Wednesday, April 17, 2013

101 Years Ago

Last Sunday Ma'ikwe and I visited the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, where the featured exhibit displayed artifacts recovered from the Titanic—a seven-month traveling show that opened March 23.

(Ma'ikwe and I are spending a week in Albuquerque, where she lived 2003-08, and we had enough flexibility in our social calendar to be touristas on the weekend—something we didn't get around to doing much when she lived here.) 

The exhibit was built around thousands of items salvaged from the ocean floor, 2.5 miles below the surface, since the wreck was located back in 1985. It's borderline unbelievable what has survived a century immersed in salt water at 6000 psi.

We joined a steady stream of the curious, lured by the fascination of large-scale disaster—romanticized, of course, by the 1997 box office hit of the same name, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

Eerily, we noticed that we were walking through the exhibit exactly on the 101th anniversary of the ship being mortally struck by a North Atlantic iceberg: April 14, 1912.

As much as anything, the story of the Titanic is about hubris. Determined to build the biggest and most modern ocean liner ever, the White Star Line joined forces with Harland and Wolff (a Belfast shipbuilder) to construct the largest boat afloat, and clearly the most luxurious (when going to meals aboard the Titantic, second class passengers reported being confused about the possibility of having accidentally entered the first class dining room—the appointments had been upgraded that much from industry standards). 

Have no doubt about it, this ship was a bruiser. It had 29 coal-fired boilers—each large enough to swallow a school bus—powering three screw propellers. A pound of coal was enough to propel the ship one foot. As the distance from Southampton to New York is a bit more than 18 million feet (without any detours), that equates to a hair over nine thousand tons of coal needed for a one-way trip. Ufda. There was some serious around-the-clock shoveling going on below decks.

Though the ship sailed at only two-thirds capacity (passengers and crew totaled 2,224 combined for that fateful trip), there was only enough lifeboat capacity for half that number. While maritime safety standards have since been revised to insist on 100% capacity, that wasn't the case a century ago. Worse, in the haste to get people to safety (there were just 160 minutes from when the ship struck ice at 11:40 pm until it broke up and went down at 2:20 am), many lifeboats were launched without being completely filled. In the end only 705 survived—not quite a third.

Even though the Cunard Line's RMS Carpathia was able to arrive on the scene less than two hours after the Titanic went down, the water temperature was 28 degrees F and almost no one survived outside of a lifeboat.

The captain was Edward Smith, who'd led a distinguished career in service to the White Star Line. As a popular figure he postponed retirement solely to captain the Titanic on its maiden voyage. While he was correct in forecasting that that would be his last sailing, it was not in the way that anyone anticipated.

The ship included many innovations in design, which, taken together, gave the ship owners and operating crew a false sense of security. Among them was the creation of 16 watertight bulkheads that could be remotely activated to isolate damaged sections of the hull in the event of a collision. The ship was designed such that it could remain afloat if as many as four of these bulkheads were compromised, but the iceberg punctured five, sealing the ship's fate.

On the one hand, it's unquestionably bad luck to strike an iceberg. While the ship managed to avoid colliding with the visible portion of the berg, an underwater spur (common in icebergs) buckled the plates of the hull on the starboard side. This is where hubris comes into play. The Titanic was equipped with the very latest in wireless technology and had been fielding reports from other ships for several hours of iceberg sightings along their track, and yet Smith opted to cruise at full speed—21 knots—on a moonless night through the danger zone. I reckon a delayed arrival in New York wouldn't have set the right tone for the pride of the White Star Line. So much for expediency, and the tendency to compromise prudence in service to appearances.

If the ship had been proceeding at reduced speed as a precautionary measure, it would not only have done less damage to the hull, there would have been opportunity for the lookouts to have identified the berg in time to navigate clear of it. Woulda coulda shoulda.

When we entered the museum exhibit we were admonished not to take pictures (to protect the integrity of the deeply subdued lighting that evoked an ambience of maritime depth and impending gloom), and we were handed a card that was a facsimile boarding ticket in the name of one of those who sailed that ill-fated ship 101 years ago. At the end of the tour (right before entering the souvenir gauntlet), we were encouraged to look on a plaque that alphabetically listed all the passengers and crew to see if "we" made it through safely or not. (Ma'ikwe's passenger survived; mine did not.) It was a touch of verisimilitude that provided a tender moment of permeability to the membrane that separates exhibit participant from tragedy participant.

While the pre-World War I era of 1912 is long gone (along with the hidebound Edwardian class system of the day—there was, for example, an opulent first class men's smoking lounge on the Titanic, that distinguishes then from now in several ways that I have no desire to ever return to), tragedy will forever be with us. Witness Monday's horrific bombings at the conclusion of the Boston Marathon, which was a fresh punch in the gut for those of us who lived through 9/11. 

Also, sadly, hubris is still alive and well. Back in 1972 a sitting US President was implicated in the break-in and cover-up of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate office complex. Remember Reagan's Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983? Or how about McCain's inane: "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran" parody of the Beach Boys' classic pop hit "Barbara Ann" during his 2008 Presidential campaign. 

And lest the liberals out there get carried away gloating over the Republican gaffes I've enumerated, don't forget the furor over Clinton's spectacularly ill-advised sexual shenanigans with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in the late '90s. Despite Teddy Roosevelt's admonition to the contrary (which he adapted from a West African tribal adage), the truth is that people who carry a big stick often find it incredibly difficult to not use it, much less to speak softly. 

I reckon the sinking of the Titanic is as good a reminder of that tendency as any.

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