The Beauty of an Ocean Liner


The American President Lines USS Wilson, depicted at Shanghai Harbor


In the mid 1950’s through the 1960’s most American civilians and non-military government officials moving to Southeast Asia traveled with their families and belongings by ship. My family traveled between San Francisco and Yokohama, Japan, five times between 1959 and 1969. Each voyage took 14 days, with a morning to evening stop in Honolulu each way. As a result, I spent ten weeks on the ocean on either the USS President Wilson or the USS President Cleveland, sister ships that alternately plied that route. A most vivid memory is of passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, looking up from the deck.

In addition, my parents were engaged as faculty on a university study-voyage on the South China Sea for about a month in the spring of 1969, on an old chartered Russian ship that formerly was a WWII era German liner. My brothers and I got to go along. We stopped at Cambodia’s first port (Kom Pong Song / at the time just one short and lonely pier), and then at Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong.  ‘Complicated politics’ at that time kept us from docking in South Vietnam, as originally intended.

My younger brothers and me, with our parents, about to depart in 1966

This could have been me and my brother, arriving by ship in Japan, in 1959

Before the era of single class and entertainment-oriented ‘cruise ships,’ ocean liners primarily served the needs of individuals and families relocating to multi-year assignments overseas. Like numerous government officials and their families, and unlike business travelers, my missionary parents were booked in the lowest price range cabins in the first class category of the ships. This was in markedly different circumstances from those who traveled in the aft, more crowded and yet rather limited economy section. Though we had smaller and more sparse cabins compared with those in the top tier, we had meals in the same dining room and enjoyed the same public areas and entertainment options as all others in first class, as well as by the Captain and his senior staff. And in the course of a two-week long voyage, people from very different backgrounds and circumstances became unanticipated acquaintances and in some cases lifelong friends – an unexpected and beautiful thing.

An upper-deck photo of the Wilson en route

Each voyage departure in that era was a real event. The docks were crowded with well-wishers, and folks onboard were given multiple reels of colored paper streamers. We were then encouraged to hang on to one end, and throw the streamer reel toward those on the pier below. Soon, the links between the ship and those on shore were heavily laden with these colorful streamers. And slowly they were broken, one by one, as the ship moved away from the dock area toward the open sea beyond, all the while blasting one of the loudest sounds I have ever heard. Our connection with one world symbolically was broken as we were pulled back, and towards another. This once again brought people from remarkably different backgrounds together.

I remain most grateful for our ocean voyages, which allowed a graceful transition between progressively differing time zones, in addition to all the fun we had on the way. At that time, traveling by jet between the continents seemed like the luxury way to transit the oceans. Now, in retrospect, though the two ships were comparatively modest in relation to modern cruise ships, voyaging on the Wilson and Cleveland was clearly the preferred way to go! For we were all pampered by the ship’s crew, from the uniformed waiters in the dining room and lounges, to the attendants who brought refreshments like ice cream to the inside and poolside teak deck chairs.

Children were especially cared for, in the day-long Marco Polo room, where activities and snacks were provided without interruption. Amazing to me and my brothers were the plastic model car kits simply given to us to help occupy our time, when we were not swimming.

An American President Lines magazine ad from that era

Among my childhood recollections, some of my most significant memories of beauty, in so many forms, are attached to those voyages on what seemed to be the most remarkable ships.

The Beauty of a Homing Pigeon

A stunning Belgian racing pigeon, sold for $1.9 million


My title for this post may appear ironic or implausible. Yet, there is a long history of careful stewardship of homing pigeons by pigeon fliers and ‘fanciers.’ They breed beautiful, graceful, and powerful birds. Some racing birds are capable of flying a thousand miles, mysteriously finding their way back to their nests at speeds between 60 and 100 miles an hour! Most homing pigeons are not quite in that league.

I first became intrigued with the idea of having a small flock of homing pigeons when I was a Boy Scout in middle school, in Japan. A fellow troop member had a flock of some 20 to 30 birds. I went over to his house after school and watched him release them from his roof-edge loft. Then he would scatter bird seed on the roof and enter the loft, a signal to the birds that ‘dinner time’ had arrived.

Multicolored homing or racing pigeons in a Texas loft

His loft, as my later and smaller ground-level pigeon coop would be, was constructed of parts of old wooden shipping crates, then quite common in port cities like Yokohama. Those crates provided solid structural starting points, generally weather resistant, and adaptable to various pigeon loft configurations. What was left to be found was some mesh screen, some wood with which to fashion a simple door, and a set of dangling vertical rods (the formal name for which I have forgotten) which, resting against a wooden ledge, would allow the pigeons to return to the coop while passing through them, but not able to exit again.

