Sunday, December 12, 2010

Queen Mary (2)

Mary had signed me up for two of the available tours: "The Behind the Scenes" tour, and the WWII tour. There is also a self-guided audio tour available, but the staffer at the tour desk assured me that the overlap between the other two tours made the audio component redundant; and that the audio was more about directing people to the relevant locations rather than providing in depth discussion. She handed me a map of the key locations, should I wish to pursue those myself later (your room card is your ticket to the museum areas). (There is also a ghost tour, in which I had no interest -- because I'm writing space opera, here, not fantasy. Ahem.)

The two guides had very different styles. The WWII guide, himself ex-navy, was very respectful, soft-spoken, and a fountain of information. We had a smaller group, so we could ask more questions, and the really interesting bits came out in answer to queries. The guide's underlying passion for the Queen Mary and for her history came through very strongly, particularly in his asides in response to queries about the various changes made to the ship when permanently docked at Long Beach. Although the guide was extremely professional in his remarks, and clearly understood the need for the adaptations, it was clear that a lot of the alterations struck him as acts of near vandalism. For example, I was shocked to realize that each of the windows on the upper decks were framed in these thick bronze plates, because the bronze had been -- painted over with brown paint. What? There's bronze under there? But why wouldn't you leave the bronze, because that would be spectacular! But of course the answer is that, unlike the original Queen Mary, there is no longer a staff of thousands to go around polishing the brass every night. It would simply be unmanageable. So, management did what it had to and painted over all the brass. Similarly, the guide pointed out the hardwood decking we were walking on was a (now extinct) white teak. But lacking the staff to sand down the floors each night to remove scuff marks, they had been stained a deep brown. There is a lot like that. But, as the guide explained, it is absurdly expensive to maintain the Queen Mary, completely out of scale for what any other hotel has to cope with. He cites the example that it cost $40,000 to paint just one of the ships funnels; that to repaint her exterior in the Queen Mary colors next year will cost 1/4 million dollars -- because of course it has to be special rust resistant ship paint, and they have to sand down the surface first, and so on. Madness, from a purely economic perspective.

On the other hand, the guide would lovingly caress the banister of one of the original wood staircases on the deck, commenting on the workmanship, the fine detailing, and the fact that it was still in fabulous shape 75 years later. So then one of the tourist would say, what about that metal staircase over there, and the guide would answer that it was added when the Queen Mary was permanently docked -- because when she was on the ocean, you couldn't have a staircase so close to the edge, because the waves would simply come up and wash you away. Hard to remember how different things were in those days, before modern stabilizers and so on.

At her peak as a WWII troop carrier, QM transported 16,000 troops at a go (moved a total of over 800,000) but carried enough lifeboats for about only 3500 people (the number of passengers and crew of pre-war configuration).(After the Titanic, law said you had to have sufficient lifeboats for everyone on board, so they did -- for prewar numbers. They added stacks of rafts, but even with these, they still only had a total capacity of about 8000.

Bunks were stacked four deep, with only 18 inch clearance; soldiers talked about how you couldn't roll over in bed, but had to get out and back in to turnover.

The soldiers had 45 minutes to line up, get their food, find a spot to sit, eat their food, and get out before the next shift was rotated in. Given the numbers, the result was that many soldiers simply missed meals because they were unable to get through the lines in time.

The best stories were stories the guide had collected from veterans taking his tour. There were a number of these, but my personal favorite is this one:

The guide brought us to one door near the bow of the ship, showed where the gunnery crews were housed, kept separate from the troops being transported. The gunner had felt cooped up for days and couldn't stand it any longer, stepped out the door to take some air. As he stepped out, the entire contingent of troops on deck turned and bowed to him. "Wow," he thought, "they treat me like a god!" This did not entirely strike him as unepxected, because the gunners conducted daily drills, not so much to hone their skills as to keep troop morale up, since they all knew themselves to be ridiculously vulnerable. (See above re lifeboars) As the entire deck of soldiers bows down to him, it occurs to the gunner to wonder why they are all in their life jackets. Looks up to see an enormous wave coming over the bow, smashing into everyone. Of course, they aren't bowing, they're ducking, and he gets completely drenched. He retreats inside, never to venture out again.

(That anecdote goes straight into my novel -- I can so see my hero misunderstanding a similar situation and getting his comeuppance.)

Guide tells us that the soldiers rotated, 6 hours inside, 6 out. Given the story of waves breaking over the soldiers, outside may not always represent the advantage of fresh air over stale that I might otherwise have assumed...

The guide lovingly points out all the different veneers as we pass through the ship. There are 53 different veneers used on the Queen Mary, one for/from each of the British colonies of the time. Somewhat nervous making was the constant refrain, "of course, that wood is extinct now."

Soldiers were told not to touch any of the ship's precious wood, and for the most part they didn't. Anyone caught carving their initials in or similar were brigged and put on bread and water. It was a different age, the guide complains, when people actually listened to orders, and discipline enforced.

As we were going about the ship, an Englishman approaches the tour, mentions that he had gone aboard the Queen Mary when we was nine, to say goodbye to an aunt who was sailing across the Atlantic. "No security in those days," the guide remarked. "Not at all", the man agreed. "You just went on and off as you wished, and nobody questioned you."

