks. Harry walked forward to the lobby and then to the large lounge where the film would be screened. He saw several people playing cards. His mother played bridge but he had never developed much of an interest in card games. Then, in a small room off the lounge he happened upon a group of students discussing religion. He stuck his head in the door and listened and then decided to enter and sit down.

There were ten or twelve people talking about Pope John XXIII and the Vatican reforms. Harry remembered what the Catholic priest had told him while they were waiting for the replacement bus on the road to Montreal. He had heard about the Pope’s reforms from his Explorer Scout leader who was a Roman Catholic. It had been big news in Albuquerque.

Different people in the room were discussing whether they would weaken the faith of true Catholics. One young woman argued that saying the Mass in English was much better than having to listen to a priest mumble it in Latin with his back to the congregation. Harry silently agreed with her. One of the young men disagreed, saying that he was from an old, established Boston parish and that his congregation would never accept such a radical change. Harry could see that the group was divided in their views. He wondered whether he might offer a different point of view. One ardent man kept asking “what if” questions and this irked several others. They demanded to know how he would answer his own questions. He was talking about free will versus papal instructions and the Sacraments.
His remarks reminded Harry of Thornton Wilder’s novel. Wilder had examined some of the same questions. Taking a leaf from the story about the five people who died on the bridge above the river at San Luis Rey, Harry ventured to ask the group whether there was any sense at all to arguing about free will.

Several wanted to know who he was and he introduced himself. He knew that he had entered an exclusive group and that they were not very interested in his views. Still, there was no sign on the door.

“What do you want to know about free will?” one of them asked. Harry thought he was trying to put him on the spot.

“Well,” he replied, “if God gives us free will to make our own decisions in life, how can He know exactly everything about us and what we think and how we will act at any given moment?”

There was a short pause. The same fellow replied that since God created all mankind, we were all his and He knew best what suited each of us. Harry thought this was not a very good answer. He said that if this were so, then everyone was chattel without any free will. He asked him if he could give any examples and added a reference to the Gospel of Saint Matthew where Jesus asked, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

After a brief pause the other man struggled to come up with an example that would sound credible. It seemed to Harry that he did not know the New Testament very well. Perhaps he was more reliant on the Catechism of his church.

Finally, Harry asked, “Supposing we are all free to do what we want as long as we don’t harm anyone else, would you say this is an example of free will?”

Several nodded affirmatively.

“Then let me ask whether anyone here has been involved in a traffic accident.”

No one raised a hand.
“Hasn’t anyone been in some kind of accident or some unexpected event?” He asked.
A few raised their hands.
“Do you think God had planned for these events to take place or were they the result of different people following their own free will and accidentally interacting?” He thought he had stumped them.

“Well, God gives us free will to make our own decisions,” a young woman replied. “He has also taught us through his Son Jesus Christ what proper behavior is among all of us. So, if we stick to his rules, the Ten Commandants, and the Church’s teachings, then exercising free will can be liberating. Harry recognized the speaker. He had seen her shortly after boarding the ship standing at the railing waving to her parents below.

“And you would agree that in these circumstances there are no accidents?” he asked.

Several others joined in now. Of course there are accidents, they said. Yet, in the grand scheme of God’s plan for mankind, these were unimportant.

“So, are you saying that everything we say and do is predestined?” Harry replied.

“Well not everything,” another person replied. “Besides, are you a Catholic?”

“Why?” Harry replied. “What has that got to do with this discussion? Aren’t we all Christians here?”

A girl in the back spoke up. “Yes, well Catholics believe in certain things and predestination is not one of them. That’s what Calvinists believe.”

So Harry was now in the midst of a theological argument. He enjoyed the tension in the room but felt that the girl was trying to pressure him to leave. He decided to ask them about the fate of the five people on the bridge at San Luis Rey.

“Have any of you read The Bridge at San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder? He tries to grapple with these questions.

One young man said that he had read the novel. The others looked at him. Harry thought he had a contender in the argument.

“Would you say that the five people on the bridge were put there by God to be in that exact spot when the bridge collapsed? Or had they exercised their free will to walk onto the bridge whether God knew this or not? What about Brother Juniper? He should have been on the bridge too except he had stopped momentarily. Or were the five people on the bridge because they were on their way to Cuzco when it happened to collapse? And if they hadn’t reached the bridge would it still have collapsed at the time it did or did their weight contribute to the collapse? And how does free will come into play?”

The others in the group became restless. One spoke up to say that they had been talking about the reforms of the Vatican Council and asked why was Harry trying to divert the conversation. Harry replied that one of them had been asking “what if” questions and that had induced him to ask about free will.

