The Sporting Life at Sea

The pianist played 'Camptown Races,' and our hero took a beating for $6 in the shipboard pari-mutuels. But somehow he also won a few prizes
February 27, 1967

The racetrack at Achères slid by the window of the Paris-Cherbourg Express, and the nice lady kept right on talking. "Oh, yes, you've made a very wise decision," she said. "By the time you get to New York you'll be a new man."

"Is it true they've got all kinds of fun and games on board?" my wife asked.

"Oh, my, yes," said the nice lady, "and I should know. This is my 114th crossing. They've got horse racing and deck tennis and shuffleboard and bridge and swimming and bingo and that shooting thing with the clay targets—"

"Skeet?" I said.

"Skeet, yes. And Ping-Pong and guessing games and who knows what all. And the purser's always arranging tournaments and giving prizes. It's a gay old time."

"Well," my wife said, "we've decided to rest and take it easy on this trip. That's why we're going by ship instead of plane."

"That's right," I said. "No pressures. Just take it easy."

No pressures. We were going to cross the Atlantic in midwinter, from Cherbourg to New York, on R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth and, according to my friends back home, it would be the smartest move ever. For years now I had been winging around the world changing time zones like socks, not knowing whether it was Tuesday or Wednesday or whether I should order the couscous, entrecôtes or saltimbocca, and it had begun to upset my mental equilibrium, always shaky at best. "Pardonnez-moi," I would say to a waiter in Panama City. "Mi scusi!" I would say to the hall porter at the Grosvenor House. "Entschuldigen Sie, bitte," I would say to a taxi driver in Osaka. Too much travel, too much change, too much confusion. Now there would be five blissful days on the Queen Elizabeth, world's largest liner, 83,673 tons of fun and games.

At last the train reached Cherbourg, and we were just in time to watch the great ship bob toward the wharf, inches at a time, a floating city all lighted and polished and warm in the chill Normandy evening. Oh, what fun we would have. "Where's the skeet?" I asked a young officer as we went aboard.

"The what?"

"The skeet. You know, where you stand on the poop deck and shoot clay pigeons."

"I'm afraid I don't know, suh," he said in a grand English accent. "But I'm sure it's not available in port." He smiled. "We wouldn't want France to think"—he started to laugh out loud—"we wouldn't want France to think"—he could hardly finish the sentence, he was amusing himself so much—"that we're firing on her!"

"Ha-ha," I said, and scuttled to my cabin. It was getting late, and I wanted plenty of rest so that I could get up bright and early for the rest and relaxation of our first day at sea.

I awoke at dawn to a creaking, groaning sound, like a dozen rusty gates being opened and closed. We were in high seas—spindrift whipped past our portholes 30 feet above the waterline—and the ship rolled and pitched and tossed. I jumped out of bed to look for the source of the noise, but it seemed to come from all over. I shook my wife awake. "What's that racket?" I said.

She sat upright and, with that instant wisdom that has always belied her years, said, "The ship. It's the ship groaning." I was amazed to find that the world's largest liner complained like a colony of squirrels whenever she hit a wave. "You'll get used to it," the old salt said, and went back to sleep.

I observed that a set of papers had been slipped under our door during the night, and I returned to bed to begin my perusal of one of them: "Programme for Today." It told me that there would be all sorts of competitions including "Twenty Questions," "How Many Pages?," "Totalisator on the Ship's Run," "Card Party," "Table Tennis Tournament" and "Bingo." What a day for a competitor! You could compete, compete, compete all day long, and there were prizes for every event! I began laying my plans for becoming the champion of the Queen Elizabeth. There were only 100 or so first-class passengers, and most of them were aged or infirm or English. I would beat them in table tennis and deck tennis, shuffleboard and skeet, bridge and bingo. I would beat them on the beaches, and I would beat them on the rooftops. This would be my finest hour. I studied the passenger list to see what kind of competition I was up against.

