HOUSTON. — On the 4th of July, 1929, aged five, I sailed from New York on the Ile de France with my mother and my governess Patty, a no-nonsense Teutonic wench, to join my father, who was on a business trip in Europe.
During Prohibition, the only legal liquor (and by far the best) was available on foreign ocean liners; people would drop whatever they were doing to see off or welcome even distant acquaintances. Our entire family and a large circle of friends had rallied 'round, all bearing gifts. The standard item for ocean travelers was a huge showy basket of fruit, a practice which enriched several Madison Avenue specialty shops.
My Uncle Arthur, something of a wag, had broken this custom for my father's earlier departure by passing the word that everyone was to bring something that couldn't possibly be used in Europe. The first morning at sea, Dad found his cabin cluttered with a pogo stick, a set of white sidewall tires, a bowl of goldfish, a lawn mower and a Baedeker's Guide to Mexico.
In the midst of the festivities for our departure, Uncle Arthur presented me with a small, white paper bag, I peered inside and was thrilled to discover an enormous firecracker, I can see it now -- 6 inches long, brilliant, glossy red, with a fine, stiff fuse of red, white and blue strands.
I knew all about firecrackers, probably from the funnies, or a rare ''Our Gang'' movie treat, and I knew there wasn't the slightest chance my mother or Patty would let me set one off, or even set it off themselves. I instantly resolved to explode this one, come hell or high water, and hastily stuffed the bag under my jacket. When we got to our cabin, which was equipped with an upper and lower bunk and a single (and was beginning to resemble that famous Marx Brothers scene from ''A Night at the Opera''), I was assigned the lower bunk. In the confusion, I managed to transfer the bag to the best hiding place I could think of -- under the pillow.
The guests were finally herded ashore, a difficult operation for the stewards. It was all too easy to overlook one or two, who would awake the next morning far at sea, to everyone's consternation. By early evening, we had cast off and passed the Narrows; Patty had stacked most of the surplus fruit and the empty bottles in the passageway and had unpacked my suitcase.
This was my fifth crossing; I was a seasoned traveler who knew the drill. We had a table in the dining salon for breakfast and lunch, but I would be fed dinner from a tray in the cabin and then tucked in before my elders proceeded to the second sitting. That would be my chance; I'd already spotted a book of matches with the French Line logo, and had been considering the best site for my project. Patty had opened the porthole, which had a wide, brass lip; on the whole, I thought that best, to minimize noise, smoke and possible incidental damage. I turned down my bedding before Patty could do so, and made short work of my bath.
A steward wheeled in my dinner. (The next day, with Mother and Patty much under the weather, I was as a sign of maturity allowed to lunch in the dining salon by myself, an experiment that wasn't repeated. I returned in a state of hyperactivity, puzzling Mother until Patty painfully raised her head, inspected me and announced ''He's sloshed.'' This was so; the table had been graced with bottles of vin rouge and vin blanc; in answer to the waiter's query I had chosen the red. Cornered later, the maitre was indignant and defended his waiter -- no French family would have complained about such a normal occurrence.)
I polished off my pudding and in high anticipation watched Mother and Patty make preparations for departure. Then disaster struck.
''Where's Uncle Arthur's present?''
Dissembling wasn't my long suit, any more than my experience of concealment devices.
''He usually hides things under his pillow,'' the treacherous Patty offered. Stricken, I watched her retrieve my treasure.
My Mother upended the bag and dumped the firecracker on my tray. I expected it to be hurled, unlit, out the porthole into the dark Atlantic, with appropriate punitive measures to follow, but far worse was in store. Mother simply picked it up, grabbed the fuse and yanked. It was like being given a cap pistol and denied caps.
To my astonishment, the entire end popped off and a stream of gumdrops was decanted on my tray.
''You can have three,'' Mother announced, putting the rest back and the firecracker into her hand bag.
They were astounded when I burst into tears.
Donald R. Morris is a retired naval officer and columnist.