Thursday, September 18, 2003

[9/18/2011] Perelman Tonight: Aboard the President Cleveland -- Part 1 of "The Wild Blue Yonder" (Chapter 3 of "The Swiss Family Perelman")

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"If you happened to be an albatross, booby, or kestral
winging on graceful pinions west of the Farallones . . ."


"There would have been one emigrant whose savoir-vivre and Apollo-like fairness set him as far apart from his fellows as Spinoza from a swineherd. Blessed with a disposition as tractable as a cougar's, possessed of the rare ability to comprehend only that which redounded to his own advantage, he had literally lifted himself to insignificance by his own bootstraps."
-- from "The Wild Blue Yonder"



The Swiss Family Perelman
Chapter 3, "The Wild Blue Yonder,"

Part 1 of 3


IF BY SOME ODD QUIRK OF CIRCUMSTANCE you had happened to be an albatross, booby, or kestrel on the morning of January 23, 1949, winging on graceful pinions west of the Farallones, you might have descried out of your wicked little red-rimmed eyes a white pinpoint on the horizon. Inquisitively wheeling closer on the chance that it might be other boobies, you would have been chopfallen to discern a trim gray vessel of approximately twenty-three thousand gross registered tons, steaming S.S.W. on the Great Circle route from San Francisco to Hong Kong and swiftly bearing six hundred escapists beyond the reach of Milton Berle and the National Retail Credit Association.

Unless you were inherently a masochist, one glance at the passengers would have satisfied your curiosity. On the boat deck far below there would have been visible twenty or thirty retired wowsers in flowered lanai shirts and Lundberg caps, variously engaged in honeycombing their livers with bourbon, tickling skittish widows and cheating each other at shuffleboard, and reviling the Securities and Exchange Commission. The juxtaposition of their fuchsia-colored phizzes and the implausible turquoise sky, of the dazzling white superstructure and the emerald sea, would have produced an effect strikingly akin to a Kodachrome off register; and feathers screaming, you would have gone into a steep bank and made for Pitcairn with the conviction that you had had a pretty narrow squeak.

Overlooked in your quick scrutiny of the President Cleveland, however, there would have been one emigrant whose savoir-vivre and Apollo-like fairness set him as far apart from his fellows as Spinoza from a swineherd. Blessed with a disposition as tractable as a cougar's, possessed of the rare ability to comprehend only that which redounded to his own advantage, he had literally lifted himself to insignificance by his own bootstraps. From every fold of his radiant, saintly face (which by another odd quirk of circumstance happened to be my own) shone forth the man's passionate credo: take nothing but what is not actually nailed down. As he perched on a stool in the Hurricane Bar, pensively sipping his aperitif and appraising his features in a small hand-mirror, he knew a moment of deep melancholy. What a chasm separated him from the trivial, shallow creatures about him, he thought sadly. Would it ever be possible to bridge the gulf, to free these poor blind grubs from their cocoons and aid them to soar with him onto the astral plane?

I had had several ponies of Reckitt's Blue and was feeling tolerably well starched when my wife entered, rudely short-circuiting my reverie. She exuded the special aura of triumph women display after spending several hundred dollars of other people's savings at the hairdresser's, and her coiffure, each serpent tightly finger-waved, fairly gleamed. "Here's a cable for you, bub," she said pompously.

While I busied myself opening it -- I was at the stage where envelope flaps showed a tendency to fight me -- she apprised me of an announcement on the loudspeaker that all passengers would be retarded as the ship proceeded westward.

"Hm-m-m, I thought they had reached their nadir," I commented. "Hot ziggety -- what's this?"

"Good news, dear?" she asked eagerly.

"Wait till you hear," I chortled. "Remember that tiresome old barn of ours in the country we remodeled into a playroom at ruinous expense? Well, it seems that your nephew was fooling with some matches and now we have space for the tennis court I've always dreamed of."

"Yes, and think of all the charcoal we'll have for our wienie roasts in future," she agreed joyously. A tiny cloud momentarily overshadowed her even tinier face. "I do wish it could have been one of our children who was responsible. They never seem to have any enterprise."

"There, there," I consoled her. "They'll be just as toxic as that big lunkhead after they've lived in the Orient. Where are they, by the way?" A hasty catechism of the deck stewards revealed that Abby was dealing fan-tan with three Chinese bust-out men in the cardroom, while Adam, assisted by another supercharged delinquent, had tied up Sparks and was sending out distress signals to the Asiatic Squadron. Reminded by the cool liquid notes of the luncheon gong that I had taken on no cool liquids for almost five minutes, I rectified the oversight and we joined the other colorfully clad tax evaders streaming down for their midday carbohydrates.

The d├ęcor of the President Cleveland had little in common with that of the ocean greyhounds we remembered from the early Thirties, nor, indeed, with any recognizable nautical tradition. Industrial designers and interior decorators had blown their tops, investing her public rooms with a profusion of monel metal, formica and glass plastics, and splashy murals depicting generously endowed nereids sporting among the billows with dolphins. Through those refined and ruthlessly air-conditioned precincts moved phalanxes of cat-footed waiters dedicated to anticipating your every wish. It was overpoweringly functional and as hygienic as a brain clinic, but every so often you felt a catch in your throat at the memory of those antebellum French cabin boats, with their matchless bouquet of lavabo, spilt Pinard, hot salt water, and garlic.


TOMORROW NIGHT IN PART 2 OF "THE WILD BLUE YONDER": Putting on the feedbag on the briny sea


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