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Baltimore woman relives her days aboard the giant ocean liner SS United States

Laura Embrey enjoyed something of a family reunion in Philadelphia last week, involving her brother and her son, the spirit of her father and a 990-foot steamship that was once the pride of the Atlantic but has been out of service for half-a-century.

The 54-year-old Baltimore native, now living in Columbia, was selected recently to tour the long-dormant SS United States, a passenger liner 100 feet longer than the Titanic, whose first voyage across the Atlantic, in 1952, set a speed record — 3 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes — that still stands.

“It was unbelievable, beyond any expectation I had,” Embrey said after touring what remains of the ship, stripped of much of its fittings and finery, and docked since 1996 in Philly, where restorers hope to raise enough money to preserve it for future generations to visit. “It’s been 50 years since it’s been in operation, but to see that it’s still there, and to know its history — to think of the kings and queens and presidents who have been on that ship.”

Not to mention the families, which is where the reunion aspect of Embrey’s visit comes in.

Fifty years ago, a 4-year-old Embrey (she was Laura Zeichner at the time) rode the ship across the Atlantic to Germany. Her dad, who worked for the Department of Defense, was moving his family to Europe, and as befits a long-time ships fan — as a soldier heading overseas during World War II, he sailed aboard the Queen Elizabeth to Europe — he took the water route.

“My whole life, this ship has been part of our family history,” says Embrey, who works as an office manager for a Columbia optometrist after 17 years in the airline industry, mostly in sales and promotion. “I was too young to remember, but I see all the pictures of me on it.”

Embrey, her older brother, Gary Zeichner, and her 26-year-old son, Robert, spent some five hours aboard the ship, and saw nearly everything — the engine room, the ballrooms, the propellers. They even got to re-create a family photograph of her father, leaning on a rail as the ship sliced its way through the Atlantic; Robert, who was born two months after his grandfather died, struck the same pose, in the same place.

“It was sad to see it in such a state of decay,” Embrey said following the June 8 tour, “but it was great to draw on your own memories, or of pictures you’ve seen… I’m still kind of in shock about the experience.”

To find out more about the SS United States, or to contribute to its restoration, go to ssusc.org.

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

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