“We were talking about papal reforms,” a girl replied.

“So? Well good. We have a ‘what if’ situation here and one of you had raised a few questions. Let’s ask ourselves, what if there had been no Vatican Council? What if things had continued unchanged and the Mass was still to be said only in Latin? Would that have resulted in greater understanding and Christian fellowship?”

“Things were good as they were,” another replied. Several others disagreed. Harry could see that he had intruded into their parochial conversation.

“But let’s say you’re both right,” he replied. “I’m trying to understand better the concept of free will and how it gives us autonomy to act when we are supposed to adhere to God’s commandments and the teachings of the Church. As for the five people on the bridge at San Luis Rey, Wilder tells us about each of their backgrounds. Each of them just happened to be on the bridge when it collapsed. So, there seems to be an element of randomness to everything and it seems to contradict the exercise of free will. Or perhaps I’m wrong.”

“So you are Catholic?” the same girl asked again.

“Why does that matter in this discussion? If you must know, I am Anglican Catholic,” Harry replied. “I believe in the same sacraments that you do. I believe in the Bible’s teachings, the Nicene Creed, and our responsibility to live up to God’s commandments.”

“But we’re talking about things in our church that are different from what your church practices,” she replied.

“And how do you know the differences? Have you attended services in other churches? I have. I’ve been to Catholic masses as well as services in Baptist and Methodist churches. I belong to the Episcopal Church. I thought this was an open discussion. It sounds very interesting.”

“Well, we’re talking about things in the Catholic Church,” she said.

“Yes, and I was asking about the apparent contradiction between following God’s commandments and pursuing free will that one of you had raised.”

“But that’s not what we were talking about.” She seemed increasingly displeased with his intrusive questions. He could see that several of them were not happy with him being there. He decided to leave and without saying anything more he walked out of the room.

He had a feeling of rejection but at the same time he was glad he had asked his questions. He thought that they would have to think about what he had said. The question of free will and random accidents continued to interest him, especially as he had seen their reactions. He liked thinking about existential questions and the compromises people have to make. Perhaps his intrusion would spur some of those in the room to question dogma and ponder a different perspective about their church’s teachings. He wondered what other groups around the ship might be discussing. He was curious and wondered whether he was destined to be an outsider, constantly peering in to see what others were talking about.

That evening the forward lounge was packed with students there to watch the film. There was a lot of chatter until the lights dimmed and the projector began running. The title on the screen was in German – Des Königs Dieb. The announcement had not stated that it would be in another language. Harry and many others had assumed that since the stars were all English or American, it was an American film. And it was; but it had been dubbed in German. He watched his first German-language film, remembering the French and Russian films he had seen at the Lobo Theater in Albuquerque. While he did not understand much of the dialogue, the plot was easy to follow. He could read the subtitles in English, although many passed too quickly. He saw a number of people leave. Maybe they felt intimidated by watching an American film in a foreign language. He decided that when he reached Göttingen, he would make it a point to watch German films even if he could not understand everything. He might learn something about the German cinema and through it something more about what young people in Germany liked to watch.

On Monday, June 13, Harry awoke early. He looked out the single porthole in his room and saw some of the waves splashing against it. He dressed and went to breakfast. The sea was still rough and he estimated that the ship was rolling as much as ten degrees to port and starboard and perhaps pitching as much fore and aft. The outside temperature had risen to fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit or nine degrees Celsius according to the weather report posted in the ship’s main lobby.

He found that serving breakfast and trying to eat it proved to be a challenge as the ship’s motion caused china to move around the tables and juice and coffee to spill over the lips of cups and glasses. Still he managed without spilling anything on himself. After breakfast he made his way along the corridors to the room where he attended another German language class. Concentrating was difficult with the constant movement of the ship. He was beginning to remember many of the rote sentences that Irmgard Lohmann had been rehearsing with the group and this gave him a feeling of confidence. If he could master French, he could master German.

After language class there was a discussion forum. The topic was the U-2 spy plane incident. He remembered reading about it in the Albuquerque Tribune at the beginning of May.

The discussion leader was Rajan Sarwar, a mathematics teacher at a private school in New England. He said that he had originally come from Pakistan and immigrated to the United States a decade earlier. It was from his native land that the American U-2 spy plane had taken off. This had proved very embarrassing to the government of Pakistan. So, he had an emotional stake in the discussion and did not hesitate to express his personal views about such flights. He condemned them and said that they were bad for U.S.-Pakistan relations. He also pointed out that many in the room might be asked to explain why their government had conducted the flights. He said that this was the purpose for the discussion. The question before the group was whether the U.S. government had a right to conduct spy flights over the sovereign territory of another state. A related question dealt with the government’s denial of flights over the Soviet Union. Because his father was an Air Force pilot and had flown on many test missions, Harry assumed that whatever the mission had been, it had very likely been classified and, therefore, it had been right for the government to deny it. Then, of course, the Soviets had produced the pilot Francis Gary Powers and pieces of the aircraft wreckage to show that, indeed, the U.S. had penetrated Soviet airspace with the intent to conduct espionage.

