Posted by: trevormeers | April 22, 2012

Unsinkable Lessons

Right now in the Midwest (where most loyal SW of Mingo readers live), it’s hard to think of this time of year producing disasters born of ice. This winter passed without ever really arriving, and our lilacs are now nodding their scented heads over yards we’ve already mowed three or four times.

But unless you’re living in a news blackout, you know that it was 100 years ago last weekend that Titanic met its fate, pulling about 1,500 people into eternity via the icy North Atlantic. That fact provides far more to chew than the average “on this day in history” tidbit rattled off on drive-time radio.

An actor takes the stage as Capt. E.J. Smith at the Titanic memorial service in Branson. Smith, who intended to retire after the voyage, told the crowd, "Titanic's first voyage shall be my last."

At least you would think so. But then I ran across a website sharing a couple of dozen tweets sent by teenagers marveling at their recent discovery that Titanic was, like, you know, a real ship and all. Who knew it was more than a movie made way back when people still listened to CDs and used phones just for talking? Maybe when Saving Private Ryan’s 20thanniversary arrives in a few years, our teens will discover that crazy historical blip we call WWII.

I’m sensitive on this point because history always intrigued me more than the average high school kid. But Titanic in particular was never a personal passion on par with something like Custer’s Last Stand or the shootout at the OK Corral. Growing up on the American prairie, there was no obvious affinity for a disaster involving in a ship, much less a fancy British one. Yet I could never get very far from Titanic, since it struck the berg the day after my birthday (60 years removed). On its 100th anniversary, Titanic pulled me in especially close, since on my birthday weekend, a friend invited me to sit front and center at a memorial service at the Titanic museum in Branson, Missouri.

But more than flukey timing keeps bringing me back to Titanic. There be lessons here for those willing to listen to the voices out of the deep. Tweeting teens don’t make up a critical part of the SW of Mingo readership, but I’m still going to offer a little public service for the rest of us. Thus, a few lessons I’ve salvaged from the wreck of Titanic during this month’s annual pondering of the story:

Dying with honor really can be the better choice – Even American teenagers (assuming they’ve seen the movie) know one of Titanic’s most famous errors in judgment: A glaring shortage of lifeboats. Before the voyage, White Star Line Chairman J. Bruce Ismay, in a move to make more space for luxury features aboard, cut Titanic’s lifeboat supply from 48 to the legal minimum of 20. When the great ship began to sink, most of the lifeboats seats went to women and children. But there are a few famous stories of men who took seats, Ismay among them. When the story got out, the press savaged Ismay, labeling him “J. Brute Ismay” and suggesting that the White Star Line be renamed the “White Liver Line.” Ismay never lived the incident down and generally spent his remaining years in seclusion, wondering, I have to believe, at the value of the years he’d purchased by stepping into that lifeboat.

Radio operator Jack Phillips became a hero in Titanic lore for his refusal to abandon his post.

Lost causes may be worth the fight – One of the most bitter aspects of Titanic’s story is that hundreds of people had a couple of hours to ponder their impending deaths. Shortly after the collision with the iceberg, one of the ship’s designers announced to the head engineer that “her neck is in the noose.” It didn’t take much longer for the average passenger to realize the unsinkable ship was doomed. They sat untold miles from the nearest ship. Floating alone on an icy abyss with a fraction of the lifeboats they’d need. You could forgive the crewmen if they had, at worst, panicked, or at best, wandered to the first-class dining room to sit down and make their final peace as the ship angled down into the darkness.

But most of the engineering crew stayed at work, deep in the death-trap of the ship’s inner spaces. Their final labors at the boilers and generators kept the lights on until moments before Titanic disappeared under the surface. They kept the ship from exploding as cold water hit the boilers. They saved enough light to let scores of people escape to the deck and lifeboats. In the Marconi room, radio operator Jack Phillips remained at his station, communicating with other ships and calling for help from anyone listening, broadcasting even as water poured into the room. One of his final messages was the epitome of early-20th-century British stoicism in the face of disaster: “Come as quickly as possible old man. The engine room is filling up to the boilers.” At 2:05am on April 15, the ship’s captain came into the wireless room and announced, “Men, you have done your duty fully. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it’s every man for himself.” For another 12 minutes, though, nearby ships heard radio signals from Titanic, lasting until 2:17. The ship officially went under at 2:20.

The Tower of Babel is an ongoing project – Much of the enduring interest in Titanic stems, of course, from its builders’ hubris. The ship was deemed practically unsinkable; one of the lead designers declared, “She is her own lifeboat” (at least in the public TV dramatization I saw). On a whim, I typed “not even God could sink Titanic” into Google, and sure enough, I discovered that a deckhand reportedly made this statement at Titanic’s launch, presumably because he’d never read a single Greek tragedy to learn the inevitable fate of such braggarts. The early 20th century was one of those moments in history when humans get so smitten with our own technological progress that we think we may have erased a few of the natural laws that have so long constrained us. Titanic proved us wrong once again, lasting only five days before the ancient sea filled her hold, luxurious dining rooms and staircases. Her failure was the opening line in a century-long lesson in how high tech won’t save us. A few years after Titanic, we unleashed a whole collection of new technologies on the world, and used many of them to kill each other in record numbers in WWI. Then came WWII. Then the nuclear age. As much good as we can create with our advancements (and believe me, I’m a big fan of items such as polio vaccines, interstate highways and the Internet), we seem incredibly slow to learn that they can’t transform us into gods.

History is full of quiet heroes – One more reason we never tire of Titanic is that her sinking produced thousands of irresistible human dramas. It leaves you wondering why James Cameron felt like he had to make up Rose and Jack to give his movie a little more juice. Toward the end of the memorial service we attended this weekend, the Rev. Charles Arsenult took the stage and remembered Titanic passenger and Baptist pastor John Harper. With the ship angling dangerously downward, Harper gave his lifejacket to another passenger and was heard shouting, “Let the women, let the children, let the unsaved board the lifeboats!” Soon Harper was floating in the icy sea with hundreds of others, preaching to the last as he called out to others to get their hearts right with God in the minutes they had left.

Left nearly alone on stage, two violinists complete Haydn's "Farewell Symphony" as a tribute to the band members of Titanic.

Perhaps the most famous everyday heroes on-board were the members of the ship band. As long as we talk about Titanic, we’ll talk about how the band dragged their chairs and instruments out to the cold deck and played Nearer My God to Thee in an effort to comfort the panicked crowd. Every man in the band went down with the ship. These people and many others like them, said the Rev. Arsenult, “stood as giants of sacrifice in a world where most men and women are unwilling to deprive themselves.”

On a warm Saturday afternoon in Branson, the memorial service saved the final tribute for Titanic’s band as symbols of the heroic spirit that lived onboard in the final moments. The Springfield Orchestra played Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, in which musicians one-by-one lay down their instruments and leave the stage. By the end, only two violinists remained, slowly playing in a sea of empty chairs. Then they, too, lifted their bows from the strings one final time, and the music ended, left only as a memory for those who understand what looking back can teach us about how to go forward.



  1. Trevor, really good column. The Titanic is such a facscinating topic. There is a traveling Titanic museum that is at the Union Station in KC until Sep. I think we may check it out when we go to KC in June. Hope all is well with you and the fam.

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