A Chance Encounter
It was a gloomy, steel gray day a few years ago, the kind of November late afternoon you’d expect on the Philadelphia waterfront. I parked my car and walked slowly towards the high chain link fence, topped with a foreboding section of barbed wire. I stood there for a long time, gazing, pondering, reminiscing, lost in my own thoughts, when I noticed that I wasn’t alone.
To my left was an older woman who was standing motionless, staring ahead, just as I had been. I had no idea how long she’d been there.
Jim Palmer poses in front of the SS United States. Image courtesy of Jim Palmer.
It was hard to determine much about her with a peripheral glance. All I noticed was a grey overcoat buttoned high and patterned scarf around her head. Curiosity got the better of me, so I looked a little closer, and I could see that she was crying. She seemed unaware of the tears streaming down her face as she looked at the sad sight before us. I turned and quietly asked, “Excuse me, are you okay?”
She was quiet for a moment, took out a handkerchief to blot her eyes, and without interrupting her gaze ahead, said, “I sailed on her when I was fifteen, you know. Her maiden voyage. That will always be the highlight of my life.”
She paused, choking on her words, and continued: “I haven’t seen her since. Until now. I can’t believe that they’ve let this happen to her.”
We were standing outside Pier 82 on the Delaware River, looking at the rusting form of the SS United States, America’s greatest maritime achievement and to many the greatest ship ever built.
From my perch on a beach on the Jersey Shore as a precocious five-year old, I saw her sail out into the Atlantic Ocean on that maiden voyage in 1952. I fell in love with the SS United States right then and there, a love affair that has lasted ever since. I never was able to sail on her, but at least was able to get onboard, specifically in 1957 when my Dad had surprised me and my cousin Chris with a road trip to Manhattan, to Pier 86 along the Hudson River, specifically to tour this modern wonder. That is a day I’ll never forget.
I won’t forget this day either, any time soon. I was blown away by the thought that this woman standing to my left was actually on the ship when she sailed across the Atlantic in 1952.
Jim Palmer with his collection of SS United States memorabilia. Image courtesy of Jim Palmer.
She and I talked for a while, and I asked her what that voyage was like, a voyage where the SS United States set the transatlantic speed record which has never been broken.
“My parents took me on a vacation to England and France. We sailed from New York to Southampton and broke that record. I think we beat the Queen Mary. That was sure special.
“I’d never dreamed that a ship that big could be so beautiful. And powerful. Once we reached the Atlantic and she reached full speed, it was like she was skimming over the ocean. What I remember is noticing that she seemed to settle to the back of the boat, I think they call that the stern, like a speedboat with the bow raised. She took off like a rocket.
“And inside it was so glamorous, so classy and elegant. I can’t imagine what she looks like inside now. Maybe I don’t want to know.”
Our conversation continued for a while and we reminisced some more about the great ship. I explained to her that I’d been involved in supporting the current owners of the ship, SS United States Conservancy whose mission is to save and restore the great vessel, since its inception in 2011, as well as the SS United States Foundation and the SS United States Preservation Society prior to the Conservancy, who also had saving the ship as their mission. She was clearly moved that she found someone to whom the ship meant a great deal to.
And on December 10, the announcement came that those dreams just might be coming true! The Conservancy has reached an agreement with RXR Realty — a large real estate developer who can claim some iconic locations like Manhattan’s Helmsley Building and 75 Rockefeller Center — to revitalize the SS United States and make her into a permanent, stationary attraction, hopefully in New York.
Under its agreement with the SS United States Conservancy, RXR will “determine the viability of the SS United States redevelopment and will explore a range of potential locations for the historic vessel,” the Conservancy’s Executive Director, Susan Gibbs, said on the Conservancy’s website in December. Susan is also the granddaughter of the man who designed and built the SS United States, William Francis Gibbs, and has spearheaded all the Conservancy’s efforts. “Our vision has centered on the ship’s conversion into a dynamic mixed-use development, immersive shipboard museum, and gleaming waterfront destination.” Could that vision be coming to fruition?
As I think back to that cold November day, I’m struck by how nice it would have been to have been able to tell my new acquaintance this great news. What I recall most, though, is how we said goodbye.
I remember both of us being lost in our own thoughts, staring intently at the ship, when she turned and said: “It’s been wonderful talking with you. I’m sorry but I have to go now.”
As she slowly walked away, she paused, turned towards me and said: “Would you be kind enough to do me a favor?” “Sure,” I said. “Please help make sure she is refurbished and made whole again. I want to go onboard one more time before I die.”
stood, dumbfounded, for what felt like a long time, before the great ship. And I realized I never asked this lovely woman her name. Maybe I’ll just see her onboard one day. Soon.
More than six decades after her record-breaking maiden voyage, the SS United States remains a soaring symbol of national unity and the power of American imagination. If you have any memories from your time aboard this mighty vessel, let us know.