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Day 3 – “Show me your war face!!”

17th May 2003 • Dave

We declined to visit Lindy’s as we upped and left the hotel for 9am on Saturday morning, choosing instead to walk and see if there was a more reasonable bistro or diner at which we could breakfast. Barely two blocks from the hotel, at the intersection of 6th and 31st Street, we found Charlestons. This small bistro offered a decent selection of bagels, omelettes, toasties, coffee and smoothies to start the day, and weighed in at around seven or eight dollars for a decent spread. We immediately decided to make this location our regular haunt for breakfast, leaving Lindy’s for a treat perhaps on the final day. While we were eating in the comfortable upstairs seating area, Dave’s phone rang. Our plan for this day had been for Dave to go and see Steve’s impressive computer setup and have a proper chat with him, while I would again hit the plastic in various shops. However Steve wanted to postpone, as he had other plans for the day, so we shuffled our own plans around. We decided to visit an attraction that had been on our list since the first day, the Intrepid Sea/Air/Space Museum. This amazing attraction is the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Intrepid decommissioned in 1974 and now moored permanently in the Hudson River, along with the Forest Sherman class destroyer Edson and the guided missile submarine Growler, the name of which unaccountably amused Dave and I for around five minutes. We finished our food and jumped on the subway up to 46th Street. However the museum is located west of 12th Avenue, and native New Yorkers will know a block across the city is far further than one up or down. Dave and I set off on a good thirty minutes’ walk from the 46th Street station over to our destination through some more blisteringly hot sunshine. Like so many other attractions which would make effective terrorist targets, the Intrepid installation is surrounded by some extensive security. Searches and magnetometers ensuring nobody can enter the exhibit with the intention of doing any damage. Dave was gratified to see the provision of an audio tour system called Acoustiguide; this clever setup worked via a sequence of numbers pasted up on the walls beside each exhibit, and the small telephone-alike hand unit (which you temporarily exchanged for a credit card) would then tell you about what you were looking at. I couldn’t resist breaking the system by dialing numbers at random, and at one stage accidentally getting an escort service.

Our first port of call was refuge from the sun in the submarine. The opportunity to wander around a formerly nuclear-equipped submarine is probably one few people get, at least people who don’t get to visit the Intrepid museum, and it was a fascinating experience. Like the Edson and the Intrepid, the submarine is a ship of the World War Two era, which lends an eerily anachronistic feel to the exhibit. Not for the claustrophobic, the guided tour allows groups to walk all the way through the submarine, and see torpedo rooms, bridge and periscopes, officers and enlisted mens’ quarters, mess hall and engine rooms, and it’s truly amazing to see the cramped quarters the crew occupied for weeks at a time. If you’ve seen the film U-571 you’ll appreciate the opportunity to (briefly) be inside similarly confined spaces as those of the U-boat submarine in that film. After the tour, we emerged back out into the sunlight and made our way across to the main part of the museum, the USS Intrepid herself. We climbed straight to the deck of the carrier, and parked on the deck were a huge variety of planes and helicopters. Along with more modern planes such as the AV-8C Harrier, the F-16 Falcon and the F-14 Tomcat made famous by the film Top Gun were any number of fifties and sixties-era aircraft. Additionally there was an A-12 Blackbird spy plane, a jet whose true function was disguised with a fictional fighter/interceptor role, close enough to reach out and touch. Dave rapidly realised the military hardware anorak side of me emerging, and dragged me away from the planes up to the carrier’s bridge. The carrier itself is staffed by veterans, some of whom actually served on it during its service, and it feels almost sacrilegious to be asking them where the toilets were. They were far more prepared to answer questions about the ship itself, and I learned an interesting little bit of military protocol: apparently, on the bridge, only the helmsman’s orders are ever shouted using the terms left and right, whereas everybody else is ordered using the more nautical port and starboard. The veteran informed me this is in order that no matter how intense the battle gets, if the helmsman hears “left” or “right”, he knows these orders are for him, and the critical matter of the ship’s position and attitude will be addressed.

