Sunday, April 15, 2012

RMS Titanic: 100 Years

100 years ago today, on April 15, 1912, RMS Titanic sank into the icy waters of the Atlantic ocean, killing over 1500 people. She was not to be seen again by human eyes for 73 years, but the story has stayed in the public consciousness for a century. I've said for years now that I needed to write about my obsession with Titanic. I've intended to on two other occasions, but I never got to it. I joked at the time that maybe I should just write the entry and hold it for the 100th anniversary. When I realized in January that the day in question was now only a few months away, I did exactly that.

I have literally been fascinated with this ship since I was a child, and it all started with a television show. Anyone remember Voyagers? The show where a time traveler and a kid go around "correcting" history? The show lasted only one season due to the death of its star, but one season is all it took. One episode, actually. According to IMDb, the episode "Voyagers of the Titanic" originally aired on February 27, 1983, and I was immediately hooked by the story of this huge beautiful ship that sank so tragically. Years later, that is the only episode of the show I could specifically recall. I actually got to see it again a few months ago, showing on the local retro channel. It really was one of the best episodes of the show. The details of the sinking are completely wrong, of course, but they didn't know that at the time.

The problem with seeing the episode in 1983 is that there wasn't much available on Titanic in the early 80s, certainly nothing a 7-year-old could really grasp. Not long after, we moved to Virginia, which had a wonderful Mariner's Museum that housed a few Titanic artifacts, though I'm not sure I made the connection at the time. (I do have clear memories of the figureheads that were on display, though.) The story of Titanic in general, and that episode of Voyagers in particular, stayed with me but faded over the years, until I stumbled on a book at Sam's Wholesale club: The Deep Sea, by Joseph Wallace, copyright 1987. (I can't swear to when I actually bought the book, but knowing Sam's, it was probably within a year or so of its publication, so I was 11-12 years old.)

The whole book fascinated me; it is where I learned about bioluminescent creatures and tube worms and chemosynthesis around the black smokers. There was also a section on treasure hunting and underwater archaeology, and from that was born an obsession with the deep ocean and shipwrecks that follows me to this day. It was where I first learned of Mel Fisher's Atocha.

Just a few years later (around 1992), we stumbled across a shop selling Atocha pendants in St. Augustine, FL. I purchased a small pendant (about the size of a dime, roughly a half inch (a bit more than a centimeter) across) made of actual silver recovered from the wreck, stamped with a design copied directly from one of the actual coins. I'm not obsessed with the Atocha the way I am with Titanic, but it does represent my fascination with the ocean and shipwrecks in general. I still wear it to this day, and people still ask me about it, most recently at my niece's birthday party this past Easter weekend. It is one of my most prized possessions.

But The Deep Sea book also brought back ghosts from my own past. Of the book's 142 pages, 14 are devoted to Titanic. Flipping through the pages, the memory of the episode of Voyagers from years prior came flooding back, and this book had photos of that same ship sitting on the bottom of the ocean.

There has to be more! I found the back issues of National Geographic that my father had, and both magazines featuring her were there. I still have them (somewhere). Then Dr. Robert Ballard's book The Discovery of The Titanic entered my life. It is also copyright 1987, and I believe it was also purchased at Sam's, likely in 1988 (my copy is from the December 1987 printing).

It's hard to see in the photo, but the cover/dust jacket is battered and creased. I've read it cover to cover countless times in the 20+ years I've owned it. I became a devoted follower of Dr. Ballard's research and work, but for a decade, these two books and two National Geographic magazines were the only writings I could find on Titanic herself. The images haunted me. It was years before I could look at these two images (below) without breaking out into chills, flipping the page quickly to avoid the visceral reaction to such beautiful majesty mingled with the horror of that night.

Over the course of the next few years, I purchased the National Geographic episode "Secrets of the Titanic" on both VHS and (eventually) DVD, and I watched A&E's excellent 1994 Titanic documentary every time it came on television (really wish I could find it (affordably) on DVD!). I was constantly frustrated by the fact that the books were out of print for every author they interviewed, but I kept the faith. One day, eventually, there would be more published about her, even if I had to wait until 2012 and the 100th anniversary, which seemed like *forever* away at the time.

Then came James Cameron. I don't remember when I started to hear rumblings of a Titanic movie, but it was fairly early on, probably late 1995 or early 1996. I was livid! They were going to take my beloved personal obsession and make it some kind of background for a cheesy love story? Could the Terminator guy even *do* a cheesy love story? Please, don't ruin this for me! But, with all of the hype around the 1997 film, suddenly all of those books I had been searching for were back in print, and plenty of new ones were being published. It was heaven! I now own over 30 books on Titanic, and another 5-10 on other shipwrecks and underwater exploration (most by Dr. Ballard).

