How to make a grand entrance

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Mary and I traveled to Kenya as passengers on the freighter Robin Grey.  We boarded the Robin Grey on December 3, 1965 at the Brooklyn docks, seen off by parents and siblings.  Since we intended to make a life in Kenya, we didn’t know if or when we would ever see them again.  

Our emotions were somewhat tempered, however, when a number of Dominican priests showed up, including their Provincial.  They had come to say good-bye to another Dominican priest who would be sailing with us, Fr. Conway.  He was traveling to teach at the major seminary in Nairobi, which the Domincans staffed.  They also came to see Mary and me because I had just graduated from Providence College, which they ran.  We hadn’t expected Fr. Conway or the dignitaries, but they obviously had plans for us.  Mary and I were staying in the state room, which had a large sitting area where Fr. Conway could say Mass every day.  There were twelve passengers in all, the maximum the ship could carry without having to have a nurse or doctor on board.

We spent two days in Brooklyn before the ship sailed around 1 a.m. on December 5th.  One of the most emotional experiences of my life was standing on the deck with Mary on a freezing winter night to watch as we passed the brightly lit Statue of Liberty and then let it fade behind us as we moved out into an ocean of darkness.

We reached Cape Hatteras the next day where the rough seas made us both so ill we were in bed for the next 24 hours.  Despite my pleas Mary would not take Dramamine because she was five months pregnant.  She was afraid for the baby.  Eventually we recovered and enjoyed the next 18 days at sea without sighting land until we approached Cape Town, South Africa on Christmas Eve.

The Robin Grey stopped in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, and Durban.  I remember rolling along the sidewalk in Cape Town as we learned to walk on land again.  We were on our way to the first of the Dominican convents that Fr. Conway brought us to visit on our first three stops.  We saw some of these cities, but mostly I remember trying to make small talk with Irish nuns, who seemed particularly interested in how we took our tea.  Milk first or after the tea was poured?  Apartheid was also in full swing and we were warned not to talk with any Africans because the police would be watching them for any contacts with foreigners.  

It was fortunate that we had our sea legs by then.  In Cape Town the Robin Grey off-loaded a lot of cargo so we were riding high as we went around the Cape of Good Hope.   Also, the captain was going slow to avoid fees if he had to anchor outside Port Elizabeth during the Boxing Day holiday. It was not stormy, but because of the prevailing winds and currents the “cape swells” rolled the ship from side to side. I mean all the way from the deck on one side almost touching the water to the deck on the other side almost in the water.  At the end point of each roll the floor of the deck was at your side like a wall, while you looked down at a cold ocean beneath you.  Eating was a challenge for those who could.  Plates, cups and utensils had to be fastened down to keep them on the table.  

After Durban we sailed north between the east coast of Africa and Madagascar.  When we reached Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, we had to wait outside the port for a few days until there was a berth for the Robin Grey to enter and unload more cargo.  We sat in the broiling sun so long that there was no relief from the heat even in the shade and the potable water in the ship’s tanks became so hot that showers were no relief either.  When you could take one.  Because the length of our wait was uncertain, the captain told us to conserve water.

The wait was worth it.  I don’t know how much Dar es Salaam has changed, but when we visited in early January 1966, it was a jewel to behold.  It truly deserved its name, which means “port of peace.”  A small harbor, embraced by two spits of palm-treed land and a lovely town whose buildings have been bleached by the relentless sun.  It may have been my imagination, but I felt that the spirit of the dock workers in Dar es Salaam where Africans were in charge differed markedly from the sullen atmosphere under apartheid where we had just come from.

It took about a day from Dar es Salaam to our destination, Mombasa in Kenya.  On the way we were told that the passengers had to get off the ship as soon as it entered the harbor, whether or not there was a place at the docks for the Robin Grey.  This was news to Mary and me.  We were too busy rushing to pack to ask the other passengers if they knew about this rule.  

We had a last breakfast on board as the Robin Grey approached the harbor.  After breakfast we filled out customs and immigration forms.  There was a message from the shore that the agent Bishop Bessone had hired to help us in Mombasa was waiting at the dock.  Until we heard that, I was a bit concerned how we were going to handle immigration, customs, and transporting our luggage and ourselves in a new country.

Then the boat stopped in the middle of the harbor, more than half a mile from the docks.  We were told to come down from our cabins to get on a launch that would take us to the dock.  Our luggage would meet us in the customs shed.  As instructed by the more experienced passengers, Mary and I distributed tips to the cabin stewards and other crew who had helped us during the trip.  Then we walked down to the cargo deck where we were directed to an opening in the rail.

I looked down and my fear of heights kicked in.  There was no going back. I started down a narrow set of stairs that dropped about 25 feet from the deck to the launch.  Think of standing on the peak of the pitched roof of a two story house and looking straight down a ladder that you were expected to walk face forward down to the ground.  Except we weren't on land.  The Robin Grey was rocking with the waves, but the smaller, lighter launch seemed to be pitching around at the end of the stairs.  The launch crew were trying to hold it in place as best they could.  Having no choice but to move forward, I went down with one hand clutching the chain that served as a railing for the stairs and the other behind me holding Mary’s hand for dear life.  We went slowly and steadily down, but as we got close to the launch the surface of the steps had become wet from the splashing of the waves.  I slipped, but was able to stay up because of my desperate grasp on the chain.  Mary let go of my hand when I slipped, but she stayed upright and kept her hold on the chain.

The launch crew helped me step off the stairs onto the heaving launch.  Then we helped Mary get on board.  Once she made it, we heard a loud cheer above our heads.  We looked up to see that the entire crew of the Robin Grey had come out to make sure that Mary, by now six months pregnant and showing, made it safely.  There were sailors all along the cargo deck and on all the levels above, grinning and waving.  Her cheering squad gave Mary quite a rousing entry into Kenya.

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