Out To Sea... With My Brother

| July 25, 2011

Note: This article was written , a former White House and Pentagon official and author of the forthcoming memoir entitled, "Rolling Pennies In The Dark." MacKinnon, also a former press secretary to Senator Bob Dole, has published hundreds of columns in every major paper in the country and is also an author. Douglas MacKinnon's latest novel entitled "Vengeance Is Mine," can be found at Amazon.com.

Like many people old enough to remember them, I have long been a fan of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau movies. If memory -- and Google -- serve, the esteemed Messrs. Lemmon and Matthau co-starred in nine movies together. Their second to last being the foundation for this piece.

It is called Out To Sea and was a critical and box-office miss which I and thousands of others, happened to truly enjoy. The fact that certain pompous, elitist, coast-hugging critics who never seem to step into that arena Teddy Roosevelt once mentioned, looked down their surgically altered noses at this investment of time, energy and money, should serve as a badge of honor for the film.

As a novelist, I've had my share of critics rip my books -- and even me -- at times. As a friend and editor once wisely observed, "Those who can, write. Those who can't, become critics."

Critics opinions aside, I've been fortunate enough to sell tens of thousands of books over the last number of years, and, as shocking as it may be to these people who create nothing but tear down everything, Simon & Schuster will be publishing my memoir in September of this year and my next novel in 2012. Why? Because readers don't conform to group-think and not everyone has a taste for "literary" fiction. Some actually prefer the "cotton-candy for your mind" commercial fiction I and other reviled authors produce.

The same of course, holding true for films. Out to Sea was and is fantastic cotton candy for your mind. It provides a much needed escape from the day to day and the chemistry between Lemmon and Matthau is obvious from the beginning and more than makes up for any perceived flaws.

The premise of the film being that Matthau's character (Charlie Gordon) is a compulsive gambler always on the look out for the next big score. As he owes some bookies several thousand dollars, he decides the next "big score" should be going on a cruise ship to find a "rich broad." The next step of his scheme being to con his brother-in-law Herb Sullivan (Jack Lemmon), into going on an "all expense paid" trip on Holland America's Ms. Westerdam. Of course, once on board and Out To Sea, Charlie reveals to Herb that the trip is anything but "all expenses paid," and that instead, they are required to work as dance hosts and sleep in a cramped crew cabin with a shared bathroom.

Flash back to the reality of today where I am not only a fan of cruising in general, but somewhat fascinated by the business of it all. As such, I quickly learned that the gold standard for the industry is The Carnival Corporation operated under the very able leadership of Micky Arison.

Aside from Carnival Cruise Lines, Carnival Corporation owns among others, the Cunard Line (Queen Mary 2, the new Queen Elizabeth), Princess Cruises, Costa Cruises, Seabourn, and the aforementioned Holland America. Holland America, as in the line where much of Out To Sea was filmed in 1997 aboard the old Ms. Westerdam.

A few years ago, Holland America introduced a new and much improved version of the Ms. Westerdam. As one who has sailed on Holland America before (as well as Carnival and Cunard), I knew the line had a deserved reputation for elegance, class, and great service. As such, I thought it would be fun to replicate at least a few parts of the movie by taking my brother on the new Ms. Westerdam.

As these things usually go, it proved much harder than I thought to match up my schedule (married, work, books, politics) with his schedule (married, work, kids). Just when I thought I had it all nailed down for 2009 on the Ms.Westerdam, my brother Jay had some personal issues crop up and was soon working seven days a week to support his family.

One of the reasons I have a memoir coming out later this year is because I was homeless many times as a child, grew up on welfare, and saw myself and my family evicted and forced to move 34 times by the time I was 17 years of age. Of course, that would have been my brother's (and sister Janice's) childhood as well.

From my perch in Washington, DC, I watched in growing frustration and concern as my brother piled on the extra hours from his second job. A piling on which soon had him working those seven days a week with 36 hours being worked just on the weekends. Enough was enough. Time to take the very next cruise on the Ms. Westerdam.

I jumped on the Internet but was frustrated to discover that the Ms. Westerdam was sold out. Next I went to the Carnival site to check on the Carnival Glory which I had recently sailed. Fortunately, I found that it still had some cabins available for its upcoming cruise to the Bahamas. Without checking with my brother Jay, I booked one as I was not going to take "no" for an answer.

After a combination of brow-beating and begging, I convinced him to meet me at the departure port of Charleston, South Carolina for the five night cruise. As he hadn't been on any kind of vacation for years -- and had never been on a cruise ship -- I was not sure he would know what to do with his free time or how to treat himself for a change.

I should not have worried. Five minutes after boarding, I took him up to the Lido deck and the Red Sail Restaurant to grab a bit of lunch. He held the table while I went and fetched myself a pastrami sandwich and a lemonade. Jay then took off for his food and was soon back with a plate filled to the edges from the buffet line. "Perfect," I thought. Knowing he had not been sleeping or eating properly for months, I was pleased to see that he had grabbed so much food at once... except... he was not quite done.

He looked down at me as he put the plate on the table, smiled and asked, "Can you keep an eye on that?" Two minutes later, he was back from the Deli line with two giant sandwiches on his plate. I thought I was going on the cruise with my brother Jay, but soon found myself sitting across the table from Dagwood Bumstead.