Several of those books were acquired when my brother and I went to see the RMS Titanic Inc. exhibition at The Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee. I'm sure the timing of the exhibit was no coincidence, only a few months prior to the release of a certain movie. That was such a cool trip! It is one of my most cherished memories, not only because of Titanic, but because of my brother. Memories of Memphis (and his and my trip to New York in 1994) will remain with me forever. I had just turned 21, but Jacob would have been 16 because he was still a couple of weeks shy of his birthday. He and I flew into Memphis separately, each by ourselves, met up at the airport, and spent the night at a hotel. The next morning, we caught a cab to the exhibit, then flew home together. I can even tell you the exact date we saw the exhibit: August 16, 1997. Why do I know that? Because we flew out the day of the 20th anniversary of Elvis's death! Remember, we were in Memphis (you know, where Graceland is); it was absolutely bonkers. We had no idea of the significance of the date when we booked the trip, but it does explain why we had such difficulty finding a hotel room, and why we eventually made the trip on Friday instead of Saturday.

Sorry, back to James Cameron. I wasn't sure at the time that I even wanted to see the movie itself. The people who were the focus of the film weren't even real! It didn't even have any big name actors in it. I'd heard of DiCaprio, but I wasn't much of a fan; he's just that little kid from Growing Pains. And there was some new British chick I'd never heard of before. Why bother? But if it got all of these books republished and spurred new documentaries and information, then I was all for it. The more I learned about the movie, though, the more impressed I was regarding Cameron's dedication to detail. When they started releasing production stills, they literally took my breath away. Sure, the clock and the dome of the grand staircase were right; that's not too difficult. But the floor tiles were right, too! He didn't have to go to that kind of trouble, but he did. I finally decided to go see the movie just so I could *see* the ship recreated. It was as close as I could ever come to seeing her in all her glory and in living color. Turns out the movie itself was pretty good, too.

The problem, of course, was that Titanic became incredibly popular once it became the highest grossing film ever (at the time). That shouldn't be a bad thing, but it irritated me. I had been at least mildly obsessed with this ship for about 15 years by that point, and all throughout school, I was the only one who knew about her. Then comes the movie, and suddenly *everyone* is a fan. Yes, I enjoyed talking about Titanic with actual people, but the problem was that people only wanted to talk about the movie, not the ship! Or, they would find out I was a Titanic fan and assume that it was a recent thing simply because of the movie. It just ruffled my feathers that I had worked so hard for so many years to learn about her, and these people just waltz into my personal niche and act like it was all their idea.

Image from NOAA and is public domain.

I've had two amazing Titanic encounters since the movie. The first was in 2007 (dang, that was 5 years ago?!). A certain friend of mine with the significant birthday of April 14 was in town. She is a fellow long-time Titanic fan, and she was visiting Atlanta when that same Titanic exhibit from Memphis happened to be in town. Of course, it had been 10 years since Memphis, so there were new things to be seen. I wasn't sure if The Big Piece, a roughly 25-by-15 foot (7.6-by-4.6 meter) section of hull that was recovered from the bottom of the ocean, was part of this particular exhibit, but I had to find out. Annette and I had made it nearly all the way through the exhibit, and I hadn't seen any mention of it. I was so disappointed. I had decided I would ask the next docent I saw which other touring show had it and where it might be traveling to next.

I rounded a corner into a large room and felt like I'd been punched in the chest. The Big Piece was right in front of me. I truly could not catch my breath and had to sit down. It is one thing to see pictures or artifacts the size of a plate, or even as large as a barrel. To be suddenly confronted with a huge physical piece of something I had only dreamed of for 20-ish years was overwhelming. It took me several minutes to gather myself together and walk closer to it. On my way into the room, I spotted a crowd of people hovering around a plexiglass case off to my left. Inside was a small hunk of metal, perhaps half a square yard/meter in size. As the group that surrounded the box walked away, I was left alone at the display containing a piece of Titanic's steel plates. There was a small hole in the top of the plexiglass, with a sign that said "Touch Me." So I did. It was slightly cool to the touch, and very smooth. A sign elsewhere in the room explained that the metal was protected from further corrosion by a coating of special wax, which explains why it didn't feel as metallic as I expected. I was overwhelmed by the sheer fact that I was actually *touching* a piece of Titanic, something I never ever expected to do, and in that moment, I started to cry. Not sobbing or wailing, but an unstoppable slow and steady stream of tears. To literally be touching this piece of history I had studied for so long was almost more than I could take.

