Modern life creates loads of ways for older Americans to keep busy, especially if they have enough money to travel. Ever since my early 50s I’ve been a frequent traveler, and for me and my wife, Betsy, cruising has been the easiest and sometimes the most enjoyable way to go.
I remember the first time we went on the Holland America Line for a Caribbean cruise. This is an older, somewhat traditional cruise line, which appealed to the retirement-age crowd. The first time I was on it I was the tender age of 52 and among the youngest of the passengers.
On our first day many of the passengers were playing with what was a rather new toy then, motorized wheelchairs. Racing around the decks, aging speedsters looked for all the world like kids playing on bumper cars at the fair.
On the afternoon of the first day, before we had even departed our home port of Fort Lauderdale, I decided to look around the ship on my own, and after doing this for a bit I settled down in a chair on the Promenade Deck with a beverage, to rest and plan out my week. Comfortably ensconced in a chaise lounge, I noticed that the ship’s Muzak was doing a medley of Sinatra songs. Pretty nice stuff. Frankie had only recently passed from the scene himself.
After Sinatra gave way to Bing Crosby, I made a mental note that Bing had been a slightly earlier heart throb. Mr. Crosby sang a medley of his own, excluding White Christmas. After Bing another male singer took the aural stage, and it took me a while to figure out who it was.
Then it hit me. This singer, with a distinctly throaty vocal expression, was Vaughn Monroe, an avatar of an even earlier age of pop music, someone who preceded my own DJ stint as a purveyor of “easy listening” music to the public.
I wondered who they would play next, Rudy Vallee perhaps? Hmm, maybe I made the right decision to leave the premises and repair to my cabin, fearful that they would go all the way back to the Great Caruso.
Came the next morning and we were far out to sea. Early morning on a cruise ship is my favorite time of day. It’s before the crowds gather poolside, so I took my novel and went up to the small but adequate swimming pool on the top deck. To my satisfaction I was the first person up there. The weather was already becoming warm but there was a breeze, as I contentedly gazed at the deep blue water. I took a chaise on the second row of about five rows and sat contentedly with my book.
Then, not two minutes later, along comes this tall, spindly, slightly shaky lady. She stops next to me and brazenly asks, “Hello there, young man. May I sit with you?”
Well, darn. There are 100 seats out there and this woman wants to sit next to me. Of course, I replied to her, “Sure, come right on. Take a load off!”
Was this woman just trying to be friendly or was this a pickup line? Nah. Couldn’t have been. But she did address me as “Young man.” I liked that.
So, the two of us sat there in the warming sun, beside the sparkling pool, in the middle of the crystal-clear ocean, engaging in a bunch of small talk before she finally settled on the subject of knitting. This lady’s hobby was knitting. It was not mine. I could tell you how to plant a daffodil or play a scale on a piano, but knitting was not in my repertoire. So, I quickly was not fully involved in our conversation.
It wasn’t but a couple minutes later and another woman, with snow white hair, sidled up to us, this time from the right side. “Oh, hello girls!” she said breezily. “Can I sit here?” she asked, indicating the chaise to my right.
So now we had the two of them, plus me, not sure of whether to be flattered or not. Something inside of me was saying in a hushed voice, “Leave! Right now, just get up and leave!” But I didn’t. Whitey took up with the Tall Lady about knitting, and both ladies seemed almost to forget about me.
Then, believe it or not, a THIRD woman came up and sat on the front row right in front of me and turned herself around so that she was facing us. She joined in the chat about ladies’ subjects after paying me only a few moments of attention. The three of them had me literally triangulated. Now they got on to the subject of their grandchildren, of which I have none, and hooted and giggled, thoroughly enjoying themselves.
What have I done to deserve this? I wondered. I had been thinking that these women wanted to interact with a younger male, but really all they wanted was a Hen party.
I was saved from further humiliation by my first friend. She stood up, slightly shaky, put her hand on my shoulder to steady herself, as she declared “Well folks, it’s time for me to leave. I have to go back to the cabin to collect . . .Mother.”
Mother?? MOTHER!? I wondered, just barely keeping my lips sealed, trying to hold in my total surprise. The conversation amongst the three of us flagged. Here’s my chance to get away, I was thinking. But I couldn’t help sticking around to check out Mother.
It didn’t take long, and out of the door came the world’s oldest cruise passenger, followed by her shaky daughter. Mother used a walker and moved at a glacial pace, but Mother was clearly delighted to be there. Or anywhere, I thought.
Then, too late, I thought to myself, OMG, Mother’s gonna be put next to me! And it didn’t look like Mother was in any condition to chat about knitting, the NFL, or any subject. As it turned out, her daughter guided Mother up to the topmost row of chairs, in the shade. Daughter made sure her Mom was comfortable and gave her a Time magazine to read. And so, my little personal emergency came to a close. I got away from knitting needle-chat and darling little grandchildren-chat cleanly and neatly, since all three of the ladies were focused for the moment on Mother.
Frederick Spencer is now 83 and feels right at home on cruises with lots of white-haired passengers. However, he has learned how to avoid getting trapped in unwanted conversations.