On the Great White Steamer


Brent C. Dickerson

Copyright © 2001 Brent C. Dickerson

The SS Catalina and speedboat

          I am very fortunate in that, from the time when I was quite young, my family had a habit of visiting the island of Santa Catalina, off Southern California, every year or so. This trip was effected by taking the SS Catalina—called "The Great White Steamer"—from Los Angeles Harbor to the island's little metropolis, Avalon. My memories of these jaunts go back to about 1958 (when I was four years old)—and devotees of Catalina travel will realize at once that this means that the trip began in the earlier years at the old Wilmington terminal.

          I recall the helter-skelter of the unusually early rising at home the morning of the "voyage," and the quiet, cool trip from the family house in Orange County down the nearly-deserted Willow St. in Signal Hill—past the outskirts of "inner" Long Beach—eventually, after Willow became Sepulveda, we'd turn the corner at Avalon Blvd., which would debouche at length into what seemed to me at the time to be an enormous and vast asphalt prairie of parking spaces at the terminal, other cars full of people in a holiday mood quickly clothing the empty spaces. Rush, rush, rush!—we were always hurrying to be as far ahead as possible of the other hundreds of passengers in our arrangements. My father would stow wife and children in some safe corner of what seemed to me to be a gigantic warehouse-like building to look to the luggage; and we were at leisure then to watch the bustling about of this diverse tide of humanity—young couples perhaps on their honeymoon, drinking deep their anticipation on embarking not only on a little trip but also on a new life together; separated members of family groups nervously wandering through the crowds seeking each other; larger groups, perhaps of mature siblings with their respective families, catching up on family news as young nephews and cousins got to know each other; the occasionaly elderly travelers sitting quietly, together or alone, eyes full of memories; but always, always, babies crying, mothers cooing to them, fathers standing by, uncomfortable in the prominence that a screaming child gave them.

          At length, boarding time approached, and there would be a surge towards the ship. One would never board as soon as expected!—but would always be trapped for a good period of time much closer than one wanted to be to the other would-be boarders. But the magic moment would come . . . up the ramp to the ship!—leaving our cares behind. As old hands at this, we knew where we wanted to sit—on one of the benches topside, out in the open air, on the starboard side, along the railing, where we would have the Island "next to us" when we came to the latter portion of the trip. And so we kinds would run ahead to claim our bench—were they painted bright blue?—I recall a bright blue, and it, and the ship generally, always gave the impression of having just been painted, with that globby look bespeaking countless old layers of paint seeming to testify a venerability of fastidious attention and service.

          The low hum of the engines would suddenly increase along with the excitement of the passengers. We were warned—or sometimes were not warned!—to cover our ears for a blast from the whistle. The ship began to move along the channel . . . waving to and from the dock died out, a few sentimentalists keeping at it from either side as long as possible, others of us looking forward at the interesting and mainly industrial sights along the inner channel as we went through Los Angeles harbor from Wilmington and past San Pedro. I always thought that one of the most distinctive little parts of the voyage was lost when the ship's dock moved to a newer terminal, out of the inner channel; the grit of the inner harbor enriched the experience by its very contrast with our holiday feelings and expectations of clean bright Avalon town on Catalina Island—it was the workaday world which was heir to what we were at least temporarily leaving behind.

          The captain would welcome us, tell us a few necessities about services and facilities and potentialities—it seems to me that the nurse was mentioned prominently—and some sights along the way, particularly in the San Pedro reach, were pointed out: the Nike missile emplacements, and the prison, come to mind. We would slip past the then rather shabby channelfront position of San Pedro, nearly at water level, then past the neat old houses up on the elevated portions. The vista would open up to a wide ocean, the land would begin to recede behind us. One began to feel now we're really free. We old-timers knew that the first crisis of the voyage was nearly upon us as we approached the light-house on the breakwater; once past that, the ship would begin to pitch a bit; and, with wry smiles, we would look into the faces of the landlubbers seated about us, and know that there would be, literally, a sea-change in the atmosphere of the ship in just a few moments.