Like the vast majority of people in the world, my brother Jay is far from fancy and even less pretentious. As such, the Carnival Glory proved a perfect ship for him. As mentioned, as I had sailed on her before, I knew what to expect. That being an exceptionally run and maintained large (952 feet long, 110,000 tons) vessel envisioned and built for that vast majority of cruise customers. If you want more upscale with more formal nights, a full-size planetarium, author lectures, and onboard educational opportunities, then Carnival Corporation is proud to offer its Cunard and Holland America Lines. If however, you just desperately need a break from the demands of work and life, want to hang out with like-minded people, and engage in a bunch of fun games others might shy away from, then a Carnival Cruise ship is the way to go.

Like any cruise line, Carnival wants and depends on return customers for its success. As such, the media overreaction to the fire in the engine room of the Carnival Splendor last November was both damaging to Carnival (and the cruise industry as a whole) and showcased the bottom-feeding instincts of many in the media. The fire, while unfortunate, was hardly the Chilean mine disaster or even anything approaching the real life tragedies which happen everyday on Americas roads. And yet, the media showcased it non-stop for a few days. Why? Purely for reasons of self-interest in the guise of profit and competition.

For the networks and cable networks, the images of the stranded ship (in calm waters, blue skies, and warm weather) proved too good not to sensationalize. The same for some of the major papers in our nation who chose to ignore real news and real tragedy so they could capitalize on a non-story which might provide them extra revenue. As for the "traumatized" guests aboard the still very comfortable Carnival Splendor? They got -- among other things -- a full refund for the cruise, reimbursement for transportation costs, and a complimentary future cruise.

Said one passenger on the Splendor with regard to the wait to get food on the ship as they were being towed back to shore: "... We didn't mind because the crew was trying so hard. The elevators had stopped working and to get the food to us they had to form a human chain all the way up to deck nine. They never stopped working for us, and they were still nice to us the whole time."

Getting back to the Glory, as my brother Jay was new to all of this, I wanted to get his honest reactions to the ship, the crew and the overall experience without undue influence from me. In a word, he was "amazed."

While not the largest ship in the industry, with a length the same as an average Par 4 on a golf course, the Carnival Glory is still a very substantial presence and fills your entire field of vision when close. Jay kept commenting that he "had never seen anything so massive in his life" and that "it's literally a city at sea."

As underscored, the food on board was a huge hit with my brother. Be it the buffet on the Lido deck, a hot dog or pizza near the pool, or dinner in the main dining room. As someone who works at a restaurant on weekends, he was quite impressed with the quality and especially the abundance of food on the Glory.

Being aware that he also needed his own space and didn't need his little brother hovering around him peppering him with questions, I arranged to interview a few members of the crew and staff as a way to first, give my brother that space, and second, better understand the industry and the inner workings of this city on the sea.

The first person I met with was a gentleman by the name of Anuj Khosla. Mr. Khosla was the hotel director for the ship. With just over 1,400 cabins, the Glory really is a resort hotel at sea. As such, Mr. Khosla is in charge of the vast majority of employees on the vessel. He went out of his way to explain the logistics of those rooms, the public rooms, and the needs of the passengers on an often, minute by minute basis. Mr. Khosla was beyond professional and any top-flight hotel in the world would be most fortunate to have him running their operation.

One of the things that the cruise industry has had to become very good at for the obvious reasons, is entertaining the hundreds to thousands of passengers which pour onto their ships on a daily basis. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, in that department, the Carnival Glory excelled as well.

The ringleader for the entertainment on our particular cruise was a gentleman by the name of Gary Brierley. As the cruise director, it was his job to keep the energy level up, his staff motivated, and the passengers happy enough to want to come back for more. By every indication, he more than succeeded.

As I spoke with Gary, I was struck by how much experience he brought to the ship and how varied that experience was in the field of entertainment. The reality is that the world is full of exceptional professional singers, dancers, and entertainers, and in a down economy and with limited openings on Broadway, the West End of London, or even revues in Las Vegas, the cruise industry has its pick of that incredible talent.

With that talent in mind, Gary introduced me to one of the Glory dancers. A young woman from Sweden by the name of Anna Samuelsson. Like most dancers in the business, Anna had years of professional dance instruction, had performed all over the world, and still brought a great deal of passion to her profession... even if she did have to display said passion on a stage whose "solid" foundation was dictated by the size of the waves passing under the vessel.

While it's indeed a cliché in the business, as Hotel Director Mr. Khosla said, "In one way or another, all of our employees are ambassadors for the cruise line." They really are. One bad crew member can spoil a cruise just as one great one can help make the experience truly memorable.

One such great "Ambassador" on the Glory was Adela Bojian from Romania. It was her job to administer the temporary spray-on tattoos up on the Lido deck and no matter how long the line -- or how impatient some of the passengers or parents -- she did so with a constant smile and a steady stream of engaging and warm conversation for all fortunate enough to be in her orbit.

Clearly, I'm a fan of the cruise industry and take more interest in its business operations than most. That said, on this particular cruise, I was only concerned with the opinion of one passenger... my brother, Jay.

Because of the Glory and her very hard working crew and staff, my brother was asking when we could go on our next cruise before the ship had even returned to its "home" port of Charleston, South Carolina.

Thrilled that he had honestly enjoyed the voyage, I looked at him and said, "While we may be poor imitations of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, as soon as you build up some more vacation time, it's off to the Ms. Westerdam to head back Out To Sea."

Note: This article was written , a former White House and Pentagon official and author of the forthcoming memoir entitled, "Rolling Pennies In The Dark." MacKinnon, also a former press secretary to Senator Bob Dole, has published hundreds of columns in every major paper in the country and is also an author. Douglas MacKinnon's latest novel entitled "Vengeance Is Mine," can be found at Amazon.com.

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