With steamships on the mind, I was thinking that, aside from my father, one of the most influential men during my formative years was Hugh Corbett.
Mr. Corbett was my fourth and fifth grade teacher. My school was an English day school in the heart of NYC; much of the faculty was from the United Kingdom and shepherd’s pie was a weekly favorite at lunch.
I have to presume we had the traditional subjects—English, math, history and so on—but I do not recall much from those topics. I do remember studying ships. We looked at books of ships. We did outings to midtown to see the SS United States make the fastest transatlantic crossing on its maiden voyage. We saw the France and the Michelangelo. The trip that stands out, however, was to RMS Caronia. Mr. Corbett had a friend who was first officer and this gave us the opportunity to go aboard, which made it truly special. Standing on the foredeck, I took in the merchant docks of Brooklyn, a tough place in the late ’50s. There were cargo ships unloading hardwoods; we looked at derricks and superstructure, so different from the LONG uninterrupted promenade decks of the ocean liners along the Hudson.
RMS Caronia was part of the then Cunard White Star Line. What I remember most of being aboard her in 1956 was her shade of green vs black or white, that she had been christened by HRH Princess Elizabeth and that she had just been modernized with air conditioning throughout the entire ship. That was a big deal walking aboard a warm day. Caronia (SS Caribia) was cut loose by a tug in a bad storm near Guam, and the wild winds drove her up against Apra Harbour’s beakwater where she broke into three sections.
What I remember most about Mr. Corbett’s class was making models. We made them out of balsa wood: thick pieces for the hulls, thin sections for the superstructure. Our models had to have plenty of curve and sheer to them.
So, at the age of nine, without wanting it or thinking about it, I absorbed from Mr. Corbett’s passion, a sense of beauty of ships. Was there a Mrs. Corbett? I do not know, but I do not think so; he seems, in my memory, to be the perfect bachelor, a man living a life taken up totally with his own interests.
Mr. Corbett is long gone, but I think he would be pleased to know that one of his students didn’t become an insurance salesman or grocer, but made a life in the performing arts and took a year off in 1992 to sail and now awaits his opportunity to cruise around the world.
When major merchant lights passed me in the night this month, I thought of Mr. Corbett and just how amazingly far the impact of one who inspires can take another.