          We passed the light-house!—the little light-house that stood at the break in the breakwater off San Pedro, the light-house that was always to me like the mainland waving a last goodbye to the Catalina-bound, perhaps winking at us good-naturedly as we passed. And, as expected, the ship would at once begin to roll and heave. Passangers who were jaunty, confident sailors a moment ago inside the breakwater, shifting insouciantly from bench to bench trying to choose just the right one, were confident no longer, as the blood drained from their faces, and their stomachs began to roll and heave with the ship. The ship's nurse would be circulating, dispensing advice more than pills; but she would have been preceded by the advice which the passengers were sharing with each other. "Look at the horizon," was always the first to be heard, and green-tinged countenances would turn unfocused, throbbing eyes toward the horizon. Did this help? Has it ever? I suspect that it is more a ritual than an aid; but it would at least direct needly nostrils to fresh air—possibly helpful, certainly benign. "Go to a lower deck," would be the opinion rendered by the more analytical minds—less toss the lower you go. The potentially beneficial effects of this, however, would be overtided by the descent through enclosed decks, where the stuffy air and food-scents would combine to deliver the coup de grâce to the truly sea-sick before they quite made it to the airy open life-boat deck at sea-level. This advice, however, had an unintended benefit personally for me. Still very young indeed in the late 50s/early 60s, it provided me with a pretext for removing myself from under the parental thumb, leaving family on the upper deck as I descended alone, pleading Health. Parents—perhaps a bit queasy themselves, and unwilling to test their sea-legs—would assent to this independence, saying to each other, "After all, what can happen on board ship?", a question perhaps best left unanswered.

          Now, especially in my youngest days, the great barrier to this independence was those who would concern themselves with "lost" and wandering little boys, most especially the worrisom Cappy the Clown. Ah, Cappy the Clown! Such a good idea to have someone on board to amuse the children—but I would flee the moment I would see his pale face and sparkly epaulettes. To this day, I don't know what if anything Cappy ever did but to wander around as a festive-looking but threatening figure of authority to me. I suppose that, even today, every time I see a police officer, or IRS agent, or supervisor, I still see, hovering over him or her, the threatening ghost of Cappy the Clown. Bad enough on the upper, open, deck, the inscrutable Cappy was a particular danger as one descended past the dance floor, where I believe at some times he would give some sort of performance (I never saw it). Uninterested in dance floors for any reason, and wishing to avoid being nabbed and returned to my parents by Cappy or some henchman, I would slip covertly along the passageways and stairways, feigning adherence to some conveniently nearby family group when danger threatened.

          How I loved the lifeboat deck! Just to think about it once again brings tears to my eyes. The freedom—the first real freedom I knew—yes! But it was much richer than that. To look out between the lifeboats and see the unbounded ocean, the wide open sky, to have the water stretching so far, and yet also so intimate that it was mere feet away, the deck being very nearly at sea-level; to have the breezes—the cat's paws, as they call them—snatching at one's clothing, one's hair, often with a fresh bit of sea-spray in them; perhaps most of all to look into the stell-blue water and sometimes see vague shapes darting along, and most gratifyingly the quicksilver of an amiable porpoise, always seeming goodhearted and cheerful when they appeared, like messengers from Neptune or Mother Nature. They might well look you right in the eye, and you'd feel a bond of friendship forming not only with that porpoise, but will all of the natural world as well. So close were they—so close, though they had a world of ocean to sport in; yet they chose to appear for you; and you felt that, in the same way, they were looking up in friendship at your for having chosen to appear for them.

