(This piece originally appeared as the forward to Bill Miller's excellent book, A Picture History of American Passenger Ships (2001). When Bill, my "maritime mentor" asked me to write a preface to this book, I was greatly honored. -- David Perry)
I met Bill Miller, appropriately enough, on the deck of a ship.
It was love at first sight : the meeting of two "ship people."
For me, it was like reconnecting with a childhood teacher whom I hadn't seen in years; a mentor whose books had taught me of the French line, the Canberra , the "old" Rotterdam . We had never met, but we knew each other well. I, the shipboard editor of the daily newspaper aboard M/S Crystal Symphony; Bill, a "Crystal Favorite" lecturer, on board -- as he often was -- to spin a yarn (or two or three) about those luxury liners of the past. Often during that cruise, and others, we would find each other on deck -- both having raced up separately to look at the facade of a passing liner.
"That used to be the old....." and we would laugh and begin that favorite game of ship lovers: guess the ship. Bill was never wrong, and could recite the provenance of passing vessels on the horizon or tied up in Piraeus (does anyone buy more old ships than the Greeks?) like a Master Sommelier holding forth about a rare vintage.
I had always known that some day, somehow, I would "go to sea." As a boy growing up in land-locked Richmond, Virginia, I would gaze longingly from our pool, where in usual precision I was guiding a flotilla of plastic models, at the cinder-blocked hull of our 25-foot cabin cruiser "docked" next to the patio. Any day now, the tarpaulins of plastic would give way to the sticky preparation of hull varnish. Soon, my pop would back up the trailer and pull this "Gilligan's Island"-like boat to its rightful home: the Chesapeake Bay a short two hours drive away. My mother would make sandwiches, cover my blond nose with sun block, and warn (unsuccessfully) to "clean the fish" before we came home.
I hated fishing, and still do. But, on the way to my father's favorite spot - above the wreck of an old freighter (a thought which always terrified and excited me) - Pop and I would pass by the Newport News Navy Yard. Here was a catch for me, like a huge whale in its tank -- confined but still crowd-pleasing -- the S.S. United States : the greatest (and last) liner ever built by America.
What a beauty.