The thin man mixing gracefully with the crowd looked like Roddy McDowall. Perhaps he was. The bon voyage party in the luxurious first class lounge of the S.S. Independence would certainly attract a movie star. Dressed in a navy blue blazer and matching beret, off-white slacks, and a scarlet ascot with a golden stick pin, the dapper gentleman caught my attention.
I felt awkward. My Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian sports shirt, and sneakers were as out of place as bib overalls at a wedding reception. I stood aside, partially concealed by a floor-length red velvet curtain, while keeping an eye on the elegant man with the ascot. He seemed so confident, so carefree. I envied him.
I had never visited New York City, never set foot on an ocean liner. I possessed a diplomatic passport and a presidential commission signed by President Kennedy, but neither put me at ease.
Curiosity, however, trumped discomfort. I stood fast and watched waiters clad in tuxedo waist coats and bow ties glide about the lounge offering a variety of cocktails from trays held high. Intrigued by the debonair man sporting the golden stick pin, I watched him nimbly take a glass of Champagne and present it to a bejeweled woman beside him before selecting one for himself. He seemed elegance in motion, flowing through the sea of tailored cocktail dresses and white dinner jackets, smiling and toasting one person after another.
I had moved from my Iowa origins and into the blue blood circles of the East Coast after graduating from Drake University and receiving an appointment to the Foreign Service in 1961. Until I entered training that fall at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, D.C., my travels from my birthplace in Guthrie Center had never taken me east of Iowa City.
Although my classmates and I had passed the same competitive examinations and interviews, I soon discovered my background to be quite different. Whereas I was the son of parents who were raised on Iowa farms and dropped out of country schools when big enough to share in the family chores, many of my new colleagues descended from the rich and famous. Among those I came to know were heirs to the Pillsbury Flour and Marx Toy fortunes, the son of the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, and a newlywed whose nuptial guests included former-President and Mrs. Eisenhower.
The differences in background were revealed in the language of my new colleagues. While I talked of people having “jobs,” like that of my mechanic dad, they talked of their fathers being “in” something, such as real estate, investments, or manufacturing. When asked what my father was “in,” I typically responded, “Oil — clear up to his elbows.”
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Shipboard travel was not as common or as widely available in 1962 as it is today. Indeed, sailing then became a snobbish affair with the top deck reserved for first class passengers, the deck below for cabin class, and the decks below that for second class. Those in first class had the run of the ship, but others were not allowed above their designated level. Travelers with diplomatic passports went first class, something my wife and I didn’t know until we boarded the ship with our baby daughter.
When I checked the seating chart for dining, I discovered the table next to ours would be occupied by the “Otis Family.” Could this be the elevator company magnate? (It was, but we never saw the parents. Those eating with children, including us, were required to eat at the first sitting. Thus, we became acquainted with the Otis’s two children and their Swiss nanny. The parents presumably ate at the second sitting while we were busy putting our little one to bed.)
But all of that came later. In the meantime, I noticed the suave man with the golden stick pin moving my direction. Surely he wouldn’t want to meet an ill-clad, socially inept person. But there he stood, ascot and all, so close I could almost taste his abundant cologne.
“May I introduce myself, my good man,” he offered. “My name is Morton Grace. My real name is Throckmorton, but most people just call me Morton. Please feel free to do so.”
With his name and manner, I thought perhaps he belonged to the Grace shipping line family. I was tempted to ask, but didn’t. Instead, I simply replied with my name and waited for him to speak.
“Well, dear boy, what is your destination on this fine July day?” Mr. Grace asked.
“We, that is my wife and baby daughter and I, are going to Europe. We’re getting off the ship in Nice and flying to Geneva.”
“And what pray tell might you be doing in Switzerland,” Mr. Grace asked in his patrician manner.
“I’ll be a consular officer at the American Consulate General,” I responded.
With developing confidence I then asked, “Sir, where are you going?”
“Actually, nowhere,” he replied with a sly grin. “I just come by to see ships off when not working at the 42nd Street Horn and Hardart automat.”
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• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: email@example.com.