Twenty-one years ago today my first regular column ran in the Chicago Sun-Times. Which means I'm finally legal. I thought I would celebrate the anniversary by digging back into the archive for something relevant, and stumbled over this, written in 2012 for the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic. (I don't have a column in today's paper because I took a few days off to finish my next Mosaic project).
Why is this story of the Titanic's radio operators relevant? Yes, for the image of the great unsinkable vessel striking an iceberg through carelessness and going down. But more for its tone. With Donald Trump and his henchmen attacking on the mainstream media, they forget that, for many of us, this is not a job, this is a calling. If we wanted money, we'd have become rapacious businessmen like the plutocrats Trump surrounds himself with. But we aren't amoral charlatans like Trump et al, doing anything, screwing anybody for a buck, even ripping off struggling students trying to get an education at his ersatz college. We're trying to comprehend the world and present what's happening as best we understand it. If Trump can't stand a single fact that doesn't shimmer with his supposed glory, the media is the opposite, following facts where they go, even if they make us look bad. There's a nobility in that.
Oh, they built the ship Titanic
to sail the ocean blue
And they thought they built a ship
that the water couldn't go through.
But the good Lord raised his hand,
said the ship would never land.
It was sad when the great ship went down.
Or so the version went that we sang at Camp Wise, in Chardon, Ohio, in the 1970s, a song that had been sung at summer camps for the previous 50 years, is sung still, and might very well be sung forever.
Exactly 100 years this Sunday, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, taking the lives of 1,500 passengers. With a weekend sure to be dedicated to its memory, the question is: why? Why this shipwreck? What about it so resonates in the public's mind? The Lusitania, torpedoed in 1915, took 1,198 lives and is a trivia question. Nobody sings about it.
The obvious answer is that the Titanic story has something for everybody. There is luxury and poverty, heroism and cowardice, its midnight iceberg rendezvous a payback for the boast of being "unsinkable." Movies and books keep the memory alive, as does its presence in the language - almost everybody knows what rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic means.
As the son of a radio operator, who grew up listening to the urgent chirpings of Morse code coming out of the Hammarlund Super Pro radio receiver displayed in his den, the part of the Titanic story that always gets to me is the heroic tale of the Marconi operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride.
As the junior radioman—he was just 22—Bride had the night shift. It was just after midnight, April 15, 1912, and he was telling Phillips to go to bed, when the captain stuck his head into the wireless room.
"We've struck an iceberg," Captain Edward Smith said. "You better get ready to send out a call for assistance."
Ten minutes later Smith was back, telling them to start calling for help.
Phillips began tapping out "CQD" - "CQ" meant "calling all stations" and "D" meant "distress" — as well as the ship's location and call letters, "MGY."
"He flashed away at it and we joked while he did so," Bride recalled. "All of us made light of the disaster."
Bride told Phillips that here was his opportunity to send an "SOS."
"It's the new call and it may be your last chance to send it," Bride said. "We picked up first the steamship Frankfurt. We gave her our position and said we had struck an iceberg and needed assistance."
Phillips reached the Cunard liner Carpathia. "Come at once!" he signaled. The liner replied it was 58 miles away and "coming hard." Phillips told Bride to tell the captain. "I went through an awful mass of people to his cabin," he later said. "The decks were full of scrambling men and women."
Over the next two hours, as the ship slowly sank, Phillips kept sending out distress signals, hoping to find a closer ship — there was one, but its radio operator had gone to sleep. Bride kept tabs on what was going on outside.
"I went out on deck and looked around. The water was pretty close up to the boat deck. There was a great scramble aft, and how poor Phillips worked through it, I don't know," Bride later recalled.
Phillips suggested "with a sort of a laugh" that Bride look out and see if all the people were off in the boats, or if any boats were left. Bride found one collapsible boat left, only because the men were having an "awful time" trying to get it free. Captain Smith returned to the radio shack one last time.
"Men," the captain said. "You have done your full duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it's every man for himself."
"I looked out," Bride said. "The boat deck was awash. Phillips clung on sending and sending. He clung on for about 10 minutes, or maybe 15 minutes after the captain had released him. The water was then coming into our cabin. He was a brave man. I learned to love him that night and I suddenly felt for him a great reverence to see him standing there sticking to his work while everybody else was raging about."
Bride returned to the collapsible boat, and was holding onto it when a wave crested over the deck and washed it away. He turned for one last look at the ship, "smoke and sparks were rushing out of her funnel." Bride lost hold on that boat and had to swim through the icy water to the other boats, as the band played "Autumn" on deck. Hands pulled him into another lifeboat. Phillips perished.
For me, the Titanic radio operator story is a metaphor for life. It signals to us something about duty and perseverance in the face of difficulty. You're not the captain. You didn't design the ship. You don't own it. But you stay at your station, no matter what, tapping out your messages with all the skill you have, as long as you can, until relieved.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 13, 2012
Postscript: I like to act on a good idea when I see it. In the comments below, Bob Miller had a good suggestion. I jumped on Twitter and put it out there, for all the good that might do, and I'll try to tuck it in the column as well. Language is everything, as Newt Gingrich showed us, to a great nation's misfortune.