Monday, April 16, 2012

A Titanic guest-post!

As you surely already know, yesterday, April 15, 2012, was the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, an event which had about as much resemblance to a movie of the same name as a certain Disney film about a Native American woman had to that woman's actual life, conversion to Christianity, marriage to John Rolfe, and early tragic death from an illness.

Of course, if you get your history from films, you probably get your theater from journalists and your math from politicians, none of which is an especially good idea.

I asked an older gentleman and choir friend yesterday whether there was a drink that would be particularly meaningful with which to celebrate the anniversary of the loss of the Titanic; without missing a beat he suggested the Hurricane or the Torpedo, either of which would have the desired result of sinking the imbiber to the floor with reasonable speed and efficiency. Instead of that, though, I'm commemorating the sinking of the Titanic in a different way: by turning the rest of this blog post over to my dear sister Heather Sprinkle, who is an avid amateur Titanic-history buff and a font of knowledge and research about the Titanic. I can't thank her enough for agreeing to do this and share some of that interesting hobby with all of us! Without further ado, then, here is my sister's fantastic post to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic:


by Heather Sprinkle


Before 1912, the word evoked an effort beyond human capabilities: gigantic, colossal, Herculean. These words also spring from similar origins in Greek mythology and refer to larger than life mythological beings that strode the world in the dawn of time. Yet the word Titanic has taken on a mythology of its own. From 1912 the word is forever linked with an image of a great liner slipping into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic on a starlit April night. In common use are the phrases “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” or “the band played on.” You don’t have to be an expert in Titanic lore to appreciate the tragedy that changed the meaning of the word and introduced catch-phrases synonymous with futile action in the face of overwhelming disaster.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the sinking, there were those who wanted to forget that the disaster was something real that happened to real people and turn the whole thing in to a sort of myth that fit their beliefs and agendas. While most churches gave spiritual comfort and prayers for the dead, a few pastors issued thundering denunciations of “pride” and “greed” and God’s hand striking the impious rich, forgetting the many immigrants traveling in search of a better life. Some Irish Catholics grumbled against the Belfast shipyard where Titanic was built; suggesting that God had finally had it with the Pope-hating Protestants, forgetting first that Titanic’s sister ship Olympic had enjoyed steady success since her launching, that there were a significant number of Catholics traveling aboard Titanic, and that religious tensions in Belfast were neither limited to the Harland and Wolf shipyard nor to anti-Catholicism. Both the Americans and the British launched inquiries tasked to get at the truth of what led to the Titanic disaster, forgetting that even with the best intentions in the world, political posturing and a certain CYA attitude will hamper a thorough investigation. Charles Lightoller, second officer aboard Titanic and senior surviving officer, was dismissive of the American inquiry and essentially called the British inquiry a “whitewash.” In fact, as a direct result of new lifeboat regulations, the ship Eastland rolled over and sank in the Chicago River, killing 844 people; mostly women and children. The ship, already top-heavy, became unstable as a result of the weight of the additional lifeboats.

Today modern students of history have at their fingertips a wealth of information that can give a haunting glimpse into the real lives of real people affected by the sinking of the Titanic. That, along with the continuing discussions among scientists, engineers and those in the naval community regarding the ship herself make Titanic a compelling study.

For me, the disaster takes shape in the small moments: a few words from a survivor; a sudden revelation. It is survivor Lillian Asplund’s memory of the unpleasant smell of fresh paint and people of the third class (or steerage, as it was known) leaving their doors open. It is survivor Lawrence Beesley’s account in his book of walking down a flight of stairs and realizing, from where his foot is hitting the stair, that the ship was beginning her downward tilt. It is Charles Lightoller marking time while loading lifeboats by checking the water’s climb up a spiral staircase; the lights continued working under the water, casting an eerie greenish glow. It is survivor Col. Archibald Gracie after his desperate swim, enjoying the dubious safety of an overturned lifeboat packed with other survivors. One man suggests they pray, and after taking a quick poll of religions, the men pray the Lord’s Prayer together. It is reading the wireless messages sent by Titanic and other ships that night, put together from the wireless logs of those other ships. (For radio enthusiasts, Titanic sent : CQD/MGY and SOS/MGY along with her position. CQ means “all stations-attend” and D means “distress.” MGY was Titanic’s call sign.) It is learning how commands were issued from Titanic’s helm and what they meant, and discovering that when sailors talk about “striking” an object; they generally mean “running it over.” Titanic didn’t run into an iceberg, she ran over one: in fact, a protruding underwater shelf that lifted part of the ship, causing a torque and an unbearable strain that popped rivets and broke her steel plating.

Titanic is in a sense one of the first modern disasters. There were photographs, articles interviews, inquiries, and books – hundreds of pages of documentation within the first year of the disaster. Today there are hundreds of books and articles, movies, documentaries and excellent web sites where people from all over the world can share their interest in every aspect of Titanic from her architectural plans to exploration and salvage operations. Below the waves Titanic rests; a home for an amazing variety of deep sea life; in the end this life will consume and replace what’s left of her. Above the waves Titanic lives in a community of dreamers, artists, scientists and engineers; the casually interested and the obsessed, in an effort to remember and to understand that is truly Titanic.

1 comment:

Rebecca in ID said...

Thank you! This was fascinating.