"Mrs. Battinson" and "Mrs. Garside" looked like no problem: with names like that they were probably retired admirals' wives from Cheltenham, and I didn't look for them to enter any of the competitions except, perhaps, bridge. Nor did I see any clear and present danger coming from "Miss Michele Beiny" or "Master David Beiny." I was slightly concerned about "Mr. Stefan Buzas, R.D.I., A.R.I.B.A., A.A.Dipl., F.S.I.A.," but I concluded that most men earn their letters either on their sweaters or after their names, not both places, and "Mr. Stefan Buzas, R.D.I, etc." figured to be nonathletic. Whizzer White would not have accepted my reasoning, but then one must deal in probabilities when one is handicapping a passenger list on the North Atlantic.

"Mr. Benson Greenall" sounded like a tough competitor, as did "Mr. Sam Kahan." I could see Sam Kahan on the handball court, all gristle and muscle, beating me into the deck and helping me to my feet after every killing shot. "Mr. Charles Marshall" had a vigorous, sporty sound to it ("Osgood hands off to Charlie Marshall, and Marshall breaks one tackle, another tackle, he's loose at the 50, he's to the 40, the 30, the 20, the 10, he's over! Charlie Marshall scores for Tech!"). But "Mr. Grafton Minot, Mrs. Minot, and Chauffeur and Maid" sounded harmless enough. "Frank R. Schroder," on the other hand, had an ominous sound to it; your Schroders have always been murder at paddle games, and I hoped Frank R. would pass up the table-tennis tournament. Likewise for "Hon. George Smathers." I had seen Senator Smathers boarding at Cherbourg. He looked as fit as Jim Ryun, a man to be avoided on the field of competition.

My study over, I turned to another of the slips of paper under the door: "Twenty Questions." The paper said, "A prize will be awarded for the first correct, or nearest correct, solution received at the purser's bureau." The questions were duck soup. By which name is the Sea of Sodom generally known? I put down Red. Who wrote Robinson Crusoe? Daniel Defoe. Which mountains "sweep down to the sea?" Simple. The Andes. Who was the Iron Duke? Marlborough. I was stumped on: Who saw Cock Robin die? My first answer, Mary Queen of Scots, didn't look right. So when the steward came in with breakfast I asked him as offhand as possible: "By the way, steward, apropos of nothing, do you know who saw Cock Robin die?"

He gave me a look. He probably had had a few questions like this before, but not on the first morning out. He pointed to his eye.

"You?" I asked.

"No, suh, no suh," he said in some British dialect or other, perhaps Cockney. "Oy. 'Oy, said the floy.' Will that be all suh?" And he walked out looking a little disturbed.

"What'd he say?" I asked my wife.

"He said, 'I, said the fly.' The fly saw Cock Robin die. And if you win you'll have to give him a big tip."

"Oh, I will, I will," I promised. "And it's not a question of if."

One decision had to be made quickly. Two competitions were scheduled simultaneously: bridge and table tennis. Probably the master planners back at Cunard's home office had reasoned that the sort of person who could win a cerebral game like bridge would not be the sort who could win at a muscle sport like table tennis. They had not reckoned on the appearance of a Renaissance man like me.

"Which should I enter?" I asked my wife.

"I thought you were going to rest and relax," she said.

"Well, winning things is rest and relaxation for me," I told her. "Now, which should I enter?"

"Are you as good at Ping-Pong as you are at bridge?"

"Even better."

"My goodness," said my wife sneeringly, "what could be better than perfection?" This attitude is nothing new to me; the noncompetitors are always sitting around waiting to zing the competitors. Let them have their fun, is my motto.

Three tables were set up on the starboard side of the promenade deck, and when I arrived to enter the tournament two Englishmen were whacking the daylights out of the ball, cutting and chopping and playing like champions. I was ready to withdraw quietly from this foolish competition when a young assistant purser informed me that the two men were ship's musicians and ineligible for the tournament. "All right," I said, "I'll play." I warmed up with an American woman. I lobbed the ball over the net politely, and she rapped it right back at the speed of light.

