A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, we were in a cab driving along the lakeshore expressway when I looked out the window to the water and became quite excited, pointing to a big, gray boat tied up by the lakefront park nested at the edge of the water, crowded in by the condo towers and the overhead freeway.
"Look, honey -- it's a Liberty Ship!"
K. was, it has to be said, much less excited than I was.
I recognized it right away -- the flying bridge in the centre and the two
crane-masts on either side, the high bow and the stripped-down, utilitarian
shape. It was hard to mistake for a lakeboat or a military vessel.
Every year, the organizers at Harbourfront, the city's
lakeside park, try to organize a visit from some significant boat. Last
year, it was one of our navy's out-of-date submarines. At other times,
it might be a tall ship, or a sleek, bristling representative of the U.S.
Navy. After reading a couple of books about WW2 convoys, I'd become pretty
familiar with the shape of a Liberty Ship, one of the hundreds of merchant
vessels built in record time during the war to make up for losses in Allied
shipping. Part of my excitement was being able to recognize one of these
boats so immediately. I didn't imagine it was an excitement K. would be
able to share.
I decided to pay the boat a visit the next day, assuming
that the gangplank with the banner -- "Liberty Ship John W. Brown" -- meant
that visitors were welcome. K., alas, would be at work.
The John W. Brown was, it turned out, one of two surviving
Liberty Ships, the rest having been sunk during the war, scrapped, used
for target practice, or long since worked to death in some far-flung merchant
marine. Built -- and still based -- in Baltimore, it was loaned to the
City of New York for use as a high school training ship for future sailors,
and managed to escape the fate of the 2700 other Liberty Ships built between
1942 and '45. Armed with cannon and anti-aircraft guns, it was meant for
use as a troop ship, and was restored by a crew of volunteers, some of
whom sailed on Liberty Ships during the war.
These were disposable boats, built for bulk and not speed,
based on basic designs and assembled like huge model kits, each part stamped
out in huge numbers. It sat at the dock, high in the water without a cargo,
tall sheer walls of gray-painted steel lacking portholes or any such concession to human comfort. I paid my admission -- a "suggested donation" of six dollars -- and began my tour near the rear guns.
Sitting on a plastic deck chair by the guns was one of
the volunteer crew, a paunchy vet in a legion hat who was answering the
eager questions of one of the visitors, a wiry middle-aged man in a souvenir
t-shirt emblazoned with some antique warship. I've begun to call these
types -- eager collectors of war memorabilia, usually non-combatants, avid
readers of Len Deighton novels, vicious eBay bidders -- "war groupies".
They're generally harmless and, pushed, will admit that they'd hardly be
eager to fight in a modern war themselves, but are so steeped in the mythology
of the "Good War" that they seem innoculated to any ironic appreciation
of the war. They certainly don't seem to see anything sinister in their
furtive, but no less passionate, fascination with the Nazi war machine
and its paraphernalia, lamely offering up unconvincing rationalizations
about "awesome technology" and "understanding the whole picture". There
were a few of these types on the boat.
The vet crewman, while keeping one eye on the kids clambering
all over the guns, popping off shots at enemy planes with explosive cheek-bursts, talked in a low voice about the ship we were standing on.
"There are some structural problems...it's an old boat...probably won't be doing these tours much longer..." The war groupie next to him hung on ever word, asking about other "heritage vessels" docked in Baltimore harbour.
I made my way past the hatches, through the bridge and
down into the hold, where a museum and gift shop had been set up. Standing
on the mid-deck, near where a few ranks of aluminum-framed bunk beds, four
high and several deep, had been hung from the beams overhead, I looked
through a plexiglass window in the floor into the hold below. The room
I was in, used for troops and cargo, was only the top half of the cargo
hold. Sitting on the bottom of the hull, at least twenty feet under us,
were a few old jeeps, clearly junkers, meant to represent the huge stores
of supplies ships like these were built to carry. The guns and crew quarters
above were only the smallest fraction of the John W. Brown's whole; the
vast spaces inside were the real purpose of the ship, a huge container
sitting high on the water. I can only imagine the target a ship like this
might have made for a U-boat captain.
The engine room was as vast, a tall, Piranesi-like space,
linked with rickety catwalks and corrugated iron walkways that made their
way around boilers and dynamos and fuel tanks and enormous, machined metal
gears and pistons. The smell of oil and heat was venerable -- over fifty
years of combustion and friction-heated metal, greasy steam and clanging,
rumbling engine. It was, after the empty hold and the long-silent guns,
the part of the ship that seemed most alive, inevitably I suppose.
I'VE SPENT MOST OF THIS WEEK in screening rooms; tiny,
private theatres where, free of trailers and commercials, critics and industry
types are shown clean new prints of movies destined to open in weeks, even
days. These screenings begin at ten in the morning, before even the earliest
matinee, and a few days spent at them makes subverts your whole movie-going
Critics -- thankfully, I think -- aren't very sociable.
Every other writer in the room is potential competition, a rival who can
best them in less than 200 words by picking a hit, or turning a particularly
cogent phrase. Or at least that's the way it seems. Really, we're all just
employees of the movie industry, paid by proxy, doing a job that the movie
companies wish they could do, and more efficiently, I'm sure.
I've been reviewing a couple of movies a week for K.'s
paper, and began watching films for the upcoming film festival coverage
this week. I sit in a room with people I know by sight, whom I don't speak
with, watching something I'll have to analyze in 250 words or less. The
blood, sweat and tears, the effort and heartbreak, the ambition and even
passion that might have gone into these films -- believe it or not, some
films are still made for reasons other than money, a fact that never ceases
to astonish me -- is mostly an abstraction to me now. The thrill of watching
a story unfold, aware as I am of the logistics and the technology that
goes into making something like a rainstorm or a gun battle happen on film,
remains with me still, but it's a fleeting sensation, something that's
usually gone by the time I leave the theatre. In any case, when I'm in
front of my computer, I can often discover that my reactions were less
than benign, and I'll hand in a harsh review to K. of a film that, the
night before, I'd called "Alright, I guess" when she came home and asked
me about my day.