Posts Tagged ‘iceberg’

A Letter From New York, April 19, 2011

April 19, 2011

As it seems to me

Last Thursday night was April 14th.

I took the time to mark that April 14th/April 15th, 2011 was the 99th anniversary of the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic, the “Ship of Dreams” which, went it went down on its maiden voyage, spawned stories, legends, lore, parables, allegories and quite a number of movies, the first a silent film starring one of the survivors, Dorothy Gibson, who was a screen star returning on Titanic from a vacation in Italy. It was called SAVED FROM THE TITANIC and was a huge hit; presaging many other films about Titanic including A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, TITANIC [with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb] and TITANIC [with Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio], which was the highest grossing film of all time for a decade. There has been a Broadway musical, documentaries and another television mini-series on its way.

We have coined the phrase “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” referring to a hopeless reorganization of anything.

It is a story that has romance to it – the rich and famous, sailing with light hearts toward New York, aboard the most glamorous ship of the day, unaware or unworried that the ship sailed with lifeboats for only a fraction of the passengers aboard.

Then came the iceberg, the swift sinking of the ship and the stories. It was a sobering message to an age that thought technology could solve anything, that nothing was impossible. Titanic was never advertised as unsinkable but it gained that reputation. It rapidly demonstrated it wasn’t.

The event provided examples of great courage. I walk regularly by Straus Park on Broadway, dedicated to Isidore and Ida Straus. He owned Macy’s; she was twice offered a place in a lifeboat but would not leave her husband of 41 years. 6000 people attended their memorial service. The eight men who had been hired to play music on board have recently been immortalized in a book, THE BAND THAT PLAYED ON. They played until almost the very end. It was said their last piece was NEARER MY GOD TO THEE.

The disaster gave us “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a wealthy, colorful Coloradan who took command of her lifeboat when she found the crew wanting.

Below decks, men worked to give the ship as much time as possible, perhaps extending the ship’s life by two hours, giving time for all the lifeboats to get away, and keeping the lights on until the very end, suspecting they were doomed, not unlike the “Nuclear Samurai” working in the Fukushima Nuclear Power Facility, laboring on to prevent a larger disaster, while knowing they are likely dooming themselves in the process.

Aboard Titanic was John Jacob Astor, the richest man in the world. All his wealth couldn’t save him; his body was recovered, appearing that one of the ship’s four smoke stakes had fallen on him. Mrs. Astor gave birth to a son, John Jacob V, who went on to marry a woman named Brooke, who gave away millions and millions to New York and whose son now faces jail time for having swindled his mother.

Legend has it that Titanic was the first ship to send out the distress call, SOS. One radio operator survived, the other did not.

The event presaged the end of an age. It shook the world to its core. That glittering world in which the rich were the celebrities of the time, where titles mattered dearly, and technology could overcome ended absolutely when the First World War tore it all apart.

It was a sobering moment. The Coast Guard began monitoring icebergs; ships were never again allowed to sail without sufficient lifeboats, rules changed. J. Bruce Ismay, head of Titanic’s owner, White Star Line, survived the night though his reputation did not and he lived his life out in scorned exile.

There are no longer living survivors of the night, the last, a baby then, passed away in 2009. Yet the sinking of Titanic lives on, a real event that became legend, large in life, larger in legend – a powerful allegory of pride that goes before the fall.

Letter From New York: April 23 2009 Pride Goeth Before the Fall

April 23, 2009

April 15th stands out in all American minds as the dreaded day when tax returns are due. However, the 15th of April is a notable day for other anniversaries and events. It is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, of Leonardo DaVinci’s birth, and the sinking of Titanic.

The loss of Titanic has become legend, at the bottom is a true story – Titanic was a real ship, it carried real people, it struck an iceberg, it sank. The real story has become larger than itself, a story upon which much meaning is applied, inspiring books, films, a musical, catch phrases – “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” and has become an allegory for heading blissfully, arrogantly, determinedly without caution into catastrophe, sailing without enough lifeboats for all. Wealth meant celebrity in 1912 and Titanic was chock-a-block with millionaires. Their presence aboard gave it a luster it has never lost. The richest man in the world, John Jacob Astor, was not saved by his fortune. Molly Brown, a Denver doyenne, created a legend that night and has been immortalized as The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

On board was a cross section of the western world at the time – the rich, the middle class and the poor who hoped for more. It was sailing from the old world to the new; it was the height of the technology of the time.

Like so many things in life that end badly there are a surfeit of “what ifs” and “if onlys”.

What if the men on watch had had binoculars? If only the watertight compartments had gone one deck higher, if the nearby ship, the Californian, hadn’t sent its radio operator to bed just before the SOS signals began to be sent, if the men on their deck had paid heed to the rockets flaring into the night. What if the ship had not tried to avoid the iceberg – a head on collision would have saved Titanic from sinking. What if the last iceberg warnings had actually reached the bridge? If only attention had been paid…to so many things.

It is a story of bravery and selflessness and selfishness and bad behavior. It was men and women first, though first class men had a better survival rate than women and children in steerage. When John Jacob Astor asked to join his young, pregnant wife in a lifeboat, he was turned down and stepped back like a gentleman. His body was recovered some days later. Ida Straus stayed with her husband, Isidore, who was a department store tycoon. J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line, owner of Titanic, stepped into a lifeboat and a lifetime of shame.

Its loss has been the backdrop for many films, most notably TITANIC in 1997, a blockbuster of immense dimension. There seem to be an endless number of websites devoted to Titanic – it is a story that has burned itself into the Western collective consciousness as a story of meaning with lessons to be learned. Proud and confident in technology and the inevitability of progress, the ship sailed and each one of those things suffered as a result of its loss.

It is a story that will not be forgotten, nor should it be. It is a reflection of things that result when man thinks he is in control of events. Not so different from the flaws that propelled us recklessly into this economic mess – pride, feeling nothing could bring down the colossus, shoddy workmanship.

Yes, shoddy workmanship. It is likely that Titanic sank because the steel of its hull was made with too much slag and was brittle; its rivets were not good, not the best metal and not done by the best hands and so popped as the iceberg glanced the ship. The parallel to our economic crisis is that lack of attention to details are important things when push comes to shove – or iceberg meets metal.

Titanic’s story is a lesson, an allegory for what we do wrong – and the courage shown when things go badly.