Saving the United States

February 19th, 2010

~ The SS United States may be a metaphor, or it might be just about being connected.

This is one of those posts that might be best filed under “notes to myself” or “posts that might be worth writing”.  I don’t know.  The story begins back about 1992 when the United States was beginning to be in real trouble; the S.S. United States that is, not its namesake.

It seems like the guy that owned her (I forget his name) had gutted her (stripped her of almost everything of real value, sold of the art and assets – even the dinnerware).  It was all done under the name of “timeshare” and renovation and under the banner of progress and new beginnings and with the idea of floating condominiums and penthouses worth a million or so each (flat), even if they weren’t really flats as this was a ship you must remember (if not a ship of state) – but, then, there was that name “The United States”.

The railroad wanted the berth back; Conrail, in which the “con” stands for “consolidated” and not “con” as in “con job”; which is what everyone thought when the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad (arch enemies) both went bankrupt and were merged by the feds to form a mega-railroad that was a virtual monopoly on the transportation front, so why not get into shipping too (as “ship” really is the root of the word “shipping”).   Anyway, the berth was needed to ship coal from West Virginia to the places that burn coal and shipping coal on the rail lines from West Virginia is more profitable than berthing (birthing) a new United States or an old United States that was now bankrupt, which was why the berth was not being used to pay the bills (the Conrail bills that is).

The owner of the United States lived in Seattle, and his office was there too.  I lived in Oregon at the time (a nearby state) and the bankruptcy of the United States was a local news story picked up by the Oregonian which I read, living at the beach and all (“Seaside”, but we will call it Warrenton because we like rabbits – everybody should like rabbits.  I lived next door to where Rolf Klep lived (before he died) and Rolf was a naval architect and famous and connected which is why I guess that he was selected to access the Top Secret blueprints of the United States so that they could be simplified into a double-fold foldout for Life Magazine that would show the innards of the new ship of state namesake of the United States with a lot of glitz, but not too much nitty-gritty (or real) militarily or economically important accuracy.  This is a true story.

The first issue of course was keeping the speed of the ship secret.  It had “Nimitz” class engines (only on the top US carrier of the time – or maybe it was another fast carrier, I don’t have my notes in front of me).  The point was that a ship (shipping) is about engines and speed and this boat was about getting military boots to far-off foreign places real fast in time of war or crisis or things like Afghanistan, which is land-locked, which is why planes are better, but planes were small and expensive at the time so the US massively funded the US, which the second US refers to the ship (least we all forget).

I liked Rolf.  He loved everything nautical, and water driven which is why he loved women and people and duck decoys and probably somewhere in there is a liquid connection to architecture, because first and foremost he was an architect, Chicago style or school, or anyway he lived and worked in Chicago once and a lot and had fun there and moved to the Oregon Coast to retire and set up a Maritime Museum in Astoria (Oregon) which is still there to this day – Astoria being at the mouth of the Columbia and all and having a fresh water port (being on the river) which is really good for ships as salt and brine does ships no good.

Maybe Warren Buffett is right; everything may be about the rails and railroading and being railroaded.  When I found the perfect home for the United States on the shores of Astoria (near where Lewis and Clark gave up their search for living dinosaurs at the President’s direction – all true, but we’ll save that for a different post) I discovered that the spot was owned by the railroad, not Conrail this time, but another railroad, the Burlington Northern then (before it was “consolidated” with the Santa Fe).  One train a week came into Astoria in 1992, two cars usually, one diesel engine and one caboose because they still needed the caboose because featherbedding was not quite yet dead and a train that short is otherwise really too hard to see (which is a safety issue among other things).

The shoreline of the river owned by the BN was a toxic waste dump, had more chemicals called pollutants than Carter had customers (Carter’s “little liver pills”, “Carter had pills” – for those that might not get the reference).  So my initial inquiry about a place to berth the bankrupt boat was met by a 23 page document on toxic messes and the liabilities inherent to clean-up and the suggestion that maybe it would be better if the United States might just “go away” and not find a new and better fresh-water home in the west (even if there were no dinosaurs) and even if the boat would be easier to restore and visit in Astoria than at a Conrail coal site in Norfolk, Virginia even if that was where the ship was built.  “Born here, died here”, so east coast or old style in its meaning – but, what practical application for something that might plan to live forever?

