Dick Van Dyke: Keep Moving : And Other Tips and Truths about Aging (Hardcover)(2015)

Enjoy the Ride

(For my friend Bob Palmer)

We took a cruise to Alaska, and it didn’t turn out the way we expected. Arlene and I had hoped for something special. We got something else instead. We got a mix—wonders and warts. But you know what? That is okay. That’s life. As people get older, part of the challenge is to maintain the enthusiasm of our younger days for new experiences, for living life. Travel pushes you out of your comfort zone. It is fraught with experiences that don’t work out as planned, testing your mettle and resiliency and reminding you that life constantly throws us curves, not the least of which, after a certain age, are eyes that can’t read menus in the dark, knees that refuse to bend when we want them to, and patience that disappears when we most need it.

In our case the curves had to do with toilets that didn’t work and a cruise that didn’t live up to the photos in the brochure. Basically, our two weeks away from home weren’t perfect. But, as I said, what is?

Our trip in September 2014 was supposed to be a make-up-for-lost-time-slash-thank-you to my wife for her patience, care, and affection during the past seven months while I battled back from pneumonia and shingles. We’d booked a cruise to Alaska earlier in the year; my illness had forced us to cancel. Now, back at full strength, I wanted to have some fun. I wanted to take Arlene to Alaska and show her the awe-inspiring wilderness and wildlife. I’d gone there on a cruise years before, but she’d never been. You don’t realize the scale or the beauty of that frozen frontier until you’re staring at it in person; then it can be life changing. Arlene was going to love it.

I booked us on the last cruise of the season. In a way the timing seemed more apropos than before because now the trip overlapped with Arlene’s forty-third birthday. A few weeks before we departed, our tickets arrived in fancy silver boxes with our names engraved on the lid, along with a brochure showing couples in white terry cloth robes on a veranda with a butler offering drinks and food. We very easily pictured ourselves on that veranda. We were excited.

As it turned out, we probably should have stopped there, with the fantasy created by the brochures. Reality rarely lives up to those kinds of pictures. In addition, right before we left we got word that my closest friend and longtime publicist, Bob Palmer, was going into the hospital for minor heart surgery to adjust his pacemaker. I wished him well, and Arlene e-mailed his daughter, saying we’d check in with her for an update. Looking back, that might’ve been an omen, but we were full-speed ahead—and eager to get going.

At my son Chris’s suggestion, we traveled from Los Angeles to Vancouver, the starting point of our cruise, via train. He said the thirty-six-hour rail journey up the coast afforded breathtaking views and was worth the extra time. We were sold. Time is the only real luxury all of us have, and because we weren’t in a hurry, why not enjoy it? We boarded the Superliner, as the train was called, in LA’s historic Union Station, the location of many old movies and, oddly, a site I had never visited. We found our private room on the second floor and headed to the sightseeing lounge.

By early afternoon we were enjoying views of the coastline near Santa Barbara. Everything was as we imagined. Then Arlene went to our room to use the bathroom and came back a short time later shaking her head.

“It’s broken,” she said.

“What is?” I asked.

“The toilet.”

“That isn’t good. Did you speak to someone about it?”

“The attendant wasn’t much help. He said they might be able to get it fixed when we’re in Oakland.”

I looked at my watch. Arlene was already ahead of me.

“Yeah, that’s five or six hours from now.”

Our conductor looked like he was straight out of The Polar Express—portly, bespectacled, white hair, friendly—and he tried to accommodate us by offering us use of the room next to ours. In fact, he pulled open the adjoining wall and turned our berth into a plush, two-bedroom suite. The only trouble was the toilet in that other room didn’t work either. It turned out the toilets in the entire car were out of order. Needless to say, the first leg of the trip, to Seattle, was a long one.

But we got there, and the next day we got to Vancouver and found our ship, which was larger than I had imagined, considering there were only 350 passengers total. The ship looked as if it were meant to accommodate ten times that number. Our quarters were nice, the toilet worked, but the emergency procedures drill we practiced that first afternoon, as is routine on ships, raised a small red flag when I noticed the majority of passengers didn’t look very lively, even though I was probably the oldest passenger onboard.

“Uh oh,” I whispered to Arlene.

“It will get better,” she said.

I had my concerns. For the next two days we were at sea. No stops. Surrounded by water. With nothing of interest to us happening on the ship. And that’s the risk of a cruise. You’re trapped. My brother performed on cruise ships for years before he was on Coach. They provided a good living. He only had to work a few nights, and the rest of the time on the ship was his to spend as he wished. But it was hit or miss, depending on the audience. He once played the last week of a world cruise. He met the ship for the final week of what had been a three- or four-month adventure.

He did his act, and he bombed. But bombing on a ship, he explained, was worse than anyplace else. “If you lay an egg in a nightclub, you get to go home,” he said. “On a cruise you have to live with the audience for the rest of the week. Everywhere I went, I saw their disappointment. There was no escape.”

And that’s the way we felt for those two days. There was no music anywhere on board, no Internet or cable TV. It was eerily quiet, even during the day. Arlene and I both agreed that it was like being on the set of The Shining at sea. Activities included golf lessons—but we don’t play golf—and seminars on health (“What do your feet say about your health?”) and shopping (“How to buy diamonds”). They didn’t interest us either. There was also a casino, but we don’t gamble. Neither did most of the passengers—whenever we would walk by, there were two or maybe three people playing the slot machines. No one playing cards, craps, roulette, or whatever you play at those big green tables (I told you I don’t gamble).

