On Board The S.S. John W. Brown

by John Delach

We were about three and one-half hours out of the berth in Baltimore Harbor, slowly sailing on Chesapeake Bay, just past the half-way point on this six-hour historical voyage. So far, my two grandsons were holding up, but fading. They’d explored every part of the Liberty Ship open to them plus a few, I suspect, not open to the public where their nimble and athletic 12 and 14 year-old legs gained the better of obstacles in their path. You bet I was waiting for the melt-down, that moment when they would pass the point of no return; they’d lose it, their father would lose it and I’d lose it too leading, just perhaps, to burial at sea.


The staff and volunteers running this, the 99th historical voyage of the 1942-built, John W. Brown, truly had their act together filling the day with a variety of happenings, commemorations, events, meals and distractions to make for a full day. But for two electronically skilled, Type “A” personality Boys with a capital “B”, I knew when I made these plans that this adventure would be a challenge. Let the record show that when Drew was five and Matt was three, I told them: “From now on, Drew, your name is, Jesus, and, Matt, your name is, Christ. That way, when I yell; ‘Jesus Christ, knock it off,’ you’ll know who I’m talking to!”


Sailing on this World War II relic had been a long time item on my “bucket list.” The ship has four sailings in 2014 and Father’s Day weekend worked for me and their Dad, my son Mike. We did it right, drove down on Friday, taking them to see the Orioles play the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards that night. We lasted until the Eighth Inning when the rain arrived with the Orioles losing 2-0. We left for the hotel to see our Rangers lose the Stanley Cup to the L.A. Kings. (The Orioles also lost, 4-0.)


Saturday was glorious. The storm passed leaving a cool, dry, sunny day. Mike drove to the pier where we set eyes on this “old dog.” S.S. John Brown is just one of two Liberty Ships still in existence, left from the 2,711 frantically turned out by American shipyards to replace the incredible number of ships sunk by Nazi U-boats early in the war.


While we were waiting to board, I asked the boys, “Who do you think is older, me or the John Brown?” If you took me, you lost. I was launched in 1944, the Brown in 1942.


Drew and Matt, like their father and grandfather, have a devilish sense of the absurd, causing me to fear that security and the attitude of the regulars manning the ship could be an issue. Absolutely, not. Security was appropriate and, as for the crew, these volunteers all came with a relaxed attitude and a great sense of humor. Like one deck hand who told Matty, “Before you use one of the Port-o-sans, you should know that one flushes overboard. Let another person use it before you do. If they don’t come out, don’t go in.”


Activities included a girl-group trio, the Manhattan Dolls, who put on a wonderful Andrew Sisters, show while styled in tight-fitting, 40’s era tops and pencil skirts. The National Anthem, was appropriately, played as John Brown passed Fort McHenry and Taps as we cleared the harbor. After lunch just past the half-way point in the bay, an air show mesmerized the crowd as a Japanese Val and Zero buzzed the ship while the crew loudly shot off blank 20 mm shells from two cannons mounted on the bow. The boys asked me, “Gramps, what if they were real?”


“If they were real, we’d be toast.”


A US Navy Avenger and Dauntless intervened chasing off the “enemy,” one trailing smoke. The show ended with a B-25 Mitchell making a series of low passes.


One act remained, billed as: The Ultimate Abbott and Costello Tribute Show. It featured three comedians, Bill Riley, (Costello) Joe Fields (Abbott) and Jason Crutchley (Scoop Fields) who re-create a number of their classic routines. Drew and Matt joined me in one of the converted cargo holds and we were soon roaring to material like “The Honey Bee Club,” Two Tens for a Five,” Sticky Fingers,” “The Hidden Lemon Trick” and “Who’s On First.”


What is old was new again especially for the boys and it delivered so much that the effects lasted for the rest of the trip. Salvation was at hand, halleluiah!


We drove home the next day and met Jodie in Westchester where we said our goodbyes. When she asked them what was their favorite part of the trip, they exclaimed, “Mom, ‘Who’s On First.”