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Time traveling to celebrate the end of Prohibition

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The USS Potomac was once the eqivalent of Air Force One for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now, it’s a party boat where revelers celebrate history and the end of Prohibition. (Courtesy Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)

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Last week, I became a time traveler: I was able to leave 2018 and venture backward, all the way to 1933, to celebrate the beginning of the end of Prohibition.

On March 22, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act, which effectively legalized alcohol in a country that hadn’t been allowed to have a legal drink since 1920. And in my capacity as a time traveler, I got to be there on FDR’s presidential yacht for the momentous occasion.

OK, so I’m stretching the truth … I did not break every law of physics and travel back in time, but I did celebrate the 85th anniversary of the signing of the Beer and Wine Revenue Act on the USS Potomac.

Surrounded by a few hundred people dressed in period outfits, I took part in a new tradition that hadn’t been held onboard the USS Potomac since World War II. Back in the 1930s, the vessel was the closest thing the United States had to Air Force One, and as a way to relax, FDR would hold laid-back gatherings on the yacht. The one rule: “No talking politics.” These little parties were called FDR’s Children’s Hour, and in a move that would’ve surprised FDR himself, this time it was held in Oakland.

How the USS Potomac made its way to Oakland is a wild story that involves the ship being owned by Elvis Presley at one point, later being used to run drugs, then being sunk at Treasure Island and eventually being lovingly restored by the Port of Oakland. A docent told me the whole history, but I only remember the highlights — by that point, I’d had a number of strong drinks. After all, it was a party celebrating the end of Prohibition.

While the event was put on by the Bay Area Anti-Temperance Society, the California Cocktail Club and the Speakeasy, the man who brought the whole event together was John Maire. A local bartender and history buff, Maire fused the two by putting together a 1930s cocktail list, hiring an the Mission Gold Jazz Band and, of course, renting the USS Potomac.

It was a hell of an evening. Despite the bitter cold wind, the band played ’20s and ’30s jazz while people danced on the top deck. Women in flapper dresses and men in suits quaffed gin and whiskey cocktails, chatting about history, while passed hors d’oeuvres floated around the inside rooms. One of the most exciting parts was exploring the ship and seeing how well it had been restored. There was even a fake smoke stack where FDR had an elevator installed so people wouldn’t know he was paraplegic.

I learned about the event after Maire reached out and invited me, but many people found out about it through the Art Deco Society of California, a group whose goals are “to increase public awareness of the Art Deco era through preservation and promotion of its art, architecture, music, design and other forms of popular culture.” In other words, they really like putting on rad outfits and partying. The crowd spanned a huge range of ages, running from people in their mid-20s all the way to people in their 80s. It was great to see the love of history being shared by so many generations.

Schmoozing and boozing can make you sleepy, though, so after grabbing some incredible BBQ at Everett and Jones, my girlfriend and I headed back to The City. On the way home, the driver was playing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album in its entirety. The San Francisco skyline glittered while we crossed bridge, and all I could think was, “Sometimes, life is really great.” Even if we can’t time travel.

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.

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