Harry was probably the only person in the room that had had any experience around military aircraft. He had read numerous reports about the U-2 incident and about the aircraft and he had seen reports on local television. It turned out that Powers was not flying as an officer in the U.S. Air Force but as a member of the Central Intelligence Agency. His story had gripped the American public and much of the world. The downing of the U-2 had come weeks before President Eisenhower had been scheduled to attend a summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Paris. The previous autumn the Soviet leader had made a state visit to the U.S. and relations between the two nuclear powers seemed to be turning positive.

The fact that U.S. spy flights over Soviet territory had been going on for some time had not been public at that time. News reports of the capture of Francis Gary Powers had come as a shock to Americans, especially after President Eisenhower had denied that any such flights were taking place. There was no denying the Soviet television newscasts showing Powers and pieces of the aircraft in Moscow.

The stage for debate was set and many people voiced their objections to the spy flights. Harry was in the minority, but he raised his hand nonetheless to offer an opinion.

Without giving the group a lot of detail about his personal background and his father’s profession, he pointed out that such flights served as a deterrent to possible aggression. He also said that Soviet aircraft had conducted surveillance flights over U.S. military bases in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia. And he pointed out that the Soviets had known that the flights were taking place and had worked very long and hard to develop anti-aircraft missiles that could reach the high altitude at which the U-2 flew.

Another student asked why this was so important. Nations had the right to defend their territory from foreign spying. Harry agreed but added that if the group would recall the launch of Sputnik in October 1957 and the shock that this had produced around the world, then they could see that the Soviets had long been working on new rockets with intercontinental reach. If a rocket could carry a communication satellite into orbit, it could carry a nuclear bomb to a U.S. target. In that case, the U.S. had every right to spy on the Soviet Union to determine what it was doing to develop missiles that could reach American cities.

“What would you tell your host family if they asked you about the U-2 flight?” Mr. Sarwar wanted to know.
“Well, I would tell them that for some time the Soviet Air Force and U.S Air Force have been conducting surveillance flights near each other’s coastal waters for the purpose of gathering intelligence. They have also been tracking the movements of each other’s surveillance aircraft. Then I would say that the U.S. has every reason to conduct surveillance flights, especially after the outbreak of the Korean War and the movement of Soviet aircraft to the eastern most regions of Siberia.

“How do you know all of this?” a student asked.

“I read the newspapers,” Harry replied.

“No, no. You’ve got to know more than newspaper reports give us.”

“Well if any of you have read about the Korean War and about the U.S. Air Force’s efforts to determine the extent of Soviet air power in East Asia, you would have learned that the Soviets have also tried to spy on our country, especially Alaska. And you might have learned that our Air Force is not only interested in photographing Soviet air bases. They are also interested in listening to Soviet radio traffic to determine how they move and position their military air wings.”

Mr. Sarwar chimed in. “In other words you are justifying the U.S. government’s spy flights.”

Without a moment’s hesitation Harry replied, “Yes. It’s necessary. Our government has to know where the Soviet military and its East European allies have deployed their forces.”

“But what about disarmament talks?” another person asked.

“What about them?” Harry repeated. “They can take place but they cannot be a substitute for gathering military intelligence. In fact the talks depend upon such information. If we don’t gather it, do you think the Soviets won’t?”

“So you’re telling us that the U-2 flight was justified even though it violated Soviet air space.”

“Yes,” Harry replied. “Think about this: there is a potential threat of a nuclear attack on the U.S. by Soviet long-range bombers. We have already experienced one such attack on our territory when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. That came as a complete surprise and we were unprepared. Are we going to let something like that happen again? A nuclear attack would be much more devastating.”

“But what if we are the aggressors?” a young woman asked. “If we provoke the Soviets, don’t they have a justification to defend their territory?”

Several others in the group supported her position. Harry could see that there were many in the room that opposed the U-2 spy flights. He wondered what people in Germany would say if the topic came up. They lived in a divided country in which almost half of their territory was occupied by Soviet military forces. And the U.S. had many military units in West Germany.

