Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Achille Bloggo.

It cooled down and clouded up today, obscuring April’s full moon, known in various farmers' almanacs as the Pink Moon; it was also known as the Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon, or the Fish Moon by the Algonquins.

Sometimes, things or people that exist only as a bit of news -- that is, as second-hand experiences -- appear as first-hand experiences, right there in front of you. If this intersection of personal experience and second-hand experience happens unexpectedly, the effect can be memorable.

I’m naturally suspicious of some kinds of second-hand experience, particularly the televised sort. Otherwise intelligent people sometimes talk about this or that celebrity or politician as if they knew first-hand what that person was up to, and as if it mattered. I can’t say I’ve never done this, but I do my best to stay away from it.

But, as I’ve said, things come to you. The report this morning that Abu Abbas had been captured in Iraq reminded me of just such a connection. For those who have forgotten, he was head of the Palestinian Liberation Front, a breakaway group from the PLO, a fact that reminds me of a bit of “Life of Brian” dialogue:

Brian (Graham Chapman): “Excuse me. Are you the Judean People's Front?”

Reg (John Cleese): “F--- off! We're the People's Front of Judea!”

Anyway, Mr. Abbas gained his international notoriety by overseeing the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean in late 1985. During that incident, his men murdered the elderly and disabled Leon Klinghoffer, apparently for the twin crimes of being an American and a Jew.

(Which recalls the topical bad-taste joke of the time, dusted off for this occasion: What does PLO stand for? Push Leon Overboard!)

In January 1992, I was in Sydney, and I went with an Aussie friend of mine, Matt McK., to enjoy a fine summer day at Circular Quay, which is situated at a small inlet of Sydney Harbour -- Sydney Cove -- adjacent to downtown Sydney. We spent some pleasant time tooling around the entertainment venues there and nearby, and also went to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is right on the water at Sydney Cove.

When we emerged from the museum, I noticed a sizable cruise ship docked nearby. I blinked a moment at the name on the side -- and sure enough, it was the Achille Lauro. “That has to be the same ship,” I said to Matt. “How many others could there be?”

I’d forgotten about that until today. Prompted by the news reports, I did some searches for the ship. Originally it was a Dutch ship, the Willem Ruys, and now it’s on the bottom of the Indian Ocean. In between, it had bad luck. The following is from a British website that displays postcards of the ill-starred ship:

“The Willem Ruys was laid down in January 1939, shortly before the outbreak of WWII... [She] was finally launched in July 1946, and delivered in November 1947, with the maiden voyage Rotterdam-Indonesia. This service was operated until December 1957, when political changes caused its cessation.

Willem Ruys ran a number of transatlantic crossings before being rebuilt for a round-the-world service, which started in 1959. This was not a great success, and she was sold to Lauro Lines in 1964. She was renamed after her new owner, but did not enter service until April 1966 following an explosion and fire during conversion work. The route was Northern Europe (Bremerhaven, Rotterdam, Southampton)-Genoa-Sydney-Wellington, which operated until 1972, when Achille Lauro became a full-time cruise ship.

“Lauro Lines were in financial trouble by the late 1970s, and the Achille Lauro was arrested in Tenerife in 1982. She lay there for a year, until the Italian government arranged to have her brought back to Genoa. After a further year's lay-up, a joint charter arrangement for Mediterranean cruises was made between Lauro Lines and Chandris Lines. Chandris pulled out after the much-publicized hijacking in October 1985 affected passenger numbers.

“Lauro struggled on until 1987, when it was bought by the Swiss-based Mediterranean Shipping Co., which rebranded the company as StarLauro Cruises. This venerable ship served with them until November 1994, when she caught fire on a Genoa-South Africa cruise [off Somalia]. The ship was abandoned, and sank two days later.”