She slammed everything I hit. She had no shots, only the slam, and it was all forehand and all-powerful. She took up a position sideways to the table and returned my lobs with a stroke that came out like a snake's tongue. Whack! Whack! She was wearing a special pair of deck shoes—the crew, in its infinite wisdom, had arranged to have the deck swabbed just before the tournament—and while I slid and slipped around in my loafers this woman was as firm and secure in her plimsolls as though she were planted. I strongly suspected her of being an international table-tennis hustler or Dick Miles in drag.

Six of us lined up for final instructions from the young one-striper. My heart was pounding with excitement, but I returned quickly to earth when I heard the officer announce: "Of course, there will be a five-point handicap for the ladies." Yeh, I said to myself. Of course. Let's be fair about this. Let's be real Limeys about it.

We drew for opponents and, to my relief, I caught a little Englishman, while somebody else played the American bombardier.

I approached the warmup with all my native cunning. I would wind up like Pancho Gonzalez and propel the ball half a mile down the sloping deck. Then I would relax while my opponent gave chase. (If you want some genuinely fatiguing exercise sometime, try running up and down on a bucking deck.) If the Englishman hit the ball deep to my forehand (of which there is little or none), I would catch it in midair and call, "Out!" At the same time I would compliment him on his every movement and try to make it look as though winning and losing were minor matters to a sportsman like me. I gave it the old nonchalant, all the while trying to figure out how to cut the blood out of him. And by the time the game started I had him psyched out of his shoes. He must have taken me for a superstar whose big slam was just a touch off but who in the pressure of the actual contest would achieve a pinpoint perfection. So he pit-patted the ball, happy just to return it, and I would pit-pat it back till he would pit-pat one into the net.

My second-round opponent was an even easier matter. "I watched you play," he said after we were introduced. "Come, come, old chap, tell the truth. You're not a passenger at all, are you? You're the captain in disguise! Isn't that right?"

Can you believe it? He was trying to give me the old Stephen Potter! And when the match started I realized why. His game was totally devoid of a serve. He would hang the ball up in the air like the moon over Miami, and all you had to do was put it away. All he had going for him was gamesmanship, my own specialty, and I walloped him two straight games to win my way to the finals of the whole ship, 83,673 tons and all.

To my utter incredulity, the other finalist was not the American lady with the cannon-shot. It developed that my opponent, an Englishman named Belfrage, had discovered some flaw in the lady's game and eliminated her in the first round. Now how in the world could I beat him when he had beaten her? As it happened, the Great Tournament Director in the Sky provided the answer.

Gradually the weather had thickened, and by late afternoon, as we prepared to play the finals, the ship was rolling and rocking with such intensity that it was no mean task to get a decent serve over the net. "Dirty weather ahead," the assistant purser said. "I think we're in for a bit of a blow." He looked positively overjoyed.

Visibility was almost down to nothing on the long stretch of deck when we rallied for serve, and the single orange bulb above the table did little to help matters. I observed that Belfrage was a precision player, one of those sharks whose game depends on being able to put the ball exactly on the last quarter inch of the table or dropping a vicious chop barely over the net, where the ball dies as the opponent makes a futile, mad lunge. I could see that the poor conditions were bound to affect the precisely skilled Belfrage far more than they would affect a player whose offensive strategy was simply to get, get, get till the other fellow made a mistake. Needless to say, I polished off the frustrated Belfrage, a far superior player, and won the tournament. "May I extend the ship's congratulations?" the one-striper said, but he didn't mean it. I had invented a craven new technique for winning shipboard table-tennis tournaments. I hereby dub it "the little game." Let the players with the big game and the big serve flail away, and let them break a leg.

On the way back to the cabin, I passed the display for the How Many Pages? contest, which consisted of a sealed copy of the massive London post office directory and a box for entries. I jotted down, "2,734 pp.," signed my name and hurried back to the cabin to tell my wife all the details of the table tennis.

