Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Titanic: stay at your station until relieved

     Friday was the 104th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic—it snuck up on me this year. I wrote something four years ago, for the centennial, that bears repeating.
"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


  1. Keep tapping away, Neil -- God only knows if someone will come to rescue us.


    1. We will especially need you if we're all forced aboard the RMS Trumptanic.

    2. God wouldn't do that to the United States of America.

    3. He might, just to take us down a peg.

      "God moves in mysterious ways
      His wonders to perform.
      He plants his footsteps in the sea
      And rides upon the storm."

      He probably wouldn't be doing it on Trump's behalf,about whom a quip by Dorothy Parker seems apt: "If you want to know what God thinks about money just look at some of the people he has given it too."

      As you mentioned, the sinking of the Lusitania was a worse tragedy and in a way more consequential, as it turned public opinion against Imperial Germany, greasing the skids for our entry into The Great War. I once frequented a corridor in the Pentagon lined with historic recruiting posters, the most striking one featuring a woman with a baby in her arms sinking in a green sea and a "Remember the Lusitania" slogan.

      Tom Evans

  2. I find the story of the lookouts more interesting.
    They forgot the key to the locker that held the lookout's binoculars & no one would break it open, so the lookout on duty that night had to use his bare eyes & saw the berg too late.

    Then there are all the theories about the ship, that it was actually the Olympic & they were switched in the Harland & Wolff yard one dark night, because there was an accident that damaged the Olympic, so they decided to scuttle the now Titanic for the insurance money. What they forgot or didn't know was that the ship was poorly constructed & the iron rivets were junk, with huge impurities in then & thus little strength [A 12 piece was brought up a few years ago & the metallurgists were amazed at poor quality of the rivets]. That & the seawater was 27 degrees, made everything brittle, so it broke into two pieces & sank in a few hours.
    Read Walter Lord's second Titanic book "The Night Lives On" for all the theories.

    1. Another story is that the London Symphony was booked on the voyage but the tour was cancelled at the last minute. As one wag oberved, there might have been a Hell of a rendition of "Nearer My God to Thee."


    2. Who knew who knew so much about the Titanic!


    3. I meant it was a 12 ton piece was brought up.

  3. At an estate sale a few years ago I picked up a box of old books for $5. What caught my eye was one title being something about the sub-committee on hazing at the Naval Academy. Opening it up, I found that it was repurposed as a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about the Titanic that the Kalamazoo Gazette published. It's chock full of interesting bits, like how some women had to be thrown into the lifeboats because they didn't want to raise their skirts, how eyewitness accounts swore the ship went down in one piece, and the reports about the senate hearings.
    The story of the band is rather remarkable. They didn't have to keep playing at all, but they did help in their own way. Many later accounts state the calming effect the music had, even if they don't all agree on what the final tune was. Personally, I'd have kept playing for a while, then the cello would have been used like a boat.

  4. If the sinking of the Lusitania had precipitated the entry of the United States into WW1, it might still be as memorable as "Remember the Alamo" or "A Day Which Will Live in Infamy". But, Woodrow "He Kept Us Out of War and Woefully Unprepared for One" Wilson made sure that didn't happen.


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