A homing pigeon resembling one of the first in my small flock (note the leg band)

My first two birds, received from my friend, had distinct colorings different from common city pigeons. The female had a tan color and the male’s feathers were an overall charcoal gray and black. With them, I raised several more pigeons having beautiful darker brown feathers with white stripes. This was while the adult birds acclimated themselves to their new circumstances, and gained a new homing point for their flights. If I recall correctly, it takes at least a few months for this to happen.

It seems significant that the Gospels record the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptism, as being like a dove (a pigeon relative) rather than – as some might have imagined or hoped – like a falcon or an eagle. Doves and pigeons, the latter offered on the occasion of the infant Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, are symbols of peace, while avian raptors more often figure in war and or civil power-related imagery.

Over the couple of years I kept pigeons, I may have had as many as 8 or 10 in my small coop, some of which I purchased from local Japanese fanciers. I particularly prized the white birds, and saved up paper-route money to buy them. Once, I bought a beautiful one without having a proper transport case with me, and carried it home through the Yokohama streets. After my journey of a mile or two, almost near home, the pigeon in my hands and held in the proper way suddenly startled me and flew off to its former home!

I never raced my pigeons, though that is a common hobby for those who raise homing pigeons. Transporting the pigeons by vehicle (in vented carry boxes) to an assigned location, they are then released at a particular time, and clocked regarding the speed of their return to their home lofts. How homing pigeons are able to do this is not yet fully understood, though it is thought to involve magnetoreception, a sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field.

My time with my pigeons came to both a happy and a sad end. I was examined and proud to receive the pigeon raising merit badge from the Boy Scouts.

And then one morning, some months after this, I went to check on my pigeons before school. I was devastated to find that a cat had gotten in during the night, and I had lost my beloved birds.

As you might imagine, from time to time I muse about having a small flock of these amazing and faithful birds once again.

The Beauty of Koi and of Goldfish


One day as a boy in Japan I looked up and marveled at the fish-shaped fabric streamers, flowing in the wind like kites. The fish were Koi. Traditional Japanese households fly Koinobori from poles or lines in honor of Children’s Day, a national holiday observed on May 5. Whether in the kite form or not, Koi are special to the Japanese, who first bred the new fish varieties and cultivated their colorful iterations in the early 19th century.

As beautiful as some of the fabric examples of Koinobori can be, they are not nearly as evocative as the real thing. Koi are a form of carp, which to our ears makes them sound like something unpleasant. They are not a variant of goldfish, and though Koi can be interbred with the latter, the offspring are sterile, just as are mules (the offspring of horses and donkeys). Unlike common carp, Koi have been bred to feature bright colors and a fluidity of movement that graces many ponds in formal Japanese gardens. Curiously, if released into the wild and allowed to propagate, researchers find that within a limited number of generations, Koi offspring revert to the more common form and dull brown-gray color of river and lake carp.

A goldfish above a Koi

One notable difference between common carp that are found in many rivers and lakes, and Koi found in Japanese style garden ponds, has to do with the quality of the water in which they are typically located. As bottom feeders, carp tend to swim and eat in the lower levels of murky waters. And so – by contrast – Koi are usually cultivated in clear and relatively shallow pools where their bright colors can be better appreciated.

Koi can be quite expensive, especially the fancier varieties, but they can also live as long as, if not longer, than humans. For these reasons, those who are new to keeping fish in smaller outdoor ponds may do well to start with multi-colored goldfish, the outdoor care of which can be easier and a good preparation for caring for Koi.

Some years ago when we previously lived in south Louisiana, I purchased a black plastic pond basin from a big box home supply store, along with an inexpensive pump. Having half-buried the basin, we found some decorative stone and an aquatic plant or two. We then filled the basin and let the water sit for a few days to allow any chlorine or other potentially noxious elements within treated water to dissipate, and to ‘season’ the pond’s content. Some landscaping needed to follow, as you can see below.

For a surprisingly limited number of dollars, a trip to WalMart provided a number of long-shaped, rather than plump-shaped, multi-colored goldfish, which survived and even thrived over many years while growing to an 8 or 9 inch length (photo below). The pond pump helped aerate the water, and a natural bacteria and enzyme product made a huge difference in helping keep the pond clear.

Many people find even a small water feature like a miniature fountain near a patio to be calming and restful. Adding a small gurgling pond, such as ours, with a few fish can enhance the interest, providing the subsequent pleasure of helping care for the aquatic residents within it. Someday, I hope to have Koi. But I may be starting once again with goldfish, which on a smaller scale can often be just as beautiful!


A special thanks to former and now neighbors, Jeanne and Tom Morris, for adopting our goldfish and pond, and giving new life to the ensemble.