“Maybe so,” he replied. “These flights are not threatening them. We are a founding member of NATO. We have treaty obligations with our European allies. We have to keep up with Soviet military developments and deployments. That’s what justifies our government’s surveillance flights.”

Mr. Sarwar tried to shift to a broader topic: nuclear testing. This was something that keenly interested Harry. His father had participated in some of the early tests. He did not know any of the details, but he believed that the tests were necessary for the defense of the United States. Apparently, not many in the group agreed with him. Several expressed their criticism of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Harry knew that there was no way he could surmount the emotional tension in the group. He also did not want to become a target for their criticism or get the reputation on board the ship that he was a “war monger.”

He was struck by the broad acceptance in the group that U.S. policy and actions were increasing international tensions. A few other students expressed their views that surveillance flights and weapons testing were necessary for national defense but on the whole most in the group were against them. Harry came away from the forum feeling that he had led a sheltered life in a cocoon of military families and institutions. Most of the rest of the students knew nothing about the kind of life that he and his family experienced. They came from many different backgrounds – from New England seaports to Montana ranches to Gulf Coast fishing towns to California farms and cities. He had not yet met anyone whose father was in military service.

At the end of the forum Mr. Sarwar announced that the topic for the next day’s forum would be disarmament. Afterward the group disbanded and everyone headed for lunch.

Harry felt the need to prepare for the coming discussion on disarmament. He recognized that the purpose of these forums was to prepare the students to talk about such international subjects if they came up in discussions in their host families and communities. They were, after all, American international exchange students and part of the purpose of their program was to acquaint people in Europe with American youth and American values.

The American Field Service had started out in World War I as an ambulance corps in Europe. After World War II it expanded its programs to bring young Europeans of high school age to the United States to spend up to a year with American families in their communities. The program had been welcomed broadly across Western Europe. Then, AFS began sending American high school students on summer visits to European towns and cities to interact with their peers and learn more about European culture and values.
Mrs. McKinley and the other AFS leaders on board the Seven Seas repeatedly stressed the purpose of the program and the goal of extending knowledge and personal contacts between young Americans and young Europeans. McKinley said that short-wave radio broadcasts did not do enough to inform millions of the younger generation in Europe about developments in the United States. For her and many in AFS, people-to-people programs were much more effective in helping to change attitudes. They offered different perspectives to a new generation of Americans and Europeans, born during the war that was growing into adulthood. It was also important for the American exchange students to learn about cultural attitudes among the people with whom they would live. They could then return home to inform their families, classmates, and friends about their experiences in Europe. They could help to dispel some of the myths about Europe that were prevalent in American society. This was a fundamental goal of the AFS exchange programs.

Later in the day Harry wrote in his journal about the discussions. He had mixed feelings about some of opinions that others had expressed. He wrote that he had met one of the participants after leaving the morning forum and had listened to her views on the subject of the U-2 incident. She had introduced herself as Sally Feigenbaum. At lunch they had talked about national security.

Then he had told her about his interesting discussion with a group of Catholic students and the topic of free will. She listened for a while and then replied that she knew nothing about the Catholic faith; she was Jewish. He felt slightly embarrassed for raising the topic. He knew next to nothing about Judaism and harbored some misconceptions and prejudices that he had learned as part of his Christian education in various churches. His parents were not devout church-goers and he did not think they were against Jews.  He knew that his mother sometimes referred to them as “Egyptians” when she was talking to friends. He also knew that one of his father’s best friends had been a Jew and a fighter pilot during the Second World War. He had been killed in a crash at Kirtland when Harry was just nine years old.

Sally told Harry that she came from San Francisco. She was going to live with a family in Luxembourg. She explained that her father was involved in international trade and that is why they lived in San Francisco. She said that trade with Japan was really growing and that her father had been there several times to develop commercial ties.

Harry told her that his grandfather had worked in different locations in Japan for the U.S. Army Education Service and had learned a lot about the country in the years shortly after the war. He had brought back interesting things from Japan—paintings on silk, beautiful wall hangings, a few antique swords and several books in English about Japan.

He asked her if she was looking forward to staying with the family in Luxembourg and she replied that she had exchanged several letters and photographs with the eldest daughter and that she was very much anticipating staying with her family. Then she changed the subject and said that some of her ancestors had come from Berlin and nearby towns. She knew that members of her father’s family had fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and other relatives had died in concentration camps. Harry expressed his regret to hear that. He did not know very much about the camps. He told her that once in tenth grade he and his classmates had been shown a film about Nazi Germany and had seen horrible footage of emaciated prisoners liberated by U.S. troops at several concentration camps. He said he knew about Dachau and Bergen Belsen where Anne Frank had perished.

