15. April 2005 · Comments Off on Teensy Footnote in History · Categories: General, History

There was one redeeming factor to James Cameron’s “Titanic” movie, to my eyes; and that lay in how rich, realistic and convincing the set of the “unsinkable” liner looked. How very solid, luxurious and sheltering it all appeared, such perfectly recreated spaces… and I could see how people would have been reluctant to leave it, at first. Who wanted to bounce around in a tiny open boat on the cold, on the open water? Surely, a ship as big as the Titanic, with every possible comfort, and modern advantage couldn’t be mortally wounded. Surely rescue was on the way, the situation couldn’t possibly be as bad as all that… Well, it was, and after seeing the movie, I could understand why the first couple of boats went away half-empty.

But there is a tenuous family connection to the loss of the Titanic, through the person of Granny Dodie’s older brother, Great Uncle Fred.
Great-Uncle Fred had a lady in a frilly skirt tattooed on each forearm, who did a kind of shimmy when he flexed his muscles, and he had been a sailor. He had been, in fact, a real sailor, on a real sailing ship, and had been around the Horn no less than four times, and thrilled us children with the tale of how he had fallen out of the topmost bit of rigging, once… but had managed to catch hold of a lower bit of canvas and rope before his Captain had been able to do much more than recollect the page number of the burial service in his Book of Common Prayer. (Well, we thought it was thrilling, everybody else had been listening to the same old story for forty years and were bored rigid.)

By 1912, the allure of a seafaring life had lost its charms for Great Uncle Fred and he was working on land, in Wanamakers’ Department Store in New York. (I have no idea in what capacity!) Wanamaker’s had a powerful Marconi wireless station on it’s roof. David Sarnoff, who would eventually be the president of RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, was the station manager and one of the operators. This Marconi station was one of the most powerful on the east coast, and was one of the first to receive news that the Titanic had struck an iceberg and might be sinking. It seemed barely credible, perhaps exaggerated, at first. According to Great Uncle Fred, one of the managers who knew he had been a sailor asked him if it were possible that a great ship like that might actually be so damaged that it would in fact, sink.

His moment of faint glory, being asked for his professional expertise in such weighty and tragic matters; his answer was a masterpiece of noncommittal caution;
“Could very well be,” Great Uncle Fred said.
I wish, now, that we had been able to make him tell us some other stories, but those are the only two I remember.

Comments closed.