Bumps installed on banisters for the expressed purpose of discouraging sliding

In addition to lecturing on the details of Queen Mary as a troop carrier (and subsequent to the war, the ship that carried war brides and their children back to America), the guide also provided other insights as they came up. He pointed to the little bumps placed on the banisters of one of the ornate staircases. "They're to stop children from sliding down them. Didn't work though: they'd take the cushions and pillows from their staterooms, and slide down anyway." He point to a art deco light fixture, mention in passing that it is made of leaded glass. The main fixture in the room weights over 450 lbs. (I try to comprehend the scale of the ship, the cost of fuel, the feat of staying afloat, when each item of the decor weights so much! He draws our attention to a set of metal screens, copied exactly for the Queen Mary II -- only their replica is made out of plastic, not bronze.) On the other hand, he points to the posts holding up the railings, made of Bakelite, the first completely synthetic plastic. (I'm instantly alert, because this must be when plastic finally came of age -- new materials always ape previous ones, so for a long time Bakelite would pretend to be wood (you still see fake wood veneers in a lot of plastic products to this day), so the fact that the Queen Mary used Bakelite as Bakelite must have marked the turning point where it stopped being a cheap substitute and became instead 'modern' -- because there was nothing cheap about anything on the QM, but 'modern' was very chic.

American-style Bar: note the wide foot rest provided at the bottom of the bar almost matches the counter for width (the bar window is closed in this photo)

Another aside that stuck with me: as we tour the men's smoking room, the guide points to "The American Bar". What made it an American style bar was the footrest. The guide demonstrated how leaning on the bar with your feet on the floor is untenable, and can only be sustained for a couple of minutes; but with the addition of the footrest, your posture changes completely, and you can stand like that, chatting at the bar, for hours. I never knew that.

It was a completely fascinating tour. Highly recommended.

The guide for the behind the scenes tour was James. Whereas the first guide felt constrained by his topic and the frequent sprinkling of veterans among his audience, James felt no such restraints. He was highly animated, and over EE-nun-CI-ATEd each word, partly to project to the rear of his much larger crowd, but mostly to keep everyone's attention RIV-A-TED on him. The tour wasn't really 'behind the scenes', just a tour of the public spaces, so a bit of a misnomer, but entertaining nonetheless.

From James we learned that there were 315 first class cabins, which are now the hotel section of the Queen Mary. The second and third class areas are now either conference rooms or house the museum displays. First class on the Queen Mary was the middle section, top to bottom; second class was the rear of the ship; third class the bow. The sectioning reflected the smoothness of the ride; the bow going up and DOWN and up and DOWN (James repeated this mantra about 30 times on the tour, accompanied by appropriate hand motions) and the middle being smoothest. First class passengers could go anywhere on the ship, but second and third had to stay where they were. Unlike the scene from the Titanic, there were no bars separating classes on the QM, but as the guide pointed out, in an age where the servers took pride in knowing everyone's name, likes and dislikes, it was impossible for someone to be out of place without being spotted at once.

In the main first class ballroom/cinema/theater etc were two huge peach plate mirrors. they looked like ordinary mirrors, but have a slight pinkish tinge to them, so that when I looked in one, I looked quite red. The point, we are told, is that as the North Atlantic tossed you about, and you started to go a bit green, when you looked into these mirrors, it canceled the green out, you looked normal, and therefore (theory was) you felt better.

The ship curves in what the guide referred to as a banana shape, to increase flexibility and strength. At one point in the tour, he opened all the doors on a ship's corridor, and you could actually see the curve ("sheer to deck") over the distance. So, humorous story, when the ship was brought to Long Beach, it had to go around South America (being too large for the Panama Canal) and a number of windows had been destroyed in the storms off the tip of South America. So the guy sent to replace the windows measured a window, placed the order, and when the mountain of glass showed up, only one pane fit -- the one window he had measured -- each other window being slightly different to account for the sheer to deck.

The Queen Mary had an Anglican chapel on one side of what is now shops; a Catholic chapel on the other side; and was the first ship to have a synagogue.

Again, fascinating tour, with lots of art deco and a gracious lifestyle no longer available (not that it was ever actually available to the average citizen -- my cabin cost $1500 in 1934, which the banker next to me said worked out to about $20,000 in today's money.) Again, highly recommended.

Finally, I spent the next morning doing the self-tour (sans audio) by simply finding my way to the bridge (fascinating retro technology); the officer's quarters (roomier than I expected); and poking around some general areas. I watched a crew working on restoring a lifeboat, was surprised to discover they were metal, not wood as I had previously assumed. (The lifeboats on the QM, the guide informed us, were the first to have diesel engines, and if those failed, levers that could be pulled to turn the propeller, rather than oars.)

Restoration work on lifeboat clearly reveals metal plating

The amount of information available is overwhelming; I barely scratched the surface. tucked away in corners are plagues and videos on every aspect of the ship. I didn't make it to the engine room on this trip, though I had had a glance in on our previous cruise out of that port. Fabulous exhibit in every way. I could have happily spent a whole week there and not run out of things to see.

Next door is a Russian submarine, complete with self-guided audio tour. Personally, I think placing a submarine next to the Queen Mary might make the old girl a little nervous, given her WWII service, but I applaud the city of Long Beach for establishing these living museums.

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