In August 1998, a 20-ton section of the port-side hull of RMS Titanic finally made landfall when it sailed into Boston Harbor on board the research vessel Abeille Supporter, more than 86 years after leaving Southampton, England for New York City. Abeille Supporter had been part of a small flotilla of ships dispatched to retrieve from the North Atlantic floor, two-and-a-half miles below the surface, the 15 x 25 foot section of rivets and iron plating that Titanic's Harland and Wolff builder speculated once covered the unoccupied first class cabins C79 and C81.
As the hull section was being lowered from the Abeille Supporter, small pieces of rusted iron from Titanic's hull rained down upon the dock. One of those small fragments now resides in a small case stored below the three-foot long model of Titanic that sits on my mantle at home.
And so, when the so-called "Big Piece" was added to the rest of the traveling Titanic artifact exhibit bivouacked 14 years ago in two big tents over by the World Trade Center in South Boston, my co-workers insisted I write up a review of the collection for our company newsletter, parts of which are reused here. Who better than you, they urged. You're the biggest Titanic nut we know.
And they are right. My office does resemble an altar consecrated to the doomed liner. And if you think that's bad, you ought to see my den at home. In addition to the aforementioned model there's: a reproduction of an early White Star Line promotional poster; the front page of the San Francisco Enquirer, April 15, 1912, that my grandfather clipped and saved when he was a boy; a piece of recovered coal; a shelf of Titanic literature -- and I'm not talking Titanic trash, like Leonardo DiCaprio: the Early Years. Mine are serious works for serious people. Real page turners: "Investigation into the Loss of the Steamship Titanic," Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Sen. Alden Smith of Michigan, Presiding (Senate Resolution 283). Perhaps you've read it?
I was not one of those Johnny-come-lately Titanic fanatics who were sucked into the subject by the James Cameron undertow. I was a card-carrying member in good-standing of the Titanic Historical Society, cursed to know Titanic arcana too trifling even for Trivial Pursuit. Things like: what were Titanic's wireless call letters? (Answer: MGY). Or, where was Titanic supposed to dock once it reached New York? (Slip 59, Chelsea Piers -- which later became an indoor driving range). Or, whatever happened to the rescue ship Carpathia? (It sunk six years later, in 1918, torpedoed by a German U-boat). Or, what was the name of the Californian's dozing wireless operator? (Oh, who cares)?
It's gotten so bad my wife's had to put her foot down: Bring one more wretched thing into this house flying the White Star flag "Titanic" and I'll jump ship. Remember: women and children first!
But the collection of artifacts assembled by RMS Titanic Inc. and its President, George Tulloch, is an important archeological work because it serves to remind us that Titanic belongs to history and not to fiction or legend.
Fascination with Titanic endures 100 years after it sank because we're never really sure. Titanic is elusive. It drifts back and forth in our imagination between established fact and make-believe. I mean, come on. The largest moving object ever built by man sails off with the world's literati and gliterati only to sink on its first voyage out? Who'd believe a yarn like that?
But seeing is believing. And seeing these artifacts up close and personal serves to make the incredible tangible. The evidence is all there to see: portholes, bollards, the engine room telegraph, the cherub from the aft Grand Staircase, lifebelts, deckchairs, a Welin davit that once held a lifeboat, a giant steam whistle from one of Titanic's four towering funnels, and now a section from the great ship's hull itself. And as you reach out to actually touch what was once the White Star liner's mammoth side you say to yourself: "This really is Titanic."
And then there were all the personal affects: the letters, jewelry, clothing, pocket watches, luggage, spectacles, shoes and shaving kits. All the common, everyday possessions that remind you even titanic-size events finally condense to human scale. It was a rare accomplishment: intelligent, sensitive, even reverential.
The year before, James Cameron's movie opened to historic sales and unanimous acclaim by the Motion Picture Academy, with teenagers returning to see Titanic four, and five, and six times again -- and with adults right there behind them. There were also the lines that gathered at midnight to pick up Titanic videos the moment they went on sale. And let's not forget the Tony-winning Broadway musical or the bookstore shelves that groaned under the weight of Titanic literature -- some excellent, some exploitive.
There's was no denying it. Titanic took us by storm. This was no marketing-driven mass hysteria but a spontaneous outpouring of genuine adulation. And the reason, I think, is that each of us in our own way understood the story of Titanic had meaning. That speaks well of us as a nation and as a people.
History tells us Titanic was the greatest sea tragedy ever. But it was much more than that. It was the rarest of gifts, one that comes along once in a lifetime. Titanic was called "The ship not even God could sink." Well, He could, and He did, on Titanic's very first voyage. But if there is a God I don't think He did it to us in angry retribution for the arrogance of a decadent age, as so many hack theologians have drilled into us. I think He did it for us.
I know that is hard to believe, but so much about Titanic is unbelievable. A century has now passed since the world's largest liner at the time sank at 2:20 in the morning on April 15, 1912 and Titanic still rivets our attention with a fascination that borders on obsession. Can you think of anything more horrible than Titanic? I never could.
Imagine for a moment feeling the decks of this great ship slip away beneath your feet, or clinging to her upright stern suspended 14 stories in midair. Imagine waiting for that final descent once all lifeboats have been lowered away. Imagine the feeling of utter isolation as your world slowly sinks away. Or watching as a loved one's does.
Titanic is unthinkable. Such horror couldn't be real. Yet it was. And real people went through it, many hundreds of them, in all sizes, shapes and kinds.
More than 1,500 died on Titanic, but not as victims. They deserve greater respect than that. Because whoever they were, and however they behaved, those who lived Titanic laid bare for us to see the stunning complexity of the human spirit in all its grandeur and grotesquery.
The unspeakable horror of Titanic is this story's greatest gift. That, and the few short hours permitted to those whose sacrifice bequeathed an indelible legacy to us. Of courage. Of cowardice. Of fidelity. Of desertion. Of selfishness. And of absolute selflessness.
Think about the memories we've been given. The band whose music calmed the panicked crowd until the very end. Titanic's creator privately surrendering with his ship, unwilling to live knowing so many others would die. The company of ship's engineers, not one of whom would survive, valiantly struggling down below to keep lights burning to the last.
Yes, there were those who shoved others aside to take their place in the tragically too few lifeboats. But there were some who would not let even a nightmare like this sever a lifetime's devotion.
Titanic's final resting place two miles down is a fitting metaphor of her enduring and elusive mystery. For to find Titanic you must first dig deep within yourself, because descending on Titanic is nothing less than the elusive and eternal search for who we are.
I had spent a lifetime thinking about Titanic and I did not understand it until just now. It does no good to ask: "How could this have happened?" The right question is: "How would I behave?"
Once you ask that, Titanic has changed you forever. I can think of no greater gift than that.