The BN had a better idea for me than my plan to buy the boat.  Yes, I know that “ships” are not “boats”, but the TV series “love boat” put an end to all that and why fight a nomenclature that calls giant floating barges “cruise ships” as if they had the lines and beauty of the Titanic or something, as opposed to the design and lure of a Las Vegas casino, but the United States was not like that once – it was fast and sleek and beautiful and even had a big screen aboard where one could watch movies if the big structural pillar was not in the way and if one was sitting in the wrong chairs it was always in the way, but that is what military architecture will always get you.

The boat was to be auctioned off in Virginia, the final vengeance against the Union for the Civil War; “The Bankrupt United States sold at auction on the steps of a Virginia Courthouse” – subhead: “very few bidders express interest”.  The gavel price was expected to be one million dollars or less – for 170,000 square feet of developed real estate, for at least $3,000,000 worth of scrap aluminum, for a pair of turbines that could power a small city for a hundred years or two.  It was a no-brainer to buy the ship, it was impossible to lose money and then there was the history-tourist angle that made even better sense since the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose exhibit was making money even then.

It wasn’t quite that simple.  Getting the United States relocated from the deteriorating environment in the east coast to the fresh waters of the west coast would take another (in round figures) one million insurance costs being what they are, Panama Canal fees, ocean going tugs and a few other fees for ports parking and temporary pulling and placements.  I got everything in order.  But, I still did not have the million or two in cash.  No banks were at all interested; it was the United States after all, a ship, a boat to some, aluminum was not interesting (nor any other metals).  The movie “Titanic” of course had not yet had its titanic success.  Even Phillip Knight (Nike of Portland) said no; I still have the letter.  The Solar-flex fortune said no although they were in Washington DC at the time; a Saudi-prince was not interested – must not have seen the potential of sandlots in Dubai.

Word had it that the Turks would get America (the United States), dismantle the ship on the Black Sea shores, sell off the aluminum to make beverage cans for use on airlines.  Congress had said the ship could never be sold overseas, or to any foreign power.  But, Turkey was not a power and the Black Sea is more like a lake (big perhaps, but just a lake the way Congress thinks).  No Congressperson would get aboard to save the ship or save our ship (SOS call), and so many people tried, though few in number).

I toured the ship just before the auction; took a lot of pictures.  I took pictures of the Top Secret turbines never (privately) photographed before; of the theater and the pillar, of the swimming pool now dry and a picture of the busted toilets, broken out to make way for new ones that would never come.  I was a day early and two million short (in round figures) – the United States would not be saved that day.

I visited the east coast yesterday (and a few more days before).  I had not been in Philadelphia for 22 long years.  The city has changed, but not enough.  There are new buildings, but it is the preponderance of the old that bothers me.  The blight of Ben Franklin still lingers, homes older than the factory town still linger, row houses and worse – row hovels that defy description and correction and restoration and even the visage of hope.  There are vast areas that cannot be moved to Astoria or the west and fresh waters and the hope of a new life on a far distant (but native) shore.  This is the living purgatory of life or the threshold of hell’s gate, “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” – it is misery and decay, it is waste.  The banks of south and east Philadelphia do not care, have no money to fund even a primitive revival and the community knows that at best the rich remain indifferent.

So was it any wonder that within sight of the original “American Bandstand”, home of Dick Clark and one facelift too many, home of where it all started (the United States that is) the metaphor model has come home to roost or rot or die.  I could glimpse it from the freeway, salt water berth, red white and blue stacks shedding the little paint that’s left.  It was a sorry sight or site or both.  The Black Sea would have been better, but not as fitting.  Michael Moore should film this great ship that’s now a wreck, make the movie; rust and broken toilets and enough aluminum to supply the world with cans for at least a week.  We give power to our symbols.  We hide our future in plain sight.  I did not stop the car; I’ve been there and done that and now it’s someone else’s turn or time to turn or maybe I too am just too old to get involved.

Isn’t every one too old to get involved?

Tomorrow I may write about Manhattan; paint pictures of cathedrals and subway stations and of statutes of dead poets in the park.  But, it was last night that I flew back; West; where the west side story is one of wonder and the east side is the side that’s dark and lost and almost forgotten (or at least when it comes to the comparison of things, to sorting out advantage, to defining what is “class”).  And, before I think too sure that I am too safe I look out my door this morning.  They are filming for the billboard that I saw while in New York City, East Side, Manhattan – “AMC – Breaking Bad” – it’s in my neighborhood where the cameras are rolling, almost next door, more people than on the sidewalks of Manhattan, more desperate than anything in Philly – or maybe that’s just the hope shining through – breaking bad (the movie), but it’s not good.

[2010.02.19 / Friday – Saving the United States]

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