Back to Titanic

When Titanic was first released in 1998, I knew as much about the disaster as any other ten-year-old.  In other words, I didn’t know all that much.  All I knew was that it was a famous shipwreck and that I was scared to death of shipwrecks.  I knew immediately that if they were going to show any footage of the actual ship on the bottom of the ocean floor, then I was not going to see that movie.  And I didn’t.  In the theater anyway.

As soon as it was released on video (VHS for all you cool kids who remember those days) my mom, a big movie and historic tragedies fan, just had to see Titanic.  I still didn’t want to see anything underwater, but my curiosity and unwillingness to be left out of seeing the biggest movie of the year outweighed my irrational fear of sunken ships.

Needless to say, I became obsessed.  Titanic was the best movie I’d ever seen.  To this day, it remains my absolute favorite.  I fell in love with everything, from the history of the magnificent ocean liner to Jack and Rose’s tragic romance.  I even owned my own replica of the Heart of the Ocean (which has since disappeared… I might have to buy myself a new one…)

I loved Titanic so much that throughout my fifth grade year, I insisted on watching it every Friday night.  It became a tradition.  My family would make popcorn, my dad and I would play chess, and we’d all watch Titanic.  I’m not sure how the chess playing got worked in, but it did, and sometimes, I still bring out my grandfather’s old chess set whenever it’s on television.  Just for old time’s sake.  Yes, Titanic is still my movie.

Like Brock Lovett in the story, however, I was totally seduced by the grandeur, the luxury, the tragic tale too beautiful and too heartbreaking to remain lost in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.  To me, it was a disaster, but one that had inspired great storytellers and adventurers all around the world. Titanic was the perfect tragedy.

Then, last year, I attended the Titanic Artifacts Exhibit.  If you’ve never been, but have any interest in the ship and the history at all, I highly recommend it.  It’s incredible, sad, and very moving.  Before you go in, they give you a boarding pass and a name of an actual passenger on board the Titanic.  At the end of the Exhibit, you find out whether your passenger survived or perished.

The artifacts on display ranged from plates to portholes to shoes to jewelry.  It was hard to wrap my head around the idea that all of those items had sat, trapped at the bottom of the ocean, for a century.  Here they were, actual pieces of history, and of the story that I thought I knew and loved so well, when in reality, it was the story of Jack and Rose I’d treasured.  Those artifacts told a whole different story.

It wasn’t until I found myself standing over the journals and postcards of passengers that I realized just what I’d been missing all those years.  Those passengers, those people who boarded the Titanic for its maiden voyage in 1912 had no idea, absolutely no clue at all, that in 100 years, their personal letters and possessions would be on display in a museum, but only after spending all those years on the ocean floor.  The ship was supposed to be unsinkable.  They had no reason at all to think that.  It was then, and only then, that the tragedy became real to me.  It was as though those souls were there, reminding me that they had existed, that they had actually lived through it, and they were begging me to remember them.

The artifacts exhibit ended with an area devoted entirely to exploring the wreck.  I had thought, or at least hoped, that I would be able to simply bow my head and not look while I waited for my friend to finish exploring.  After all, I was 25, far too old to let some weird, childhood phobia get the better of me.  At first glimpse, however, I knew I’d overestimated my capacity for bravery.  Wall to wall images of the Titanic on the ocean floor filled the entire room.  I couldn’t avoid the wreck even if I tried.

Now, I’m not one for public displays of any sort of emotion, but the moment I set foot in that room, panic set in.  An irrational, and yet totally crippling sense of fear and anxiety.  Again, I don’t like making scenes or drawing any sort of attention to myself whatsoever, but there, in that room, I completely shut down.  I held my hands up to my eyes like a child cowering in the face of an evil monster.  To the observer’s eye, I must have looked like a basket case, and I guess, in that case, I sort of was.  Images of shipwrecks aren’t usually the sort of thing that send people spiraling into full blown panic attacks.  My friend actually had to take me by the hand and escort me out of the room and into the final area of the exhibit.

There, in that room, you found out about the survivors.  More journal entries and letters, some jackets, shoes, and handbags.  I discovered that my passenger, a first class lady, and her son both survived.

Tonight marks the 102nd anniversary of the Titanic’s demise, and as usual, I do plan on staying awake and watching the movie for what will probably be about the thousandth time (and in case you’re wondering, no, I’ve never seen the parts where the ship is underwater… I just listen).  But I will also be thinking about those artifacts in the museum, the diamonds and shoes and journals and handbags, and the real people to whom they once belonged.