After leaving the immaculately maintained bridge area, we took the lift down to the bottom floor of the carrier, and found to our faint disgust that it had been colonised by McDonalds. However we were both fairly hungry by this point and made a brief pit stop to refuel. Afterwards, we found ourselves walking up to the main area of the carrier’s interior, the museum proper. This is filled with older World War 2 era aircraft, including those which flew from the USS Intrepid during her service, and some amazing replicas of the Mercury and Gemini capsules from the early days of the US space program. On the very day we were there the US Marine Corps had decided to set up a mock “boot camp” towards the rear of the carrier – yet more school trips and unsuspecting youngsters having a teenage drill sergeant yell instructions in their faces and then being forced to do pull-ups, the slogan “Pain is weakness leaving the body!!” yelled at the less capable attempts. Etched in my memory for eternity will be the sight of a very young child, not more than six or seven years of age, having the order “Show me your war face!” bawled at him. His response was even funnier, or more disturbing depending on your viewpoint; a half-hearted gurgle and a grimace which only drove the drill sergeant further into apoplexy. “THAT’s a war face!” he bellowed, demonstrating his own, perfectly refined attempt. Chillingly, by the time he left, the six-year old was practising his new war face on passers-by. Give me a child until seven, etc.

At the rear of the carrier was something we both immediately jumped at the chance to sample, a fully articulated top-quality flight simulator. Featuring dual cockpits and the ability to move through a full 360 degree in all axes, these looked like being a highly entertaining way to squander ten minutes. Two teenage girls had climbed in as we arrived, and screams were coming from their seemingly jammed-upside-down cockpit. After a brief training session, during which we were shown the basics of 1) changing direction, 2) changing speed and 3) blowing the crap out of stuff, we climbed in amongst roller-coaster type overhead restraints. There then followed a hilarious four-minute Dambusters re-enactment as we missed mountain peaks by millimetres and, worryingly, managed to blow up a hotel. The ability to whirl yourself around upside down in a machine under your own control is far more novel than it may seem, and we climbed off keen to have another go, but vetoed on the grounds that we already felt too old to be doing this.

Going forward we happened upon a movie theatre screening a 20 minute documentary charting the history of the aircraft carrier, and more military hardware alongside a memorial to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. This was quite a jarring sight, with actual papers people posted on walls soon after the tragedy, asking if anybody had seen lost loved ones. Equally shocking were two fragments from the debris, a twisted World Trade Centre sign which I recalled seeing intact when I visited the towers in 1996, and a piece of aircraft fuselage, the remains of a window clearly visible along one edge. Considering how familiar the footage of the event is, it was amazing how tangible reminders of the atrocity still had the potential to shock deeply.

After we had finished inside the carrier, we made our way over to the third and final exhibit, the destroyer Edson. On our way across I laughed long and loud at the sight of one of the “war face” marines striking up a cigarette as he talked on his mobile phone – so much for being at the peak of fitness when serving your country. The smaller Edson, meanwhile was just as open to the public as the Intrepid, and we were able to wander all the way across the decks and inside, ducking under 20mm cannons and aiming anti-aircraft guns at passing boats on the Hudson River. This done, we visited the museum shop in order that Dave could buy an enormous metal F-14 Tomcat model for his uncle, who is as much of an military anorak as me. I contented myself with a smaller version of the same plane, in order that I could re-enact Top Gun with the air of some piano wire and MiG models when I got home.

