She was built, ironically, as a replacement for the S.S. Andrea Doria. When I sailed on the S.S. Leonardo da Vinci, however, I knew nothing of its "illustrious" heritage. Somehow, I'd been allowed to join a senior class cruise - not my senior class, mind you (I never had one). I was fifteen. I felt very grown up, and quite amazed that my parents were letting me take a cruise to the Bahamas by myself.
They drove me to Ft. Lauderdale, where I boarded the ship for a three-day cruise to Nassau. Having been on several cruises before, and having been to Nassau more than once, I don't recall being the least bit nervous. I found my cabin, and met my roommate, L. We were supposed to leave our cabin keys in the box, with the cabin steward, but neither of us trusted him. He seemed a bit too friendly. We somehow conspired to get both keys out of the box and dodged him each time he looked as if he might try asking us to return them. His faltering English put him at a disadvantage with two disingenuous teenaged girls; we practiced clueless smiles and pretended to have no idea what he wanted for the next three days.
Our idea of what he wanted terrified us. We weren't about to hand over the keys.
At dinner, I met our chaperones: Two pleasant couples. The first couple consisted of the Coach and his new bride - a plump and radiant young woman who had been a student the previous year. He had waited for her to turn eighteen so that they could wed. This was a honeymoon, of sorts, for them. They were both round and pleasant and obviously very much in love. The second couple consisted of an attractive, middle-aged man and an attractive, middle-aged woman. Or maybe they were young. They were older than me, and younger than the Coach. Who knows. Who cares? I sat at their table, since I was really too young to be on a senior class trip, and they had somehow been rooked into keeping an eye on me, too.
Early experiences cruising on ships like the S.S. United States had spoiled me and led me to believe that cruise ship food should be amazing. A seemingly endless parade of exotic delicacies ranging from "Chilled Fresh Persian Malossal Caviar" to "Kangaroo Tail en Tasse" to "Clear Ox-Tail" to a never-ending row of food and desserts known as the "Midnight Buffet" - an elegant event to be treasured when you are five and your bedtime would otherwise be seven o'clock in the evening.
The Leonardo disabused me of such notions. There were hard rolls in a basket; these, we learned to stab with a fingertip or crush to dust on a bread plate to ensure that we would not see them again at each meal. There was green pasta. I had never seen spinach pasta, and I'm not convinced, to this day, that spinach is what gave this particular pasta its peculiar moldy tint. The food was adequate - I mean, no one starves on a three day excursion to the Bahamas. But the word "scurvy" embedded itself in my brain, and I swear to you the only reason I drank so much blackberry brandy was the vain hope that I might suck down enough vitamin C from it to keep my bones from bleeding.
As on the S.S. United States, I lost my inhibitions (on the former, it was due to being five; on the Leonardo, it was probably due to an overdose of "vitamin C") and I sang in the ship's lounge. The piano player was a good sport; the old folks hanging out in the lounge were enchanted and amused. How many fifteen year olds knew all the words to "Sentimental Journey" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"? After two or three old standbys, the vitamin C buzz was fading fast, and embarrassment was setting in. I went to find something else to do.
Somewhere along the way, I ran into Chaperone Couple #2. I was relieved; somehow, the presence of well-dressed, well-educated, proper adults gave me back my anchor and a sense of safety. I sat down to chat with them a while.
The woman got up to get them another round of drinks. The man continued to hold a pleasant, banal conversation with me. And then suddenly, his hand was on my thigh. We didn't blurt out "WTF?" back then, but something akin to it went whizzing through my brain. I jumped up as if someone had lit my tailfeathers on fire, and high-tailed it back to the bar, myself. By now, they'd run out of blackberry brandy. The bartender suggested something called a Singapore Sling. It looked like a grown-up version of a Shirley Temple, so I gave it a try. Nasty, but there must've been some vitamin C in it, because I was soon feeling a bit calmer.
Two really tall, really handsome seniors came up behind me and introduced themselves. "We heard you singing in the lounge. You sing really well."
Urk. "I don't sing."
"That wasn't you? That was you."
"Must've been my evil twin." It's really hard to sink into a barstool and hide.
"How many of those have you had?"
"Not enough to keep my knees from bleeding. Need more vitamin C."
Somehow, the conversation turned to the chaperones, and my shocking experience with Mr. Respectably Middle-Class. The boys laughed. "That's not his wife!"
"Not...his wife?" I blinked. I think I'd had too much vitamin C, because chaperones who weren't married to each other but pretended to be married to each other was just a little bit more than my brain could untangle. "So, he's not married?"
"Oh, he's married, all right. Last year, he took his wife and his mistress on the cruise. This year, his wife said, 'If she goes, I stay home.'"
"Oh, my. So she stayed home, and he brought the mistress?" I'm slow, not entirely stupid.
The animals were running the zoo. "Please don't leave me." I appointed both of these handsome young men my bodyguards, and they performed their duties admirably and chivalrously. (Really. The words "jail bait" used to work remarkably well. They were smitten, but probably had girlfriends and definitely had plans that did not include jail time.) Their constant presence also helped to fend off the advances of an amorous Italian cabin steward who apparently took my saying, ¡Felíz Pascua! as "Wanna do me in the engine room?" and tried to pin me to the wall in a spontaneous embrace that was part bear, part welterweight champion.
By the last night, I was quite ill. I was feverish, possibly delusional, and the glands in my neck were swollen to the point where I might be mistaken for someone with a goiter. Even vitamin C couldn't help me. I turned in early and took a coat hanger into the upper bunk - by this time, L. and I had both managed to lose our purloined keys and I didn't want to lock her out. Drunk seniors came in and out of the cabin to chat, most notably a maudlin K. bemoaning the fact that the girl he loved had fallen for a bad boy who was going to just break her heart and...Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Next thing I know, the cabin steward - a new one, this time - is looking for our baggage. Which we had placed out in the hall, already, as we'd been instructed to do. By the time he got into the middle of the room and saw me, I was perched on my knees in the top bunk, ready to bring a heavy wooden coat hanger down on his head. He crossed himself, said a prayer, and ran. The rest is fuzzy, but I do remember K. coming into the room with a girl. "Can we use your bathroom?"
"Why? Oh, never mind, sure, whatever, go - use the bathroom." I didn't want to discuss it. My throat hurt and I think I had the flu. I went back to sleep.
Around two or three in the morning, L. finally came to bed. She opened the bathroom door, and out fell K. and the girl. Fully dressed.
They hastily scrambled up and out the door. For the rest of the night, I heard Lisa muttering, "What was K. doing in our bathroom?" (Holding the girl's head while she puked, as it turned out. That's one way to prove your undying love when the "bad boy" gets grossed out and heads for a girl with better sea legs.) L. was clearly annoyed, but so was I. I just wanted everyone to shut up so I could sleep, and the cruise could be over.
"Don't know, don't care." I rolled over and did my best to keep L. awake with my snoring. I was never so glad to see my parents as I was when I disembarked the next day.
I read of the Leonardo's demise in Newsweek or Time Magazine in 1980. "...a fire started onboard on 4 July 1980. The ship burned for four days and eventually capsized. The burnt-out hulk was later righted and towed to the scrapyard at La Spezia where it then was scrapped in 1982." Can't say I miss her, but I do wish I'd known I was sailing the Andrea Doria's replacement. I'd have appreciated the irony and the humor, even then.