          And so you gazed out, and the lifeboats squeaked and groaned as the ship rolled. They were generally tightly covered with canvas. One would learn not to pull up on the canvas where it seemed loose, as this sign usually tokened the presence of an amorous couple seeking seclusion inside the lifeboat. Sometimes you'd see a pair of eyes glance out at you from under the cover as your nearing steps resounded on the steel deck. But one's attention would rather be drawn to the open hatch of the engine room. You'd feel the steamy heat being vented out, and look in the see the shiny machinery, the pistons going in and out and in and out . . . The efforts of the men inside were always interesting, if completely unaccountable to me. Whatever they were doing, they were working very hard, and studiously not paying any attention to little boys outside the hatch. Sweat spangled their brows, grime and oil made their presence known over their faces and clothes. Two years running, there was an older man who sat right inside the open hatchway—there was a little chain across it, swaying with the ship—calmly playing solitaire as I feared every moment first that his cards would be blown about by a breeze, and then that he might look up and decide to throw in with Cappy and undertake the responsibility of returning me to the parental fold. In retrospect, I realize that "live and let live" ruled the day with the men in the engine room, with neither amorous couples nor meditative little boys being much at risk.

          These collective hours spent on that deck, these hours of independence, of feeling part of a wider life, a wider world, were very glorious moments indeed to me, a richness stored deeply, a repository of freshness and life always there be be drawn upon, a heritage from the SS Catalina always to be with me, and profoundly so.

          At length, parental curiosity would assert itself, and my father would appear, knowing where I was to be found, and partaking with me of the same wonders for a while, maybe feeling something from his own youth, until it was time to leave the creaking lifeboats and oily machinery, the salt spray and sea-life, and go back topside.

          Back on the bench with the family, I would alternate gazing into the mist—for it was almost always cloudy on the trip over, and often misty—to gain the first view of the Island, with watching what was happening on deck. Aside from the nurse and Cappy, and indeed the Captain himself who might well put in an appearance, the other regular feature of the trip was the ship photographer. Now, one either liked this service, or hated it; and it was a catalog of human nature to look up and down the rows of benches to see each family or party anticipate the arrival of the photographer with his big, very professional-looking camera. He would move down the line, bench to bench, some people departing to another deck as he neared, others arguing among themselves ("How about it?" "Ugh, no!" "Well, I want a picture." "So get one and leave me out." "But I want one with you", etc., etc.), others mugging for the shot. One would get a little ticket or stub, and be advised that the photo would be ready for pick up "on the return trip"—which of course also helped to ensure that the passengers would take the SS Catalina for the return trip, and not change their loyalty to the sea-planes (which moreover had a rather risky reputation) or some other craft.

          This photographic crisis past, the time was spent dozing on the bench, which was varied by going on various missions, such as to get something to nibble on, or to "see where they steer the ship," or such. But, as time wore on, more and more eyes would be gazing into the mist as the sun seemed closer and closer to breaking through it; more and more ears listened for some sharp-eyed passenger to shout, "There it is!" . . .

          At first, it would be nearly indistinguishable from the clouds and mist, a formless notion, a gray in the gray. Old hands would point ahead, starboard, and shout. People would stand at the railings, crowding those who had been dozing on the benches adjoining. "I don't see anything..." Would be the standard response; the proportion of "not seers" to "there it is's" would be about three to one at first. But as the ship would change its course slightly, skirting the island the last minutes of the voyage, the island would emerge clearly out of the mist, which itself would be lifting. Passengers would scan the slopes, the canyons, the coves, not knowing what they were looking for, perhaps not looking for anything in particular. Goat-paths would criss-cross everywhere, like a net holding the land together. Sometimes, though rarely, one would see a goat, or perhaps a deer or boar; more often it was ravens flying over the land, seagulls along the beach. Many gulls indeed would have followed the ship from San Pedro, watching for food thrown overboard, the braver ones patrolling the top deck for snacks. This first sight was not of Avalon! It was a wonderful introduction to arrive first midway along the island; it gave passengers an idea of the size and nature of the place, and indeed made Avalon seem both more remote—an exotic corner of a wild faraway land—and larger, as being some "civilization" after all the untamed hills and valleys.