Upon leaving the museum at mid-afternoon we asked yet another friendly and helpful New Yorker how best to get across the island to 4th Avenue, as I had been asked to take some photos of certain buildings by a friend on an architecture course. These were the Seagram building, formerly the Pan Am building, and the Guggenheim museum which drew controversy upon its construction, looking as it does like an inverted beehive. On our way across the city on the seemingly punctual and convenient M50 bus we passed the Radio City Music Hall, and disembarked at the intersection with Fifth Avenue to have a look inside St Patrick’s Cathedral, an enormous and ornate building. Inside there was a wedding going on, the bride, groom and guests seemingly unfazed by the crowds of tourists at the back, and the vows clearly audible through a microphone close to the rector and newlyweds. This was especially poignant for Dave, who was missing out on his auntie’s wedding which was about to start some 3500 miles away. It was once again quite strange to find an oasis of peace and calm in amongst the bustling city outside. Once we’d finished goggling at the wholly un-British spectacle of a public wedding, we left and walked towards where my Rough Guide assured me the Seagram Building was located. This found, I took many snaps, and we then struck out north to locate the Guggenheim Museum. It was another long walk for us up to 89th Street, and eventually we capitulated to complaining legs and feet and jumped on the subway. We located this unusual building and I was disappointed to see it was in quite a state of disrepair, but remained an unusual enough spectacle for me to take yet more pictures.

While I was snapping away, Dave received a phone call from Steve who extended an invitation to join him an some friends for dinner at La Gioconda’s an Italian restraunt on Long Island. We both enjoy Italian food, and so it was that we jumped in a taxi to take us the fifty or so blocks back to our hotel, and prepare to meet Marilyn and Steve at the Long Island Rail Road terminal. We had around an hour to kill during which I found it easy to get myself amused by the name Great Neck (what about the rest of her?), and we met up with Steve and his wife around 7pm. We were told there was a possibility that a new type of double-decker train would take us to Long Island, but in the event it was a boring old single-decker, although like every other public transport we’d taken it was punctual. Within the hour we’d met another Dave and his wife Anna, friends of Steve and Marilyn, and disembarked one station early (Great Neck and Little Neck sound quite similar when announced by someone with acute sinusitis ). As it turned out this wasn’t the last transporting mishap we experienced that evening, but I digress. Hopping extortionately priced cabs across to Great Neck we quickly found the restaurant, and consumed large quantities of beer, wine and filet mignon, and by the time we left the restaurant was a good few dollars richer. We calculated we would have to wait at least an hour before the 11:40pm train would arrive, and I think Dave and I did it by mostly muttering Withnail and I quotes at one another as we all sat on the platform. Much to our mutual dismay non of the other members of the party had seen this cult comedy classic.

Once the train arrived and we were on our way, I noticed a good number of people, mostly attractive, under-dressed girls, who were clearly on their way to clubs. I resisted the temptation to look like a stalker by asking them where the party was, and instead Dave and I decided to go for a drink in Queens with the other Dave and Anna before returning to Manhattan to find a club. We left the train at Flushing after arranging to have breakfast at Steve’s place the following morning, and made our way to yet another Irish bar through the Chinatown portion of Queens. Here the rapid provision of free Guinness held us like a vice, after it became apparent Dave and Anna were regulars and the barman wasn’t shy about doling out the free stout. At this point we realised a club was growing more and more unlikely, but we remained in the bar until around 2am, before leaving to try and get out of Queens and back to Manhattan. Unfortunately this proved to be even more troublesome as we first had to catch a connecting bus – which we almost missed while Dave disappeared off to answer the call of nature – and even once at Flushing station we had absolutely no idea where to go. We were both much the worse for wear, it was almost three in the morning, and we had little idea how to get back to Manhattan. We jumped on what turned out to be the right train, but accidentally disembarked at 40th street in Queens rather than 40th street in Manhattan. I make no excuses. The lesson to be learned here is: never try and navigate the public transport system in one of the outer boroughs of a city like New York, in the early hours of a Sunday morning, while the worse for wear. it’s asking for trouble. Needless to say, when we made it back to the hotel at stupid o’clock, the idea of a club was abandoned. We like to stay out late, but trying to get into the club as the sky is lightening just seems like showing off. While I headed up to bed, Dave wondered up a block to a diner for a much needed coffee and cigarette.

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