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GENERATIONS: A trip on the ‘Old Bay Line’

In May of this year, my wife and I traveled with other members of the First National Bank 55 Connection to the eastern cities of Canada. We also visited Niagara Falls, Ont. On the tour boat “Hornblower” we donned ponchos to keep off the mist as we ventured close to the falls. The awesome view and water spray heightened the sense of a magnificent creation.

However, I took a trip with my father in July 1953, which remains the most memorable boat excursion of my life.

Gramma Nicholson, Dad’s mother, lived in the small town of Bath, N.C., which is near the coast and not near any big city. In the days before interstate and other direct route highways, travel from our home in Charleston, W.Va., to Bath defied simplicity. Dad would fly to an airport some 30 or 40 miles away from Bath and take a bus to Washington, N.C., where his mother would meet him in her car for the remaining part of the trip. Sometimes he took the bus the entire way to Washington. The trip occurred once every one or two years due to the expense and difficult travel conditions. The arduously long bus trip tried the constitution of the most seasoned rider.  In 1953, Dad decided to take me, his youngest child, with him to see his mother, but not by bus.

We flew via Piedmont Airlines from Charleston to Washington, D.C., for the exorbitant price of $40.55 (Piedmont ceased to exist in 1989 when it merged with USAir). There, unknown to me, Dad booked passage on the steamer “District of Columbia” owned by the Baltimore Steam Packet Co. known as the “Old Bay Line.” The steamer operated on the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay between Washington and Norfolk, Va. We set sail in the evening for an overnight crossing on the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk. In my mind’s eye, I still vividly see our small stateroom with bunk beds and a lavatory. Dad called it a “deluxe” stateroom, if a “deluxe” stateroom cost $3.45. The charge for both boat tickets amounted to a whopping $8.63. The sum of our airline and boat tickets amounted to $52.63, a goodly amount for Dad to spend. For that reason, the airplane and boat receipts were retained.

I also recall a green covered table where passengers tried their luck at some form of gambling, or at least so it seemed to a boy of 9. When we arrived in Norfolk, Dad insisted that I send a postcard to my mother. I have also retained that piece of literary excellence. The card stated, “Dear Mom, we are having a nice trip, but missing you. We are feeling fine. Hope your feeling also. Love, Tony.” I knew then that someday I would be a writer.

Our vacation did not end in Norfolk. After docking in the morning, we took a Trailways bus to Washington, N.C. Gramma met us at the bus station in her black Oldsmobile sedan. She peaked out at nearly 5-feet-tall and about 100 pounds. She had to look through the steering wheel to drive that car. How she effectively did it I’ll never know. Dad took over for the drive from the bus station to Gramma’s house, stopping at a local rural vegetable stand to purchase fresh vegetables for supper.

We only stayed for three or four days at Gramma’s before returning to Charleston by bus. We spent some of those days with my Aunt Blanche and my cousins at my Aunt’s house in an even smaller town than Bath. I was sitting on the porch on the evening of July 16th while my Dad talked with my Uncle John. I watched Uncle John lean back in his chair and heard air escaping from his mouth. My Dad cried his name, and my Aunt came running from the kitchen to the porch. Me and my cousins were hustled out of the house while someone called for an ambulance. Its arrival made no difference. Uncle John died that night and probably close to the moment that I looked at him.

I don’t remember the return trip to Charleston by bus, but I remember the “Old Bay Line” and the “District of Columbia” and Uncle John. The next summer Gramma Nicholson died and Aunt Blanche relocated across the state to be closer to her daughter and her children. That fall my parents and I moved into Gramma’s house when Dad became ill and had to quit his job. There would be no more trips from Charleston to Bath to visit Gramma Nicholson or Aunt Blanche or my cousins. The Old Bay Line discontinued service from Washington, D.C. to Norfolk in 1957.  There would be no more overnight trips on its steamer. There are no photographs of my 1953 trip on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay as there are with my river level view of Niagara Falls in 2017. No matter. Being with my Dad at that time and at that place is captured in my memory for as long as it exists.

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