My wife can get more scorn and venom into the simple words "big deal" than any other living American. After the argument, the chief dining-room steward dropped by to remind us that we were invited to take our meals at the commodore's table. The Queen Elizabeth is so grand that her captain not only is master of his ship, but also is the boss of the whole Cunard fleet: Commodore G. T. Marr, D.S.C., R.D. (Cr. R.N.R., Rtd.), and to be invited to his table means that you have been singled out as a very important person or that the clever Cunarders suspect you are cranking up to write something about them. In either event we were in trouble. "What does the commodore expect us to wear?" I asked.

"Any black suit will do, suh."

"But I didn't bring any black suitor any formal clothes, either."

"Well, suh, you can get by with any dark suit, suh."

"What if you didn't bring any dark suit? What if you didn't bring any suit at all!"

This left the chief dining-room steward momentarily speechless. Never was the gulf between England and America more apparent. I could see that he simply could not assimilate the idea of an adult male human sailing first class on the Queen Elizabeth without a suit. The English take the garbage out in suits.

"Well, suh," he said finally, backing slowly away, "whatever you wish, suh. It will be quite all right, suh."

After he left, my wife pointed out, with all due respect to Commodore Marr, that the last place we wanted to sit was at his table. "Three times a day you'll get all nervous and upset," she said with her usual cruel accuracy, "and you'll end up more jumpy than ever."

I buzzed for my friend and confidant, the cabin steward. "It's like this, steward," I said. "We've been invited to eat at the commodore's table. What should we do?"

I was sure that the cabin steward had long since sized me up as the type who should be steered far clear of the commodore, and I was right. "In a manner of speakin'," he said, "it's a bit toit there, suh. You know what oy mean, suh? If you want to 'ave a relaxin' toim of it, that's not your cuppa tea, suh, is it?"

"How do I get out of it?" I asked.

"Well, suh, just go to the chief doining-room steward and graciously decloin."

We descended to the dining room two decks below. It looked like a vast and beautiful restaurant at 3 in the morning. There were so few passengers that four out of five tables were vacant. A forlorn string ensemble lofted waltzes and gavottes over the empty air. The chief dining-room steward, resplendent in a formal coat down to his knees, beamed and approached.

"Excuse me, chief," I said, not knowing exactly how to address him, "but could we graciously decline the commodore's invitation?"

He never batted an oy. He and the commodore both were probably relieved. "Of course you may gratefully decline," he said. It always gives me a big thrill to have my English polished up in public.

Later I was lounging around the cabin in my undershorts, trying not to be sick, telling my wife about the table-tennis victory to keep my mind off the turbulent seas, when there was a brief knock at the door, and the cabin steward walked in. "Well, you 'ad a big die, didn't you, suh?" he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Why, you won two proizes!" The London post office directory, it developed, had 2,760 pages, and my guess of 2,734 had won that contest, too. Class will out. In marched a beaming stewardess with the spoils: two elaborately wrapped packages. In one was a half-pint pewter tankard, with the seal of R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth glued to its side, emblematic of table-tennis supremacy on the high seas, and in the other was a silvery rod with a shoehorn at one end and a miniature five-iron at the other. "Oh, how nice!" I said. "I always wanted one."

"Congratulations agine, suh," the steward said, "and remember, there's a Church of England service in the morning if you'd loik to go."

My wife said softly, "Is there a prize?"

By the light of the next dawn, I lay abed and read the ship's newspaper, The Ocean Times. We were running at slackened speed through a roar of waves and swells, and the cabin was creaking noisily. It was a good day to be sick, but I was not going to give the North Atlantic the satisfaction. The sports section of the paper contained the news that Rue de Paris had won the Cubley Handicap Chase, the West Indies scored 421 and 25 for two in cricket and Philadelphia had beaten St. Louis 124-113 in a baseball game. A thousand miles from land in a stormy sea, I was comforted to know that some things are constant: the Cardinals were still having trouble with their pitching.

