I recall how sad it had been for me years ago to read of the passing of Capt. Michael Hnatowicz. We’d taken so many happy journeys together he and I, more than I can count actually, and he always made everyone’s trips comfortable, pleasant and safe. He’d apparently had a good life and a very long one.

Ninety-two years! Long enough to have accomplished many important things along the way, including serving in the U. S. Navy during WW II, from 1941 through 1945. He served in the South Pacific on a submarine called the USS Guavina and was honored that this sub’s primary job was to rescue American pilots who had been shot down. One of those rescues, Capt. Hnatowicz proudly recalls, was a young aviator many people today call “41.”

Sixty-three of this man’s 92 years were spent in a marriage to Teresa Witkowski who was a student nurse when they met, and when he died, he’d headed a big and happy family made up of eight children, 20 grandchildren and a couple of great grandchildren. Capt. Hnatowicz’s loving family related he’d always say his family was as large as the last person walking in the door. He was beloved.

I know I must have gazed up at the bridge as this captain sailed the ship we were on, and I wonder if he ever looked down at me. I’d like to think he had, that maybe our eyes had connected for an instant even though thousands of people boarded his ship for short and important journeys every day.

There were long slippery mahogany-colored benches for his passengers, and his shipping company hired men to shine the shoes of the businessmen aboard. These shoe shine men, wearing old and soiled navy-blue caps with black brims carried their shoe shine kits with them and waited to be summoned to those wishing a shine.

Those men would then kneel before those passengers and polish their shoes for the princely sum of 25 cents and those getting their shoes shined often never looked out from behind their newspapers. They would just hand the quarters around the sides of the papers and often didn’t even bother to say “thank you.” The smell of that shoe polish was heady to me.


It saddened me to read years later that one of those long-time grizzled old shoe shine men, in a hurry to disembark, stepped over the heavy cable strung across the boat’s deck bow to keep the cars and people in place until the boat was firmly docked and fell into the water where he died.

In time, snacks and hot dogs would be sold aboard this captain’s ship, but for many years, and for the grand sum of 5 cents a crossing, people could sit outside, weather permitting, or in a section for non-smokers, and women even had their own section of the boat, no men allowed. There was no blaring music; just the sound of the rattle of newspapers, the wind, seagulls, the blasts of passing boats, conversations, and of course the extra loud blasts of the captain’s horn as he approached the docks in New York City and St. George, Staten Island, both a part of the great state of New York.

 The Captain never missed hitting his mark when he was docking although the big flat boat did bounce off the many lined-up groaning pilings before it connected with its dock. This Captain was proud of his work and was extremely punctual with his pick-ups and deliveries.

I often wondered if Capt. Hnatowicz gazed at the magnificent green Statue of Liberty as he passed her, as he sailed back and forth in that old and historic harbor. I know she gazed at him. Or did he glance up at the iconic New York City skyline as he approached it? It likely never bored him.

It never bored me. I rode that Staten Island ferry since I was a newborn in 1938.  I was proud when I was finally allowed to ride on it by myself to meet people in “the city,” and I rode it every morning after graduating from college, to my job at Kenyon and Eckhardt Advertising, which back then was on Park Avenue. Subways were part of the journey too and all of it done in painfully pointed high heels, stockings with straight seams, girdles, hats, gloves and precise hair-do’s. Back then, women were nuts.

So thank you, Capt. Hnatowicz, for getting me from Staten Island to New York City and back again, so many times so long ago, safely, happily and dependably. I’ve never forgotten. And belatedly, thank you, sir, for your service.

LC Van Savage is a local writer and can be reached at lcvs@comcast.net.

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