Sally asked him whether he had read her diary. He replied that he had watched the film about her and her family. It was very moving. Afterward, he had borrowed a copy of her diary from the base library and read it. He said that it was difficult for him to imagine how such a bright girl from an educated family in Holland could have ended up dying in a concentration camp just weeks before it was liberated. Sally pointed out that millions of people had suffered similar fates. She said she was critical of the U.S. government for its attitude and policies towards Jewish refugees before the war. She told him that the U.S. could have allowed thousands of refugees into the country but didn’t. It could have bombed some of the biggest concentration camps to disrupt and destroy the German extermination machine but instead picked other targets. The Germans’ mass killing had gone on unchecked. She said the failure to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps reflected anti-Semitism in President Roosevelt’s administration.
This was all new to Harry. Sally told him that she had done a lot of reading about the extermination camps. He wondered what he would say if this topic came up in the family that would host him. He could speak about the Diary of Anne Frank because he had read it and had seen the movie. He could talk about the documentary film he had watched in school. He was not sure what his host family knew about concentration camps.

He asked Sally what she would say about this subject if it came up in her host family. Would they know that she is Jewish and that she had lost relatives in the war?

Sally replied that, of course, her host family knew she was Jewish. With a name like Feigenbaum how could they not know? She had provided biographical information to AFS New York and assumed that it had sent it to the AFS office in Luxembourg. She told Harry that there were other Jewish students on the ship and some were headed to Germany. She mentioned the name of a girl that was going to live with a family in Göttingen.

“I’m going to stay with a host family in that same town,” he replied.

“Oh, then you must meet her. I can introduce you to her if you’d like,” Sally replied.

“Isn’t it odd that I haven’t met her yet. I’d be glad if you would introduce us. Perhaps we could sit at the same table at dinner this evening.”

Sally agreed to speak with her. Harry thanked her and said that he had really enjoyed talking with her. They parted and he went back to his room.

As he walked along the boat deck, he stuck his head out one of the doors and heard the sea thundering beneath the ship. He closed it and continued to walk along the corridor. He felt the ship rocking like a cradle. In the main lobby he looked at the ship’s progress on a map that was posted each day. They had traveled 1,480 nautical miles since leaving Montreal. They were now at a latitude farther to the north than Montreal. He thought that might be the reason the sea was so rough. He wondered whether they would see any ice bergs.

Shortly before dinner he changed his clothes and put on a white shirt and tie and his blue blazer. He wanted to make a good impression on Sally and her friend. He returned to the boat deck to see whether there had been any shift in the weather. From there he could see that visibility had increased. A posted weather forecast explained that the weather would improve during the next twenty-four hours.

He arrived at the dining hall a few minutes early. He wanted to choose a smaller table where he and Sally and her friend would have an easier time talking. The big round tables with eight people were really too large to carry on a general conversation. Sally soon arrived with her friend—a tall, dark-haired young woman with fine facial features that reminded him of his French teacher. He had never thought of Mrs. Simon as being Jewish but now that he saw this young woman with Sally, he guessed that, yes, maybe Mrs. Simon was also Jewish. He knew so little.

Sally introduced her friend Naomi Fox and Harry extended his hand. He had seen her in the German language classes but had not formally met her. Naomi shook hands and Harry suggested they sit at the table he had chosen. They sat down just as the dining hall was officially opened for dinner. After several minutes other people began entering.

Naomi was strikingly beautiful. She was very tall. Her face was long and oval. Her skin was very fair, as though she had never been to a sunny beach. Harry thought that she looked “European.” Sally was shorter with a round face, freckles, and curly brown hair. He had no way of discerning that the two women were Jewish because he had never consciously known any Jewish girls in school. His ignorance about Jews was great and now he thought that he might begin learning more about them through these two women.

Sally told Naomi that she and Harry had spent an hour discussing national security after the morning forum. She had learned that he was also going to Göttingen. This gave him the opportunity to talk a little about the family he would be staying with. He said that he had originally hoped to stay with a family in France because he had been learning French in high school. He had an outstanding teacher who had encouraged him to apply for the AFS program. He had been a little disappointed when AFS headquarters had informed him that he would be staying with a family in Germany.

Naomi said that she had expressly stated in her application that she wanted to stay with a family in Germany. She wanted to meet people her age and learn about their views of recent history and culture. She told Harry that Göttingen was an old university town and that some of the most famous scientists had studied there. She said it was the home of the Max Planck Institute and early nuclear physics. Harry had not heard this before and asked her about it. Naomi explained a little more about the institute. This made him curious. He asked her whether she was studying science. He said that few girls in his high school were interested in the sciences.