By now I had learned that certain athletic events were impossible on the North Atlantic in winter, and among these were shuffleboard, skeet, deck tennis and badminton. Anyone who attempted any of these outdoor activities would be brought in, a solid hunk of salty ice, after about five minutes of clinging to the nearest davit. Another casualty of the trip, this one the result of the foreshortened winter-passenger list, was the daily gambling action over the number of miles covered by the ship in the last 24 hours. One morning the pool blackboard announced, "Cancelled due to lack of support," and on two other mornings the total pot was $5, less 10% to seamen's charities. What a disappointment that this most exciting gambling event was washed out. Why, men had jumped overboard just to slow the ship down and collect on "low field," and one had lost $6,000 that way, not to mention his life.

But as compensation there was Joe Payne, the ship's squash instructor. We played every day, and Joe was a master psychologist, letting me score just enough points to keep up my interest. His favorite shot would go to the front wall and then skitter back along the side wall so that you had to scrape it off with your racquet. "Roit down the old tramloin!" Joe would say. One day he beat me 9-2 and then let me beat him 9-0, all the time making me believe the game was on the level, and just as I was about to announce that I was turning pro he ran nine straight shots down the old tramline and all but ended my career. While I lay there gasping for air, Joe explained that the trick to being a pro was to play the opponent's game. He said he sometimes encountered older players who would specify that all Joe's returns must be hit to a certain quarter of the court. "Then when they beat me they'll say, 'Your gime's fallin' off a bit, Joe!'

Another fun event was horse racing in the Midships Bar. I showed up with a heavy bankroll, not knowing what to expect, and found a long table covered with green felt marked off in blocks and six wooden horses waiting at the starting line. The game was played with dice—if the dice showed two 6s, for example, the No. 6 horse was advanced two spaces, and so on till the mad frenzy of the race was over. The betting was on a pari-mutuel basis, and the announcer was a ship's officer given to such phrases as' 'It's the 4 horse again! There's just no holding this horse! He's jet-propelled!" A burly A.B. moved the horses according to the fall of the dice, and his face showed what he thought of all these old wrecks playing horse race in the middle of the ocean. The pianist played Camptown Races, and I took a beating for $6.

In the middle of the race card, one of the officers announced that the commodore wished to interrupt with a very important message. The seas had been getting wilder and wilder—ropes had been strung along the passageways for the benefit of the less athletic passengers—and it was rumored that worse weather awaited us as we approached the coast of Newfoundland. There was a hush as the commodore strode toward the microphone.

"I would like to ask your cooperation in a very important matter," he began. "As you know, the fancy headdress parade is tomorrow night, and so far we have very few entries." Commodore G. T. Marr, D.S.C., R.D. (Cr. R.N.R., Rtd.), paused for emphasis and said, "Now we're not looking for Lilly Daché creations. Stick a straw in your hair and come as the last straw. There are prizes for everyone. Anybody who doesn't win a prize has my personal guarantee of a ¬£5 note from my own pocket." The commodore thanked us for our attention and stepped down.

The next day I overcame my resistance and sat in for a cheery afternoon of bridge à la Queen Elizabeth. I had refused to play since losing a $20,000 tournament in Las Vegas (SI, Nov. 14, 1966), where a friend and I had been defeated by some of the best players in the world (and some of the worst). In the shipboard game, I found myself the partner of an Englishwoman of indeterminate age who opened the bidding three straight times with two-bids, the most powerful bids in the game. Each time she wound up having about half as many cards as she should have had. So when she made another two-bid, I quickly dropped her cold. "My goodness, partner," she said as she spread her hand for a small slam. "How could you drop me? The two-bid is the most powerful bid in the game!"

At the next table sat a typical midwestern woman with a rock-crushing voice; she was one of those elderly ladies who feel that it is their continuing duty to tell the whole world how to turn on its axis. She bossed the game the way Huey Long bossed Louisiana. She told opponents and partners alike what they did wrong after every hand. She interpreted bids and conventions, assessed penalties, puzzled aloud over finesses, and once in a while was correct. For fear of cutting her for a partner and being tried at sea for assault, I quietly slipped away from the bridge action.

