The Legacy Project: Suzanne Jarvis
SS United States Journey August, 1969
By Suzanne Jarvis
In August of 1969 my family and I sailed on the SS United States from England to New York. It was one of the last crossings of the Atlantic before the ship was retired. We traveled with our very close family friends Marge and George Felton and their daughters. The crossing started out fun with bingo, practical jokes and a dance contest. And then we met Debbie.
I was 9 years old and it was my first time traveling overseas. Before our trip, I carried a brochure of the SS United States with me everywhere. I studied it daily, brought it to show-and-tell at school, knew all the 12 decks, the size of the ship, how fast she sailed and how long our journey would take. I was so excited! When we arrived at the dock to board I remember looking at the ship looming in front of me and how beautiful and powerful she looked. Little did I know I would learn one of my greatest life lessons on the journey ahead of us.
I shared a stateroom with my sisters Leslie and Averill. My best friend in the world, Nancy, was on another deck above ours with her sisters Alice and Margie. We were assigned to certain seating for our meals and there were lots of activities to do. Two days into our journey I played Bingo and won $36 dollars with G56 in the “Big U” game filling the squares on three sides of the board to create a U-shape. I had never won anything in my life and that money felt like a fortune for a 9 year old at the time.
My father was an avid jogger and ran 5 miles every morning. At sunrise, he would jog the decks of the ship. And then he received a note from a passenger on the top deck requesting that he stop jogging because they were being woken up too early in the morning (5:30AM). Dad was very upset about the letter and after hours of agonizing over lunch with the Felton’s how he could possibly be waking up these passengers he decided to go find them and apologize. When he located them to apologize, he discovered they had never sent the note in the first place. It was George Felton. He and George had a history of playing practical jokes on each other. When he put the pieces together, my father was quick to retaliate.
He went to the Captain’s secretary and requested she write a letter on the Captain’s stationary to Marge Felton. At first the secretary refused, then after being assured it was a practical joke she agreed to go along with the prank.
Dear Mrs. Felton,
I have received the following complaints from my staff related to your behavior on this voyage:
The Dining Room Manager has brought to our attention that your children are being allowed to skip the first seating and eat at the late seating with the adults (see dining picture).
Since you are cutting back on sugar in your diet, the Dining Room Manager also observed that you have been ordering two entrees and giving deserts to your husband. Our crossing will take longer than anticipated because of upcoming bad weather and we need to serve meals according to our plans.
The Activities Director has received complaints from other passengers that your children are staying up past their bedtime and winning money at Bingo. The older passengers think this is not fair.
In summary, I wish to remind you that you are privileged to travel first class and must request that you act like a first class passenger. I am certain when your husband understands the circumstances, he will explain the need to correct your behavior.
My father placed the letter on the Captain’s stationary under the door of the Felton’s stateroom and waited. It was not long before George bolted out of the stateroom infuriated heading to see the Captain. Marge was infuriated and wanted to get off the boat immediately insisting George make the Captain send a helicopter! My waiting father “bumped” into George and persuaded him to first calm down by counting to 10 and then he invited him to have a drink before seeing the Captain. When George relayed the story and started to read the letter from the Captain my father quoted the letter verbatim revealing the prank. It took Marge two days to get over her anger with the Captain.
One morning I got up early with my Dad and went to breakfast. There was no one in the dining room. Instead these beautiful blue, velvet ropes were placed throughout the ship. It seemed odd and felt very eerie. The festive feeling of the dining room was instead stark and ghost-like. Marge joined us for breakfast. She seemed really nervous. I asked my father where all the people were and why did they put up the blue ropes? He said we were headed into a bit of bad weather and left the dining room to take care of something.
Marge agreed to walk me back to my stateroom. As we returned, the bow of the ship began to climb. It was as if we were walking up a steep mountain and then down the other side. She became more nervous. When I asked her what was wrong with the ship, she said we were sailing into a hurricane. Marge left me off in my stateroom and for the next 2 days I didn’t leave my room. I was horribly seasick.
That summer was the busiest hurricane season for the Atlantic Ocean since 1933 and we sailed into Debbie ranging between Category 1 and 3 during her 10-day life across the Atlantic. I am not sure where we met Debbie in the Atlantic. I do know that the waves we encountered swelled to 40+ feet breaking over the bow of the ship. Passengers were banned from going out on the deck. My father snuck out anyway with the ship’s photographer to witness the fury of the sea.
To this day, I can still recall the SS United States’ movements, how she shuddered and strained climbing each wave to the peak, feeling a pause then the rush of the ship as she plowed down the other side only to meet the next wave. I can still hear the sound of the propellers grinding and groaning in the air as she went over the crest. Shudder, pause and grind. Shudder, pause and grind. She was steady and strong and I never doubted she would pull us through. There was no way off of that ship and no stopping the fury of the storm. I hung onto my bed wishing it would all end so Nancy and I could go play. And that’s when I learned my first important life lesson: the only way out of the storm was to go through it.
My Dad loved to dance and entered a Waltz contest with Marge. They won despite the pitch and roll of the ship. The family joke is that they took first prize because they were the only couple that didn’t fall down dancing in the storm.
I still cherish my memories of the SS United States. As we celebrate my father’s 90th birthday, I am so grateful for the opportunity he gave me to experience such an adventure on a powerful, trustworthy ship. Like the SS United States, in the critical times in life he has been the ship that got me through the storms. I have learned so much from him. I will always be grateful.