She replied that the reason for that might be that his school did not encourage girls to study science. Maybe it was more traditional than the one she attended in New York. She said she was a math and science student at a special high school that had competitive entrance requirements. Students had to pass an examination to be accepted. Harry felt a pang of envy as she explained what she studied and the scholastic environment in which she worked. He saw that his public high school was more conventional in its educational policy. Expectations of girls were different than those of boys at his school.

Harry was impressed by her gentle demeanor. He asked her whether her father was a scientist. She laughed a little and said that he was a banker. She had an older brother in college who was studying physics and she, herself, was interested in math and physics. She said that she and her sisters enjoyed music and played various instruments. She spoke softly but distinctly, not running her words together like so many girls he knew in Albuquerque. Sally was more loquacious and enjoyed talking about a wide range of topics. He had the impression that when she started speaking, she could not stop unless someone interrupted her. She told them that she was looking forward to discovering all of the famous locales in Luxembourg and that, perhaps, she could visit France and Germany with her host family while she was there.

Harry said, “My host family lives in Friedrich Naumann Strasse in Göttingen. The father is the director of a home for apprentices studying different trades. From the letters I’ve received from Peter, my host brother, I think the family is a typical middle class family although I’m not sure.”
“Do you know where your host family lives, Naomi?”

“Sure. I’ve also exchanged letters with them. My host sister, Uta, wrote that they live a few miles outside Göttingen near the village of Bovenden in a place called Rauschenwasser. She sent me a photograph of her and her family. She’s looking forward to meeting me and learning about my family and the school I attend. And I am just as curious about her and her school.”

Waiters began to circulate with platters of food for each table. Harry was hungry and was glad when his table was served. He passed the platters to Naomi and Sally and then paid attention to how they ate. He was reminded of the many times his parents had insisted that he and his brothers use their best table manners. At earlier meals with some of the men in his cabin he had seen how they ate with elbows on the table and reached across each other for more food. He thought that the two young women were very refined.

He wondered how Sally and Naomi had met since they came from opposite ends of the country. “Did you know each other before coming to Montreal?”
They replied that they had met on the first day just after the ship left the harbor. They shared a cabin with four other girls in the forward area of C-Deck.

He asked Sally what it was like to live in San Francisco. She explained that it was a wonderful city and she enjoyed its diverse cultural life and the opportunities she had to pursue music and dance. “What’s your home town like, Harry?”

“I don’t really call Albuquerque my home town. My family is a military family and we’ve moved around the country a lot. I’m living in Albuquerque because my father is stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base.”

“Oh, I’ve heard about that and I’ve read about Los Alamos and the development of the atomic bomb,” Naomi replied. “Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer was director of the project there.”

Sally grimaced. “More talk about bombs,” she said. “I’m against nuclear weapons.”

Harry did not want to get into a conversation about that and asked her whether she planned to become a ballet dancer. She laughed and said that she had taken ballet lessons as a girl but now enjoyed modern dance.

“Dance is my recreation when things become too hectic in school. I also enjoy playing piano when I can find the time. I’ve been playing since childhood but I’m no concert pianist.”

“My mother started to teach me to play the piano when we lived in Maryland. My father purchased a used upright and had had it tuned. Mom attended Oberlin College and majored in music for two years. Then the money ran out and she had had to go to work. Still, I think she felt it was important for my brothers and me to learn to play musical instruments. In addition to the piano I played the slide trombone in junior high school and was in the band. I think it’s a lot easier to play the trombone than the piano. My younger brother plays the trumpet.”

He asked Sally what she planned to do after graduation and she unhesitatingly said that she planned to become a political activist.

“What about going to college?” he asked.

“Well, of course, I’ll go to college. That’s a good place to be politically active. There are so many causes worth fighting for.”

“So, you want to become a politician?”

Sally gasped. “No! Not at all. I’m more interested in raising public awareness about some of the negative things politicians do.”

“But not everything that they do is bad,” Harry replied.

“Yeah, well you need to educate yourself more about some of the awful policies that our government has come up with. And there’s the whole arena of civil rights and segregation in the South. I mean I’ll have a full schedule of things to do when I’m not studying.”

“And what do you plan to study?” Naomi asked.

“Social activism. Political science. History. You know, I’m very interested in how our government has treated Negroes and Native Americans,” Sally replied.

“You mean Indians,” Harry said.

“No. I mean Native Americans. ‘Indians’ is a racist term that some of our politicians and Hollywood like to use.”

“Have you ever met any of them?” Harry wanted to know.

