Mysterious Ways

By Albert Cizauskas

The author, who is retired from the World Bank as well as the State Department, now lives in Falls Church, VA.
H ome leave is an interval to be enjoyed or endured, depending on the circumstances. For us, it
was sheer endurance on the return leg of our leave in the summer of 1963.

My wife and I and our five children, ranging in age from 1 to 11, were sailing to Le Havre, where I had parked our station wagon to be picked up on the way back. Then we were to drive to Bonn, Germany, where I was the economic officer. However, Murphy, whose law say that anything that can go wrong, will, joined us.

He must have been there already when relatives and friends joined throngs of well-wishers in New York to bid adieu to passengers boarding the S.S. America. We were swept along on a tide of euphoria and cheers, mingling with tears, as the ship's band blared out the sad, sweet strains of "Auld Lang Syne."

Up to this point, it had all been home-sweet-home-leave, just as we had envisaged and planned. But suddenly came the chilling announcement that departure would be "temporarily' delayed due to unresolved issued with the stewards union.

A feeling of unease came over my wife and me as we realized that the slightest change in our plans could abort everything else. So we spent a restless day and night until, early the next morning, came the news that the sailing was canceled. Other unions had walked out in sympathy with the stewards.

Some slim hope of deliverance surfaced when we learned that the Queen Mary could accommodate some of the America's stranded passengers.

Murphy, however, ruled otherwise for us.

Tommy, our five-year old had come down with strep throat and had a high temperature. We had no choice but to return to mother-in-law's home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where we had been encamped during the two months of home leave. The good woman didn't flinch, but we could well imagine her shock at seeing all of us on her doorstep again.

The cancellation had two other immediate effects. I had to cable Le Havre to relinquish reservations for an overnight stay at a hotel. We'd planned to spend the night of our arrival in Le Havre, on the sensible premise that the children would be exhausted by all the excitement that disembarking entails.

The other impact was the lack of porters to assist with the unloading of our baggage. A clue as to how we managed showed up on that evening's TV news, which featured the strikebound America and its stranded passengers. A roving TV camera had caught our two oldest boys- Albert, Jr. and Robert- sliding a steamer trunk down a gangplank. Here at least was a story to boast about at the American School on the Rhine, but unhappily, our sons' debut on New York TV did not later impress their peers.

Once Tommy had mended, I embarked on a search for another sailing. But the best ship I could get was an old German passenger liner, the Hanseatic, which would make its first European port at Cherbourg, some 75 miles west of Le Havre. My wife and I decided that I would take Robert along on the tip to Le Havre while the other children stayed at Cherbourg with her. Once again, I had to cable Le Havre for an overnight stay, and Cherbourg for lodgings for my wife and children. But Murphy wasn't finished with us.

Midway across the North Atlantic, the winds picked up; the sea swelled ominously. Day after day, the winds intensified until they reached near hurricane force. The sea turned white with rage, whipped high and higher still, threatening to engulf us. One monstrous wave splintered the glass enclosing the bridge. Through it all, the old ship groaned as it pitched and rolled, but it refused to give in to the storm.

Gradually the storm abated until only an occasional lurch reminded us of its fury. We had survived, but at the cost of one day added to our schedule. Once again, I had to notify the hotels, hoping they wouldn't consider me an American crank playing games with them.

What happened next showed that Murphy had influence with the French railway administration.

At Cherbourg, I learned that I couldn't travel directly by train from there to Le Havre. I would have to detour via Paris. About 75 miles separates the two port cities, as the sea gull flies. But it was about 175 miles from Cherbourg to Paris, then another 100 miles to Le Havre, as the French railroads ran. The Gallic logic of this escaped me.

In Paris, Robert and I had several hours before our train left for Le Havre. So we did what comes naturally for Americans in Paris: we took a Seine River boat, went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and saw the spectacle of the city's spacious and gracious boulevards. I was determined not to let Murphy get the better of me.

When we finally reached Le Havre, it was late. The hotel desk clerk roused himself. Blinking, he looked up in surprise to see the author all those cables. He escorted us to our room.

We wished to spruce up a bit. I discovered, however, that I had forgotten the key to my suitcase. I had to call the porter, who struggled with the lock to break it open - not without some French imprecations hurled under his breath in my direction.

We then repaired to the dining room, which was still serving. There I employed my best schoolbook French to order dinner. But strangely, our dinners, though good as French cuisine usually is, were not what we had ordered. This mystified me, so I spoke to the maitre d'. "Ah, M'sieu," he apologized abjectly, "a thousand pardons, but you were not served what you ordered because the waiter is deaf. He helps out when we are busy like tonight, but I warn my guests in advance. I am so sorry that this time I forgot to warn you." In my mind, it was perhaps Gallic tit-for-tat for all those cables. After several more apologies from the maitre d', we left for our room.

The following morning, several miles out of Cherbourg, my son turned to me and said in a Murphy-like voice: "Dad, I left my glasses in our room>" These weren't just ordinary glasses. They were his first pair, made for him in the States during the home leave, specially adjusted to survive juvenile use and abuse.

Oh, well, nothing for it but to trace our weary steps back to Cherbourg, whose very name was beginning to acquire a patina of unpleasant memories. On the way, I reflected on all that had gone wrong on this trip. I could take comfort from Robert Burns, who wrote: "The best laid schemes o' mice and men / Gang aft agley." Ours certainly had.

Reprinted from:
State Magazine , June 1995, pp. 18-19