The weather had grown calm, but I was down in the dumps. We were fast approaching New York, and I had not won a prize since the first day out. I had entered the Missing Link contest, a guessing game in which one takes a stab at the number of links in a long chain curled in a box on the prom deck. There were 2,865 links. I had guessed 2,734, the same number as my winning effort in the How Many Pages? event, but some ringer beat me out with 2,850.

I had given up in the daily quiz games ever since a certain passenger had scored a perfect 26 out of 26 in a game called The Alphabetical Quiz. To score this perfect card the certain passenger had to know the words for "heavy, curved knife of the Gurkhas," "surgical instrument for scraping bones," "the lowest deck of a vessel having three or more decks," "circular frame on which silk is embroidered" and 22 similarly simple matters. Either that winner was a genius, or the reference books in the ship's library had taken a pounding. I did not want to win by such means and, besides, the ship's library was closed by the time I caught on.

On the last evening of the voyage I was looking around for a competition to win, any competition, when I strolled by chance through the card room. There sat an aging man riffling a deck of cards with long, tapering fingers and the touch of a Blackstone. "I say!" he said loudly. "Am I glad to see you, old fellow! How about a game of gin rummy?"

"Why not?" I said.

"Thought I'd die of boredom," he said as he fingered the cards. "Half a cent all right?"

"Sure," I said.

We whizzed through three games of gin, Hollywood scoring, in record time, and I was quickly $6.40 ahead. In the first game of the next triplicate I noticed that he picked up a 3 of diamonds from the open deck and discarded it a few rounds later, a very dubious practice in gin, and repeated this sort of childish error several times more. By the end of the game I was something like $12 to the good and beginning to smell a rat. "I say, old chap," he announced, "why don't we stop this fencing around and get down to business. How about 2¢ a point?"

Aha! The ax falls! Here, seated before me, was that rara avis: the international card hustler! Why, they were as anachronistic as spats. I looked around for an alarm button or a ship's officer or somebody. But we were alone. I was shaking. "Er, uh, well," I said, "let me think about it."

"You're playing on my money, sir," the con man said.

All at once I saw a way out. I would play him for 2¢ a point until he had won back his $12 and not a single hand longer. "O.K.," I said. "Deal."

I watched intently as he shuffled and dealt. At one point I thought he dealt himself a second, but I couldn't be sure, and toward the end he dropped one of my cards on the floor and made an elaborate show of not looking at it as he pushed it over to me. He must have thought I was stupid to let him get away with such blunt moves.

On the first hand I knocked with four and caught him with two queens. I ginned on the next hand and undercut him on the third, and before you could say Titanic Thompson I had him on a schneid on all three games. I wondered when he would strike, and I had to admire the way he was setting me up for the kill.

Just as I was dealing the next hand, a woman in a starkly cut suit came barging into the room. "There you are!" she said, pointing a bony finger at my opponent. "I've been looking all over for you."

"But—"

"Don't 'but' me!" she cried, and grabbed him by the arm. I tried to stay busy by adding up the score. "How much does he owe you?" she said to me.

"Oh, call it $18," I said in a voice shaking with trepidation.

She counted the money out of a purse as big as a satchel and led the man out the door, turning at the last second to make a word at me with her mouth. I'm pretty sure the word was "Shame!" Anyway, I know it wasn't "thanks" or "congratulations" or anything like that. I sat there quaking and alone. Imagine my dismay. I had met the rarest avis of them all: an international card loser!

We docked the next morning, and the authorities made a big show out of examining my pewter tankard and my combination shoehorn and five-iron. "Where'd you get these?" a customs hotshot asked.

"I won 'em on the ship," I said.

"Yeah, sure you did," he said. I could have rapped him right in the mouth, but I felt too ashamed of myself.

ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL RAMUS ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL RAMUSThe steward pointed to his eye. "Oy, said the floy," he said. But what did that have to do with who saw Cock Robin die? ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL RAMUSIn the finals the ship was rolling and rocking with such intensity that it was no mean task to get a serve over the net. ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL RAMUSThere he sat, toying with the deck with tapering fingers and the touch of a Blackstone—an international card hustler!

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)