“A few,” Sally replied. “At some rallies in San Francisco.”

“Well, I’ve been to some of the reservations in New Mexico and have also learned about Indian culture through my Explorer Scout group. I became a member of the Order of the Arrow and know a bit about the history of the Spanish conquest of New Mexico and the resistance that the Native groups put up in the seventeenth century and, later, against the Anglos that came to take over the territory after the Spanish were defeated in Texas.”

“You mean the Mexican war, don’t you?” Sally replied.

Harry thought for a moment and remembered that the United States had fought a war against Mexico after the Battle of the Alamo. “I see your point,” he said. “So, you’re really interested in making people aware of the injustices that many in our country have suffered.”

“Yes,” she said.

“And what are you going to tell people in Luxembourg about them? They might not think that someone from San Francisco knows much about the history of Indians. They might be more interested in asking you about the Gold Rush.”

“You could tell them about the persecution of Native Americans in California after the Gold Rush and the seizure of their lands by miners and timber companies,” Naomi interjected.

Harry was surprised that Naomi knew about this too. She was from New York. Listening to the two of them, he felt that somehow he had been living in a cultural vacuum. These subjects were never discussed in his school. He knew that most of his classmates thought of Indians as somehow inferior and living in poverty on distant reservations. His visits to a couple of reservations in New Mexico had convinced him that most of them were poor. Now, he felt that he was caught short in his knowledge about the history of native peoples in North America. There was the occasional article with photos in National Geographic Magazine that his parents received each month, but his idea of their existence had been influenced mostly by movies and comics.

Trying to explain what he knew, he told Sally and Naomi that he had seen “Stagecoach” and “The Seekers” and other films starring John Wayne as a cavalry officer and Indian fighter. He had long taken it for granted that the U.S. Army had defended the safety of pioneers moving across the country and that the Hollywood films depicted these migrations in positive terms as though they were destined to happen and the Indians would just have to accept it. The two women held different views about this and told him so. Even though they came from major cities far from Indian reservations they seemed informed about some of the worst things that had happened to Native Americans. Naomi asked Harry whether he had read anything about the Indian Wars that took place after the Civil War. He admitted that he had not. Still, he felt that they were prejudiced and knew less about the Indians than he.

“I don’t like John Wayne movies,” Sally said. “They brainwash people into believing that the Indians were bad and that the Army had every right to push them off their lands. I’ve read a lot about them and our government’s dealings with different tribes and I feel confident I can talk to anyone in Europe about the treatment of Indians by the U.S. government or the state of California.

“Maybe you know that the government has carried out a policy of deporting thousands of American citizens of Mexican heritage in the Thirties and, later, of locking up Japanese Americans in camps at the beginning of World War Two. These were unconstitutional and racist policies.”

Harry saw that she was passionate about the subject of civil rights and wondered whether the three of them could steer the conversation back to their pending arrival in Europe and their aspirations for the summer.

“What do you think about our language classes so far?” he asked.

“Rote learning mostly,” Naomi replied. “I can see the purpose for it. We don’t know any German and they want us to be able to say a few things when we arrive. I’ve learned Yiddish in my family; that’s related to German. So, I recognize many of the words and phrases Irmgard has been teaching us. I also hope to learn more about contemporary German culture. The country really took a beating during the war. They’ve practically had to rebuild everything. I hear that we are going to watch some short films about Germany at tomorrow’s orientation meeting. Maybe we’ll see something of what the country and the people look like today.”

“I agree with Naomi,” Sally interjected. “It’s useful to know some words and phrases in German. I have a grandmother who came to America from Germany after World War One. She emigrated from Pomerania and met my grandfather in New York. He had emigrated from Russia at the time of the Revolution. They spoke Yiddish, but I never learned it.”

Harry saw a whole new world opening before his eyes. “What’s Yiddish?” he asked.

“It’s a language that most Jews from Europe speak,” Sally replied.

He saw that the two of them knew so much more than he did about history and politics. He hesitated to say anything more about their opinions. Instead he replied that he also wanted to see the films about Germany. He offered that Americans had so many misconceptions about the country and the people. He said that old war movies perpetuated stereotypes.

“We shall see,” Naomi replied.

He smiled and said, “at least now I know what political activism is.”

“Oh, it’s no joke,” Sally said. “You’ll have an opportunity to express your views about various issues during the forum discussions.”

“I already have,” Harry answered.

“Yes, I heard” Sally replied.

“I missed that,” Naomi said. “What was the topic?”

“We were discussing the U-2 spy plane incident,” Sally replied. “And Harry had definite opinions about why such flights are necessary.”

