By Scott Graison
Ever been in a buffet line on a cruise and asked the person in front of you if you could sneak by to grab some bacon? Said person lets you by graciously (hopefully), and that’s the end of your interaction. You may never know who that person was, since your engagement was so brief. Maybe it’s time to take a lesson from Dr. Paul Thornton, executive director of Continuing Education at Florida Gulf Coast University.
During his 12 trips to sea, this lifelong learner has let his curiosity lead him into some interesting conversations with people who have fascinating stories to tell. Thornton recently finished penning “The Joy of Cruising,” which took him the better part of a year to complete. It’s not so much an autobiography about his own travels as it is the anecdotes he gained from fellow passengers and other zealous cruiser-goers.
“Every time I think about a cruise, I do a lot of consumer research,” says Thornton. “There are a lot of fascinating cruises out there and a lot of people who are avid cruisers. The more I researched, the more I found myself reflecting on their stories.”
Within the body of his 353-page book lie the annals of 32 cruise aficionados. Among them are Grammy award winners. There’s the chapter devoted to an Australian man who completed 21 cruises in a single year. Another chronicles a 92-year-old grandmother who took her great grandchildren on a cruise four consecutive years (she even went kayaking with them each trip). There’s the former marathoner who decided to run marathons on the decks of all 28 ships of a particular cruise line. Another extremely interesting person Thornton spoke with was Elizabeth Hill, who hails from the United Kingdom. She is the only non-royal, non-celebrity to ever be named godmother of a ship. She christened the largest ship in the world, and referred to it as a real-life fairy tale.
Thornton’s interest in serial cruisers was sparked by a discussion he had aboard a ship. Someone asked how often people cruise.
“I was flabbergasted about some of the answers,” recalls Thornton. “It just became clear to me about this whole subculture, so I decided to write about these folks.”
Take, for instance, another interesting subject who earns a chapter in Thornton’s book: Estero resident Thomas Eastwood. He is a frequent lecturer at various venues in Lee and Collier counties, including in the Renaissance Program at FGCU. Eastwood takes his talks on espionage to sea, having lectured on upwards of 120 cruise ships!
Eastwood earned dual majors in biology and chemistry but turned to psychology in his post-graduate schooling. Before retiring, he worked as a special agent and later an executive with the Department of Defense. For 15 years, he conducted and led counterintelligence, security and criminal investigations. His accomplishments include becoming the DOD’s youngest regional director, completing a two-year detail successfully protecting President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, and developing interrogation techniques now used by most U.S. agencies.
“I typically lecture on cruises for about 45 minutes, plus time for questions,” explains Eastwood. “The people on these ships are well-educated, well-travelled, and usually provide good questions. There are up to 150 people per lecture, generally.”
During one of his voyages, he shared celebrity time with famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer! The man who was awarded the Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Award, and many other awards for exceptional service, is enthralled by what he does.
“I do this as public service, giving back to the people, to set the record straight on the history of criminal investigations,” says Eastwood. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.”
As for Thornton, he has always had a curious mind and loves to tell a good story. He is an award-winning author for his other book, “White Man’s Disease.” The title may sound provocative, but it’s really a memoir about his own trauma.
“When I was 29, I was on top of the world. Then, I was told I’d be dead in six months from a brain tumor,” says Thornton, who at the time was a rising star in a Fortune 500 company.
The diagnosis, acoustic neuroma, typically affects older white men. Thornton clearly saw the irony, and 30 years later, sagaciously titled his memoir.
“After an intense operation and several plastic surgeries, I had to start over from scratch. I had to relearn how to walk. I kept a lot of the effects bottled up for a long time,” says Thornton. “In 2014, my daughter got married, and I had to give a speech at the reception. I told the story of how, when she was six years old, she walked the neighborhood with me during my recovery as I walked with a cane.”
Grateful for the life he now lives, Thornton enjoys cruising, albeit not as prolifically as those he features in his newest book. Of his dozen trips on the water, his favorite cruise was the one he took for the holidays in 2018.
“It was a gift for my kids and grandkids,” Thornton explains. “I did a sushi-making class with my daughter, and it was a total bonding experience. It wasn’t about the destination; it was about seeing the joy in their faces. They just loved it.”