Our little family of five drove south in a ten-year-old minivan with cookies, dreams, and paperwork to board a cruise ship called the Freedom of the Seas. Parking for seven days cost $120.00, the approximate bluebook value of the van, or one can of soda aboard the ship.
It was a beautiful day in Cape Canaveral, Florida, home of the Kennedy Space Center. Astronauts used to come here for a shot at the moon; we were going to Coco Cay. It was our first cruise.
Waiting to board the ship, we entered our first line. This would become our routine. At the end of this line a nice elderly lady asked me to take off my baseball hat for a photograph. Yes, she was wise to my devious scheme, one in which I had intended to use this disguise to rob sodas from the machine. She then issued our sea cards, which would soon become the most important thing in the whole wide world. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot lose your sea card. Gabi lost her sea card. Seriously? You need this card for everything. Eats, drinks, and especially the casino (yes, my twelve year old used her own disguise to play craps). You even need your sea card to sing Karaoke. I should know. I took a shot of tequila one night and belted out I don’t want to miss a thing, by Aerosmith. The MC came up to me afterwards and said that he didn’t think a hick from North Carolina had it in him to sing Aerosmith. I wasn’t offended because mostly I was drunk, on vacation, and indeed rather hickish in appearance.
Once everyone was aboard the ship the captain held a drill. The rooms were cleared. The pool. The bars. In gestapo-like fashion they marched us down the stairs, several different agents along the way demanding to see our paperwork. “To the right, deck four,” they yelled. “Mustering point seven. Next!” Every floor another agent asked to see our paperwork, and don’t even think about trying to slip past them even though by now you know … to the right on deck four. Got it. Mustering point seven. Bullhorns announced that the drill was required per international law, veiled threats of internment for those unwilling to comply. Once on deck four they told us that in the event of an actual emergency nothing will happen as planned. To go ahead and forget which dingy we were supposed to crawl into and run around screaming for our lives. Every man for himself, they said. Woman and children … when we get around to them.
Back inside the ship, we found lines for coffee, the hot tubs, and the ice cream stand called, Sprinkles. We stood in lines just to find out where the lines ended. Most led you to food, but there were also line for mini-golf and Ms. Pacman, lines to climb the rock wall or to ice skate. There were lines for the elevator, and lines for apparently no reason at all. People would just come out of their rooms and find a line to stand in. Shrug, and say, “Why the hell not? We’re on vacation.”
We took out a second mortgage on our home to rent two rooms for the week, both of which were about the size of a Photo Booth. Instead of a camera there was a bed, a small sofa, which we used for a suitcase, and a bathroom, where a man could shower, shit and shave all in the same spot. We had a sliding-glass door that led out to a balcony, the solution to all your problems about eight stories down. Looking over the edge, I wondered how many people had jumped? How many, in a drunken stupor, had fallen overboard? Would the ship’s captain even tell us if something like that were to happen? “Uh, ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Last night we had a young man disembark the ship prematurely. Don’t worry, he’s dead. Well, most likely he’s dead. No one knows for sure. Anyway, we’re not turning back. Screw that hippie. We got a port call in two hours, and we are not going to be late for Coco Cay?” The rest of guests would have cheered, trust me, but we were late for Coco Cay anyhow. Something about a fuel leak. The captain told us not to worry. “This type of mechanical failure happens all the time, but as a precaution we’re asking the smokers onboard to cease and desist until further notice.”
