I sympathize with all the sick passengers on the several cruise ships we’ve been reading about in the past few weeks. I’m amazed that the cruise lines are still operating, and that vacation travelers continue to risk ghastly gastro-intestinal ailments by booking passage on any of those floating palaces.
These reports take me back 65 years, to my first ocean cruise and the disaster I experienced. The vessel was far from luxurious. It was a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Bristol, based in Newport, R.I. I had boarded the ship only a few days earlier after completing radioman training at the Norfolk, Va., naval base. I was 18 and had joined the Navy the previous summer in order to escape being drafted into the Army. I feared dying in an obscure foxhole after the Soviet Union declared war on the western world. I’m not sure why I thought death on the high seas was preferable to death in a foxhole.
Further evidence of my mental acuity was the fact that I had suffered from motion sickness from infancy onward. I’d get sick in the family car, on a playground swing, on amusement park rides, or in a canoe moving through a frog pond. In the face of all that, what did I do? I joined the Navy!
A week after I boarded the Bristol, we went on training maneuvers in the north Atlantic, a region famous for its stormy waters, especially in March. I spent the ensuing fortnight in two places: clinging to my bunk with a bucket beside me, or dry-heaving over a rail outside the radio shack. Crew members passing by made sympathetic remarks such as “Still feeding the fishes, Driver?” I was useless to perform any duties. At any single moment I was afraid I was going to die. Two minutes later I feared that I might not. As I lay immobilized in my bunk, shipmates kept playing a rhythm-and-blues song called “I Want a Bow-Legged Woman,” performed by Bull Moose Jackson. The lyrics are branded into my soul.
When the Bristol returned to Newport, I was prepared to be shot, given a medical discharge or transferred to an Army base in the Sahara desert. Instead, the Navy sent me to a nut-house.
The official title was Ward L (the psychiatric unit) of the Chelsea Naval Hospital, just outside downtown Boston. The Navy figured that motion sickness was a form of mental illness.
For two weeks my companions were sailors incapacitated by a variety of mental/emotional ailments. One was a convicted murderer, transferred from a Navy prison to be treated for epilepsy. Another was a man so homesick he had attempted suicide. A third was a transvestite deserter who was found performing in a Boston gay bar. Then there was a chief petty officer who had suffered for years from chronic unexplained dysentery. Obviously, my motion sickness was a ready-made affliction to help me fit easily into this bizarre gallery.
My treatment consisted of several steps. One was dime-store psychoanalysis. “Seaman Driver, did your parents beat you? Did you ever get a girl pregnant? Do you get a thrill from seeing a chicken?”
When those incisive queries failed to identify any Freudian traumas, the Navy therapists attached a dozen or so electrodes to my skull and measured the radioactive beeps and blurps that could be detected. Once it was clear that I wasn’t a psychopath I was assigned critical duties such as sweeping and swabbing the hospital’s floors.
And so it went, until the day a doctor summoned me to hear the verdict that would alter the course of my life. “Seaman Driver, our conclusion is this: we feel you are an average, not-especially-bright young man whose perennial vomiting while traveling on erratically-moving objects is genuine, i.e., you’re not faking it in the hope of being assigned to shore duty. We have no idea what causes your problem. So we’re sending you back to your ship, with this bottle of pills.”
The bottle contained a newly-developed drug called Dramamine. It was a miracle. I’ve lived with it ever since. I will not board an aircraft or an ocean-going vessel without first popping a Dramamine tablet. Its only unwelcome side effect is drowsiness, which has occasionally lowered the trajectory of my otherwise meteoric career. But that’s another column, perhaps.
Unfortunately, from what I read, the recent cruise ship plagues cannot be prevented or easily cured by taking a pill. The only apparent solution is for the traveling public to steer clear of ocean voyages. I’m all for that. One of the joys of my life is the immense satisfaction of staying home with the TV and watching Rick Steves schlepping all over Europe.
Bob Driver is a former columnist with the Clearwater Sun. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.