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Bridge and Sex on the High Seas

Bridge and Sex on the High Seas

In July of 1974, having just celebrated my 20th birthday, I was playing cards at the legendary Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Blvd., in Los Angeles, the long time venue for Bridge Week. Midway through the tournament, I was surprised to be pulled aside by Ron Von der Porten. Ronnie, or VdP, many times player on U.S. National Teams in international competition, had a simple question: would I be interested in going on a cruise ship in the capacity of Director of Bridge? 

My enthusiastic acceptance should have been tempered by the fact I was holding down a full course load at the University of California at Berkeley and had a full time job teaching little kids to kill each other; but then again, most of the time at Berkeley I spent sleeping on the lawn outside Bancroft Library, and my homicidally inclined protégés….they could wait. I said ‘sure’, and three months later I was scheduled to board the S.S. Monterey, one of the two sister ships in the Alioto family’s rusty Pacific Far East Lines fleet.

The Monterey was scheduled to sail down from San Francisco to L.A. harbor, then over to Honolulu, unload and reload in 7 hours, then sail straight back to San Francisco. It was part of a 10 day air/ sea package wherein half the passengers flew over to Honolulu and had a holiday, then sailed back, and the other half did it the other way around.

For me, ten days off, $165 a week, adventure and novelty, and all I had to do was bring along my Cliff Notes and give a lecture in the morning and run a little tournament in the afternoon. How tough could that be? A couple weeks before liftoff Ronnie called me over to San Francisco for a pre-briefing. What he had to tell me was the following: while I was, strictly speaking, a passenger, I did have to help out in emergencies and drills. I guessed that meant I wasn’t going to have first dibs on a lifeboat. But, then he got serious.

“Kevin”, he said, “I know you’re young, and there’s a few things you should know about these cruises. Firstly, there are a lot of older single women on these ships and it is not unknown that they might be interested in your company for more than Bridge lessons. It is completely up to you to decide whether you are willing to give private tutorials and what you might charge for such extraordinary services.”

Ronnie had a special ‘look’ that he gave me, of the kind one might give a not terribly bright younger brother, to make sure I was following; then he continued: “Secondly, there are often a lot of gay men on board, especially among the pursers. They will be quite friendly, but if you are ever invited to one of their rooms ‘for a nightcap’, they will be interested more in tumbling than tippling. Now, there won’t be any aggression involved, and all you have to do is say something like this---’I’m sorry, but I can’t. I have to go to my room and write a letter to my girl friend’. The word will get out and no one will bother you.”

Now, truth to tell, I had recently lost my virginity to an older woman, a bridge player at that, but she was nowhere near as old as the wizened dowagers I imagined would shortly be clamoring for my post prandial services. And then there were the pursers to be dodged. With all these thoughts jostling around, I loaded up on condoms and headed for the pier.

The Monterey was nothing like what we see now by way of 9+ deck sea monsters, as for one example Symphony of the Seas, currently the largest cruise ship out there. Instead of housing over 5,000 passengers the Monterey, a relative minnow, might have had 360. Three rusting decks reeking of disinfectant. A tired lounge. No heliport. No 10 story water slide. The miniscule movie theater showed The Sound of Music every day on the way to Honolulu, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid every day on the way back. By the time we docked in San Francisco I sick of the von Trapps and deeply in love with Katharine Ross.

Meanwhile, I had to introduce myself to my nominal boss, Bob, the director of entertainment. A portly guy with a big smile, he showed me around the parts of the ship I needed to be acquainted with: where the card tables and gear were stashed, where I’d soon be giving my trenchant 9 a.m. lectures on riveting topics like ‘bidding 4 card suits up the line’. Typical cruise line drivel that VdP had advised was the order of the day. These bats hadn’t gone to sea to learn the intricacies of the intra-finesse, nor defenses to two-suited overcalls.

My orientation finished, Bob sat me down in the dim and otherwise deserted lounge and ordered us drinks. He leaned back expansively, his Hawaiian shirt cresting up to expose his belly button. He said, “Kevin, there is a lot of free time on these cruises.” He sucked down some of his Mai Tai and I mumbled something like ‘good’ while maneuvering around an umbrella and taking a swig from my coke. Bob continued, “I like to read a lot.” Cool; did I care? I nodded enthusiastically. “Do you know what kind of books I like to read?” No, I didn’t; I’d be studying. I shook my head sideways but tried to indicate that I was eager to know. I was only half listening; that was about to change. “I like to read sex books.” Bob’s smile never wavered, but my torpor was replaced with instant alarm bells as he rolled on with, “I like to read them one-handed. Would you like to know what I do with the other hand?” Well, no. Absolutely not. But I knew exactly how to extricate myself, thanks to Ronnie. Gracefully levering myself out of the booth and onto my feet, I said “That’s interesting, Bob, but I have to go write a letter to my girl friend.”

Over the next ten days I kept out of Bob’s way as much as humanly possible. Sadly, it turned out that neither the pursers nor the old maids had any interest in any nocturnal shenanigans, at least with me. I was relieved about the former, and slightly dismayed about the latter, though I hadn’t ever decided on my price point. The condoms made it back to the mainland unused.


I did a second cruise for PFEL later that year in November. At the end of that cruise I answered a questionnaire that was sent to all the passengers. I suggested that they have fewer ‘formal nights’. Partly this was because I had gone on the cruise with only one suit. Partly it was because one of my perks was free laundry service and I had sent in my one suit, corduroy, and when it came back it had shrunk so much I looked like an organ grinder’s monkey. But, it turned out that while I was, nominally, a passenger they didn’t welcome my input on matters sartorial. They informed Ronnie not to employ me further.

I went out to dinner this summer with Ronnie, a very robust 83 years old, during the Las Vegas Nationals. He regaled the table with stories from the 1977 Bermuda Bowl final, where his team lost an 80 IMP lead on the last day to get pipped by Bob Hamman. He can still recall many of the hands (well, wouldn’t you?). He also still remembers the questionnaire that sealed the fate of my budding career. Still laughs and shakes his head I could be so stupid. Lucky he didn’t come watch me play.

Pacific Far East Lines went toes up in 1978. One or both of the ships lived on for awhile, then were sold in China for scrap.


December 2019/KREC

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