Why am I still riveted by anything to do with the sinking of the H.M.S. Titanic, as if that disaster happened just yesterday?
I’ve been pondering that question for the past week, prompted by the centennial of that ship’s sinking on April 15, 1912.
Whenever I happen to channel-flip through TV and glimpse something about the Titanic, I always think, “Oh, not the Titanic again! Enough!” And then, like an instant hypocrite, I start watching, once again, and within seconds I am, once again, mesmerized. I have the same magnetic reaction to another disaster – the assassination of J.F.K.
I think I finally figured out why the Titanic keeps sailing across my imagination. Today I was searching through my brain’s cobweb attic as to when I first heard about the famous ship. Far as I can remember, it was a book and a movie entitled “A Night to Remember.” I read the paperback in the late 1950s. Written by American author Walter Lord, it was published in 1955 and released again when its movie version opened in 1958, which is the year I read the book, just before seeing the movie. I remember being horrified but fascinated by the vivid images of a ship sinking on a cold night as most people aboard knew they would soon be drowning and then dead. I felt as if I were there, in the midst of the awful mayhem.
Throughout the years, the Titanic kept sinking, again and again, in my imagination. I am compelled to try to imagine exactly what it must have been like to be on that ship that fateful night. Years ago, I even had nightmares about it – that I was there on the freezing deck, my heart sinking with dread as I realized there was no more room in the lifeboats for me.
The story of the Titanic is a veritable collision of dramatic elements. It was the maiden voyage of a magnificent passenger ship guaranteed to be unsinkable. Its crew was comprised of a cross section of rigidly class-stratified society during the Edwardian Era: glitzy celebrities and hoity-toit millionaires (British and American), along with middle-class people and the lowest of the low – the steerage folks who were kept out of sight, out of mind in their cramped quarters below deck. Then there is the iceberg, looming up out of the ocean like the ghastly face of fate itself. And then, as the ship begins to sink, there is the bleak realization that death is at hand for most. Death the great leveler. What’s most dramatic – and moving – is the all-too-human behavior (both heroic and pathetic) of the more than 2,000 passengers. Some men, frantic to save their own hides, tried to sneak aboard lifeboats before women and children. But most behaved admirably and some heroically with touching demonstrations of grace under pressure. One woman stubbornly stayed on deck to die with her husband. Tragically, despicably, the steerage class was allowed up on deck only after all the lifeboats had been launched and the ship was minutes from sinking completely.
Along with the human drama, the Titanic fascinates me because it is the quintessential object lesson of Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will. In that respect, the Titanic – so grand, so unsinkable – is a symbol of mankind’s curious knack for creating wondrous achievements through unbounded (and often foolish) pride.
I highly recommend “A Night to Remember” (book and movie). The movie, in my opinion, is much better than the 1996 blockbuster. I liked parts of that movie, but the drama in it was hoked-up to the point – at times – of derring-do cartoonish absurdity. “A Night to Remember,” based closely on facts, even in its visual details, is a stunner in its scenes of people facing their end of the world for the most part with courage, gallantry and grace.