I had to walk away, but the only choices were either out of the room, or towards The Big Piece. So I got closer. I walked all the way around it several times, very slowly. The engineer in me took over for a bit, and I was much more fascinated by the "back side" than the outside. The support structure and rivets were amazing. I sat on the wall that surrounded it (it looked like a bench to me, though a very anxious security guard very politely informed me otherwise!), and I could have easily reached out and touched the piece, but I didn't. I was transfixed by the way the light came through a fragment of glass still caught in one of the portholes. (I would have done nearly anything at that moment to have been allowed to take photos!) How was the room formerly encased by this wall decorated? What did the linens and floor look like? Who was the last person to look through that very same glass in 1912? (Probably whoever had prepped the room before sailing; it was unoccupied during the voyage.) What was the last thing that porthole had seen before sinking into the icy darkness for almost a century? The feelings of those precious moments, seeing The Big Piece and touching an actual piece of the hull, linger with me even now. I still get chills to this day, and it is an experience I will always remember.

As wonderfully amazing as that day was, Titanic and I still had one piece of unfinished business. During my 1997 Memphis trip, they had a bollard on display. It was still very corroded and stood in the section of the exhibit that discussed conservation efforts and techniques. It looked very much as it does in the photo above at the time. If I recall correctly, the sign in Memphis mentioned that it would be many years before it would be ready for display. I looked for this bollard in 2007, but it was no where to be found. I thought perhaps it was still being restored, or it had been appropriated into other exhibits that I would likely never see. Then came a new small exhibition called Titanic Aquatica that premiered here in Atlanta at the Georgia Aquarium, which I visited in 2009. At the start of the exhibit, you enter into a small room with the ship's bell suspended in the center and hear a little spiel on what you are about to see. When the doors opened into the actual exhibit, the first artifact that greeted me was that same bollard, fully restored. I couldn't believe it was actually there, looking all spiffy and fresh. It was like seeing an old friend!

As thrilled as I am to see real items from the Titanic, I am also very conflicted about the whole thing. I don't mind the non-personal items that they picked up from the debris field so much, but the shoes and suitcases and jewelry really bother me. One of the things Dr. Ballard has discussed is how there are pairs of shoes strewn all over the ocean floor near the wreck. Pairs, because that is where a body had landed, and all that remains is the tanned leather that ocean organisms do not consume. Someone may have gone to the bottom holding that suitcase to stay afloat; someone was probably wearing that necklace when she died. If you want to pick up a plate or a bottle from a stack out in the debris field, I'm fine with that. It is unlikely that those items mark the final resting place of someone. However, I feel that the personal items should have stayed where they were. I know going to see the exhibit (which I've seen 3 times now in various incarnations) funds the work to bring up more things, potentially more personal items, but I simply cannot stay away, either. The lure, particularly of The Big Piece should I ever be near it again (I think it is currently in Las Vegas), is just too strong.

This past week marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking was a flurry of Titanic television programs, many of which I had seen, but some new ones as well. It has been absolute bliss! Luke has sat through over 8 hours of Titanic programming with me this week. For the first one, I think maybe he was humoring me, but for the last three days in a row, he has expressly requested to watch a Titanic show. I had tried showing it to him over the last couple of years, but he wasn't very interested. It struck me quite hard yesterday that he is now almost exactly the same age I was when I first learned of and became interested in the great ship. "Mommy, I love these exploring shows!" Passing the torch, perhaps?

The picture above shows my current collection of books and magazines. As you can see, there is one full shelf (bottom), and my two most recent magazine acquisitions from this past week on the shelf above (in front of some non-Titanic books). I'm sure I'll be picking up a few new books as well (not that I really need anymore, LOL). Everyone asks me "how many books on the same thing can you possibly have?" Well, every time I read one, I learn something I didn't know! I also have A Night to Remember on the DVR, and I intend to see the James Cameron movie (in 3D) at the theater some evening next week. In the last couple of years, I have learned that the exhibition group that owns RMS Titanic, Inc. and the artifacts is actually based here in Atlanta. To commemorate the centennial anniversary of her sinking, they have launched a new exhibit here in town. DH and I plan to go see it in the next couple of weeks. Originally, we did not intend to take Luke, but given the interest he has shown in the past week, I may change my mind. I can't wait to see what Titanic has in store for me next! I envision many more fascinating years together.

Currently feeling: as enthralled as ever


  1. IF you get a chance to go to Nova Scotia, there is a Titanic exhibit upthere (perm type). Mostly of what was washed ashore and about survivors.

    THere is even a tiny (maybe a large poster size) mention at Biltmore. It seems that one of the servants stayed behind and caught that ship back to America. He did not survive.

    I've seen another exhibit somewhere that seemed unusual but now can't remember. IF it comes to me, I'll let you know.


  2. Wow.. has it been five years?! In some ways it seems longer.. and in others, just a blink of an eye :)

    Mom saw the 3D version on Sunday.

  3. That's a great post, Erin, thank you for sharing that! I know just how you feel when your pet love is suddenly popular! So annoying. But like you say, at least you get lots of new shows and print out of the deal!


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