On the plus side, the food was delicious, and that was a distraction we welcomed after Arlene suffered a panic attack upon seeing nothing but water in every direction. It happened toward the end of that first day and then got worse at night when we hit some rough water. Arlene’s previous boating experience consisted of the Circle Line Ferry in New York, the Catalina Express, and the party boat we rented for her fortieth birthday. It took her a bit to get used to being at sea.

“My mind is fixated on all the things that could happen,” she explained. “Hypothermia. Sharks. Drowning.”

I did whatever I could to calm her fears and relieve her from visions of what she called “a watery grave.” I told her about my first cruise in the 1960s. I was filming a movie in Europe, and my then-wife, Margie, our daughter Stacy, and I crossed the Atlantic on a German ship called the Bremen. I thought it would be fun and relaxing, but the crew was stiff and unfriendly. Everything was “Achtung!”

The sommelier seemed angry the war had ended. One night, in an effort to make conversation, I asked him a question about the ship, something along the lines of, “This is the second Bremen, isn’t it? Wasn’t there another Bremen?”

“Yes, there was,” he said.

“I thought so,” I nodded. “What happened to it?”

“You sunk it,” he snapped.

After a good night’s sleep, Arlene’s anxiety passed, and the adventure picked up when we got to Alaska. In Juneau we transferred to a small boat for an amazing day of whale watching. We watched with awe as a group of beautiful giants breached the water and slapped the surface with their enormous tales. Seeing a sight like that quickly adds perspective to your place in the world.

The galley on the tiny boat also served some of the best hamburgers I had ever tasted. We spent the next day docked in Skagway and took a charming trolley car tour around town. Later, while I returned to the boat, Arlene stayed in town to get some souvenirs and decided to take a tour of the Red Onion Saloon, a former bordello that wasn’t, as she told me, “listed in our fancy-pants tour guide.”

As she waited for her tour guide, an old man wandered inside. She told me that he looked like Rip Van Winkle—with long gray hair, a beard, and a walking cane—or perhaps he was Rip Van Winkle, and the Red Onion was still functioning as a brothel when he went to sleep. He stepped toward Arlene and got her attention.

“How much is it?” he asked.

“Ten dollars,” she said, thinking he was asking about the tour.

“Ten dollars?!” Arlene realized he was trying to get a girl and must have thought that ten bucks was too much—if he could’ve gotten a girl, which he couldn’t.

Arlene set him straight. “It’s not a functioning brothel,” she said.

“Do you know where I could get a girl?” he then asked.

“No, I don’t know.”

Arlene assumed he saw her wedding ring, but maybe not, as he asked, “Are you married?”

“VERY,” she said—and that’s when the tour guide appeared and Rip Van Winkle sauntered out of the building. While walking around Skagway, Arlene enjoyed listening to what she thought were local street musicians but with further investigation discovered they were jazz musicians from the Jazz Cruise that was practically on the same exact route as our Snooze Cruise! Boy, were we tempted to jump ship!

Other highlights included the Mendenhall Glacier, more whale watching in Sitka, the wilderness in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and a private tour of the Parliament Building in Victoria, which was not planned. Arlene and I were parked in front of the building, marveling at the neobaroque and Renaissance architecture of the historic landmark, when a cop asked us to move the car. Then he recognized me, and soon we were being escorted to a VIP line inside.

In the end two things about the trip stand out to me. First, every day we were on the ocean we saw a school of dolphins swimming next to our boat. Anytime something seemed to bother us, we would look out at those beautiful, graceful creatures and somehow instantly feel better. The other thing is the laughs Arlene and I shared. We laughed all the time, especially when things went wrong. That ability to laugh made the trip.

It was only when we got off the boat for good in Vancouver that we encountered a real problem. Arlene went online and found an e-mail from Bob Palmer’s daughter. It turned out that my friend was not doing well following what was supposed to be routine surgery. “He’s at peace with what’s happening,” his daughter wrote.

Concerned about being able to say good-bye, we caught the first available flight back to Los Angeles and went straight to Bob’s house. We sat at his bedside and had a nice two-hour visit. The next day he lapsed into a coma and never woke up.

I already missed him, and the long, almost daily conversations we would have about everything from old movies and songs to the meaning of life. He was a supremely intelligent man who had worked in TV and movies for stars such as Anthony Hopkins and Faye Dunaway and also for studios. He had served in the Navy. He was a writer. He was a great friend. And later I was reminded that he had been born in Alaska.

I so wished I could have told him about our trip. He knew how much I had been looking forward to taking Arlene to see that breathtaking scenery. We had spoken about both of our previous cruises and vacations. Like me, he was in his eighties, and between the two of us, we had taken many excursions—some wonderful, some we would not repeat, but none we would forget. To me, that’s the point—and both of us said as much to each other. The food isn’t always perfect, sometimes you get lost, sometimes it rains . . . but it’s all okay. As Arlene and I also concluded, that’s life.

Despite the bumps and wrong turns, enjoy the ride.