“Oh?” She looked at Harry.

“Well, now if I tell you, you have to promise not to get mad.” He felt that Naomi might be critical about his views.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I defended our government’s use of surveillance flights over Soviet territory. But I don’t want to get into a debate with you about it here. I must tell you both that my father’s an Air Force officer and a pilot. I’ve learned much about what our armed forces do to defend our country. So, my views may offend you. I don’t know. It’s not my intention. Still, I feel that our government has a major responsibility to pursue a strong national defense. And my father is part of that effort. So, you see, I come from a different world than you and here we are on this ship headed for Europe. It’s good to share experiences. And each of us will have the opportunity to meet young people in Germany and Luxembourg and learn about them and their families and their values. That’s the main reason I wanted to be an exchange student: to learn more about how people in different countries think about things and how they view our country.”

Sally and Naomi looked at Harry and then at each other and smiled. Dessert was served.

“At least you’re honest,” Sally said.

“At least he has views,” Naomi added.

Harry felt that they both accepted him despite their divergent views on things. “You might be interested in what happened when I was in a discussion with a group of Catholic students about free will earlier today. I didn’t even raise the subject, but when one of them began talking about it, I started asking some questions. They were talking about the reforms in the Catholic Church that Pope John has introduced and there was some divisiveness among them when I stuck my head in the door and listened. I thought it was an open discussion and so I took a seat.

“When the subject of free will came up, I expressed my opinion. Perhaps you’re familiar with Thornton Wilder’s novel about the bridge at San Luis Rey. I’ve been reading it since I left Albuquerque. After a few minutes I asked them whether they thought that the five people on the bridge had been there by God’s will or of their own free will. I asked whether their being on the bridge had caused it to collapse, throwing them into the river below. Well, that provoked a lot of comments and eventually I left because they really didn’t want to talk about Thornton Wilder’s story. They thought I didn’t belong there.”

“Are you Catholic?” Sally asked.

“No. I’m a member of the Episcopal Church. We believe in the same sacraments as Catholics. We don’t recognize the Pope as the leader of all Christians. And we don’t recognize the infallibility of the Pope.”

“You know that we are Jews,” Sally said.

“Yes. And I must tell you that I don’t know much about your religion. I’ve heard a lot of rumors in various schools I’ve attended. And sometimes, some of the preachers at church expressed negative opinions about the Jews.”

“What sort of opinions?” Naomi asked.

“Oh, that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ and that they have refused to recognize the truth of his works.”

“Well, that’s a lot of propaganda,” Sally replied. “There’s a lot of ignorance about Judaism in this country and there are bigots who preach hatred against Jews. I’m sure you must know about that.”

“Well, uh, I’ve heard a thing or two. I still don’t know much about the history of the Jews. I know that Saint Paul was a Jew.”

“So was Christ. He was even a rabbi,” Sally answered. “And he was subject to the same laws as all other Jews of his time. He even taught that it was important to observe those laws. So, he wasn’t exactly a radical revolutionary.”

“That depends,” Naomi said. “Many people view him as a social revolutionary. He did things that offended the Jewish leaders of his time. We can’t expect that Harry knows all of this. His views will have been shaped by what he learned in his church. It’s good that he’s interested in learning more about Jewish history and religion.”

Sally agreed. The conversation returned to talk about the coming arrival in Holland and what they would do once they reached their host families. Harry felt more confident talking about this, but he was also curious about their views. They were the first young women with whom he had had a serious discussion during the voyage. They had not been afraid to express their opinions. In fact he had been surprised at how outspoken they were. He thought that they were better informed on important issues. That was more than he could say for most of the people he had met on the ship. Of the girls he had met so far only Penny from Baltimore had impressed him as much as they had in the short time he had been talking with them.

He was also intrigued at how well they had steered the discussion and how they had reacted to his statements and questions. There was something in their manner that he admired and yet he found each of them mysterious in her own right. They were from opposite ends of the country and seemed to have different lives and experiences, and yet they were informed and articulate in addressing serious subjects. Sally seemed to be the livelier one; she had not hesitated to express her views. Naomi was more reserved. He would possibly have another opportunity to learn more about her during the course of the summer. So far he had been very impressed. He would share a train with Naomi and three others who would soon be traveling to Göttingen.bluestar


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Bruce Byers is a retired Foreign Service officer who held assignments in Tehran, Mumbai, Kabul and several European posts. He also served in Manila before returning to Washington for assignments at the Department of State. He was involved in cultural and informational affairs in the U.S. Information Agency prior to transferring to the State Department when USIA was consolidated into State in 1999.


Comments are closed.