Richard Placone: Voyage of a Lifetime


On Sept. 10, 2001, my wife, Jeanne, and I, my mother and a good friend left for what was to be a wonderful cruise to Alaska aboard the Norwegian "Wind." Our voyage was to take us through the Inside Passage, with ports of call at Juneau, Skagway, Haines and Ketchikan and one day at Glacier Bay. We were looking forward to a delightful vacation. For my mother, this was the first such excursion in her 89 years.

Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, changed all that. Years from now when asked, "Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001?" we will have to reply, "Aboard a luxury cruise ship that was one day into her voyage."

Being on a ship at sea is like being in another world -- more, it is like being on another world. A cruise ship especially is designed to make its passengers believe the illusion that the entire world is on that vessel and what you see beyond the railings of the decks is surreal, not really there, not really important.

The ship appears to be wholly self-contained. It lacks for nothing, and it needs nothing other than its own systems to keep it going for ever and ever. Its passengers are like fools, living in a fool's paradise, for the moment leaving their real lives and cares, loved ones and all the issues to which they are devoted, behind and forgotten.

You come into a port, you get off the ship, leaving behind you all your belongings save what you need for the day, and you dive into the life of the local scene. You dance, and dine, and spend and laugh and explore, and learn, and you do all this knowing that in a matter of hours you will leave this place, perhaps never to return.

You've spent an enormous amount of energy having fun and taking it all in, and when the ship pulls away from the dock, you wave goodbye, sigh, and then turn and become re-absorbed into the real world that this vessel of steel and teakwood has become, leaving behind that fantasy world that is the domain of those who are trapped on the land. Like a crystal palace, all shimmering and aglow, your ship sails the black waters while you gaze at the night sky with the billions of diamond stars, and this becomes the world, and you want it to go on forever and forever.

And then with a harsh shatter, it all ends in a blinding flash -- a flash so brilliant it can be seen with the naked eye even though thousands of miles away. Horror so unbelievable that it seems a nightmare come true. The ship itself is so overcome it shutters in the depths of its bowels, but it keeps going on. And so do we all.

We gather in one of the great rooms and amidst all the lavish trimmings, we pray and sing, humbled at last by the affairs of the planet that we now know we cannot escape -- why did we ever think we could? We cry, we share stories, we learn that a relative was a crew member of one of the purloined planes; others have friends and family who worked in the shattered towers.

As an American you suddenly become the object of pity, sorrow, solicitations, hugs and an outpouring of sympathy, until people begin to realize that this is not about America, this is about the world, this is about civilization, this is about humanity, and that now the entire ship, once a carefree glittering monument to the ultimate in luxury and sumptuous over-consumption, has become a prison, for the voyage must go on, it must be completed, there is no turning this starship around, it goes but one way until it reaches its final destiny.

You cannot understand the frustration and hopelessness you feel as you become mesmerized by the images repeated over and over on the TV screens, which are everywhere. And even though the Captain has opened the ship-to-shore phone lines and the Internet café to those who need these technologies, you can only use a few minutes of this precious time to send out a message -- "Are you still there? Are you still with us? We are here and we are well, but we are not well, we need to reach out and hold you, but we are separated by miles and miles of water and distance."

The voyage continued. Like automatons, we disembarked at the ports of call, we managed brave smiles with those on shore, now become surrogate family. They know our pain and we know theirs, but we all go through the motions. Here and there you see someone alone, praying perhaps, crying, or holding a loved one, trying to figure out what has happened to us, to our world, to our country. Flags fly everywhere, and in a fit of compassion, people reach out and offer to help, if help is needed: "Here, use my cell phone to call home."

No longer are we a ship of fools, we have become a ship filled with simple, very unhappy, very distraught souls, clinging to whatever hope we can until this voyage is over and we can get home again.

Yes indeed, this became the voyage of a lifetime, but not one that we will ever want to repeat.

Richard C. Placone

Chimalus Drive

Palo Alto

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