As I stood on the forward upper deck of the ship looking toward New York Harbor, I felt a great sense of relief. The crossing had been incredibly difficult, and both the ship and the crew were significantly worse for the wear…but we were almost there.
The year was 1995 and I was part of the cruise staff on a brand-new cruise ship, the Legend of the Seas. What should have been a joy ride had mostly been a nightmare to that point. Technical problems, language barriers for the crew, labor disputes over housing and transportation at the port and to top it off, the ship was not finished. The areas where I had expected to be happily planning games and activities for guests were little more than empty rooms with no fixtures. Mercifully, there were no paying guests on board.
About 8 days earlier, we had snuck out of our berth at Chantier de L’Atlantique, Saint-Nazaire (the same storied place where the SS France and SS Normandie had been built) in the middle of the night after missing the tide for our big send off in front of the French national press. Our delay was due to having to unload nearly a year of building refuse and debris from the ship as well as needing to bringing on board over 1000 French workmen to continue literally building the ship as we sailed. We were a floating construction site.
In addition to the odd circumstances of our departure and the incomplete condition of the ship, during the crossing, we had been challenged by the always unpredictable North Atlantic in April. I learned what “batten down the hatches” meant when we encountered a storm in which we were broadsided by a rogue wave that shattered windows as high as deck 5. Most everyone on board had been ill at some point during the trip (including many of the workmen) and we were short on food. Getting to New York was a necessity.
But now, all of this was literally in the wake behind us. Ahead lay New York City. At least we hoped it was there. In the early morning fog our first glimpse was limited to the tops of the two towers of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge rising above the haze.
As we got closer, more of the crew came out on deck. Crew members from as many as 60 different countries around the world wanted to have this first magical glimpse of New York. For many of us, it would be a first and only time to have this sense of traveling so far by ship. As we came closer to the bridge, we could hear the sound of traffic. It was all a little unnerving. Being on the upper deck, one’s perspective is skewed and it feels as if you are on a direct collision course.
The French workmen had come up on deck as well. Although we had all been friendly through our journey, many of the crew had kept their distance from the largely French-only speaking workmen. I was lucky to have studied the language in college and I had picked up some of their stories. These were highly skilled men from families that had been part of creating some of the great vessels of the golden days of trans-Atlantic travel. They were part of generations of shipbuilders. At the same time, they had never traveled themselves. Now on deck, they were awestruck at the sight of the gigantic bridge as we glided silently toward it.
The Verrazano finally emerged from the fog just as we came directly up to the roadway and it was terrifying to see it appear so suddenly and so close. The massive throng of people now crowding the deck, seemed to gasp as one as we skimmed underneath the roar of traffic. And then as it receded and as if some great dam burst, we all erupted into great uncontrollable cheers and shouts. We had made it. We were (mostly) in one piece. We would soon be docked. This little ship, limping across the sea had brought us safely to harbor.
But then in front of us the fog parted, like Moses and the Red Sea, and we saw it. Still and small from this distance, but clear and beckoning and beautiful.
The Statue of Liberty.
Just as quickly as the crowd had started cheering, we all fell silent. We looked at the great distant figure, now ablaze in the rising sun. We looked at each other. We saw ourselves. We thought about our journey. We knew in our hearts that this was something greater than the distant vision before us. Cruise staff, officer, waiter, cook, workman, French, Filipino, Barbadian, South African…we all wept. Standing there with tears streaming down my face, I thought about this unlikely bunch of travelers from so many different places like countless travelers before us. I thought about the Frenchmen who were standing beside me. Their ancestors had given this statue to the United States but few of them had ever been able to see it as we were seeing it now. I thought about having had the astounding privilege to grow up in the shadow of this great promise of freedom. I thought about having never truly seen this promise until now. In that moment, I lived the power of the promise of America.
I am no rabid flag waving patriot, But I believe in this promise. My experience as the child of a Jamaican immigrant and the descendant of slaves from the Carolinas; my time spent out of this country and my time coming home; my efforts to shed light in a hurting world and my openness to receive enlightenment…so much of me has been nurtured in the fertile soil of the deeply flawed and imperfect yet totally unconditional promise that all are welcome through this “golden door.”
Only a damned fool would intentionally break this promise or try to steal this dream.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” – Emma Lazarus (emphasis: mine)