          Gawkers aside, though, this was the signal to the rest of us to find our families, friends, or grops, and to start pulling our things together; for we would have made quite a home of our bench, laying out different snacks, drinks, medicines, articles of clothing, ship-souvenirs ("Um, let's save some money for when we get there," was the standard advice to lavish-spending friends or family-members), dark glasses, stuffed animals, packs of cards of which several important components would have blown away, toys, scarves, hats . . . The morbidly sea-sick would, Lazarus-like, rise again amidst the commotion and look palely at the land, mal-de-mer suddenly a thing of the past as they gazed in appreciation and wonder. Children would be dashing as parents called for them, amorous couples—now back on deck—would snuggle closer on their benches, and was that a tear I often saw in the eye of the aged, perhaps coming over for the first time since their own honeymoon thirty, forty, fifty years earlier—perhaps coming over for what they knew would be the last time . . .

          Then the great moment would come. Somehow, and it happened more often than not, the mists would dissipate at just the right moment, and the clouds would part just as the Casino building came into sight ahead, a great golden ray of sun illumining first it, and then the town as we passed Casino point. The ship's engines would shift. The commotion on the ship would have been echoed and perhaps whipped up by the speed-boats which would have met us with a wonderful noisy friendly recklessness as they whizzed around the ship, hearty waving passing back and forth between ship and boats. As we came into port, we'd see the great sweep of the crescent, from delightful Hilly Hill House and the Wrigley mansion presiding over the town on the far slopes to the turret of the Pavilion, the various jagged other multi-heighted buildings along the shore, an exciting cavalcade of architecture, like St. Louis World's Fair meets the Alhambra; the names of the hotels would be shouting to us, painted large on their walls as they did a hundred years ago, contending with each other for attention, beckoning the arriving visitor. "There's our hotel!" passengers would excitedly shout to one another, pointing. Pennants, flags, banners would be flying from buildings and from ships in the bay. And then you would see the great crowd at the foot of the pier, "meeting the steamer," that wonderful tradition which gave visitors a warm special sense of belonging; oh! the sadness—to think of the death of that fine tradition, and then of the thing which occasioned it—the arrival of the steamer.

          But your eye having run around town and come back to the foot of the pier, now you'd look up along the pier at baggage handlers and longshoremen alert to the arrival. The ship would slow as it positioned to go alongside the pier; as it went in, if you stood in just the right spot on the ship—and I always did—you'd get the feeling that the ship was going to travel right up the middle of town, right up Sumner Avenue. You'd hear the trumpets of a band playing traditional Latino music, waiting for you to debark. But, no—the first thing off the ship was the baggage! I can still hear the baggage carts rattling along the planks of the wooden pier; they'd have exotic names on them—"Las Casitas," "Atwater," "St. Catherine" . . . Your baggage would precede you to your hotel. But, on the other side of the ship, agile islander boys (as well as some girls) would be demonstrating their skills and expertise diving for coins the passengers would throw as they'd wait—another delightful, unique tradition sadly gone. Wise one, you wouldn't go to a lower deck, as asphyxiation threatened on the enclosed decks in the press to be quickly off the ship.

          Why so much of a rush to leave the ship? Oh, nothing against the SS Catalina, that wonderful friend we would look back at as we went ashore, and would look out at affectionately as we would ourselves "meet the steamer" on subsequent days. But you see one was arriving at about lunchtime, and hundreds of hungry people had to find a place to eat! And so, we'd hurry ashore, down the gangplank once they opened it, fighting through the crowds buying tickets to attractions—and there we'd be, in front of the Cabrillo fountain, being serenaded by a band, the town there to meet us, a defining moment in the day for the town, a defining moment in our lives for us.

          The SS Catalina is so much part and parcel of one's Catalina memories that one is tempted simply to go on and on seamlessly with Island memories; I have, however, trespassed long enough on the patient Reader's time. But let us end with: The moment would come each day—when was it, about 3 PM?—when suddenly the deep boom of the ship's whistle-blast would rattle teeth from one end of the town to the other, from beachfront to the Cubs' old training field at the back of town, calling one last time to would-be departing visitors, and greeting the rest of us staying on the Island one more night or two, the strong voice of a wonderful friend who helped us leave behind everyday life, whisking us away to the "magic isle of romance."

The SS Catalina

          As the ship's ads used to say, In all the world, no trip like this! Now in our memories forever.

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