Tuesday, March 28, 2017

San Diego and All the Ships at Sea

I’m recently back from San Diego, California, the tourist mecca where the sun is always shining (except when it rains, of course). Though my trip was delayed for a day because of what forecasters were predicting would be the downpour of a century, I was relieved to find San Diego a wonderful escape from the cold and damp. As a Californian who’s lived through five years of drought, I don’t dare be ungrateful for rain when it comes. But, though most welcome, this rainy season has been rather hard on my spirits: I’ve in no way resembled Gene Kelly happily hopping through puddles in Singin’ in the Rain.

Anyway, today’s San Diego is a fascinating mix of gleaming new high-rises and remnants of the old days when sailors on shore leave thronged the waterfront and daytrippers headed down to Tijuana for an exotic shot of foreign culture. Still standing and still proud, the Hotel del Coronado is a gorgeous reminder of days gone by. Built in 1888, the beachfront resort has long attracted dignitaries and celebrities. It also has its very own ghost: a mysterious young woman who checked in under an assumed name and was later found dead in a stairwell. Hollywood best remembers the Hotel Del for impersonating a Florida luxury hotel in the immortal Some Like It Hot (1959). Today photos of Marilyn Monroe and the rest of the cast still line corridor walls. 

Another local attraction (aside from the world-famous zoo, which was filmed to represent Charles Foster Kane’s private menagerie in Citizen Kane) is the Maritime Museum of San Diego. This collection of seagoing vessels includes the Star of India, an 1863 merchant bark; an 1868 San Francisco ferryboat; and the USS Dolphin, a diesel-electric submarine first launched in 1968 and in use by the Navy until 2007. All of these are the genuine article, but the HMS Surprise was built in 1970 as a replica of a Napoleonic War-era British Royal Navy frigate. Why? Hollywood needed a working 19th century warship to use as a set for the Russell Crow drama, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Rechristened, the Surprise also made an encore appearance for one entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Inside one ship on display is a small exhibit reminding us of many Hollywood movies that take place aboard ship. I saw clips from The Sand Pebbles (American gunboat in 1920s China), The African Queen (tramp steamer in 1914 Africa), Titanic (British luxury liner that only thinks it’s invincible), and Disney’s pioneering Steamboat Willie. Wracking my brain, I’ve come up with a much longer list, which includes (in no particular order) Ship of Fools, the hilarious stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, Moby Dick, and an old Cold War favorite of mine, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. This 1966 film, directed by Norman Jewison, is the comic story of what happens when a Russian submarine runs aground off the coast of Cape Cod.

The Russians Are Coming was made in the spirit of fun and hopes of international harmony. But a Russian B-59 submarine now on display as part of San Diego’s Maritime Museum is a chilling reminder of how close we once came to nuclear holocaust. On October 27, 1962, this very submarine, bearing a nuclear torpedo, desperately needed to surface in the vicinity of Cuba. With the Cuban Missile Crisis underway, two of the officers argued for launching their weapon. Thankfully, Commander Vasili Arkhipov, vetoed that idea. I salute him here for, let’s face it, saving the world.

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