Coco Cay is a remote island owned by the same holding company that owns the ship. The crew loaded the passengers onto a smaller ship called a Tender, and through choppy waters they took us ashore where the fleecing continued until moral improved. Just off the beach was the jumpy house, an hour costing about what a jumpy house would cost on ebay. Renting a jet ski cost about as much as a jet ski, with a tank of gas on the house. At eleven a.m. they fired up the grills, and everyone stood in another long line for meat and an apple, and then engaged in a game of musical chairs for a coveted spot at a picnic table. At noon the rain began to fall. We had tickets to the aqua park. The young man who ran the show said that in the event of lightning they would have no choice but to suspend operations. When the clouds rolled with thunder we promptly cancelled our tickets. A young girl raised her hand, and asked about the thunder. The same young man said, “Thunder is okay so long as their ain’t no lightning. Weren’t you listening to what I said earlier?” The young girl seemed confused, stayed and listened to the safety brief. Our party left for the line back to the mother ship. A drunk guy behind us kept keying his walky talky, asking Scottie to beam him aboard. A sign said to not feed the birds, but we fed them anyway. More rainfall came, and more thunder, and back behind us the little girl obeyed the stringent rules of the aqua park.
Later in the cruise, we made it to St. Thomas. From the port we took another small boat to St. Johns, where we hiked along a narrow forest trail to a place called Honeymoon Beach. The snorkeling there was phenomenal. We saw coral, sting rays and colorful fish. On the hike back we came across a family of donkeys heading in the opposite direction, and my girls screamed like there was no tomorrow, scrambling aside to allow the determined family of three safe passage. Later along the trail I picked up a hermit crab, and the little bastard popped out and bit me on the finger. My son found that hilarious, the little … My wife and I spotted a UFO, an unidentified furry object that looked like a cross between a monkey and a ferret. On the ride back to the mother ship they gave us free drinks, and by the time we arrived everyone was pretty much drunk and having the time of their lives.
Every night there was a show at seven p.m. Either stand up comedy, magic, Broadway musical tributes, or death-defying high-wire acts. A New York comic asked how many democrats were in the audience. Two people clapped, and were subsequently booed by the rest in attendance. The comic gulped, told a few more jokes, and then shuffled off the stage with an apologetic shrug
There were shops on the fifth deck, Ben and Jerry’s and cupcakes. For twenty bucks you could buy a wallet and watch, and my kids couldn’t wait to one, spend their money, and two, lose what seconds ago they couldn’t live without. On the eleventh deck were the pools, hot tubs, and just enough deck chairs to start a riot over. A sign says don’t reserve the chairs, but who goes on vacation to read signs? Better to get up early and lay claim, and then find yourself in an argument with the one person who read the sign and subsequently stole your chair while you went to get ice cream at Sprinkles. (FYI, there were no sprinkles at Sprinkles, just cones, three flavors, and another long line, although not in that order.)
One morning we woke up at St. Maarten, and took a taxi cab to the French beaches. West of the rocks, old men and women walked around naked. I know this because I told my kids to stay put, and went there (ran there) with my wife. It was quite deflating, so to speak. At no time were we inclined to join the shriveled masses. Men, penis to penis, chatted politics and weather. Ladies sunbathed on their cots, legs spread wide, some shaven, most not. C’est la vie. The cutest thing we saw was a naked puppy on a surf board, with several sets of unbridled tits. Just adorable.
Back on the sane side of the beach, the sand was fine and warm, the waters clear. Eric, our waiter, brought drinks as we lay on our chairs. The kids built sand castles, and the girls had their hair braided by the ladies who came by with bracelets for sale. Young ladies wore thong bikinis. Chloe and I got the jet ski up to fifty five miles per hour, and the day went by even faster.
The next two days were spent at sea. We slept in, ate good food, watched movies by the pool, and rotated our necks beneath the ice cream machine. And yes, we stood in more lines. Regardless, there were far more smiles and laughter, and that’s what I’ll remember the most. The kids giggling by the pool with friends, everyone getting dressed up for the formal dinners. It was our first cruise, and most likely won’t be our last. Next year, however, we’re going to see if the lines aren’t a bit thinner at Yosemite, with hopefully just as many smiles.
P.S. Perhaps later I’ll post about what happened after the waiter at the beach restaurant in St. Maarten gave us a free bottle of rum and shot glasses. My wife told me that if I wrote about that she’d kill me. And for now, I just can’t take that chance.